The Great Russian Melting Pot

The 1936 Soviet film “Circus” follows Marion Dixon, an American woman who flees to the USSR after giving birth to a biracial child. Once in Russia, Marion becomes a popular circus artist and falls in love with a fellow performer, Petrovich Martynov. The film was laced with comical antics and melodramatic, intertwining romances, but the end blatantly revealed underlying political messages concerning race and nationality, and the power of the Soviet government to inspire and mobilize its population.

The climax of the film occurred when, in a fit of jealousy, the nefarious theatrical agent Franz von Kneishitz interrupted Marion and Petrovich’s attempt at a record breaking stunt. Kneishitz had grabbed Marion’s son and held him up before the crowd declaring her a criminal for being the “mistress of a negro.” ((Circus, Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, 1936.)) To his shock, Kneishitz is met with laughter from the crowd who wrestle the child from his grasp and proceed to cradle him until his mother can be found. After an array of people sing to the child, he is returned to Dixon and the manager of the circus proclaimed “in our country we love absolutely all kids, you may have a kid of any color,” establishing the USSR as morally superior to places like the United States. ((Circus, Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, 1936.)) The scene of racial harmony directly related to the question of nationality that plagued Soviet Russia throughout its existence. A message of tolerance towards those of different ethnicities reinforced the Leninist policy of encouraging ethnic groups to maintain their own culture and customs while being actively socialist components of larger Soviet Russia.


Marion with her son and Petrovich

After displaying Soviet supremacy in morality and tolerance, “Circus” displayed the unity and pride of the Soviet citizenry through a closing scene comprised of a pristine march. The parade was headed by Dixon, Martynov, and the circus manager triumphantly holding up Dixon’s son. Flags adorned with portraits of Lenin flew among the immaculate lines of marching Soviets. At the front of one regiment, an orthodox-style icon displaying Stalin’s face was proudly shown, constituting a replacement to the previously dominant Eastern Orthodox faith. The demonstration of Soviet harmony and calculated consistency glorified the ability of the state to mobilize its population, and caused Marion to “see” that the Soviet Union was the paramount nation. ((Circus, Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, 1936.)) When looking at this film in the context of the arguably chaotic Soviet Union of the 1930s, it is intriguing to consider the aims of the film’s creator and how Soviet audiences may have understood the messages presented to them.

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National Identity and Language.

The Soviet Union during its lifetime was made up of a multitude of peoples and cultures. Not only did it consist of Russians but Ukrainians, Georgians, the numerous peoples of the Caucus, the Kazakhs, Chechens and peoples of the Eastern Steppes among others. Among these people were innumerable minorities with differing languages and cultures. A real challenge for the Soviet Union of the 1920s was how to reach these diverse peoples with the message of the revolution. Furthermore, how was the Soviet government supposed to classify the numerous minorities that made up its work force. The consensus it seemed was to look to language to be the classifier of the people.

To the Soviet bureaucracy, the idea of nationality and cultural identity was a very important part of the uniformity of the communism idea. These identities were encouraged to foster in order to break out from under the thumb of Russian chauvinism. Ethnic peoples were encouraged see themselves as as the nationality of their birth instead of being members of the Russian empire.[1] a distinction to make is that these peoples were encouraged to become Soviet States, not whole separate nationality’s.[2] It was the hope of the Soviet government that this ability to develop a different and unique culture, as well as the encouragement to function in the native language would help propel the backwards parts of the Union onto the level of the government operating out of Russia. To reach the population of the minority’s, there would be “national languages” “national cultures” and “national cadres”[3] What this would create, was a feeling of uniformity and national identity as all peoples, no matter the class or ethnicity, would be given similar or the same perspective on communist scholarship.

Especially important was the teaching of said scholarship and ideas in the language of the native peoples. The theory was that if they (the workers) were instructed in words they could understand the highest efficiency would be brought out of them. Unfortunatly this would have side effects that would result in minority’s being forced to learn languages or to be intergrated in cultures based on there ethnicity. These languages would be standardized as official languages. “All languages identified during the 1920s…would become official.”[4] Soon language newspapers and propaganda would help foster a soviet identity that would help spread the communist message around the Union.

