This issue of Sreda online-magazine publishes “Mayday Dream,” a fantasy short-story written by the Soviet writer Vladimir Kirillov in 1921. The story follows its protagonist as he explores the Moscow of 1999. “Mayday Dream” is accompanied by “Aesthetic Fetishism,” an essay by the Soviet literary and cultural critic Boris Arvatov which serves as a critical commentary on Kirillov’s story.
“Mayday Dream” was first published in the magazine Tvori! in 1921. This edition of Sreda online-magazine reproduces the text of the 1925 edition of the story. “Aesthetic Fetishism” was published in 1923, and the quotations in Arvatov’s essay are from the 1921 edition of Kirillov’s story. It is likely that between 1923 and 1925, Kirillov revised “Mayday Dream,” this would explain some of the inconsistencies between some of the material quoted by Arvatov and the 1925 text by Kirillov which has come down to us.
A four-volume edition of the collected works of Boris Arvatov is forthcoming at V–A–C Press.
Late in the evening, from the basement of a neighboring house I brought a bucket of water to my place on the fourth floor, boiled tea on a small stove and washed it down with half a pound of rationed bread. Not undressing, I lay down and began to think over the coming May Day. The face of the holiday was darkened by the shadows of our suffering—want, cold, and hunger.
Tomorrow at the “Red Star” club I was to give a speech on the significance of Mayday. I pondered the speech, recalling past, pre-revolutionary May Day holidays: forests, clearings, pickets and patrols, secret passwords, speakers’ agitated speeches, roused faces. And then: police, swearing, thrashings, whips, the traces of which did not leave one’s back for many months…
But fatigue and exhaustion overcame heated thought, eyes closed, thoughts drowned and tangled in a foggy mire of slumber…
White, a dazzlingly white city, splashed in the gold of a spring sun, decked in the carnations and roses of banners and posters.
Waves of music, more joyful than the sun and more intoxicating than blossoming bird cherry, rocked, shook, and drew me forward. The movement of thousands of joyful people, the beating of the single heart of a triumphant mass was enrapturing. It was as though my soul were about to break out of its small shell and merge with the jubilant world, with the flowers, banners, and the sky, in which the propellers of aluminium ships hummed and sang, burning with crystal glass cabins.
My head is spinning—where am I and what’s with me?
“Comrade, comrade, tell me—what is this all about?”
Two hazel stars looked at me gently and with surprise.
“Yes, yes, this holiday really is beautiful and wonderful. It compares with the holiday of the Victory of the World Communist Revolution,” the girl exclaimed.
I had not met such as her in my life—not in dreams, not in reality. Beauty and wisdom rivalled in her. She was the living embodiment of the designs of ancient artists who had dreamed of uniting divine fantasy with human truth. Each branch of her soul flowed with the aromas of a blossoming personality. Everything about her, down to her little boot buckle, of remarkable blue metal, was the image of perfection. In her, the highest refinement was the highest simplicity.
I followed the girl, trying not to lose her among the masses. Great houses of white stone and the purest glass met and saw off our columns. Streets smoothly paved with squares of a yellow-saffron colour intersected our path, running right and left like the endless corridors of a palace. No poles, no rails, no rushing cars nor carriages were to be seen. It seemed as though masses of people were moving through a fairy-dead city.
I meant to ask the girl about the marvellous city, about this unprecedented holiday, but sounds of music resounded, and the singing of a hymn billowed out. A crowd of thousands sang. I eagerly caught every sound, every word of the song and suddenly I sensed—this was a song of spring, of joy and celebration. Delight seized me, and I understood: I was participating in the Mayday holiday. I could even catch the lyrics.
“The first of May.”
“Our worldwide holiday.”
“The day of the triumph and victory of labour…”
My bewilderment, my cry: “So this is the May Day holiday!” surprised those around me.
The girl looked at me as though I had fallen from the moon, and turned to the young man walking alongside her:
“Listen, Alex, this comrade is positively obnoxious in his oddity. We should talk to him.”
And immediately she took my arm. The one she had called Alex was slender (but then again, all the people I saw seemed extraordinarily beautiful). He was dressed in a light brown unitard of a simple, elegant cut, and a black cap decorated with a blue and gold propeller (I later learned this to be the badge of the aeronautical school).
Studying me with his cheerful, radiant, childlike gaze, he said:
“You, comrade, are a true original. Your bizarre appearance and costume positively interested me. You haven’t come from Mars, have you? Though of course I’m well aware that only the radio speaks with this last, no one has yet been able to get there.”
The sounds of “The Internationale” rang out near us and interrupted our conversation. I remember attempting to shake hands with him as with a new friend, but this caused even greater amazement and laughter from my companions. When the music stopped, the conversation resumed:
“Listen, Alex, I think this bizarre friend of ours must be a member of some society so passionate about the epoch of the Great Revolution of 1917 that they have revived within their circle the morals, customs, and even costumes of that time.”
