“Socialist Realism and Nationalism in Music, Literature and Film”



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Special Section

 “Socialist Realism and Nationalism in Music, Literature and Film”

Convenor: Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover (Slavic Studies, Monash U)

The 11th Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for Communist and Post-Communist Studies (AACaPCS), “Communist and post-communist societies: domestic, external, and transnational challenges,” University of Tasmania, Hobart, February 7-8, 2013.

            The Special Section featured five panels with a total of 14 presentations by scholars from Australia, China, USA and UK.  The first key-note speaker in the Section’s Plenary Session was Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy (Barnard College, Columbia University), with “Case Studies in the Formation of the Soviet Internationalist Empire: the Ballet as Nation Building.” Professor Nepomnyashchy discussed the role of the Ukrainian ballet Pan Kanevskii (1931), the Uzbek ballet Cotton (1933), the Georgian Ballet Mzechabuki (1936), the Azeri ballet Maiden Tower (1940), the Belarusian ballet Nightingale (1940), and the Kyrgyz ballet Cholopon (1944) in context of the Soviet internationalist political project in which “Orientalism” and “Occidentalism” played a role. 

            The second keynote speaker was Zhao Yonghua (Institute for Journalism, Rinmin Chinese National University, Beijing), who gave a Chinese perspective on the role of the Western media in the process of the “colour revolutions” in the CIS.

            The panel on Nationalism, Sotsrealism and Popular Culture” featured Lara Jakica (Slavic Studies/German Studies, Monash University) on “The Resurrection of the National Kosovo Myths in Contemporary Serbian Popular Culture.”  The issue of how Kosovo mythology influenced Serbian national ideology and continues to do so in cultural and political life in Serbia today raised questions about the (mis)use of history and mythology in political propaganda. Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover’s (Slavic Studies, Monash University)  presentation on “The Socialist Realist Poetics of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev : Comparisons with Dziga Vertov’s Constructivism” revised the accepted view that Tarkovsky’s film ends in transcendence; instead, it claimed that the film conformed to a Socialist Realist ethics of work and nardonost’ (populism), cast in a binarism of conflict and resolution of the artist’s crisis of productivity, against a backdrop of Russian medievalism constructed as myth. Svetlana Tishchenko’s (Slavic Studies, Monash University)  paper on  Boris Akunin’s film , Шпион [Spy], based on Akuniin’s eponymous novel, treated the Socialist Realist devices in both works against the question of whether this was aesthetic play (“a joke”) or nostalgia for the stability of a  by-gone Soviet era of certainties.

            The panel on Sotsrealism in Music and Aesthetics featured a presentation by Julie Waters (Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash U) on the British self-declared Socialist Realist composer, Alan Bush and the impact of the 1948 Prague Composers’ Congress on the British Composers’ Guild, which was facilitated by Bush’s mediation and political engagement.  The questions in the discussion concerned the possible reaction to  ‘McCarthyism’  amongst left-wing British composers after World War II, and intersections between the radical politics of these composers and their interest in a revived  folk aesthetics without nationalist or  middle class connotations. The paper by Joel Crotty (Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash U) addressed the contemporary paradox of historical Socialist Realism in Romanian music in the current European climate. It claimed that Communist cultural artefacts are currently displayed in Romania for a variety of purposes, from the pedagogical to the kitsch but that there is a reluctance to treat Socialist Realist music seriously in the academic context, where it is relegated to a passing reference in the literature. Dr Andrew Padgett’s (Monash College) paper on “Reading Socialist Realism in Music through What was Condemned: The Case of Shostakovich” focused on interpreting Dmitri Shostakovich’s 4th and 5th symphonies in the context of the emergence of musical Socialist Realism in the mid-1930s. This met with lively debate between the musicologists and critical theorists as to the function and meaning of irony in Shostakovich’s work. This discussion opened up new perspectives on the dialectical nature of musical Socialist Realism and its links to the emergence of Russian postmodern culture in the perestroika and post-Communist periods.