[1] Yuri, Slezkine “The Soviet Union as a Communal Apartment,” Slavic Review 53, no. 2 (1994): 423.

[2] Yuri, Slezkine “The Soviet Union as a Communal Apartment,” Slavic Review 53, no. 2 (1994): 423

[3] Yuri, Slezkine “The Soviet Union as a Communal Apartment,” Slavic Review 53, no. 2 (1994): 422

[4] Yuri, Slezkine “The Soviet Union as a Communal Apartment,” Slavic Review 53, no. 2 (1994): 430


Nationalism in a Multiethnic Country

Karl Marx writes on how the revolution of the proletariat will bring down national boundaries, and that class will unite and bring people together in the same way that nations did in the past. With a land mass as extensive as the Soviet Union had, the number of cultures, languages, and traditions are nearly infinite. However, the problem that the Bolsheviks faced was that they needed to unite the peasants in some manner to get them to overthrow the tsarist regime, so they attempted to unite under a common Russian identity. The major ethic groups such as the Tatars, Chuvash, and Caucausian peoples wanted to keep their traditions which had been in place for centuries if not more. ((Slezkine, 421)) Clearly they wanted to stand up against this, but the nationwide reforms the Soviets sought to put into place required some basic language or national unity for efficiency’s sake.

This quickly deteriorated into a very pro-Russian ethnic idea. It was epitomized by a man who was Georgian by birth, Stalin. The people who were not Great Russians were the victims of tsardom, and were backwards, and in order to reverse this backwardness, they needed to be educated by the party in all aspects of life. They would have to, “Develop and strengthen their own Soviet statehood in a form that would correspond to the national physiognomy of these peoples.” ((Slezkine, 423)) The Soviets met all of these cultures at the middleground, they allowed them to preserve their languages in things such as their courts and arts, but bow down to Soviet dominance in other aspects of life.

This is not to say that the Soviet Union made it easy for these cultures to survive, the process for a language to become official was extremely arduous. The failure to go along with Stalin’s policies or the party line would end in harsh punishments for that group.

With the large groups of nationalities, controlling them according to the needs of Stalin and the party was always going to be a harder task, especially when some of them do not feel the need to contribute back to Moscow.

Yuri Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethical Particularism,” Slavic Review, 53, 2, 414-452

A City Upon a Hill


A monument built to commemorate Magnitogorsk’s crucial production of supplies during World War II.

The onset of Stalin’s five-year plan in 1930 spelled disaster for peasants living in the countryside of Soviet Russia. Agricultural collectivization forced many peasants on to mass collective farms where they worked for little to no return, and organized “dekulakization” was decreed by the center in 1931. Dekulakization was meant to oust the kulaks, or well-off peasants, and was carried out through executions or deportations to mass construction sites. ((Stephen Kotkin. “Peopling Magnitostroi.” Chap. 4, In Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization, edited by William G. Rosenberg and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, 63. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 1993, 70.)) These sites popped up around the Soviet Union, one of the largest was a city known as Magnitostroi. Stephen Kotkin details the development of a barren wasteland into a city of 200,000 in his “Peopling Magnitostroi.”

Kotkin introduces Magnitostroi as more than an industrial center; he asserts it was a “political device,” which the Bolsheviks hoped to fill with a socialist proletariat. ((Kotkin, 64.)) The site started as an isolated, bare patch of land in the southern steppe, it had few if any natural resources and no nearby cities. ((Kotkin, 64.)) The soviet center attempted multiple tactics to populate the city; army regiments, political and industrial workers, and graduates of higher education were mobilized to the city on a party member’s whim, but many did not make it. ((Kotkin, 65.)) Recruitment of ordinary soviet citizens through propaganda was also pursued. Deals with heads of factories and collective farms garnered a promise of new labor for the construction site, but far fewer bodies than what was agreed upon were sent. ((Kotkin, 69.)) Chronic labor shortages plagued Magnitostroi and the Central Committee solved this problem by deporting thousands of Kulaks to the work site. ((Kotkin, 70.)) The purported shining symbol of socialism became a dumping ground for the exiled.