“Should we search him, Mary? Are there pieces of brown bread and sugar in his coat pockets? As far as I can remember, this was a common occurrence even among the preeminent figures of the revolution.”
I don’t remember what my answers were, but they caused laughter and surprise. I think, in the end, they convinced me that I was one of those who had been resurrected that day in the Lukyanov morgue (the famous Professor Lukyanov worked from the second half of the 1920s to the 1950s in Moscow at the Medical Experimental Institute, running brilliant experiments on frozen living organisms which he then revived a few years later. In 1941, by prior agreement, he had performed his experiment on a dozen people—this was clearly what my companions were talking about).
An extraordinary spectacle saw our cheerful and bizarre conversation interrupted once again. High above us in the cloudless sky, May Day slogans appeared as if on a giant blue banner. It seemed as though the stars, sparkling through a clear day, had formed a bizarre combination of words and letters. Like a madman, I looked at this panorama of heavenly posters. The light and melodious noise of propellers made me turn around, and I saw a huge red ship approaching us. It flew low, smoothly, and slowly. I read the inscription on its body: “Mayday.” The ship showered the marching columns with flowers.
Bouquets of scarlet, golden, and blue flowers fell and were caught in midair by those walking, causing an explosion of delight and fun. The bouquets were tied with bright orange ribbons, embossed with the golden words “Greetings from the Italian Communist Republic.”
On one of the streets, our column stopped, but those walking in front continued to move. Into the resulting space, as if from the ground, poured a new, picturesque column of silk artistic banners, tsekh emblems, and posters.
Mary, gladly taking it upon herself to explain to me these miracles of technology, reported the presence of an underground railway station nearby, which transferred trains from Moscow to the most remote outskirts of the republic at lightning speed. These trains—without engines—ran thousand-mile distances in airless channels resembling huge water pipes. This last great breakthrough in the field of transportation had been based on the principle of the movement of an object left to itself in the absence of air resistance. All traffic in cities, excluding air and pedestrian traffic, also takes place underground.
“I know about your carriages and cars driving around streets and scaring people only from books,” said Mary, inhaling the scent of flowers.
I was pleased to learn that I could now wander the streets safely, surrender to daydreams without risking being crushed.
I apologize to my listeners for not informing them in a more timely manner: this wondrous city was nothing other than the Moscow of 1999.
This is how I came to learn this. When our column turned onto one of the squares, I saw, or rather, I trembled with a painfully sweet trembling: from around a corner, the golden-headed Kremlin floated out like an imperishable ship. There they were, the battlements with their high lancet towers, there they were, the marvellous medieval temples. How many times has Moscow fallen, been burned and razed to the ground, yet only it, the Kremlin, continues to sing to us about this majestic and harsh history. Where are you, Moscow, stained with the blood of the October days? Where are you, buildings pierced by bullets? A number of churches and several artistic and historical buildings sunk among skyscrapers—and only the Kremlin inviolably keeps its ancient features. I am powerless to convey the experience that shook me. You would have felt much of this yourself, had you put yourself in my place…
I learned from Mary that in the Moscow of 1999 there are almost no permanent residents—there are luxurious glass-stoned skyscrapers—there are factories, laboratories, technical schools. To my question about smouldering factory chimneys, Mary replied with a smile that about smoke, as about cars racing through streets, she knew only from books. Already many decades ago, a method had been found for the smokeless combustion of substances, so in most of the factories one could work in a snow-white dress. And, as if anticipating my next question, she said:
“In Moscow, we only work the established 4-5 hours a day, while our houses and dwellings, where the rest of our lives takes place, are located outside the city. Our transportation allows us to get to work in 5-10 minutes even from our most remote settlements.”
“And now, dear friend, a little more of your attention. You are about to see our greatest pride—the Pantheon of the Revolution.”
The procession had slowed down, and, taking advantage of this, Mary asked if I was hungry. I answered in the affirmative, and, turning aside, we entered through the door, above which hung a poster with the large inscription “Communal Food.”
Inside, everything was sparkling clean, glasses of hot coffee, inserted into aluminium sockets, automatically moved along the long white tables. Each of us took a glass. Mary pressed one of the numerous buttons, and the automatically popped-out tray served us a few open sandwiches.
Having eaten, we hurried to file back into the columns’ rows. We passed a magnificent arch in honour of May Day, made of fresh flowers, reminiscent of the rise of a giant wave, crowned with a sun disk of golden-orange colours with the monograms of the World Council of Communist Republics. A skilful combination of colours created in some places the words and slogans of the holiday and the outlines of the great figures of the revolution. We climbed the mountain. Mary said that we were stepping onto Red Square (the name had been preserved).
