An acronym for "proletarian cultural-educational organizations," Proletkult was a loosely structured cultural organization that first took shape in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) a few days before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It began as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers' theaters, and educational societies devoted to the cultural needs of the working class. By 1918, when the organization held its first organizational conference under Soviet power, it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a unique proletarian culture that would inform and inspire revolutionary Russian society.
The Proletkult's most important theorist was a left-wing Bolshevik intellectual named Alexander Bogdanov. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Bogdanov emerged as an articulate critic of Vladimir Lenin. Bogdanov contended that in order for a proletarian revolution to succeed, the working class had to develop its own ideology and proletarian intelligentsia to take and wield power. His insistence on working-class autonomy put him at odds with Lenin's interpretation of revolutionary change. Bogdanov's influence was clearly evident in the Proletkult's political stance; its leaders insisted that the organization remain separate from government cultural agencies and the Communist Party.
At its peak in the fall of 1920, the Proletkult claimed a mass following of almost half a million people spread over three hundred local groups. These figures must be viewed with caution because they cannot be verified by existing records. Moreover, they imply a kind of cohesion that the organization did not possess during the chaotic years of the Russian civil war (1917–1922), when the Bolshevik regime was fought for its survival. Certainly, not all participants understood that they were supposed to be creating original forms of proletarian culture. Probably even fewer were aware of the national leadership's demand for independence from the Soviet state and Communist Party.
Much of the organization's work during the Civil War continued the activities of prerevolutionary adult education schools called People's Homes (narodnye doma ) and people's universities. Proletkult participants took part in literacy and foreign language classes, as well as lectures on current events and recent scientific achievements. They also attended musical concerts, plays, and readings offered by professional artists. In addition, the organization sponsored classes in music, literature, and the visual arts. A number of important artists from middle- and upper-class backgrounds took part in the Proletkult's many workshops, including the symbolist writer Andrew Bely, and the avant-garde painter Olga Rozanova. Some came for the salary and rations that teaching positions provided. Others found a sympathetic environment for artistic experimentation. The future film director Sergei Eisenstein, for example, transformed the First Workers' Theater in Moscow into one of the nation's most inventive stages.
Proletkult studios nurtured new talent, such as the actress Judith Glizer, who went on to a very successful theatrical and film career. However, the best-known proletarian artists associated with the Proletkult had already begun their creative work before the Revolution. Writers were particularly prevalent. The poetry, plays, and stories of authors such as Vladimir Kirillov, Michael Gerasimov, and Paul Bessalko formed the creative center of Proletkult publications. Eventually they left the organization to form an influential writers' circle called The Smithy (Kuznitsy ), which was an important contributor to debates on the place of art in Soviet society during the 1920s.
Although much of the Proletkult's work was on a rudimentary educational level, its demands for autonomy put it on a collision course with the Communist Party. In December 1920, Lenin issued a devastating critique of the organization, attacking not only its independence but also the very idea of a unique proletarian culture. In short order, the Proletkult was made into a subsection of the governmental cultural agency, the Commissariat of Enlightenment. In an attempt to stabilize the economy after the conclusion of the Civil War, the government slashed funds for all cultural projects. These steps drastically reduced the organization's size and influence.
During the 1920s, the Proletkult continued to operate on a small scale in Moscow, Leningrad, and a few provincial cities. In the creative arts, it was overshadowed by newer professional organizations, such as the Proletarian Writers' Union, which claimed to represent workers' cultural interests. Instead, the organization invested most of its energy in providing services to trade union clubs. During the First Five-Year Plan (1928–1932), it saw a brief period of growth. However, in April 1932, the Communist Party summarily closed down the Proletkult along with all other cultural associations that assumed special ties to workers. From now on, the Communist Party decreed, Soviet artistic works had to appeal to all social classes, not just the proletariat. The Proletkult's final demise marked an important step on the path to socialist realism.
See also: cultural revolution; lenin, vladimir illich
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (1970). The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organization of Education and the Arts Under Lunacharsky, October 1917–1921. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Sochor, Zenovia A. (1988). Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Steinberg, Mark D. (2002). Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910–1925. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.