Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nikolai "Piggy Foxy" Bukharin and Co.

German Proletarian art exhibition at Hermitage Museum

The Russian Archives of Social and Political History hold extraordinary secrets. Foxy Piggy and the Sword of Revolution reveals some of them. The book is a collection of informal political caricatures produced by and for elite Russian government and party officials during the 1920s and 1930s. Of varying degrees of artistic fluency, they reveal a great deal about the nature of power in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Revolution.

The cartoons, some incredibly funny, others merely malicious, show how Soviet leaders jockeyed for power with one another and intermingled personal feeling with public policy disputes. As the editors Vatlin and Maleshenko tell us, these cartoons were created in the midst of political activity, at Central Committee plenums, Party Congresses, and Politburo meetings. They suggest that Soviet leaders were creative if also crude students of human nature. While they do track the growing dominance of Stalin within the Party, they show that uniformity of expression was not established until the Great Purges of 1937-8. For while the editors point out that few cartoonists created portraits of Stalin that ridiculed him—as they surely did for most other leaders—Central Committee and Politburo politicians were busily, and often collaboratively, producing works that poked fun at one another, both on a personal basis and with respect to political opinion or error.

One cartoonist that stands out both for artistic talent and a humane subject matter is Bukharin. One can’t help but believe that this sensitive artist was proclaiming a more urbane view of politics than his peers, who frequently used their cartoons to do little more than attack and discredit their subjects. However, one can’t help but remember that Mao Tse Tung was an excellent poet and this didn’t do much for Chinese peasants or intellectuals.

It’s important not to generalize too much about Soviet politics based on this treasure trove of cartoon art. However, the editors rightly point out that the content of the artwork is largely devoid of attacks against colonialism or capitalism (common themes in public Soviet propaganda), suggesting that Soviet officials were more concerned with building Russian socialism than with exporting it during this time period. They also note that the work becomes darker and darker as the years go by, reflecting the end of any pretence to pluralism within the Politburo or Central Committee.

In truth, it’s hard to imagine how diversity of opinion lasted as long as it did in the upper echelons of the Communist Party. As the editors remind us, Hitler never even pretended to have equal debating partners. As a theme, economics looms largest. The editors note that the Soviet Union was attempting to create a brand new form of economics, and largely failing. They were producing economic plans, building factories, electrifying the countryside, balancing supply and demand, creating canals and dams, transforming agriculture, and eliminating any form of private trade or free enterprise. In this situation, officials fought with one another for scarce resources as well as the authority to exert influence over key economic activities. With the politburo making all decisions—and often doing so in an information vacuum—government officials were caught in a dilemma. Lacking all authority to make independent decisions, they took their concerns to powerful Party patrons, who ultimately resolved even conflicts which arose out of tiny practical concerns.

The cartoons reveal the darker side of this competition, and hint at the cost of losing this competition: being branded a saboteur or ideological opponent of socialism. As the editors suggest, the leaders who were producing this art with wrestling with their own incompetence and lack of insight into economic reality. They—and increasingly Stalin alone--made every decision, and yet key elements of the Soviet economy were in disarray. The trains collided, agriculture was collapsing, consumers had too little, and slave labor was needed to complete some of the massive industrialization and mining projects. Somebody deserved blame, and since it couldn’t be the Party elite, it had to be kulaks, Trotskyites, “wreckers,” and capitalist spies. The cartoons, which begin with some levity, end with the darker search for scapegoats.

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