My poor language, my miserable dream, would that it were given to me to convey by your means all the majesty and beauty of what I saw. Two worlds, dissolving the edges of centuries, came close to one another in that place. To the right was the Kremlin in all its medieval architectural charm, to the left—the new world, the embodiment of all the power, all the majesty of human genius.
A river of thousands flooded the Square. The sunny swell of the flowery sea trembled and shimmered, with the quaint St. Basil’s Cathedral swaying on it, as it were. And where Kitai-Gorod, with its hundreds of trading firms, had once crawled out onto the Square—the majestic Pantheon of the Revolution sang and shouted the victory of the proletariat. No columns, no statues, no marble cladding. Glass, granite, and steel. What few dreamed of in my day was embodied here to perfection. Engineer and artist had merged into one. What can I say about these marvellous forms? They were unlike any you’ve ever seen. Those who have felt the beauty of enormous cranes and hanging American bridges, might, if only faintly, understand the beauty of this majestic architecture. Snow-white cement, glass and steel, quaintly intertwined with one another, ascended, forming tiers and platforms overcrowded with triumphant people. There was a lightness and grace in the dynamic upward striving of heavy, massive construction forms, reconciling a desire for space with a love for the earth. The building was crowned with a tower that, with its tissue of steel and iron, bore a resemblance to thousands of muscular hands holding a blue, rotating globe—a symbol of the global triumph of labour…
In an instant, the huge gates of the Pantheon had swallowed me and a hundred comrades up. We marched through the luxurious, festively decorated halls of the first floor. People moved harmoniously as groups in different directions, but each one of them felt free. There was no stampede, no fuss. Sometimes automatic doors opened inside the hall, and dozens of people, picked up by elevators, would float away to the upper floors.
“In an hour, a commemorative meeting will begin in the White Hall, in the presence of representatives from all the republics of the world,” said Mary, “but, in the meantime, I’ll introduce you to a small portion of the treasures stored here on the first floor.”
Not until then had I noticed Alex’s absence. Mary informed me that he had gone to take charge of the “Liebknecht” aeronaut, on which he was to make several flights today to carry various delegations to the celebration.
We entered the luminous Blue Hall, where flags, posters, and banners from the period running from 1917 to 1925 had been collected. Large glass caps on bronze installations with bas-reliefs depicting various episodes of the great epoch had been arranged in chronological order. Something dear and near emanated from these faded and dilapidated relics of the stormy days I’d been through. Here was a large silk banner—the colours had faded, the letters of the fiery words: “All power to the Soviets” had almost been erased. Many other familiar and dear banners that had proudly fluttered in the wind during holidays, battles, and uprisings, rested humbly under glass bells, reminding new generations of the great deeds, immortal valor, and suffering of their grandfathers and fathers. Tears came to my eyes. I wanted to touch those pieces of half-decayed fabric with my lips, I could not tear myself away from them, but Mary, to whom my feelings were incomprehensible, hurried me on:
“All this you’ll have a chance to see another time, but today I want you to see something unusual even for us.”
We passed through another hall hung and lined with portraits, busts, and engravings of famous figures of the great epoch. Dozens of familiar faces looked at me from all sides—these were the heroes who had fallen in revolutionary duty, great leaders of the revolution, poets, artists. I had seen many in person, I had been acquainted with many, there were close friends, comrades in struggle and in creativity. It was only now, against a historical background, that their power and beauty, often unnoticed by their contemporaries, had come to light. Their deeds lived, their immortal feats shone, and their songs sounded the glory of mankind…
It fell to Mary to take my arm once more and push me almost by force onto the wide platform of the elevator. In a few seconds we were already on the highest platform of the Pantheon. There were many people here, eased merriment and laughter were flowing. When had this mighty, ardent human newness reached such growth and flowering? How different it was from our generation! Original and varied costumes, reminiscent of athletic cuts, let one see strong, tanned breasts and arm muscles elastic, as though they had been poured. Oh, how fair, how perfect these people were. I noticed several puzzled looks thrown at me. One smiled, another asked me something. But I was excited and confused, and silently followed my companion.
We approached the massive fence girdling the platform, and the immensity and beauty of the panorama opened up to my gaze. Deep below, the multi-coloured human swell was still swinging, the sounds of rousing sunny music were flying in the air, and far as the eye could see in all directions, a white-stoned, unrecognizable Moscow bloomed and shone with an iridescent white light.
The glass roofs and windows of skyscrapers sparkled dazzlingly, the lines of elegant streets endlessly intersected, squares appeared decorated with new monuments, arches, and towers. Oh, how everything had changed! And it was only through some churches, the crosses of which barely reached the roofs of skyscrapers, that I was able to recognize familiar places and streets. I didn’t notice Mary leaving. She brought me wonderful binoculars, which allowed me to see the most remote parts of Moscow with unusual clarity.
Cultivated fields looked like little green squares among the intersecting golden highways. Parks, artificial ponds, the snow-white cubes of small houses, immersed in emerald spring greenery, delighted and caressed the eye.