            The panel on Sotsrealism, Nationalism(s) and Transcultures featured a paper by Lian Kun (School of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China,Beijing) on “The Revision and transformation of the concept of „sotsrealism” in China,” which gave new insights into how this imported Soviet aesthetics played itself out on Chinese writers and intellectuals. The paper disclosed that a large stock of so-called “red classics” were translated from Russian into Chinese and that Chinese literature and culture paid a heavy price for the half century of domination of the Socialist Realist aesthetics to which they were subjected. Zdravka Gugleta (Slavic Studies, Monash U), who presented on the “National and Transnational Interpretations of  Vasko Popa’s  Poetry,” made the point, contra the ‘nationalist’ readings of Popa’s  works,  that his aesthetics displays an “integralism” due to the interconnectedness of his individual poetic works, which requires a work-immanent reading of his opus as one text. Nikolai Gladanac (Comparative Literature, Monash U) presented on “The Failure of (National) Identity as the Condition of Subjectivity in the Diary of Witold Gombrowicz,” claiming that Gombrowicz’s Diary (1953 – 1969),  is, amongst other things, a running argument with the ad hoc strictures of Socialist Realism. In a manner similar to Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Writer’s Diary,” Gombrowicz employs a theatricalised, shifting persona, augmented through the playfulness of form, to examine social and ethical questions grounded in the encounter between the concrete indeterminacy of subjectivity and the historical life world. The lively discussion triggered by the theoretical underpinnings of these claims about the subversion of (national) identity through the non-socialist-realist literary canon centred around the question of whether Bakhtin’s seminal work on Dostoevsky, with its emphasis on the workings of language and structure in Dostoevsky’s fiction, can continue to serve as a starting point for Dostoevsky and literary studies in general. Opinion was divided between those with an affirmative view and those who, echoing the impatience prevalent in the late eighties and early nineties with the saturated (mis)appropriation of Bakhtin’s writings, believed otherwise. The latter maintained a position in line with 1980s-1990s critics, such as Yuri Kariakin, Joseph Frank and Natasha Reed, who argued for an implied “authority principle” in Dostoevsky’s writings and the concomitant importance of theme and story in interpretations. Those in favour of continuing with Bakhtin as a theoretical starting point agreed that his model needed augmentation. It was felt, however, that this did not necessarily involve content analysis but rather a re-examination of the question of violence and representation in Dostoevsky’s writings. This discussion on principles of theoretical approaches to literature distilled the work of the entire Special Section on the method of Socialist Realism which still resonates in mainstream academic writing on cultural text (as an echo of a Western Marxism or a ‘traditional’ separation of art into form and content) in East and West.

            The panel on Nationalism(s) Re-visited featured a paper by Costica Bradatan (Arizona State Universtiy/Texas Tech University, USA) on “Philosophical Nationalism: the History of a Bad Idea,” which focused on the historical role and revival in the 1990s of three Romanian philosophers of the interwar period or the “golden age” of Romanian culture (Cioran, Noica and Eliade), despite the fact that these offered ideological support to the fascist Iron Guard.  The result was an upsurge of nationalism amongst post-Communist followers of these ‘fashionable’ philosophers. The discussion centred on the larger context of Eliade’s political involvement in interwar Romania, about the significance of Cioran’s political writings (whether he really meant what he wrote), as well as about Ianosi’s aesthetic theory. The paper of Michael A Nicholson (Emeritus Fellow, University College, Oxford) on “Teleology and Nationalism: Solzhenitsyn in the 1940s” raised the interesting new proposition that the ideological and aesthetic origins of Solzhenitsyn’s mature opus was to be sought in his (little known) early pre-incarceration and incarceration writings and literary projects. This small, but not insubstantial body of creative writings, which survives from the years of his sentence, prompts the question of whether his sense of how to write and how not to write is affected by the wholesale reappraisal and soul-searching of those years. Milan Orlic (Slavic Studies, Monash U) closed the Section with his paper on  “Ivo Andrić’s Universalism and the Subversion of the Idea of a ‘national’ Canon,” in which he posited that Andrić’s  concept of “universalism,” built into his literary work as poetics as well expressed through his non-fiction and theoretical writings, was based on his experience as a career diplomat, which allowed Andrić to develop the concept of a South Slavic identity (the so-called Yugoslav identity) as an essential part of the historical Slavic identity. Moreover, this Slavic identity became an integral part of a more complex and wider system of European historical and cultural identity reflected in Andric’s work, covering both Occidental Europe and its encounter with the Orient.

S M Vladiv-Glover

Slavic Studies, Monash University