"Cultural revolution" (kulturnaya revolyutsiya ) was a concept used by Lenin in his late writings (e.g., his 1923 article "On Cooperation") to refer to general cultural development of the country under socialism, with emphasis on such matters as inculcation of literacy and hygiene, implying gradual transformation out of the backwardness that Lenin saw as the legacy of tsarism.
In the late 1920s, the term was taken up and transformed by young communist cultural militants who sought the party leaders' approval for an assault on "bourgeois hegemony" in culture; that is, on the cultural establishment, including Anatoly Lunacharsky and other leaders of the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the values of the old Russian intelligentsia. For the militants, the essence of cultural revolution was "class war"—an assault against the "bourgeois" intelligentsia in the name of the proletariat—and they meant the "revolution" part of the term literally. In the years 1928 through 1931, the militants succeeded in gaining the party leaders' support, but lost it again in 1932 when the Central Committee dissolved the main militant organization, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), and promoted reconciliation with the intelligentsia.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the concept of cultural revolution received a new lease of life in the Soviet Union. The inspiration came from Lenin's writings, not from the militant episode of 1928 through 1931, which was largely forgotten or suppressed as discreditable. Cultural revolution was now seen as a unique process associated with socialist revolution, which, for the first time, made culture the property of the whole people. The emphasis was on the civilizing mission of Soviet power, particularly in the country's own "backward," non-Slavic republics and regions. Rebutting suggestions from East European scholars that cultural revolution was not a necessary step in the evolution of countries that were not backward when they came to socialism, Soviet writers such as Maxim Kim described cultural revolution as one of the general laws (zakonomernosti ) of socialism first realized in the Soviet Union but applicable to all nations.
In Western Soviet historiography since the late 1970s, the term has often connoted the militant episode of the Cultural Revolution (in some respects foreshadowing the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s) described in the 1978 volume edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick. It has also been used in a sense different from any of the above to describe a Bolshevik (or, more broadly, Russian revolutionary) transformationist mentality endemic in the first quarter of the twentieth century (Joravsky; Clark; David-Fox).
Along with collectivization and the First Five-Year Plan, the Cultural Revolution was one of the great upheavals of the late 1920s and 1930s sometimes known as the "Great Break" (veliky perelom ) or Stalin's "revolution from above." There were two important differences between the Cultural Revolution and other "Great Break" policies, however. The first was that whereas the turn to collectivization, elimination of kulaks, and forced-pace industrialization proved to be permanent, the Cultural Revolution was relatively short-lived. The second was that, in contrast to the collectivization and industrialization drives, Stalin's personal involvement and commitment was limited to a few areas, notably the show trials of "wrecker" engineers and the formation of a new proletarian intelligentsia through worker promotion (vydvizhenie ), and he was doubtful of or positively hostile to a number of the militants' initiatives (e.g., in educational policy, literature, and architecture) when they came to his attention. The fact that the Cultural Revolution was followed by what Nicholas S. Timasheff called a "Great Retreat" in cultural and social policy in the mid-1930s strongly suggests that Stalin, like Lenin before him, lacked enthusiasm for the utopianism and iconoclasm that inspired many of the young cultural militants.
The most influential of the militant organizations in culture, RAPP, had been agitating since the mid-1920s for an abandonment of the relatively tolerant and pluralist cultural policies associated with Lunacharsky and his People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the establishment of uncompromising "proletarian" (which, in the arts, often meant communist-militant) rule in literature. RAPP's pretensions were rebuffed in 1925, but in 1928 the atmosphere in the party leadership abruptly changed with the staging of the Shakhty trial, in which "bourgeois" engineers—serving as a synecdoche for the noncommunist Russian intelligentsia as a whole—were accused of sabotage and conspiracy with foreign powers. At the same time, Stalin launched a campaign for intensified recruitment and promotion of workers and young communists to higher education, especially engineering schools, and administrative positions, with the purpose of creating a "worker-peasant intelligentsia" to replace the old bourgeois one. The obverse of this policy was purging of "socially undesirable" students and employees from schools, universities, and government departments.
Stalin used the drive against the bourgeois intelligentsia to discredit political opponents, whom he took pains to link with noncommunist intellectuals accused of treason in the series of show trials that began in 1928. "Rightists" like Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, who opposed Stalin's maximalist plans for forcible collectivization and forced-pace industrialization, became targets of a smear campaign that linked them with the class enemy, implying that they were sympathetic to, perhaps even in league with, kulaks as well as "wreckers" from the bourgeois intelligentsia.