And Mary’s voice, like a spring lay, sounded and sang the beautiful and sonorous life here—wonderful factories, labour, and science, and there— luxurious gardens and settlements, where one can breathe easily, where perspectives are bright and flowers are fragrant.
The steel birds were still humming in the sky, flying up and down like hawks, looping loops. The shining aeronauts sailed smoothly and solemnly, and bright allegorical figures, raised in honour of the great holiday, shimmered with colour. My heart beat faster. My head spun. I was ready to sob at any moment.
“If those who lived in my time,” I said with a tremor in my voice, “could see only a particle of this perfect and happy life, they would increase their energy tenfold in the struggle for the future. We haven’t worked enough.
Two hazel stars flashed enthusiastically and proudly.
“Not true, you are titans, you are fairy-tale heroes. Admire the sprouting of your seeds.”
And, taking my arm, Mary said softly and kindly:
“Let’s go now, the commemorative meeting has begun.”
The short story “Mayday Dream” (an excerpt from a fantasy novella) was published by Comrade Vl. Kirillov in the magazine Tvori! (Create!) (Moscow, 1921, No. 3–4). The short story consists of 5½ pages and, put briefly, comprises the following: a narrator, a communist and former underground fighter, sees the Moscow of 1999 in dream, on the day of the Mayday holiday, all earthly humanity constitutes a single world socialist republic, and a female Muscovite shows the hero of the story around the city. The story is dedicated to a description of the city.
One of the main means of this so-called “pure” description, i.e., not a description of actions, but of phenomena, is epithets. I will therefore begin with them.
More than anything else, it is the complete uniformity of these epithets that catches one’s attention—the most diverse things are described in one and the same way: a limited set of epithets are repeated literally at every step in the story and sometimes even occur several times in one and the same sentence. Take this random example:
“…I lay down on my bed and began to think about the Great Holiday of May Day, celebrated tomorrow, in the fourth year of the great struggle… The face of the upcoming holiday was darkened by the mournful shadows of our great suffering…”
Even more curious is the nature of these epithets. The vast majority of them can be classed into three groups: quantitative epithets, material-aesthetic epithets, and abstract-aesthetic epithets.
I will begin with the first of these groups.
Everything described in this story turns out to be grandiose. The words “great,” “giant,” “huge,” and “large” appear more than thirty times in 5½ pages.
1. “These trains—without engines—ran huge distances in airless channels resembling huge water pipes. This last great breakthrough…”
2. “In an instant, the huge gates of the Pantheon had swallowed me and a hundred comrades up.”
3. “…tens of people, picked up by giant elevators…”
4. “Giant aeronauts sailed majestically and bright allegorical figures were raised into the air in honour of the great holiday, shimmering with colour.”
5. “I followed…among the masses of people. Giant houses of white stone and of the purest glass (so it seemed to me) met and saw off our columns.”
In this last example, a semantic justification is provided in relation to one of the epithets (“purest”): “so it seemed to me.” The author seeks to legitimise the force of his epithet (the superlative adjective) by virtue of the strangeness of dreams. The question that consequently arises is whether the given epithet, the given linguistic form, occupies a secondary position in relation to “content,” or, conversely, whether the function of “content” is to justify the use of the given linguistic form.
Let us examine the material at hand. We will begin with the epithets related to what the hero of the story sees:
“giant houses,” “giant ships,” “giant wave,” “giant elevators,” “giant roofs,” “giant aeronauts,” “huge ship,” “huge distances,” “huge pipes,” “huge gates,” etc.
So long as it is the future Moscow that is being described, all these epithets are potentially justifiable: houses, etc., really can be great, although a tendency towards stock phrases is already noticeable in the examples given (“ships” in one case are “huge,” in two—“giant”), pointing to the formalistic nature of Kirillov’s description. I will now take an instance where “enormity” is not required and read: entering the hall, the hero sees “large caps,” images of episodes from the “great epoch,” and the banner of 1917, which he tells us to be “large.” Even the inscription, “Communal Food,” turns out to be “massive.”
In other words, this kind of epithet is used by Comrade Kirillov not in accordance with his thematic material, but purely formalistically, for its own sake, for the sake of the effect that Kirillov hoped to achieve through the form of his description.
In this story, linguistic material is arranged to achieve a formal effect: what we have to do with are not concrete epithets, but abstract statements that bear no relation to the plot.
One might seek to justify all this by noting firstly the ability of dreams to impress their dreamers, secondly, the impressiveness of the observed facts for a newcomer. This said, even such thematic justifications fail to stand up to any criticism:
The “Great Holiday,” “great struggle,” “great sufferings,” are remembered by the hero before his dream and refer to 1921; the same “Great Holiday” elsewhere refers to 1999. On the one hand, “you will see our most majestic shrine, our pride—the Pantheon of the Revolution,” on the other, “the Kremlin sings to us a passionate song about the majestic and harsh history of the Moscow State.” At last, we meet an open juxtaposition:
“And where Kitai-Gorod, with its hundreds of trading firms, had once crawled out onto the Square—the majestic Pantheon of the Revolution sang and shouted the victory of the proletariat.”
