mister deviant

Mister Deviant, Comrade Degenerate: Selected Works by Yevgeniy Fiks
June 15, 2019–July 31, 2019
Voorhees Gallery (Entrance)

Within the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, political, sexual, and artistic nonconformists were conflated and viewed as dangerous internal enemies that terrified the insecure and paranoid governments and societies. The political deviant, the sexual outlaw, and the uncensored artist became the shared “others” for the Cold War-era Soviets and Americans, a problematic political legacy that still resonates today.

This exhibition offers a lesson in history for twenty-first-century societies and confronts the instrumentalization of homophobia, anti-liberalism, and anti-modernism as tools of propaganda and ideology in both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War—providing a learning tool through which we can critically examine contemporary developments in world politics and societies. It explores the Cold War era’s persecution of various nonconformist groups on both sides of the ideological divide, including political dissidents, queers, and avant-garde artists, who remain targets of contemporary witch hunts all over the world.

Ranging from dry factuality to humor and farce, the exhibition begins with a series of prints and photographs titled “Homosexuality is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America,” highlighting the interlocking histories of the “Red” and “Lavender” scares during the McCarthy era in the United States, when anti-Soviet and anti-gay sentiments were fused together in the Cold War witch hunt rhetoric. Pundits and government officials went as far as envisioning a sinister conspiracy: the Soviet Union is promoting homosexuality as a tool to destroy America. At the same time, the federal government purged homosexuals that it employed, calling them “security risks”—vulnerable of being blackmailed by Soviet agents into working for them. Ironically, in the Soviet Union, the ideological enemy of the United States, homosexuality was officially criminalized after 1934—with a prison sentence of up to five years—and stigmatized and tabooed as an anti-Soviet “capitalist degeneracy” that comes from the foreign and “decadent West.”

Born in Moscow in 1972, Fiks moved to New York in 1994. Since then, his multifaceted practice has bridged both worlds, exploring themes of memory, repression, and the legacy of the political Left in Russian society and the United States. Fiks’s engagement across time periods resonates strongly with the Zimmerli’s commitment to contemporary issues in art and its rich collection of Russian art from the Soviet period, as found in the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union.

Organized by Thomas Sokolowski, Director of the Zimmerli Art Museum

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But What Does the Proletariat Have to Do with It?

I’d like to offer you an odd little musical and visual artifact from late Putinism 3.0 to while away a slightly gloomy autumn evening, just as the song and video, below, attempts to conjure away the mounting troubles of the present by returning musically to the allegedly untroubled years immediately after Stalin’s death.

boyarsky

I came upon the song and video through a post sponsored by the Facebook page “Petersburg: Only For Love,” as pictured above.

The Facebook post quotes dialogue from the end of the video, featuring the members of the Petersburg band Proletarian Tango performing Mikhail Matusovsky and Tikhon Khrenikov’s famous 1956 song “Windows of Moscow.”

“Will you go with me to Petersburg?”

“What is there to do in that Petersburg of yours? Drink?”

“Live… Create… Love…”

“Thanks to the band Proletarian Tango for reminding us that the curb capable of dividing Muscovites and Petersburg still hasn’t been laid!” the post concludes. This is a reference to one of few shibboleths that distinguish Moscow Russian from Petersburg Russian—the two cities have different words for “curb” (bordyur and porebrik, respectively).

The still image shows a band member’s hand caressing a poster featuring a photograph of Petersburg singer and actor Mikhail Boyarsky, a vocal supporter of the Putin regime.

WINDOWS OF MOSCOW (1956) 

Music: Tikhon Khrennikov
Lyrics: Mikhail Matusovsky

Up high the sky darkens again,
And windows have lit up in the dusk.
It is here that my friends live,
And with bated breath
I gaze at the windows at night.

I love to dream under the windows.
I love to read them like books.
And, holding on to the precious light,
Exciting me and enticing me,
Like people, they look at me.