Magnitostroi was meant to become an efficient capital of industry in which a proletariat diligently labored for the good of their socialist republic. This image was bastardized by brutal tactics employed to accomplish the soviet center’s goals through any means necessary. Many of the peasants who migrated to Magnitostroi came with village groups known as “artels,” in which one held power and the others remained obedient. Each artel divided wages amongst themselves as they saw fit, a collective concept which should have been looked fondly upon by socialists. Despite the supposed overlap of ideology, Bolshevik leaders took measures to “smash” what was seen as a competitor to their ultimate authority. ((Kotkin, 77.)) The Bolsheviks would compromise their ideals further by adopting the formerly Tsarist internal passport system in 1932. ((Kotkin, 86.))The system was meant to establish order and slow the rapid departure of a majority of Magnitostroi’s work force, but the policing system lacked the necessary manpower and the result was an extensive underground market for counterfeit documents. ((Kotkin, 87.)) Abuses of power and subjugation of Bolshevik ideals were performed under the guise of “defending the revolution” ((Kotkin, 86.)) and Magnitostroi became a shining example of nothing more than oppressive population management by the Bolshevik regime.

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The Psychopolitics of a Metallurgic Mecca: Social and Demographic Transformations

"For the Industrial Plan; for completing a five-year plan in only four; against religion" Yurij Pimenov, 1930 (

“For the Industrial Plan; for completing a five-year plan in only four” Yurij Pimenov, 1930 (source)

The construction of the Magnetostroi, an envisioned beacon of industrial prowess and microcosm of the idealized egalitarian society, was an enormous undertaking by the Soviet government in the 1930s that engendered massive paradigmatic shifts in demographics, economics, and the relationship between central authority and the proletarian masses. The frequently irrational ambition of the Bolshevik government sparked a variety of obstacles that were often met with rather paradoxical schemes in an attempt to rapidly and efficiently allocate human resources. In his essay entitled Peopling Magnitostroi, Stephen Kotkin illustrates how the rise of construction centers in the untamed Siberian steppe encompassed the drive for collectivization, rapid economic development, and proletarianization that so permeated Stalin’s first Five Year plan.

Kotkin begins by discussing the first step undertaken in order to propel this tremendous project upon its course: the idea of mobilization, a key element integral to the mindset of the Bolsheviks in authority. However, due to the high demand for workers and the refusal of many to leave their posts to embark on a fantastical quest to the unforgiving Siberian wilderness, the central authority executed a process laced with sensationalist propaganda often bordering on fanaticism known as recruitment (orgnabor) ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 67.)) in an attempt to incentivize the peasants with raw materials in exchange for labor – essentially setting up the foundations for a pseudo-labor market. As more obstacles vindictively thwarted the site’s path to industrial nirvana, the Soviet government often resorted to more capricious and coercive methods, including the assembly of exiled kulaks and peasants caught in a vicious cycle of subjugation into human resources, rapid and fleeting economic success, greater ambitions at the central authority, and further subjugation. Nonetheless, not all of the peasant migration from the countryside to the cities was violently induced; the otkhodniki, or peasant seasonal workers, often came of their own will. It was the government’s desire, however, to make them permanent and bring a wide variety of foreigners from the outside regions into a single collective working group in the cities, leading to large-scale demographic transfigurations. ((Ibid, 72-73.))