The author strings his epithets onto everything; anything can be “great,” “big,” etc.
Artistic creation is the creation of expressive forms, and any semantic reasoning is always introduced into art from the outside, as is the ideological justification required by a consumer at a certain stage in their socio-aesthetic development. In this regard, Comrade Kirillov is only obeying one of the basic tenets of artistic creation. His trouble does not lie here. His trouble lies in that, firstly, he does not understand the nature of his own profession (as is well known, the group of proletarian writers to which Comrade Kirillov belongs adheres to the obviously anti-scientific and incorrect opinion that “content determines form”), and, secondly, that he uses hackneyed, non-utilitarian forms, which do not aim at a practical impact on consciousness, but at aesthetic contemplation for its own sake. The epithet devices listed above overwhelm the story from the first to last line, without bearing any practical relation to one another, without build-up or contrast and, most importantly, without the slightest hint of independent ingenuity on the part of the author. They could satisfy only a deeply authoritarian psyche, for whom the phrases I have cited sound “aesthetic” and “majestic” in and of themselves. This reliance on an external and traditional effect, this dependence on a purely verbal statement is visible in any phrase. Allow me to give you a few more examples.
People of both 1999 and 1917, we are told, were:
“great leaders,” “great figures,” “famous figures of the Great Epoch,” “famous figures,” there is also, inevitably, a “renowned scientist,” who conducts “brilliant experiments,” then come “heroes,” “fairy-tale heroes,” “titans.” As for the deeds of people, there are “great feats and unparalleled valour,” “immortal valour” that “shines,” “great struggle,” “majestically sailed,” “the greatest discovery.”
There is more:
“majestic panorama,” “majestic Pantheon,” “majestic architecture,” “greatest shrine,” “immense panorama,” “incomprehensible image of perfection,” “incomprehensible beauty,” “unprecedented holiday,” “great holiday” (twice), “great epoch” (twice), “extraordinary sight,” “unrecognisable Moscow,” and, of course, “unusual clarity,” “lightning speed” and “dizzying loops,” “amazing things,” “amazing planet,” “amazing lightness,” “amazing metal,” “amazing cut.”
If we have to do with a “platform,” then it is necessarily “wide” or the “highest”; if with a “form” or “fences,” they are necessarily “massive”; if with “hymns,” “sounds,” “newness,” or “love,” then all are “mighty,” if with a “school of aeronautics,” then it is the “higher” school, etc.
“сrowd of thousands,” “river of thousands,” “countless highways,” “endless corridors,” “infinitely intersecting lines,” “most remote points,” “most remote outskirts,” “most remote suburbs,” “numerous cabins,” “numerous slogans,” and even “one of numerous buttons.”
Naturally, quantities ought to play an important role in a short story, but their templated nature is already evident:
“a hundred comrades,” “hundreds of firms,” “tens of people,” “tens of faces,” “last decades,” “above ten people,” “tenfold,” “several looks,” “several flights,” “several years,” “several decades,” “several seconds,” and, finally, “several open sandwiches.”
What we have to do with here is the recognisable if significantly exaggerated “spoiled” language of a child (“Mommy! Uncle gave me a candy thi-is la-a-ge,” with the child demonstrating with their hands the size of at least a watermelon) combined with “adult” lexical choices (“dizzying,” “massive,” etc.): where a child would say “big, big house,” Comrade Kirillov says “giant.” This kind of word usage always testifies to a poverty of language, to the speaker’s lack of a diverse and specific lexicon and, even if they did have one, to their complete inability to use it.
It would, however, be absurd to think that the proletarian writer is necessarily poor to this extent; the point here lies in something else—in the epidemic artistic fetishism that took possession of the proletariat at the first stages of its creative searchings.
When they entered into literature, proletarian writers, including Comrade Kirillov, took up literary forms in a bourgeois manner. What I mean is this: for them, the language of art existed and exists as a language opposed to practical language—in art one must speak differently, “beautifully”—and it is consequently necessary to discard all the linguistic material that would be used by a qualified proletarian in everyday social practice. But the proletariat, in contrast to the bourgeoisie, does not have its own aesthetic tradition and an abundance of artistic material on which to draw on—hence the extreme poverty of its language, the need to imitate the canons of the bourgeoisie, to do so worse than would any intellectual and to repeat oneself endlessly for fear of using a word or expression “unacceptable” in “high” art.