As in years gone by, once again I
Am ready to stand beneath your window.
And to the light of its rays
I alway hurry faster,
As on a date with my youth.

I admire you at night.
I wish you, windows, good luck.
It has been dear to me for many years,
And there is nothing brighter than
The unquenchable light of Moscow’s windows.

Source: Viktor Kalugin, ed., Anthology of Russian Song (Moscow: Eksmo, 2005). Translated by the Russian Reader

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This tellingly depressing passage from Wikipedia’s article about the song’s composer, Tikhon Khrennikov, restores everything to the period that Proletarian Tango’s video tries so hard to airbrush out. TRR

By the 1930s, Khrennikov was already treated as a leading official Soviet composer. Typical was his speech during a discussion in February 1936 concerning the Pravda articles “Chaos instead of Music” and “Ballet Falseness”:

The resolution of April 23, 1932, appealed to the consciousness of the Soviet artist. Soviet artists had not withstood scrutiny. After April 23, young people were inspired to study. The problem was, we had to master the skills and techniques of composition. We developed an enthusiasm for modern western composers. The names of Hindemith and Krenek came to be symbols of advanced modern artists. […] After the enthusiasm for western tendencies came an attraction to simplicity, influenced by composing for the theater, where simple, expressive music was required. We grew, our consciousness also grew, as well as the aspiration to be genuine Soviet composers, representatives of our epoch. Compositions by Hindemith satisfied us no more. Soon after that, Prokofiev arrived, declaring Soviet music to be provincial and naming Shostakovich as the most up-to-date composer. Young composers were confused: on the one hand, they wanted to create simpler music that would be easier for the masses to understand; on the other hand, they were confronted with the statements of such musical authorities as Prokofiev. Critics wrote laudatory odes to Shostakovich. […] How did young composers react to Lady Macbeth [of Mtsensk]? This opera contains several large melodic fragments which opened some creative perspectives to us. But the entr’actes and other things aroused complete hostility.”

Together with other official representatives of Soviet culture […] Khrennikov signed the statement welcoming the “sentence of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union passed on traitors against the Motherland, fascist hirelings such as Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and others.”

[…]

In 1948, Joseph Stalin appointed Khrennikov Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, a job he would keep until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the Union of Soviet Composers was disbanded.

The controversial Shostakovich memoir Testimony claims that Khrennikov was so intimidated at a meeting with Stalin that the composer soiled his pants and suffered a nervous breakdown.

For a long time it was held that, thanks to Khrennikov’s efforts, no Soviet composers were arrested or prosecuted.

In an interview with pianist Jascha Nemtsov on November 8, 2004, in Moscow, Khrennikov claimed that composer Mieczysław Weinberg, when arrested, had been discharged immediately because of Khrennikov’s protection; according to Khrennikov, the same had happened to Alexander Veprik. The facts are that Veprik spent four years in a prison camp, and Mieczysław Weinberg, who was released in June 1953, had been saved from prosecution, and probably from execution, only because of Stalin’s death. In recent years, information that had been suppressed since 1948 has been published, and documents and facts now known confirm that there were extensive prosecutions.

In 1949, Khrennikov officially attacked the young composer Alexander Lokshin, using the rhetoric of one of Stalin’s most notorious ideologists, Paul Apostolov. In his speech, Khrennikov contrasted Lokshin’s “modernist” style with Stepan Razin’s Dream by Galina Ustvolskaya, which he considered an ideal example of true national art.

Khrennikov’s speech aroused great indignation in Mikhail Gnessin, who accused him of duplicity. Not daring to criticise Lokshin in the professional milieu, Khrennikov attacked him ideologically from his position as a leading Soviet official. After this ideological campaign, Lokshin was excluded from academic circles.