Another pivotal argument posed by Kotkin is the idea of the social transformation, propagated by the government’s garnering of illiterate and inexperienced individuals, blank slates on which socialism could be deeply etched into via training programs at the industrial center, which had been employed to simultaneously play the role of the supreme factory of skilled proletarians and cadres that “grew like mushrooms.” ((Ibid, 76.)) The philosophy of collectivization and crushing counterrevolutionary thought also prevailed in the industry through the government’s vanquishing of peasant artels, a capitalist-esque form of hierarchy and authority. ((Ibid, 77))

An incredulous aspect of the nature of Magnitostroi’s development is the paradoxical policy decisions made by the government in attempts to combat the disorder and reluctance of the workers to perform their jobs during construction. To incentivize, the oxymoronic socialist competition was introduced, ((Ibid, 79)) and to organize, the old Tsarist passport identification system was reintroduced. This serves to illustrate how far the government was willing to go for the sake of industrial progress and efficient collective work, and how exponentially the authority of the government rose at the same time, imbuing the populace with industrial spirit. Despite the fact that the increased systemization brought along with it an onslaught of limitations and obstacles, the government was relatively successful in dictating the blueprints for a modern metallurgic civilization. Overall, the essay was quite the comprehensive dissection of Soviet industrialism and social change during the 1930s, using Magnitostroi as an example. Delving into the idea of Stalinism as the encroaching dominant political philosophy and Stalin’s involvement further than just the Five Year Plan would make for a broader discussion.

The slow grind of collectivization under a tractors tire.

Famine is a dire problem to every state of the world, no matter its size or power. All nations must take pause when they are confronted with the starvation of their people. Soviet Russia in the early 1930s was no different. Josef Stalin saw the problem of producing enough food to feed the massive country as one that the state could solve through collectivization and industrialization of farms. Like the revolutionaries before him Stalin found the way forward would be grounded in scientific knowledge and statistics.

Stalin took issue with the amount of grain that was being collected under the control of peasant farms. Currently the amount of grain being collected was only half as much as previous times.[1] This coupled with the growth of the population and number of workers working in the city’s industrial departments, caused  massive food shortages. Stalin found the fault in the system to be the large farm owning class called the “kulaks.” To Stalin this was unacceptable. These kulaks were simply the first step back into landlord farming.[2] He turned to the scientist thinking of past revolutionaries as the solution. He would move the peasants to state run socialized collective farms where “equipped with machinery, armed with scientific knowledge and capable of producing a maximum of grain for the market” they would be able create enough grain to feed the population.”[3] Stalin’s focus on heavy industry and industrialization is emphasized on the importance of the tractor in his new agricultural system.

The tractor would become another tool that the collectivization of peasants would be given to increase production on there farms. The plans for the spread of tractors were massive, with a goal that a net of tractors would encompass an area of fields over one million hectares.[4] Tractors are a much more effective means of plowing and doing field work than livestock and Stalin’s insistence that such heavy machinery must be used to its full potential would soften some of the blow the food supply would take from the forced collectivization. However, his distain for the kulaks and refusal to believe that bad supplies of grain would drive him to stop supporting many of the farms that produced vital food. His focus on industrialization brought industry to the agricultural department, but still did not find enough improvement to feed all his people. By the end of the famine over 5 million of the population had starved to death.[5]

[1] I. V. Stalin, Problems of Leninism (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishers, 1934), pp. 248-249, 251-59.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. Meisel and E. S. Kozera, eds., Materials for the Study of the Soviet System (Ann Arbor: G. Wahr Pub. Co., 1953), pp. 183-185.

[5] I. V. Stalin, Problems of Leninism (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishers, 1934), pp. 248-249, 251-59.

Purging for the Good of the State

Stalin had a clear agenda for what he wanted to get done in the Soviet economy. The base of the society rests on if they can get food, so naturally agriculture is very important to the success of an economy. Due to the poor results he was getting from the agricultural sector, he sought to find new ways to inspire production from the Soviet people.