There is another, no less significant reason for these results: the unconsciousness of creation. Proletarian writers, deciding to proceed from their so-called “content,” forget that ideological social influence is not a method, but a goal of artistic production, that this goal can only be achieved through careful work and experimental, conscious study of the means of such influence, i.e., the raw material of art—in literature, the living word. Proletarian writers really do not see anything in art but form, in spite of or rather precisely because of their “ideologism.” Because the problem of art has been reduced, in their opinion, to the interaction of “form” and “content,” because the only significant element of an artistic work thus turns out to be its form, because, finally, a work of art is always material—so this particular work (or text) begins to concentrate on form, and, more precisely, on a templated form. Yet this form is only a product of a concrete material arrangement—of a thing. In a given poem, rhymes, alliterations, combinations of images, rhythm, etc., can only ever be the result of an adaptation of everyday language. Not understanding this means, firstly, to be a slave to one’s material, as always happens to those who arrange their material unthinkingly, and, secondly, to be a slave to form.
If an officer in command of a company of soldiers believes his entire task to lie in the defeat of the enemy through the help of established official forms, then this officer will go undefeated only by an exceptionally lucky chance, for he lacks the most important thing—the ability to organise a given group of people in light of a given task. The same is true of a writer. A novice to his material, but compelled to operate with it by virtue of his profession, he inevitably uses stereotyped, previously developed forms, as ends in themselves, as things auto-sufficiently active, because he is incapable of inventing independently—and the result is the loss of the battle, i.e., the complete deadness of his notorious content.
So, for example, Comrade Kirillov, using all the expressions given above, intended for them to convey the technical and organisational maturity of socialism. What he actually achieved, however, was no more than an aesthetic phraseology and an authoritarian presentational scheme that could not produce any effect—excluding on the consumer of authoritarianism, but I hope that Comrade Kirillov’s intention was not to encourage authoritarianism—firstly, due to its abstraction, i.e., its lack of a concrete referent, i.e., its self-integrity, and, secondly, thanks to its complete stereotypicality.
I will prove this with examples later, but for now I will indicate where and how the aesthetic fetishism of Comrade Kirillov shows up.
Bourgeois art is characterised, first of all, by the absoluteness of its aesthetic canons. Unaware of all relativity, of all the changeability of social—including artistic—phenomena, bourgeois practice fetishized temporary aesthetic norms as eternal, and thereby turned them into abstract formulas. From the whole world of nature and things, a few elements were torn out, to which a special aesthetic value was attributed. In poetry, the role of such elements was played by words and phrases that semantically corresponded to bourgeois conceptions of “beauty” and which were associated with the concepts of the “sublime,” the “majestic,” the “extraordinary.” These were, first of all, the names of the heavenly bodies (“stars,” “sun,” etc.), of flowers (“roses,” etc.), of colours (“white,” “scarlet,” etc.). Then, to the same catalogue of the “beautiful” were added the names of materials which, in the everyday life of the bourgeoisie, were used in the manufacture of luxury goods, as opposed to ordinary, “rough” materials (“gold,” “silk,” “crystal,” “bronze,” “lace,” etc.). The purpose of such word usage was to oppose the world of art, as something sacerdotal, inspirational, to the world of reality, as something vile, to seperate the world of abstract “beauty” from the real world. Through these means, in other words, the bourgeois artist led his consumers away from life, the means were not put to any practical purposes, but rather sought to lull any impulse to action.
If this kind of creation was useful to the bourgeoisie, to a society that developed chaotically and therefore needed an illusory harmony, in the ranks of the proletariat it becomes deeply harmful and reactionary, by virtue of its extremely strong dependence on the bourgeois cultural heritage.
Words that led back to the past and were aesthetic patterns of an archaic order also served the bourgeoisie as a means of poetic isolation: the names of ancient architectural forms (“tower,” “column,” “arch,” etc.), words associated with a religious, feudal way of life (“gods,” “fairy tales,” “magic,” “miracle,” etc.).
The most significant thing about these techniques is that they became canonical, that their usage had nothing to do with specifically appropriate implementation in each individual case, that they were rather formal fetishes, self-contained and universal. Some epithets, such as “golden distance” or “rainbow light,” do not characterise phenomena in their essence, but are purely aesthetic, templates for translating any fact into a poetic register. Hence their recurrence, their transformation into craft-shop cliché.
The penetration of such cliché into proletarian literature cannot but be considered a disease dangerous for a young, fragile movement. Meanwhile, it is enough to look through any collection of proletarian writers or to take up any issue of a magazine containing their works to see how endemic this bourgeois infection is.
Comrade Kirillov’s story shows this with exhaustive completeness.
