Mystery Bouffe And The Start Of Soviet Censorship

Despite being a revolutionary and futuristic masterpiece by Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Malevich, Mystery Bouffe was the first victim of Soviet censorship.

On a warm day one hundred years ago a small group of friends heard the first-ever play by a Soviet dramatist. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was reading Mystery Bouffe to a group that included the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and the famous theater director, Vsevolod Meyerhold.

The play was an aggressive piece of Bolshevik propaganda, opening at the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1918 for three performances, with stage decorations and costumes designed by Kazimir Malevich. This first piece of Soviet theater seemed to be pure brilliance, with three giant radical artists celebrating the Revolution’s first anniversary. But it didn’t turn out well.

The creative process was all but sabotaged, and the audiences indifferent. Lenin called it “hooligan communism.” But why such hostility to a show that seemed so in line with the times?

Things started ominously. A few days after the October Revolution, Lunacharsky as the Commissar of Enlightenment convened a meeting to discuss revolutionary approaches to art in the new era. Hundreds of artists were invited, but only five showed up, among which were Mayakovsky and Meyerhold.

Why such a low turn out? These were still deeply uncertain times, and even though all theaters were under Lunacharsky’s control, many artists were not sure about throwing their lot in with the Bolsheviks. But these five did. Meyerhold’s biographer, Edward Braun, called this “a hazardous act of faith.”

Mystery Bouffe is by any standards a strange play, written in Mayakovsky’s trademark energetic and tumbling verse. The story is the Biblical parable of Noah’s ark transplanted into the industrial age. The flood is the Revolution, cleansing the world of the bourgeoisie. The ‘new common man’ leads the proletariat to a mechanized paradise, where tools and even food obey humans.

The play’s cast was huge, with over 70 characters acting in a declaratory and rhetorical style. The conservative Actor’s Union labeled it “futuristic,” which according to Mayakovsky’s biographers Ann and Samuel Charters, is the “word they gave to everything they didn’t understand.”

We are certainly very far away from the living rooms of Chekhov, Mayakovsky says as much in the Prologue. Other theater gives you:

“Uncle Vanya
And Auntie Manya
Parked on a sofa as they chatter

But we don’t care
About uncles or aunts:
you can find them at home – or anywhere!”

He did not want the play to imitate observable reality. This was also Malevich’s approach to the design, as he said: “I saw my task not as the creation of associations with the reality existing beyond the stage, but as the creation of a new reality.”

The play opened with actors coming onstage and ripping up posters of popular performances of that time. It was a declaration of war on Imperial-era theater.

The Petrograd Conservatoire was less than cooperative, and they refused to sell copies of the script. The doors to rehearsal rooms were boarded shut. Nails for the set were kept under lock and key. Actors were very suspicious of the project, and most refused to be involved. An advertisement was put in the paper: “Comrades! It is your duty to celebrate the great day of the Revolution with a revolutionary show.” In the end they had to use students, and Mayakovsky had to play several key roles himself.

Tellingly, most critics did not think the play worthy to be reviewed. Later, however, theater director Vladimir Solovyov wrote that, “it didn’t get across to the audience. The witty satirical passages…[were greeted] with stony silence.”

An outdoor performance was canceled, and the Futurists were banned from participating in forthcoming May Day celebrations. Bolsheviks worried that this style would put off the proletariat.

In retrospect, the experience suffered by this show anticipated the subsequent careers of Mayakovsky, Malevich and Meyerhold. Within 12 years of Mystery Bouffe they’d all be dead, and not from old age. Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 was no doubt largely due to mental health issues and his complicated relationship with Lilya Brick. But his constant struggles with the authorities had a huge impact on his inability to live and create.

Malevich’s artwork was banned and confiscated for being abstract and “bourgeois,” and he was imprisoned in 1930 where he developed cancer. He dabbled in figurative art in the early 1930s, but then died in 1935.

Meyerhold suffered the most: his performances were banned, his theater was closed, he was tortured, murdered and rewritten out of history. What began with the locked rehearsal rooms of 1918, ended in the inner chamber of Lubyanka prison in 1940.

Indeed, the optimism of the Revolution gave way to paranoia, censorship and murder in the 1930s. This is mostly attributed to Stalin’s personality and his insistence on promoting the stifling official ideology of Soviet Realism. This certainly played a huge role, but perhaps the truth is more subversive. The immediate reaction to Mystery Bouffe in 1918 was not unlike later arguments against the Avant-garde art in the purges; that it would not be immediately accessible to the common man and was therefore on the side of the bourgeoisie.

As Lunacharsky said of Mystery Bouffe, it was “incomprehensible to the new world.” The history of the play shows that Bolshevism and art had a troubled relationship from the very beginning. Even when they seemed to be toeing the ideological line, these artists were too independent and radical even in the supposedly experimental and revolutionary atmosphere of a hundred years ago.

Oliver Bennett contributes regularly to Russia Beyond. Courtesy of Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a sketch for Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe at the Rustaveli Theatre, 1924, by Irakli Gamrekeli.

Witnesses To Stalin’s Russia

On November 16, 1933, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the USSR, and William C. Bullitt was the first ambassador, serving from 1933 to 1936. In April 1936, in his cable sent to the State Department, he described the new state in a dark and menacing way.

“The standard of living in the Soviet Union is extraordinarily low, lower perhaps than that of any European country, including the Balkans. Nevertheless, the townsfolk of the Soviet Union have today a sense of well-being. They have suffered so horribly since 1914 from war, revolution, civil war, and famine, that to have enough bread to eat, as they have today, seems almost a miracle.”