As an "unleashing" of militants in all fields of culture and scholarship, as well as in the communist youth movement (the Komsomol), the Cultural Revolution generated a host of spontaneous as well as centrally directed radical initiatives. As occurred later in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, young radicals from the Komsomol launched raids on "bureaucracy" that severely disrupted the work of government institutions. Endemic purging of all kinds of institutions, from schools and hospitals to local government departments, often initiated by local activists without explicit instructions from the center, was equally disruptive.
Among the main loci of Cultural Revolution activism, along with RAPP, were the Communist Academy and the Institute of Red Professors, scholarly institutions whose specific purpose was to train and advance a communist intelligentsia. Although Stalin had contact with some of these activists, and perhaps even toyed with the idea of establishing his own "school" of young communist intellectuals, he was also suspicious of them as a group because of their involvement in party infighting and their admiration for the party's two most renowned intellectuals and theorists, Trotsky and Bukharin. The young communist professors and graduate students did their best to shake up their disciplines, which were almost exclusively in the humanities and social sciences rather than the natural sciences, and to challenge their "bourgeois" teachers. In the social sciences, this challenge was usually mounted in the name of Marxism, but in remote areas such as music theory the challenge might come from an outsider group whose ideas had no Marxist underpinning.
Long-standing disagreements over theory and research took on new urgency, and many visionary schemes that challenged accepted ideas found institutional support for the first time. In architecture, utopian planning flourished. Legal theorists speculated about the imminent dissolution of law, while a similar movement in education for the dissolution of the school did considerable practical damage to the school system. Under the impact of the Cultural Revolution, Russian cultural officials dealing with the reindeer-herding small peoples of the north switched to an interventionist policy of active transformation of the native culture and lifestyle. In ecology, the Cultural Revolution exposed conservationists to attack by militants inspired by the ideology of transforming nature.
In 1931 and 1932, official support for class-war Cultural Revolution came to an end. Professional institutions were in shambles, and little work was being produced. In industry, with so many workers being promoted and sent to university, there was a shortage of skilled workers left in the factories. In June 1931 Stalin officially rehabilitated the bourgeois engineers; in April 1932, RAPP and other proletarian cultural organizations were dissolved. Many of the radicals who had been instrumental in attacking established authority during the Cultural Revolution were accused of deviation and removed from positions of influence. Bourgeois specialists who had been fired or arrested were allowed to return to work. In education, radical theories were repudiated and traditional norms reestablished, and policies of aggressive proletarian recruitment were quietly dropped.
But although this was the end of the radical antibourgeois Cultural Revolution, it was hardly a return to the way things had been before. Academic freedom had been seriously curtailed, and party control over cultural and scholarly institutions tightened. Thousands of young workers, peasants, and communists (vydvizhentsy ) had been sent to higher education or promoted into administrative jobs. During the Great Purges of 1937–1938, many activists of the Cultural Revolution perished (often denounced by resentful colleagues), though others survived in influential positions in cultural and academic administration. But the cohort of vydvizhentsy, particularly those trained in engineering who graduated in the first half of the 1930s, were prime, albeit unwitting, beneficiaries of the Great Purges. Members of this cohort, sometimes known as "the Brezhnev generation," entered top party, government, and professional positions at the end of the 1930s and continued to dominate the political elite for close to half a century.
See also: collectivization; constructivism; fellow travelers; industrialization
Clark, Katerina. (1995). Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
David-Fox, Michael. (1999). "What Is Cultural Revolution?" Russian Review 58(2):181–201.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (1974). "Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928–1932." Journal of Contemporary History 9(1):33–52.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ed. (1978). Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928–1931. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (1999). "Cultural Revolution Revisited." Russian Review 58(2):202–209.
Gorbunov, V. I. (1969). Lenin on the Cultural Revolution. Moscow: Novosti.
Joravsky, David. (1985). "Cultural Revolution and the Fortress Mentality." In Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution, ed. Abbott Gleason; Peter Kenez; and Richard Stites. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kim, Maksim Pavlovich. (1984). Socialism and Culture. Moscow: USSR Academy of Sciences.
Lewis, Robert. (1986). "Science, Nonscience, and the Cultural Revolution." Slavic Review 45(2):286–292.
Meisner, Maurice. (1985). "Iconoclasm and Cultural Revolution in China and Russia." In Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution, ed. Abbott Gleason; Peter Kenez; and Richard Stites. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Slezkine, Yuri. (1992). "From Savages to Citizens: The Cultural Revolution in the Soviet Far North, 1928–1938." Slavic Review 51(1):52–76.
Weiner, Douglas R. (1988). Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.