I will enumerate here:
“an arch of fresh flowers,” “combinations of flowers,” “showered with flowers,” “bouquets of flowers,” “as if blooming with petals of scarlet roses and carnations,” “merges with flowers,” “more intoxicating than the aroma of blossoming bird cherry,” “aromas of harmoniously blossomed personality,” “said Mary, inhaling the scent of bouquets of flowers,” “multi-coloured swell,” “sunny swell of the flowering sea,” “blooming settlements,” “kissed by the sun,” “solar anthem,” “sunny music,” “more joyful than the sun,” “splashed in the gold of the sun,” “embossed with the golden words,” “blue and gold propeller,” “golden highways,” “it seemed as though the stars sparkled,” “radiant gaze,” “bouquets of scarlet, golden, and blue flowers,” “scarlet roses,” “blue metal,” “blue banner,” “blue globe,” “Blue hall” (“blue” here with a capital letter, an aestheticizing designation), “ships burning with crystal glass,” “pearls of laughter,” “emerald greenery,” “bronze installations,” “velvet-like cap,” “in silk banners,” “silk banner,” “snow-white cement,” “snow-white cubes,” “snow-white dress,” “lace lightness.”
Сomrade Kirillov compares the streets of the future Moscow with a “magic palace,” and a “fairy-dead city,” its square is decorated with “arches and towers,” “the building was crowned with a goddess,” “installations” feature “bas-reliefs,” and people are proud, “like gods,” etc.
Describing the “Pantheon of the Revolution,” Сomrade Kirillov states that there were “no columns, no statues, no marble cladding.” Comrade Kirillov wants to assure his reader that the ideals of modernity have been “embodied to perfection”: “engineer and artist merged into one.” This is his “content.” Unfortunately, Kirillov’s form decisively refutes his assertions. Leaving aside the fact that the building is called a “Pantheon,” that the people of the future Moscow are given names taken from sentimental bourgeois literature of the late eighteenth century (“Mary” and “Alex”), that Mary’s voice is compared with “Mendelssohn’s spring song” (ostentatiously pathetic Slavisms: “lay” instead of “song”), i.e., the most petit bourgeois of the bourgeois composers and a favourite of German Gretchens—the whole story is written in an archaic style (places of residence in Moscow in 1999, for example, are twice called “settlements,” as they are in the Bible). As an example, I will take the definition of the word “column”: had it been followed in its literal sense, then “column” could not appear in Comrade Kirillov’s text as an aesthetic form. In literature, the “column” is a literary, not an architectural phenomenon. Yet here is the list: “our column,” “marching columns,” again “our column,” and again “our column,” “new column,” “rows of the column.” The concept of the “column” is in the eyes of the author something aesthetic, which he uses as a means of figurative construction.
Compare this with the following:
1. “…from around the corner the golden-headed Kremlin floated out like an imperishable ship of eternity. There they were, the battlements with their high lancet towers, there they were, the marvellous mediaeval temples.”
2. “…the Kremlin in all its mediaeval architectural charm.”
3. “…quaint St. Basil’s Cathedral swaying on it, as it were.”
Finally, about the Pantheon itself, Kirillov writes:
1. “Glass, granite and steel merged here in a wonderful symphony.”
2. “Snow-white cement, glass and steel, quaintly intertwined with one another, went up.”
Comrade Kirillov aestheticizes everything he writes about with equal ease. One means of this aestheticization are words associated with lighting, but these adopt stereotypical poetic forms:
“glasses sparkled,” “the city sparkled,” “stars sparkled,” “glasses sparkled dazzlingly,” “everything was sparkling,” “eyes’ sparkle,” “roofs sparkled,” “a dazzlingly white city,” “feats shone,” “Moscow shone with iridescent light.”
He turns to different means when describing emotions:
“mad rapture seized me,” “like a madman, I looked,” “eased merriment and laughter were flowing,” “cheerful gaze,” “cheerful conversation,” “explosion of delight and fun,” “flashed enthusiastically,” “the caress and radiance of enthusiastically young eyes,” “radiant, childlike gaze,” “delighted and caressed the eye,” “said softly,” etc.
“song of spring,” “song of joy,” etc.
The abstractness of such epithets and metaphors brings them very close to being bare aesthetic statements: instead of characterising a phenomenon through concrete means, instead of acting with the expressive energy of a carefully polished language, Comrade Kirillov turns to ready-made aesthetic formulas that could convince only consumers whose minds are already schooled in the spirit of bourgeois “aestheticism” for its own sake. For them, the use of stereotypical methods is quite sufficient, as is even the hint of an aesthetic aspect, which they take to be something absolute and, therefore, understandable in itself.
Cf. in Comrade Kirillov:
“beauty and wisdom,” “power and beauty,” “majesty and beauty,” “beauty of cranes,” “beauty of the panorama,” “marvellous city,” “marvellous panorama,” “marvellous temples,” “marvellous companion,” “marvellous forms,” “marvellous symphony,” “luxurious skyscrapers,” “luxurious arches,” “luxurious holiday,” “luxurious gardens and villages,” “luxurious halls,” “decorated halls,” “decorated squares,” “perfect life,” “perfect girl” (twice), “perfect song,” “image of perfection,” and, among other things, “perfectly cultivated fields,” “wonderful factories,” the “wonderful Kremlin,” “wonderful appearance,” “wonderful city,” “wonderful music,” and, even, “wonderful binoculars,” then “melodious noise,” “elegant cut,” etc.