At the same time, in 1933, Victor G. Reuther, a young automobile engineer, traveled to Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) to work at the Gorky Automobile Plant. Years later, he recalled:

“The morning we arrived the temperature was 35С below. The station was full to bursting and the stench was indescribable. The peasants, many looking as lifeless as the bundles beside them, covered almost every inch of the floor…”

Famine was ravaging the USSR and peasants were traveling in great numbers in order to find work and food. As Ambassador Bullitt noted, “All that is being done to improve the conditions in the cities, to build up industries, communication and the war machine, is being done at the expense of the peasants…”

But even for foreign engineers, the living conditions have been dire. Reuther recalled:

“We were given… a room so small that when our footlockers and bikes were delivered, we had to fasten hooks to the ceiling and hang them over our beds. There was a single-burner electric stove…, central heating, a lavatory with a cold water tap in the hall. The walls were made of sheets of plywood with six to eight inches of straw and manure packed tightly between them… a perfect breeding place for roaches and vermin of every variety.”

The plant was at the forefront of industrial production, so its workers were fed decently compared to most Soviet citizens at that time, and here’s what they ate, according to Reuther:

“We ate in the cooperative cafeteria instead of the special restaurant for foreigners, where a better grade of food was offered at no higher price. We did not want to abet that sort of caste discrimination. Usually, there was a large bowl of schtchi, or cabbage soup, a big piece of moist black bread, and a cup of weak tea… We had no butter for many months; fresh meat was an infrequent luxury, though occasionally there was some dried fish, and fresh fruits were nonexistent.”

George F. Kennan, the author of the anti-Soviet “policy of containment,” served in the U.S. Embassy in 1933-1936. He very precisely described the situation:

“…Both the maintenance of internal political security and the building of heavy industry, has been carried out at a terrible cost in human life and in human hopes and energies. It has necessitated the use of forced labor on a scale unprecedented in modern times under conditions of peace.”

In addition to all of this, the Russian worker had “political oppression hanging like a sword over his head,” as Reuther wrote:

“…Near the end of August, a knock on the door at midnight prefaced the arrest by the secret police of an Italian worker who had been at Gorky long enough to marry and have several children. The next day the rumor was carefully wafted around that he had been in league with the Trotskyites and would be sent to Siberia… There was no trial, no defense… The lynching urge was encouraged in every factory in Russia… Under these circumstances, political talk was taboo in the tool room, and it was only on those rare occasions when we were alone with friends on a walk through the woods or perhaps in a rowboat in the middle of the Oka that we could talk to any Russian worker about his opinion of the Stalin regime…”

Even under these circumstances, there was little chance of widespread discontent and major protests from the peasants and the workers.

“The majority of citizens in the Soviet Union had never known a democracy; neither under Czarism nor Communism did they have the right of dissent, or true freedom of personal expression. Therefore, for most of them, Stalinism was at first no surprise.” – Victor G. Reuther

Still, the power of the regime relied not so much on the nation’s attitude as on the police force.

…The secret police and the army are better fed, housed, and entertained than any other portion of the population. Their loyalty to the Soviet regime is unquestionable.” – William C. Bullitt

“The security of Soviet power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state… Here, caution, circumspection, flexibility and deception are the valuable qualities; and their value finds natural appreciation in the Russian or the oriental mind.” – George F. Kennan.

And so, life in the Soviet 1930s, in the eyes of Bullitt and Kennan, could leave only a grim impression.

“Communists are agents of a foreign power whose aim is not only to destroy the institutions and liberties of our country, but also to kill millions of Americans… We would not cherish for a moment the illusion that it is possible to establish really friendly relations with the Soviet Government… We should never send a spy to the Soviet Union. There is no weapon at once so disarming and effective in relations with the communists as sheer honesty. They know very little about it.” – William C. Bullitt.

“The rulers can no longer dream of parting with… organs of suppression. …We are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with.” – George F. Kennan

Meanwhile, at the end of his business trip, Reuther was more optimistic than Bullitt and Kennan were at the end of theirs:

“By the time we left, young Soviet technicians, though not yet so skilled as the American toolmakers, had taken over the full responsibility of building replacement dies and designing new ones… Almost all the foreign workers were gone… What was perhaps even more gratifying was the sight of hundreds of thousands of peasants… moving into the workers’ flats and enjoying, with their children, the kind of education, food, and health care they had never known before. One can measure a society by how it treats its children and its old people, and in some respects that still primitive Soviet economy seemed to do better than some of the advanced industrialized countries.”

Georgy Manaev writes for Russia Beyond. Courtesy of Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “First Group of Five Move Out,” by Nikolai Getman, a Gulag survivor, painted in the 1980s.

Ivan The Terrible’s Secret Police

The oprichnina, the personal force of Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was responsible for mass executions, the persecution of the monarch’s enemies, and confiscation of property: They enjoyed and abused a phenomenal scope of power. But why did this ancient dark-robed special service emerge?

Uncompromising, ruthless, and eternally loyal to the tsar, they terrorized the entire country and even had the final say over the courts. Severed dog’s heads hung from their steads’ necks and they sported outfits that resembled monk’s dark robes. Everyone feared them, from the poor to the nobility.

Ivan the Terrible, the Grand Prince of Moscow who allegedly killed his own son, is linked to one of the darkest periods in Russia’s history. The feared ruler created a new social class: His personal guard cum secret police – coined the oprichnina. He used this special class of loyalist to punish those he disliked.

When Andrey Kurbsky, a military leader of noble origin and Ivan’s most intimate friend, betrayed him in 1564, the latter made an unprecedented step. He left Moscow while Russia was waging war with Lithuania, and after a quick prayer, the Tsar rallied his family – packed the state treasury and departed the Kremlin without a word.

He traveled 123 km outside Moscow and entombed himself and his loved ones in the Alexandrov Kremlin, a fortress that served as a royal residence. This bold move followed a huge fallout with Russia’s political elite and the brutal leader had reason to fear for both his grip on power and his life – but fleeing Moscow later proved to be a bad move.

Panic ensued in the capital. People were terrified that the country was perched on the precipice, doomed even, without the monarch occupying his seat. Crowds flocked outside Alexandrov Kremlin demanding that Ivan return to Moscow and put an end to the anarchy that was wreaking havoc in the capital.

