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Nationalism in a Box:
The Production of Russian and Socialist Identity, 1814-1991

Andrew Jenks
Stanford University
May 2001

In 1930, a former painter of religious icons from Central Russia denied, as many had claimed, that his craft had no place in Soviet revolutionary culture. "There is no machine," he said, "that could replace my labor." Hailing from the celebrated hamlet of Palekh (population 2,000), the former icon painter and his colleagues overcame fierce opposition to become honored Soviet practitioners of "ancient Russian art."

Curiously, Palekh's art celebrated rural folk life, manual craft labor, and Russian Orthodox culture at precisely the moment of Stalin's first five-year plan (1928-1932). The plan had unleashed a frenetic program of industrialization, forced collectivization of agriculture, the persecution of real and imagined political enemies, and militant attacks on all traditions. These policies sacrificed millions of peasants on the altar of an urban-based socialist utopia, consigning all vestiges of "backwardness," including religious and peasant traditions, to Trotsky's infamous "trash bin of history."

Using the hamlet of Palekh, this dissertation explores critical links between Russian national identity and "medieval" ideals of craftsmanship, rural life, and Russian religious traditions. I challenge the common identification of Soviet ideology with a virulently technocratic, anti-peasant system of values. The dissertation also provides the first study of the long-term processes and people who created modern Russia's national symbols and myths. Because Palekh, by the mid-19th century, was both a central symbol of Russian national identity and a producer of such symbols, the town presents an ideal vehicle for tracking the development of Russian national imagery across the 1917 revolutionary divide.

In the nineteenth century, the state implemented a number of measures to protect Palekh's craft of religious icon painting from the supposed evils of market forces and alien catholic imagery. They saw in Palekh an essential resource for constructing Russian national identity. State attention to Palekh (360 kilometers northeast of Moscow) continued after the Russian Revolution, as the Palekh painters switched from religious to secular art, and from traditional icons and wall murals to a variety of new media (miniature lacquer boxes, pottery, theater-set design, film animation, and book illustration).

While the Soviet state extended patronage to Palekh, the peasant painters there eagerly cultivated their reputation as a "missing" link to the ancient Russian past. They used tempera and gold leaf in their craft and consciously retained the style of Byzantine and Russian medieval religious art. Nor was the medium mass-produced or automated: it was the quintessential peasant industry condemned elsewhere in Soviet propaganda as "pre-modern" and "cottage."

Tensions between Palekh's art and the supposed demands of a Soviet Russian modernity bewildered many committed communists. Yet many Soviet ideologists saw Palekh as the distinguishing element in socialist Russian culture, an element supposedly destroyed by markets, unbridled mechanization, and the crass utilitarianism of the bourgeois West. Palekh, far from entering the trash bin of history, had become a critical component of socialist Russian identity, just as it had occupied a central place in Russian culture before 1917.

Contrary to prevailing scholarship, Palekh's survival in the Soviet period suggests the profound influence of romantic ideals on the Bolshevik Revolution. Most research identifies the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution within the rationalizing traditions of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. According to this point of view, Soviets treated machines, urban lifestyles, and automated production as the sole paths to liberating humanity. The truth is more complex. The will to romanticize was as great a Bolshevik tendency as the urge to rationalize, producing, alongside the enlightenment tendencies, a complex and contradictory synthesis. While the enlightenment Bolshevik treated the countryside as the Marxist equivalent of Babylon (a source of ignorance and backwardness to be overcome), the Bolshevik romantic saw unspoiled nature and folk traditions. If the enlightenment Bolshevik preached the virtues of mechanization, the Bolshevik romantic extolled pre-modern craftsmanship. Where the enlightenment Bolshevik looked to the future, the Bolshevik romantic gazed backward, to an idealized pre-capitalist formation. Palekh became a rallying point for Bolshevik romantics, a weapon for countering industrial fetishism and stereotypes of Soviets as technocratic planners and soulless party functionaries.

My methodology focuses in part on analyzing debates from meetings, conference proceedings, and published articles devoted to the art and artists of Palekh. These materials provide a kind of mirror image of Russian self-understandings, a mirror that reflected not just Palekh's art, but perceptions of Russia's place in a modern, industrializing world. I track these and other debates from the intelligentsia's discovery of Palekh in the mid-nineteenth century through the end of the Soviet period, elaborating the various visions of “Russianness” conveyed through the "mirror" of Palekh.

If Palekh generated heated debate, it did not, however, produce any kind of consensus on crucial issues: Who is a Russian? What are Russia's chronological and geographical boundaries? Who are Russia's national heroes and villains? The Palekhians, often at great risk, would have to answer these questions with their artwork, which they submitted for judgment to both mass consumers and party ideologists.

Ultimately, as seen through the prism of Palekh, Russian national identity emerged from a complex and chaotic nexus of markets, artistic traditions, and political motives. Simultaneously market-oriented and plan-driven, Soviet Palekh's right hand obeyed the laws of supply and demand, providing painted lacquer boxes and other decorative items for bourgeois art collectors, tourists, and Soviet citizens. But its left hand answered the call of the party command structure, which despite its pretensions of universal wisdom, was often maddeningly vague on one crucial point: the actual content of the new Soviet Russian culture the Palekhians were supposed to represent. The artists themselves, rather than state planners or Moscow intellectuals, would have to fill in these devilish details.