At one point, Comrade Kirillov attempts to qualify his use of words: “…all the people I saw seemed beautiful.”
However, any comparative example is sufficient to convince us of the mechanical nature of the author’s writing.
“The crowd sang beautifully and harmoniously.”
On the same page I find:
“Handsome and harmonious young man.”
What we have before us is typical of the stereotyped “epithet” technique. The extent to which Comrade Kirillov is formalistic, to which original work on his literary material in this story is alien to him, can be gleaned from another passage.
“Oh, how fair, how perfect these people were.”
The original of this line is well known: “How fair, how fresh were the roses…” (even the rhythm is repeated). But while the author of the original gives in epithets the deployment of a technique (they are “fair” because they are “fresh”), Comrade Kirillov goes no further than elementary tautology (“fair”—“perfect”).
Comrade Kirillov, judging at least from “Mayday Dream,” is entirely bound by the chains of traditional bourgeois formalism. I will point out some other examples in addition to the ones already given, these will firmly demonstrate the spread of this pattern across all his linguistic material:
1. “‘Mary,’ I said with a tremor in my voice.”
2. “I trembled with a painfully sweet trembling.”
3. “…experience that shook me to the bottom of my soul.”
4. “I was ready to sob at any moment.”
5. “Tears came to my eyes.”
6. “I wanted to touch those pieces of half-decayed fabric with my lips.”
7. “I had not met in my life—not in dreams, nor in reality.”
8. “…surrender to daydreams…”
10. “…as though going upwards…”
11. “…a desire for space…”
12. “…dissolving the edges of centuries…”
About the girl of 1999, it is said:
“She was the living embodiment of the designs of ancient artists, who had dreamed of uniting divine fantasy with human truth.”
Not a single comma in this phrase was thought up independently: it is the archaism of feudal-bourgeois art through and through.
Therefore, there is no coincidence in Comrade Kirillov’s predilection to Church Slavonic syntax.
“Where are you, Moscow, stained with the blood of flaming brown October days? Where are you, buildings pierced by bullets? What’s left of you?”
One is reminded of how Feofan Prokopovich’s structured his rhetorical expressions in his epitaph on the death of Peter the Great.
1. “What can I say about these marvellous forms?” (i.e., the construction of a socialist (!!) society).
2. “My poor language, my miserable dream, would that it were given to me to convey by your means.”
3. “You died, but not in vain had you suffered. Your deeds live, your immortal feats shine, and your passionate songs sing the glory of mankind…”
A last example of formalism:
“…this caused even greater amazement and laughter from my companions…”
And 21 lines later:
“…caused amazement and laughter from my companions all the time.”
In this case, we have not just a bias towards the formalistic, but evidence of the author’s poor qualifications: Comrade Kirillov, neglecting literary skillfulness, inevitably finds himself the slave of ready-made formulas.
Now, the question is, what remains under such conditions of so-called “content”? Insofar as the story is devoid of any action whatsoever, insofar as its description is entirely based not on concrete, but on abstract material—the plot is eliminated by itself; we can only talk about the stereotypical motif of dreaming, while the contents of the dream itself are not developed in any way. But the plot is a form just as much as everything in art; “content” refers to the plot in the same way as to any other form (syntax, semantics, etc.). Namely: “content” is the goal of a work of art, its social and utilitarian task.
It falls to us to conclude that this task has not been resolved by Comrade Kirillov in any way.
This task was, for modern Russian literature, relatively new (Soviet-socialist utopia), but it was approached with unsuitable means and with recourse to unsuitable material.
The result of the attempt is an aesthetic picture that might with equal right (providing some everyday details were changed, e.g. years, city names, etc.) have been titled: “An Extravaganza from the Life of the Selenites,” “The Tale of a Good Boy,” “Easter Dream,” “Man in Paradise,” etc. in the same style.
Stereotyped form killed the agitational idea and became a means of contemplative aesthetic illusion, i.e., turned out to be an end in itself.
Conclusion: without independent productive work on literary material (language, plot construction), without studying and experimenting with it, without breaking away from canonised methods of art, no use of artistic creation as a means of modern ideological influence is possible. Form is not a mechanical means—form organizes the psyche in all directions, and to forget this means to become its slave.
I propose, in conclusion, a comparison of three phrases, separated from one another by just a few lines:
1. “Would that it were given to me to convey by your means all the majesty and inconceivable beauty…?”
2. “…the new world, the embodiment of all the power, all the majesty of human genius.”
3. “…you brought to light all power and beauty…”
Translated by Anastasia Drevale and Charlotte Neve