One month later, Ivan returned to Moscow with an ultimatum: He would continue to reign, but the country would be split into two. One half would be completely owned by the Tsar and his personally picked guard force, the oprichnina, and the other half by boyars and knyaz (the elite), as in the past. All the other classes would continue with their own life, and would only be made privy to the monarch’s internal affairs in extraordinary circumstances.

Members of the oprichnina were picked from the low classes, the main criteria being that they had no links to any of the noble dynasties. Each member, or oprichnik, pledged allegiance to the Tsar and vowed to live according to a special code: Namely, to abstain from eating, drinking, or keeping company with anyone who was not a member of the oprichnina. Should a member breach these rules, both himself and the other person would be executed.

Members of the oprichnina lived in a separate part of the city, in several central districts of Moscow (around Stary Arbat and Nikitskaya Street). Ivan unceremoniously ousted the former tenants to house his loyal guard, with people literally being “thrown out onto the thoroughfare together with their wives and children, and were sometimes forced to trudge to their new places of abode on foot, begging for food along the way.” After taking control of the district, the ruthless ruler ordered the construction of a new palace surrounded by tall walls.

The monarch’s personal guard, which was 1,000-strong, eventually grew to 6,000 men. The ominous symbol of the oprichnina was a severed dog’s head – and broom – tied to their horses. This signified their loyalty to the Tsar and their readiness to tear any “enemy” of Russia to pieces with the ferocity of a dog and “sweep” them out of the country.

he political rationale behind the oprichnina was to prevent dissent in the country and retain control. It was at that time that the term “crime against the sovereign” first emerged as an actual ground for reprisals (legislatively it started being used only in 1649).

The Chronicle of Novgorod reads that members of the oprichnina conducted mass executions, robbed, and looted people. In 1570, the oprichnina accused all the Novgorod nobility of treason against the Tsar. “The accusation was patently absurd and controversial,” historian Vladimir Kobrin believes. Nevertheless, the noble people of Novgorod were executed, as were several hundred residents. They were doused with flammable liquid, set on fire, and thrown into the Moskva River while still alive before being finished off by men in boats.

Ivan the Terrible’s legal code made the death penalty one of the most frequent punishments. Sometimes, however, an oprichnik’s word was enough. After the execution the oprichnik claimed the entire property of the “traitor,” and the most active ones would be generously rewarded. “The sovereign’s will is the law and a mystery,” says the main character of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel, Day of the Oprichnik, which tells the story of the tsar’s favorite personal guard, Malyuta Skuratov.

Little wonder then, that nobody assessed the persuasiveness of evidence submitted in support of executions “in accordance with the sovereign’s will”; some accusations were downright fictitious.

The oprichnina eventually weakened to the extent that they could not defend against external enemies. One year after the devastation of Novgorod in 1571, the Crimean khan attacked Moscow. The oprichnina barely managed to defend the throne so Ivan the Terrible disbanded them and did what he did best: Executed its senior officers.

Yekaterina Sinelschikova writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Oprichniks” by Nikolai Nevrev painted ca. 1870, which depicts the execution of the conspirator I. P. Fedorov, after his mock coronation.

The Soviet Search For Immortality

Given the rumors, Russians often wish all those theories about our super-soldiers and X-Men skeletons were true. Alas, the Soviet Union only went as far as trying to make immortal politicians (not as cool – but still cool, right?)

Not long before the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, a clandestine society emerged in Russia. Its members would conspire to meet in safe houses where they summoned volunteers to take part in blood transfusions. Creepy, right? You may be forgiven for thinking this was a sect or a religious cult, but in fact, the organization was run by a very sane Bolshevik higher-up, Alexander Bogdanov (real name Malinovsky), close Lenin ally, co-founder of the party and noted scientist behind the Socialist Institute.

“The great visionary”, as he was called by followers, was trying to unlock the secret to immortality.

Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ had found great favor with readers in the Russian Empire, including Nicholas II himself. This fascination carried over into Socialist times. The meanings of blood and sacrifice enjoyed mystical fervor in a country that had just lost two million people in a war the likes of which the world had never seen in scale or efficiency of brutality.

“Why couldn’t they just resurrect him?”, wrote many in army circles about the 1924 demise of Vladimir Lenin. The idea that a figure of such colossal stature could die was unfathomable.

Lenin appeared to have been worn down by stress, exhaustion and malnutrition – all leading to a whole bouquet of symptoms afflicting nearly every old-school ruling class Bolshevik barely in his mid-thirties. They haven’t even had time to properly start ‘emancipating the world from capitalist tyranny’. Something had to be done.

It is no secret that Russia at the dawn of the Bolsheviks was a highly experimental country. No stone was left unturned in the search for the perfect Russian – including the famous sex reforms.

Given blood’s mystical allure, some scientists of the time also theorized that the person’s entire personality, soul and immune system were contained in their blood.

Bogdanov was such a scientist. Not only that – he was a polymath and an avid stargazer with a deep fascination for Mars, which he envisioned as a sort of socialist utopian society of blood brothers. These ideas laid the foundations for his novel, ‘The Red Star’, about a scientist who travels to the Red Planet, and finds out that the Communists there had almost attained immortality, all thanks to this culture of blood.

Lenin was disappointed with Bogdanov’s preoccupation with fantasy and sci-fi, leading to a rift between the two, Lenin believing that Bogdanov was making people chase foolish dreams instead of focusing on the work of forging the Revolution. But Bogdanov was too useful at the time, being the second figure in the party – the man directed the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s exile.

Even so, their camaraderie could not have survived their differences: Lenin advocated for dialogue and cooperation, including participation in the Duma – Russia’s legislative body. Bogdanov wanted no part in it, leaning even further left than Lenin himself had.