Interestingly, the dominant force within Soviet argriculture were the kulaks, the peasants who controlled the majority of production or were doing well for themselves. While the term represented a large spectrum of wealth, they were an oddball in a socialist country. Stalin saw these people to be enemies of the state and began to discredit them through party agitators and eventually began to purge them. (( )) Stalin realized that these kulaks did hold a tremendous amount of power on a local level, which matters more to the everyday lives of the Soviet citizen. In his essay regarding the grain crisis, he reiterates that those who seek to return to kulak farming are similar to that of the great serf estates of the tsarist regime. (( )) He also mentions that the kulak is the antithesis of communism, and for that reason alone, it should not be allowed. Stalin mentions how the kulaks have lost a large amount of power in the years leading up to his writing, and now they can finally bring the power of the kulaks into the realm of the state so that it can produce for everyone. (( ))

A year after his essay on the liquidation of the kulaks, Stalin writes in the party newspaper, Pravda, that the successes of liquidating an entire class of people has been phenomenal for the state as a whole. The success was “dizzying” and this sets a very dangerous precedent for the rest of Stalin’s reign. He is justifying the murder of his own people for the good of the state and the party. He sees success in the rural community through his destruction of the kulaks, writing, “It shows that the radical turn of the rural districts towards Socialism may already be regarded as guaranteed.” (( )) By defending murder for the good of the state, Stalin is tightening his grip on the Soviet Union more and more.

The rural parts of the Soviet Union were always going to be the hardest to adjust to socialism, and Stalin believed that drastic steps were needed to impose it upon them. By removing their local “lords” and replacing them with the state, Stalin is taking the steps towards having socialism entirely in one country.


Progress Rooted in Past Art

"Peasants Dancing" Goncharova (1911)

“Peasants Dancing” Goncharova (1911)

The end of the nineteenth century ushered in new movements in Russian poetry, art, dance, and music, which continued to grow throughout the early twentieth century. The movement sought to unify all forms of art and promoted collaboration amongst artists. Companies such as the Ballets Russes merged artists of all disciplines, from painters to musicians, in their shows. As this new wave of Russian art progressed, the past was often rejected in favor of a belief in progress through the unification of the Russian people. Though the past was often rejected, once the Russian Socialist Revolution occurred, Bolshevik politicians such as Lenin and Lunacharskii failed to recognize the value of the past in the proletariat movement.

In The Proletariat and Art, Alexander Bogdanov stated the important role of art in the organization and unification of a strong proletariat. (( However, he argued that the proletariat should critique past art rather than reject it in its entirety. Instead, traditional Russian art provided an opportunity for the working class to find new interpretations of the artworks in order to learn from it through a proletarian lens. According to Bogdanov, if the proletariat could find new meaning in these pieces of art to advance their own agenda of unity and collectivization, then past artwork would work as a tool to strengthen the proletariat. Further, critiquing traditional artwork would allow the proletariat to understand the past and ensure that it would not repeat itself.

In contrast to Bogdanov’s work, Lenin and Lunacharskii completely rejected artworks and effigies of the Tsarist regime in The Monuments Policy. (( The document maintains that the removal of monuments built under the Tsarist regime was necessary because they were of no artistic value. The statement that these monuments had no artistic value ignored Boganov’s idea that they had a potential purpose in the overall progress of the proletariat.

Elements of the past were often present in Russian art, such is in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and in Goncharova’s Primitivist paintings. (( ; These artists believed in the progress of a unified Russian society, but they used symbols of the past in their works to demonstrate its role in inciting this progress. Though the music of “Rite of Spring” employs modern techniques, it is juxtaposed with traditional tribal dancing and costumes in the ballet. Further, Goncharova’s Primitivism was a modern art technique, but it focused on artistic styles and methods of the past. Lenin and the Bolsheviks failed to recognize the importance of the past in art and in a successful proletariat society as a whole.

