Slums of Leningrad: Observing the Uneasy Outburst of the Genre (1924-1934)

Polina Barskova, University of California, Berkeley

At the end of 1920s, as the NEP faded, several unorthodox Leningrad authors took an interest in a genre I define as the slum text. The typical slum text is set in depths of urban life, which allows it – in the manner of a bathyscaphe – to serve as mediator between the social marginalia and the mainstream of culture and society.

The genre was first planted in Russian soil by Russian physiologists of the 1840s: Nekrasov, Grebenka, Bulgarin. By 1864-67, Krestovskii successfully remade Sue's Mysteres de Paris as Slums of Petersburg. The genre was further developed in two directions. While Dostoevskii "sublimated" it and turned it into the novel of ideas, sensationalist journalists like Bakhtijarov, Svirskii and Mikhnevich stripped it of adventurous plot in favor of shocking depictions of the social ulcers on the body of the imperial city.

I will closely read the most representative Leningrad slum texts of the 1920s: Kaverin's Konets khazy (1925), Polonskaia's V petle (1925), Vaginov's Bambochada (1931) and Garpogoniana (1934), and Chertovo koleso (1926), a film by Fabrika Ekstsentricheskogo Kinoaktera (FEKS).

My analysis aims to contextualize the metamorphoses of the genre they represent: how different are Soviet slum texts from pre-Revolutionary examples? What influences of the historical moment might have provoked the emergence of this genre?

I highlight three crucial issues relating to such texts: the problem of the translation of intellectual and artistic marginality into social marginalization; filthefilia (Bulgarin's term griazefil'stvo) as the kind of writing typical for these texts that allows us to suggest a subversive influence of the Decadent mode on the style of the slum text that is conventionally seen as strictly realistic; and the mechanism of knowledge (to use a foucauldian term) programmed into this genre and how 19th century utopian idea to enlighten the gloomy urban depths was transformed in the pre-totalitarian era.