Together with his friend, Leonid Krasin, Bogdanov set up a military wing under the RSDLP’s  Central Committee. Money from its expropriations would be distributed to the various organizations controlled by Lenin and Bogdanov. The latter was furious that more money seemed to be going to Lenin’s cause.

Bogdanov would soon be expelled from the Workers’ Party. The two were split on their interpretation of Marxism, and Lenin’s works had begun to reflect that, calling out Bogdanov for his “bourgeois” outlook. At that point, even Lenin’s family thought he could’ve taken it down a notch. But the Bolshevik was having none of it – even banning Bogdanov’s novels from being read in the household.

Bogdanov, on the other hand, thought of Lenin’s ideals as those of ‘absolute Marxism’ – “the bloodsucker of the Old World,” turning followers vampire, chief among them Lenin. Bogdanov had lost his party, his job and his credibility while exchanging literary jabs with people he considered his comrades.  

After the devastation of WWI, however, a glimmer of light had appeared: “science can do anything” was to be the mantra of the 1920s-30s.

Mikhail Bulgakov had then just published his brilliant piece of sci-fi satire – ‘A Dog’s Heart’, which talked about transferring a dog’s soul into a human subject, another telltale sign of the times. It became obvious that science was beginning to take inspiration from fiction. With Bogdanov as the main proponent.

Bogdanov cared not for what we know about blood today – from blood groups and the Rh blood system to a whole host of other factors. His science was fraught with danger, with him as the most frequent guinea pig.

The blood would be taken from patients, poured into a sterile container and mixed with an anti-clotting agent, before the transfusions took place. They would have to be fast as well, to prevent bacteria forming.

Bogdanov’s fan base grew as this borderline-mad experimentation began to show signs of progress: Bogdanov himself was said to have begun looking 5-10 years younger, while his wife’s gout also began showing signs of improvement. People couldn’t believe their eyes!

It wouldn’t take long before Stalin himself would be bitten by the science bug, leading him to call upon Bogdanov and his experimentation, even suggesting he join back with the party he was expelled from by his predecessor.

Stalin was certainly no Lenin, and believed he needed every edge if (when) the next World War was going to take place. No money was spared to find a military application for the transfusions.

The Institute for Blood Transfusion was set up in 1926 on the leader’s orders. Bogdanov becomes director. This fascination with the idea of blood brotherhood expressed in his Martian sci-fi novel would finally begin to bear fruit.

Tragically, the mad scientist and sci-fi Bolshevik had not had enough time to properly study the effects of his rejuvenation procedures. We had no idea about erythrocytes or plasma or any checks and practices in place today for a successful transfusion.

Bogdanov was very interested in whether a person’s entire immune defenses were also transferred through blood. It seemed that a young man suffering from tuberculosis was the perfect candidate to test that theory.

A liter of blood was exchanged between the patient and the ‘doctor’.

It didn’t help that Bogdanov had been comparing his own blood to that of Dracula – immune to human afflictions. That twelfth transfusion would become his last. In the space of three hours, both started to suffer a steady deterioration: fever, nausea, vomiting – all signs of a serious poisoning.

However, Bogdanov decided to keep the transfusion under wraps. On that excruciatingly painful day, he’d felt even worse than the poorly Kaldomasov – the tuberculosis sufferer. He refused treatment nonetheless in a vain attempt to understand what had happened.

Bogdanov’s kidneys gave out in 48 hours, resulting in death from a hemolytic reaction. His last words, according to Channel 1’s interview with close descendant and economist Vladimir Klebaner, had been “Do what must be done. We must fight to the end.” He passed on April 7, 1928, aged 54.

But what of the student? The 21-year-old had lived. The doctors couldn’t tell why, even after another last-minute transfusion had failed to save Bogdanov from death. It would later become apparent that this final procedure wasn’t the culprit (both he and Kaldomasov were type O) – but the 11 preceding ones had been, creating antibodies in Bogdanov to the degree that even the correct blood would have been rejected. That’s all we know.

Stalin was very angry. Having pledged tens of thousands of rubles toward Bogdanov’s blood institute, the Soviet leader began now to think that all scientists were charlatans and extortionists.

In the end, however, it was thanks to Bogdanov’s work that Soviet hematology got a much needed push forward.

The photo shows, “Ivan the Terrible and his son,” by Ilya Repin, painted in 1885.

The Mystery Of The Amber Room

The Amber Room is surely one of the most original and – since its disappearance in 1944 in the aftermath of the WWII – mysterious of the world’s works of art. The exquisite room made of several tons of the golden tree resin – the lightest gem in the world – is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.

The Amber Room was a series of large wall panels inlaid with several tons of masterfully carved high-quality amber, long wall mirrors and four Florentine mosaics. The amber, which covered three walls, was arranged in three tiers. The central (middle) tier consisted of eight large, symmetrical vertical panels. Four of them contained pictures made of semiprecious stones like quartz, jasmine, jade and onyx, executed in the 1750s in Florence using the Florentine mosaic technique according to designs by the artist Giuseppe Dzokki, and depicting five senses: Sight, Taste, Sound, Touch and Smell.

The distance between the large panels was occupied by mirrored pilasters. The lower tier of the room was covered in square amber panels. One of the corners contained a small amber table on an elegantly turned leg. The room’s furnishings consisted of inlaid wood commodes of Russian origin, and a vase of Chinese porcelain.

In addition, one of the most valuable collections of amber objects created in the 17th and 18th centuries by German, Polish and Russian masters was housed in the room’s glass-covered display cases.

The history of the Amber Room dates back to the very beginning of the 18th century, when Andreas Schluter, the chief architect of the Prussian royal court, had the idea of using amber, a material never before used for interior decoration, to complete one of the rooms of the Great Royal Palace in Berlin during the reconstruction under Frederick I.

The work started in 1701 and continued until 1713 with the help of the best German, Swedish, and Dutch amber masters, when the old king died, and the new Prussian King – Frederick Wilhelm I – came into power. He was not interested in the beautiful and exquisite Amber Room, the rumors of which had by that time reached Russia.