Khrennikov did not prevent Prokofiev’s first wife, Lina Ivanovna, being charged as a “spy” following her arrest by the NKVD on February 20, 1948. As head of the Composers Union, Khrennikov made no attempt to have the sentence against Lina Prokofieva quashed or even to mitigate her plight in the Gulag. The Composers Union did not help Prokofiev’s sons, who were forcibly evicted from their apartment. After Lina Prokofieva returned from the Gulag, the Composers Union did nothing to improve the extremely bad living conditions of her family. It was the prominent singers Irina Arkhipova and Zurab Sotkilava who protected Prokofiev’s first family. Afterwards, the family was exposed to regular official humiliations. According to Prokofiev’s first son, Sviatoslav, the Composers Union officially refused Lina Prokofieva permission to go to Paris, after she had been personally invited by the French culture minister to the unveiling of a Prokofiev memorial plaque. Instead, Khrennikov took part in that ceremony with his whole family. The Composers Union also refused Lina Prokofieva permission to go to the opening of the Sydney Opera House. At the same time, Sviatoslav Prokofiev noted the typical rationale of the Soviet functionary: sometimes Khrennikov would help if it was not dangerous for his own position and career.

The ideological campaigns of 1948-49 against the so-called formalists in music were directly connected with the offensive against the so-called rootless cosmopolitans, which formed part of the official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, which flourished after the Second World War in various shapes: ideological resolutions, declarations by official writers and critics, and offensive caricatures and vulgar anti-Semitic abuse in the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile). Historians of official anti-Semitism in the USSR name Khrennikov among the most active fighters for the “purity of Russian culture.” In Soviet official policy both before and after Stalin’s death, a clear distinction was drawn between “good Soviet Jews” and “Nazi Zionists.” True to this party line, the leadership of the Soviet Composers Union branded composers as “Zionist aggressors” or “agents of world imperialism,” and made accusations against “ideologically vicious” and “hostile” phenomena in Soviet musical culture. The accusation of Zionism was often used as a weapon against people of different nationalities, faiths, and opinions, such as Nikolai Roslavets. The “struggle against the formalists” was pursued in other countries, too. According to György Ligeti, after Khrennikov’s official visit to Budapest in 1948, The Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók was removed from the repertoire, and paintings by French impressionists and others were removed from display in museums. In 1952, Ligeti was almost forbidden to teach after he had shown the score of the proscribed Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky to his students. Ligeti was saved only because of the personal protection of Zoltán Kodály.

Khrennikov and other functionaries of the Composers Union constantly attacked the heritage of the Russian avant-garde as well as its researchers. For example, the German musicologist Detlef Gojowy (1934–2008) was persecuted because of his promotion in the West of modern Soviet music of the 1920s. Gojowy was proclaimed to be an “anti-Soviet writer.” Until 1989, he was forbidden to visit the Soviet Union, and some of the publications he sent to Soviet colleagues were intercepted by Soviet customs. At the same time, Soviet musicologists engaged in developing the Russian avant-garde tradition were officially prohibited from going abroad. Once again, Nikolai Roslavets was an example.

[…]

In his last years, Khrennikov made extremely negative statements about perestroika, its leaders, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the liquidation of corresponding organizations:

“It was a betrayal by our leaders. I consider Gorbachev and his henchmen, who deliberately organized the persecution of Soviet art, to be traitors to the party and the people […].”

In another interview given to the same newspaper Zavtra […] he described Stalin as a “genius,” an “absolutely normal person,” tolerant of criticism:

“Stalin, in my opinion, knew music better than any of us. […] As in classical Ancient Greece, so too in the Soviet Union music was of the greatest importance to the state. The spiritual influence of the greatest composers and artists in the formation of intelligent and strong-willed people, first of all through radio, was huge.”

Source: Wikipedia. The above article was lightly edited to make it more readable.

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By way of cleansing your palate, I’d like to sign off with a recording by the wonderful Soviet jazz singer and actor Leonid Utyosov performing “Windows of Moscow” with real feeling and dignity.