Russia and Ukrainian (In)Dependence

It is clear that the revolutions that occurred in Russia in 1917 did not only affect Russia, but also its neighboring nation, Ukraine. The Revolutions may have even inspired the people to host their own rebellions. On June 10, 1917 the First Declaration of the Rada took place. In this Declaration, the congress explained their responsibilities to protect the rights and freedoms of the Ukrainian land and its wish to have a free Ukraine without separating from all of Russia. However, the declaration then explains how the Russian Provisional Government ignored demands by Rada delegates and did not wish to work with the Rada to build a new regime. With that, the Rada declared that they would work to reach autonomy in the Ukraine. On December 12, 1917, just about six months after the First Declaration of the Rada, was the Self-determination of the Ukraine. This all-Ukraine Congress of Soviets, like in the Declaration of the Rada, declared goals for bettering Ukrainian life. However, in the Self-determination, the congress rejected the Rada and claimed them to have a counter- revolutionary nature. The Self- determination focused on workers and peasants, the lower classes, and their rights and freedoms. Also, this congress chose to recognize Ukraine as a federal part of the Russian Republic and was far more focused on protecting worker’s rights than on Ukrainian independence.

Both congresses expressed a want for freedom from Russia but also seemed to have some anxiety about complete independence. The First Declaration only declared a want for autonomy after explaining how its original request to work with the Russian Provisional Government was rejected. The Self-determination of the Ukraine did not outwardly state a want for independence from Russia but did express Ukrainian pride and independence by stating the congress’s job to fight for the self-determination of the Ukraine in the interests of the workers and peasants. However, the Self-determination does outwardly recognize the Ukrainian Republic as a federal part of the Russian Republic and did not express a desire to change that. The declarations differed in that the Self-determination of the Ukraine was concerned mostly with workers and peasants and their rights and overall quality of life whereas the Central Rada expressed more general goals of independence from Russia. It seemed even that if the Central Rada was more concerned with the lives of workers and peasants and less so with independence form Russia, that the Congress of Soviets would not have rejected them in their Self-determination of the Ukraine.

Both congresses were simply looking for a better quality of life; the Central Rada believed that this could only happen after independence from Russia and the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets seemed to believe unity with Russia would bring the best benefits, at least for the lower classes. Possibly the revolutions in Russia at the time confused the Ukrainians on where Ukraine stood in relation to Russia and what would be more beneficial to the people of the country, autonomy or unity.

Promises and Principles: The New Provisional Government


With the famed abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on the fateful day of March 15, 1917, Russia experienced a drastic paradigm shift in the manner of political atmosphere and public perception of the socioeconomic status quo that had previously prevailed for centuries. The Tsar relinquishes his omnipotence as the autocratic ruler of the state with a charismatic speech venerating “the destinies of Russia, the honour of her heroic Army, the happiness of the people, and the whole future of our beloved country” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)). His declaration is a notion of nationalism; an appeal to the people to lead the country onto a noble path of wealth and power so that it may become transfigured into a prosperous utopia freed from the “obstinate war” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)) that had so dreadfully plagued the nation. The culmination of the speech is veiled with a sense of desperation and subservience to fate, as it ends with a single note of hope encompassed within the phrase: “May God help Russia” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)).

The cataclysmic prostration of the autocracy before its own people is further exemplified by the refusal of the Tsar’s heir, Grand Duke Mikhail, to take over the throne. He states that he is “firmly resolved to accept the Supreme Power only if this should be the desire of our great people” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)) and acknowledges the pressing need for implementing political change and widespread popular suffrage. This thus allowed for the bold entry of the First Provisional Government, also known as the Temporary Committee of the State Duma. The first provisional government set the stage for what would be known in the future as democratization and an attempt to establish popular sovereignty. The doctrines that it placed forth and advocated were interwoven with liberalism and bordered upon the early principles of communism, and included the desire to “abolish all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality” as well as “an immediate and complete amnesty in all cases of a political and religious nature” ((Izvestiia, The First Provisional Government, 1917)). This legislation envisioned a blissful yet unrealistic system that consisted of sharp implementation of the fundamental rights to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, while simultaneously embodying peace. The framework of ideologies that the Duma mapped out was much to feeble to counter the strain of the political perturbation the nation underwent in such a short period of time. The Duma eventually failed in its quest to craft an immense revolution and to enforce each and every one of its progressive reforms, yet also allowed for an eruption of a new form of government that would be capable of embodying the true radical spirit of change: the Bolsheviks of 1917.