In 1716, Russian Tsar Peter I visited Berlin, admired the amber masterpiece, and Frederick Wilhelm I asked Peter the Great to accept the unusual room as a diplomatic gift. The Russian Tsar’s return present was no less original: 55 choice grenadiers. After a long shipping time and complex route (Berlin-Koenigsburg-Memel-Riga-St.Petersburg) the Amber Room finally reached its destination. The boxes were unpacked but the Russian masters did not manage to reconstruct the Amber Room, and it was for some time forgotten.

When Empress Elizabeth started reigning in the 1740s, she commissioned her chief architect, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, to use the amber for decoration of one of the rooms of the Winter Palace. The room was too large, and the architect used mirrored pilasters and painted additional panels in “fake amber”. In 1755, the Amber Room was transferred to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoje Selo where the new room was to be constructed.

The room in the Palace was again too large for the Amber Study, and the amber parts were reassembled on the walls alternating with pilasters and mirrors. The places where the amber was missing, were painted in “fake amber” and afterwards replaced with real amber panels. By 1770 the Amber Room was complete. However the amber was damaged by the stove heating and temperature changes, and the room was restored three times: in 1833, 1865, and in the 1890s. The next restoration was to take place in 1941.

In the beginning of WWII it was decided not to evacuate the fragile Amber Room, and instead preserve the treasures on the walls of the Palace disguised by the paper, gauze and cotton. But is it possible to hide several tons of amber under paper? The German troops dismantled the panels and sent them to Koenigsburg, where the Room was displayed in one of the halls of the Koenigsburg Museum. In 1944, as the German Army retired, the Amber Room was dismantled again, and taken into the unknown direction. According to different resources, the Amber Room was (a) destroyed by the Allies’ bombing; (b) buried in a silver mine not far from Berlin; (c) hidden on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Nothing has been found yet, though parts of the mosaics appeared in the 1990s in Germany. Thus, the 50-year-old mystery of Amber Room is still alive.

The estimated value of the vanished Amber Room is more than $100 million.

Courtesy of German Culture.

The photo shows the only surviving color image of the Amber Room. The image dates from 1917 and was made on autochromes by Andrei Andreevich Zeest.

Sergei Yesenin: Tragedy And Poetry

The prominent Silver Age poet was never far from controversy.

“My Russia, wooden Russia! I am your only singer and herald”

Sergei Yesenin was born in the village of Konstantinovo in Ryazan Region on Oct. 3, 1895. From the window of his house, he could see a church and the hilly bank of the Oka River – all of which he would often recall in his poems.

He began writing poems as a child, and when he left school, he headed to conquer the literary world of Moscow, where he published his first poems.

Soon, in search of fame, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he attended literary salons wearing traditional clothing, bast shoes or felt boots, with sheets of his poems wrapped in a rural headscarf.

The stunt – canny self-promotion in an age well before the PR industry – worked brilliantly, and the self-taught village poet with a mop of golden curls became incredibly popular. In 1916, he had the opportunity to perform to the family of Emperor Nicholas II.


“Infamy has come to me, / That I am an abuser and scandalmonger”

Yesenin also earned notoriety as a troublemaker. He was closely involved with the literary scene and often teased other poets. His best-known literary duels were with another famous poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

With his love of rural space, Yesenin did not accept his counterpart’s revolutionary and industrial poems. Mayakovsky, however, urged him not to waste his talent describing nature and dedicate it to Bolshevism instead.

During a public poetry reading Yesenin told Mayakovsky that he would not give “his” Russia to him: “Russia is mine! And you are an American!” To that, Mayakovsky replied sarcastically: “Take it, here you are! Eat it with bread!”

“Many women loved me, and I loved more than one, too”

Love is the second major theme in Yesenin’s work. A handsome ladies’ man, the poet had four children from his numerous affairs. His first common-law wife, Anna, gave birth to a son, Yuri, in 1914, but Yesenin left his family for St. Petersburg and only rarely visited the child.

In 1917, he married the beautiful actress Zinaida Reich, who gave birth to a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. The separated two years later, and Reich soon married the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold, becoming one of Moscow’s most famous actresses.

The poet’s second official wife was the American dancer Isadora Duncan. She was 18 years older than him and neither spoke the other’s language. Their marriage was full of endless scandals and lasted about two years. The poet accompanied Duncan on tour in Europe and America, where he would perform at parallel literary events.

Sofya, Yesenin’s third wife, was Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya. The poet married her a few months before his death, and this was also an unhappy marriage. “Everything here is too filled with the ‘great old man,’ it is choking me,” Yesenin complained while living in Sofya’s home. It is Tolstaya who did a lot to preserve his legacy and left memoirs about him.

“Silly heart, don’t beat …”

Yesenin greeted the 1917 Revolution with enthusiasm and the hope that Russia would be transformed, but he soon saw the hunger, destruction and terror in the country, and began describing apocalyptic scenes: “the garden of skulls” and “rabid glow of corpses.”

In his long poem, “Pugachev” – about the famous rebel and impostor who organized a mass revolt against Catherine II – Yesenin turns to the theme of confrontation between power and the people. The Land of Scoundrels, another long poem, would continue this theme.

In 1924, a year before his death, in the poem. “The Return Home,” he describes a ravaged village with its poor wooden houses and a calendar portrait of Lenin hanging instead of an icon. Seeing Yesenin as an ideological and cultural danger, the authorities harassed the poet, bringing arbitrary court cases against him.

In 1925, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and pressure from the authorities landed Yesenin in a mental hospital. A month later he was found hanging from a pipe in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known in the Soviet Union). The previous day, Yesenin had composed his final poem, “Goodbye, my Darling, Goodbye,” in blood:

Goodbye, my darling, goodbye
My love, you are forver in my heart.
This farewell was preordained
As shall be our reunion.

Goodbye. No handshake or fond word.
Let’s not have sadness furrow the brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
And nothing new in living either.

The official cause of death was suicide, but many alternative versions have been put forward in the last decade. The most common is that the troublesome poet was murdered by the Soviet authorities.

Inna Parfenova writes about literature and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Sergei Yesenin. Provenance and authorship unknown.

Russia’s Greatest General

The cruel and ruthless Russian winter often assisted Russian troops to hold and crush the advancing enemy. However, there were cases when the capricious “General Frost” turned its weapon against its ally.

This important Russian ally has many names: General Frost, General Winter, or General Snow. The harsh Russian winter was a powerful weapon Russia used against its enemies, who were pampered by the mild European winters.

The first time the name “General Frost” appeared was in 1812 in a British satirical cartoon dedicated to Napoleon’s catastrophic Russian campaign. The cheering British wrote: “General Frost shaving little Boney.” Since then the name has become iconic.

Napoleon’s generals wrote in their memoirs that the Russian winter was the main reason why the Grande Armée was defeated. But that’s a face-saving ploy. The French troops were in fact crushed by the Russian soldiers’ fortitude, the widespread partisan war and the clever tactics of the Russian command, which exhausted the enemy.

Nevertheless, “General Frost” did strike a deadly blow against the French. The severe frost took a dreadful toll on the ill-prepared Grande Armée on its way out of Russia. Only a few tens of thousands of soldiers out of 600,000 returned home, and winter played a not inconsiderable role in this.

True, “General Frost” showed itself a century before the name appeared. In 1708, during the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, the army of Charles XII spent the winter in Ukraine. There, it was struck by the coldest winter that Europe had seen in 500 years.

The harsh Scandinavian warriors were no strangers to the cruel cold, but definitely not for this one. Almost half of the Swedish soldiers and horses froze to death. This significantly helped Tsar Peter the Great in the decisive Battle of Poltava, when the Swedes were totally crushed.

“General Frost” was not always on the Russian side. During the Winter War, for instance, the advancing Soviet troops faced one of the cruelest winters of the 20th century. Entire divisions cut off and surrounded by the Finns froze to death in the deep snow. The Soviet Union won the war, but paid a high price with over 126,000 dead (the Finns lost 25,000).

Another case when the Russian winter could hardly be called a Soviet friend happened during the Battle of Moscow. Wehrmacht generals asserted that the severe cold of -30 and even -50C stopped their offensive. The weather data, however, showed that November of 1941 was rather moderate and conducive to an advance. It froze the ground and helped the German armored divisions to maneuver.

“The cold froze the swamps, and the German tanks and motorized units – the main enemy strike force – were freer to roam. We felt this immediately. The enemy command started to use tanks off the roads,” Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky recalled in his memoirs.

Later, when the Soviet armies went on the counteroffensive in December-January, extremely cold weather set in. The attacking Soviet soldiers froze in the fields and sank in the deep snow, while the Germans clung onto their positions in the seized settlements outside Moscow.

On the whole, the Russian winter greatly helped the Soviets in defending the Motherland. The German troops did not have enough warm winter uniforms, and their military equipment often seized up in the biting cold. “General Frost” literally destroyed the surrounded 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad, which was a turning point in the whole war.

General Frost has a powerful ally – General Mud. For the advancing enemy, the Russian autumn was not much better than the Russian winter. Troops were forced to march knee-deep in lakes of mud caused by persistent rains. Bearing in mind the parlous condition of the roads back then, such advances deep into Russian territory turned into real nightmares.

Boris Egerov write on topics of Russian history and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Night Bivouac of Napoleon’s Army During the Retreat from Russia in 1812,” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin, ca. 1896-1897.

Richard Sorge – The Spy Betrayed By Stalin

The Soviet intelligence officer Richard Sorge was worth an entire army. His reports not only saved Moscow during WWII, but also significantly contributed to the victory over Nazism. However, Stalin had a peculiar way of “thanking” him, allowing him to be hanged by the Japanese.

In autumn 1941 the outcome of the whole Soviet-German war was at stake: Hitler’s troops were at the gates of the Soviet capital. However, after some brutal, exhausting clashes, the Soviet army went on the counteroffensive and drove the enemy back.

Victory became possible due to the arrival of fresh Soviet divisions, redeployed to Moscow from Siberia, where they had been awaiting a Japanese attack.

Stalin would never have allowed a weakening of the Soviet forces in the Far East if Soviet reconnaissance officer Richard Sorge had not reported that Japan was not preparing to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, one man saved the capital of the Soviet Union when all seemed lost.

Richard Sorge was born to become an intelligence officer. Smart, attractive and elegant, he was good at making useful acquaintances, which he exploited perfectly in getting vital information.

At the age of 29, young German communist Richard Sorge moved to the Soviet Union, where he soon was recruited by the Soviet intelligence service.

In 1933, Sorge was sent to Japan, where he successfully impersonated a German journalist. His whole future life was tied to this country thereafter, and it was there that he met his end.

His intelligent and amicable manner allowed Richard Sorge to easily befriend people. One of the most important among them was the German ambassador to Japan, Major General Eugen Ott, who had access to all the secrets of Nazi Germany.

Ott completely trusted Sorge, and in fact was the main source of all important information for the Soviet intelligence officer. Ott often shared info and asked Sorge’s advice, since he thought Richard Sorge worked for the German intelligence service, having no idea who Sorge’s real paymasters were…

Richard Sorge’s other major source was Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki. An advisor to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, he was a devoted communist and Sorge’s agent, who had access to the highest ranks of Imperial Japan.

Despite the important and useful information Sorge sent to Moscow, the Soviet leadership was very suspicious of their intelligence officer in Japan. A German, with a passion for women and alcohol, with such friends as Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Sorge was viewed by the Soviets as a double agent.

Still, to gain a spy net in such a closed country as Japan was no easy task, and the Soviet leaders had no choice but to keep Richard Sorge as their main source in the Land of the Rising Sun.

During the series of repressions in the USSR in the late 1930s, known as the Great Purge, Soviet intelligence was literally decapitated, with all its leaders executed, including close colleagues and friends of Sorge. He himself was summoned to Moscow for “talks.”

Afraid for his life, Richard Sorge refused to go, saying he had too much work to do in Japan. This enraged Stalin, who became even more suspicious of “that German.”

These suspicions remained despite the fact that Sorge’s reports significantly helped the Soviet troops to prepare and defeat the Japanese at the Battles of Lake Khasan (1938) and Khalkhin Gol (1939).

Despite being thousands kilometers away from Europe, Richard Sorge had perfect ties with German and Japanese high officials and was sometimes better informed about what was happening there than other Soviet intelligence officers in Europe.

Numerous times Richard Sorge warned his chiefs about German plans to attack the Soviet Union in late June 1941. Yet such reports were ignored.

When Sorge was arrested by the Japanese, he said during the interrogation: “There were days when I sent 3-4 encryptions to Moscow, but, it seems, nobody believed me.”

The attitude towards Sorge completely changed after the launch of Operation Barbarossa confirmed his words. Richard Sorge finally won Stalin’s trust.

On 14 September 1941, Sorge sent perhaps the most important message in his life. “According to my source, the Japanese leadership decided not to begin hostilities against the Soviet Union this year.”

This time Richard Sorge’s words were taken seriously. It is believed that this message finally convinced Stalin to order the redeployment of over a dozen fresh, well-trained divisions from the Far East in defense of Moscow, where they became game-changers.

On December 5, the strengthened Soviet troops went on the counteroffensive and threw the Germans back from the Soviet capital. The Wehrmacht suffered its first serious defeat in the war.

In October 1941, Richard Sorge and his entire group were arrested by the Japanese. At first, the Germans didn’t believe that Richard Sorge, who was proclaimed the best German journalist that year, was a Soviet spy. All their requests to free him were denied.

After Sorge’s work for Soviet intelligence was confirmed, the Japanese twice contacted the Soviets regarding his future fate. Both times the Soviet side answered the same: “We in the Soviet Union know nothing about any such person as Richard Sorge.”

Although it remains unknown as to the precise reason why the Soviets declined to exchange Sorge, it is believed that Stalin could not forgive him for acknowledging his work for the USSR under interrogation, something a Soviet intelligence officer should never do.

When Stalin abandoned his best intelligent officer, Sorge was doomed. As a taunt over the Russians, the Japanese hanged him on November 7, 1944, the 27th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

For 20 years the name of Richard Sorge was forgotten in the Soviet Union. But in the U.S. and Europe, quite the opposite, his activity was well studied. In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev saw the French movie Who Are You, Mr. Sorge? and was shocked by what he saw.

When Khrushchev found out that Richard Sorge was a real person, he ordered the name and fame of the Soviet intelligence officer to be restored. Sorge was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.

 

Boris Egorov is a journalist writing for Russia Beyond.
The photo shows an East German first issue to honor Richard Sorge, from 1976.

Peter Kropotkin – A Curious Life

Peter Kropotkin was the father of Russian anarchism. He dreamed of a world without violence or government power. Today his ideas are just as relevant as they were in the 19th century.

As the father of Russian anarchism, Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) understood society as a voluntary cooperation of free people.

The word “anarchy” immediately calls to mind a black flag, skull and crossbones, drunk sailors and general lawlessness. Kropotkin preached nothing of the sort. He was a serious, learned man. He also hated violence with all his heart.

Like many other 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, he was born into a wealthy noble family and belonged to the elite. His father had more than a 1,000 serfs and three estates.

Kropotkin graduated from the Page Corps, the most privileged military institution in Russia. He was a personal chamber page to Tsar Alexander II. Brilliant professional possibilities lay before him — he could have become a general or minister.

Yet he disregarded all of this and joined the revolution. Having read illegal literature, he put an end to his career. He refused a prestigious post in the guards and set out for Siberia.

During his foray among the people, Kropotkin became convinced that all evil came from the government. In places where the government’s hand did not reach, people lived in poverty, but happily.

They organized themselves into communes and successfully existed without taxes and bureaucrats.

While he was in Switzerland, Kropotkin took note of how the watchmakers’ cooperative was set up. There was no boss above the workers, yet the workers’ cooperative functioned smoothly.

This was a true anarchic commune as Kropotkin understood it, a community of free people who work not by necessity but by their own will. In Switzerland he joined the First International, the same organization that Karl Marx joined.

Kropotkin returned from abroad as a confirmed revolutionary and started to disseminate revolutionary propaganda. He was a skilled conspirator, and for a long time the police could not capture him even though they knew about his activities.

He constantly disguised himself — for example, as a student or a peasant. He also frequently changed clandestine apartments. An elegant young man in glasses would enter a building, and a peasant in a print shirt and dirty boots would exit.

The transfiguration was absolute. But in the end he was, of course, arrested. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul (Petropavlovskaya) Fortress, one of Russia’s most dismal jails. He served out two years and escaped.

This is the only instance of evasion — only a reckless person dared to flee from the Peter and Paul (Petropavlovskaya) Fortress.

Kropotkin went abroad and continued his antigovernment activities. Indeed, anarchy is a rejection of government and the government machine.

He gathered many supporters; they distributed a newspaper with a defiant name, “Rebel,” spread propaganda and even carried out terrorist acts.

Kropotkin had no connection to the terrorist acts, but he was in the limelight and was too offensive a figure. Hence he was expelled from all the European countries.

In France he was even sentenced to five years in jail. However, Victor Hugo and other well-known figures came to his defense and Kropotkin’s sentence was shortened to three years. He served it in full.

No government — neither capitalist nor socialist — likes anarchists. When Kropotkin returned to Russia during the revolution, conflicts arose between him and the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks’ brutality horrified the old anarchist. By nature he was softhearted and kind, and he could in no way recognize the red terror. He understood anarchism first and foremost as cooperation and solidarity. Yet a war of everyone against everyone was raging.

“And I have spent my whole life working on a theory of anarchy for this!” he lamented to Plekhanov, one of the oldest Marxists. Plekhanov said to Kropotkin, “Peter Alexeyevich, I too am in the same situation. Could I have thought that my advocacy for a scientific socialism would lead to such a nightmare?”

Kropotkin met with Lenin and tried to reason with him, asking him to stop the executions. Lenin laughed at him. At the time, no one took Kropotkin seriously.

Even the celebrated anarchist Nestor Makhno worshipped Kropotkin yet considered his ideas out of touch with reality and outmoded.

When Kropotkin died, the Soviet powers honored him as a fighter against the cursed Tsarist regime. They named streets and towns after him.

In central Moscow there is a subway station named Kropotkinskaya. For a while, there was also a Kropotkin museum. However, in the late 1930s it was closed. Kropotkin’s books also stopped being published.

The Soviet government was finding its footing and getting more and more powerful. Ideas of anarchy were entirely foreign.

Yet anarchism has turned out to be a surprisingly hardy trend. As long as a government exists, there will always be people fighting against its oppression.

The famous saying “Anarchy is the mother of order” is less absurd if anarchy is understood as Kropotkin meant it: a splendid utopia, an ideal arrangement of society, where thinking citizens work in one another’s interest and where authority, overseers and supervisors do not exist.

It is a marvelous picture, albeit a completely improbable one. But the great dreamer Kropotkin believed that one day, everything would be that way.

Yan Shenkman is a Russian journalist.
The photo shows a frontispiece portrait of Peter Kropotkin, ca. 1885.

Lenin: The Giant Mushroom

In 1991, just months before the collapse of the USSR, Soviet audiences witnessed a shocking scene on television program, Pyatoe Koleso (The Fifth Wheel). Two serious-looking men – Sergey Sholokhov, the host and his guest, an underground musician and writer introduced as “politician and actor,” Sergey Kurekhin were sitting in a studio discussing the October revolution of 1917.

Suddenly, Kurekhin offered a very interesting hypothesis – that Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, was not a human being but a mushroom.

Kurekhin started with a rambling discourse on the nature of revolutions and his trip to Mexico where, in ancient temples, he had seen frescoes closely resembling the events of 1917. From there, he moved on to the author Carlos Castaneda who described the practices of Central American Indians of using psychotropic drinks prepared from certain types of cacti.

“Apart from cacti, Castaneda describes mushrooms as special products with a hallucinogenic effect,” Kurekhin continued and then quoted Lenin’s letter to leading Marxist Georgi Plekhanov: “Yesterday I ate many mushrooms and felt marvelously well”. Noting that Russia’s fly-agaric mushroom has hallucinogenic effects, Kurekhin assumed that Lenin was consuming these kinds of mushrooms and had some kind of psychedelic, mind-altering experience.

It was not only Lenin who dabbled in such fungi, but other Bolsheviks as well, Kurekhin claimed. “The October revolution was made by people who had been consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms for years,” he said with a poker face. “And Lenin’s personality was replaced with that of a mushroom because fly-agaric identity is far stronger than a human one.” Therefore, he concluded, Lenin became a mushroom himself.

After that sensational statement, the program went on for another 20 minutes, with Kurekhin and Sholokhov citing endless “evidence” of Lenin’s affinity for mushrooms, starting from his passion for collecting fungi and going so far as to compare a photo of an armored vehicle Lenin once posed on to fungal mycelium.

At some point, both couldn’t help but laugh after stating that the Soviet hammer and a sickle symbol was, in fact, combination of a mushroom and a mushroom picker’s knife. But even the laughter didn’t prevent thousands of people from taking the program seriously.

“Had Kurekhin been speaking of anyone else, his words would easily have been dismissed as a joke. But Lenin! How could one joke about Lenin? Especially on Soviet television,” Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak said to explain the gullibility of many Soviet viewers.. He emphasized that viewers didn’t necessarily believe that Lenin was a mushroom – but they treated Kurekhin as a serious researcher, calling the television and writing letters demanding that the station confirm or refute the idea of the Bolshevik leader being a fungus.

Sergei Sholokhov, who made the program together with Kurekhin, later said: “The day after the show aired, a delegation of old Bolsheviks went to our local Communist party boss who was in charge of ideology and demanded an answer – was Lenin a mushroom or not. She answered with a fierce ‘No!’ claiming that ‘a mammal cannot be a plant’.”

Both himself and Kurekhin were quite shocked by such an answer, Sholokhov notes. On the other hand, Sholokhov may have made the story up  – just like he and Kurekhin (who died in 1996) did with the TV show.

It was Kurekhin, a humorous hoaxer who came up with the idea. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the world of Soviet media was changing, and as journalists enjoyed more freedom, some of them were talking nonsense.

As Kurekhin’s widow Anastasia recalled, “Once we saw a TV show on the death of Sergey Yesenin (the Russian poet who committed suicide in 1925). The host built his “proof” that Yesenin had actually been killed on absolutely absurd arguments. They showed photos of the poet’s funeral and said: “Look, this man is looking this way and that man is looking the other way, so it means that Yesenin was killed.” Kurekhin saw it and said to Anastasia: “You know, you can prove anything using such “evidence”. And so he did.

Alexei Yurchak explains that the hoax and people’s reactions to it was a good illustration of how people, no matter where they live, tend to trust the media without checking facts. “If there’s something in the media, there must be something to it,” Yurchak wrote. Kurekhin’s provocation was a hilarious way to prove how easy it is to feed people with the most bizarre nonsense if you sound confident enough.

 

Oleg Yegerov writes for Russia Beyond, through whose courtesy this articles is provided.