Slot:       29C-4          Dec. 29, 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.                                                

Panel:     Texts and the Arts: The Broad Scope of the Soviet Cultural Agenda

Chair:     Eric R. Laursen, University of Utah


Title:       Techniques of Survival: Artistic Devices in the Feuilletons of Ilia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov

Author:   Anna Tumarkin, UW-Madison

In Soviet criticism, the feuilleton is traditionally viewed as a critical response to certain negative phenomena taking place in society. In his prescriptive work, How To Write a Feuilleton (Kak napisat′ fel′eton), Mark Vilenskii categorically states that at the core of every feuilleton there must be a fact that creates a strong connection between the feuilleton and the problems of contemporary society. Because of the strong reliance on fact and the need to establish a connection to “here and now,” feuilletons were written to be published primarily in periodicals, which, in turn, required that feuilletons served their timely purpose without attempting to survive as literary works. This often resulted in lack of depth and generalization, forced out by the desire to fulfill the agenda of Communist propaganda. Nevertheless, many feuilletons, especially those by Ilf and Petrov, outlived their newspaper issues and continued to draw interest from readers for many years after the events depicted in them had lost their immediate relevance. 

In this paper I explore those qualities of Ilf and Petrov’s feuilletons that allowed them to survive beyond initial publication. I argue that their longevity can be explained by two factors: Ilf and Petrov’s tendency to select universal themes that transcend immediate concerns of Soviet existence and the writers’ broad use of artistic devices characteristic for narrative prose (i.e., exaggerations and caricature, extensive use of literary archetypes and models, amplifications, mechanization of human personality, its reduction to the most elementary instincts, black humor with ample use of farcical situations, etc). I will analyze the main themes of Ilf and Petrov’s feuilletons and show how the writers’ use of stylistic and narrative devices allows them to expose some of the eternal follies of mankind while ridiculing the futility of certain aspects of Soviet life.



Crooks, Carolyn S. The Soviet Fel′eton: Form and Function. Ph. D. Dissertation. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1985.

Shcheglov, Y. About The Novels “The Twelve Chairs” and “The Golden Calf” by I. Il′f and E. Petrov. Moscow: Panorama, 1995.

Vilenskii, Mark. Kak napisat′ fel′eton. Moscow: Mysl’, 1982.


Title:       The Letter Meets the Dog: Texts and the Suffering of Flesh in Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog

Author:   Anna Dvigubski, Columbia University

In examining Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, I will focus on the ways in which it addresses issues surrounding the Soviet literacy campaign of the 1920’s and the attendant emergence of print as a potent political force. The new Bolshevik trends of mass edification, of altering the orthography, lexicon and grammar of the Russian language are portrayed in Bulgakov’s work through concentrated thematic sequences of texts, reading, print and the printed document. 

For Bulgakov, printed texts aim to subdue and control the elements of culture associated with living language, especially with the spoken word. Thus, he distinguishes between, on the one hand, oral speech, which is associated with the physical body, and, on the other hand, printed texts, which are devoid of flesh and meaning.

I will focus on the experience of the dog Sharik, the protagonist of the story. Bulgakov establishes a strong causal connection between Sharik’s encounters with the Bolshevik printed word (the signs and slogans that have proliferated in the city around him) and his physical suffering (being scalded with hot water, kicked, beaten with whips and electric wires).  For Bulgakov, then, Bolshevik texts have the power to literally wound flesh and to threaten the natural life of the body.

Bulgakov portrays Sharik as a displaced peasant, who can neither process nor accept the new text culture of the city. But the new print is alien and meaningless not only to Sharik, but also to the well-educated Preobrazhenskii. For all their disparity in class, education, and species, these two figures unite to expose the deficit of meaning that is inherent to the artificial linguistic structures of political oppression.

      Bulgakov uses the dog’s perspective to highlight the violation and distortion of language brought about by the Bolshevik régime, with its rabid focus on the printed word.  Thus, for instance, Bulgakov shows the store sign “Glavryba” (an example of the “stump compounds” that came to characterize the new print) to be an especially invidious case of the Bolshevik violation of the word.  In my paper, I will discuss this and other means Bulgakov uses to show Bolshevik print culture to be an affront both to nature and to language.


Bulgakov, M. Iz luchshikh proizvedenii: Grjadushchie perspektivy, Sobach′e serdtse, Belaia Gvardiia, Beg, Velikii kantsler. Moscow: IZOFAKS, 1993.


Title:       Knowledge is Power: Images of the Book in the Soviet Ideological Poster

Author:   Elena Boudovskaia, UCLA

This paper concerns the images of books, libraries, museums, and generally defined knowledge, or information, in Soviet ideological posters (1917 – 1990). The Soviet ideological poster evokes interest both from the point of view of the specificity of its art forms and pictorial language, and from the point of view of the ideology reflected in it. Books, libraries, and other objects pertaining to the area of education, preservation and transmittion of knowledge have a specific place in Soviet poster imagery, reflecting the place of the book in the eyes of official propaganda, as well as the stance of the new Soviet government towards literacy, learning and information. For scholars in the Western tradition, it is not always easy to be aware of these attitudes, because the very words “education,” “enlightenment,” and “knowledge” may mean something totally different in the language of Soviet propaganda. However, the pictorial language of posters may shed some additional light on the concepts of the book, literacy, and information as they were understood in the Soviet period, and it also reveals something different from what is stated in verbal sources.




Baburina, N. 1988. The Soviet Political Poster: 1917-1980. New York : Penguin Books.

Bonnell, V. E. 1997. Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Poster under Lenin and Stalin. Berkeley, CA : University of California Press.

Thom, F. 1989. Newspeak: the Language of Soviet Communism. London; Lexington, Georgia : Claridge.

White, S. 1988. The Bolshevik Poster. New Haven : Yale University Press.


Title:       Unexpected Voices of Radio Moscow: Black American Radio Propagandists in the USSR

Author:   Romy Taylor, University of Arizona

In a war of ideas, one battle strategy involves elevating token indigenous voices to hypervisibility in order to propagate a certain message.  While the embodied carriers of these voices benefit in the short term, over the long term they often meet an early or violent end.  Thus, in the 1930s, two Black Americans were catapulted from the bottom of the United States’ social and labor hierarchy to the top of the Soviet Union’s discursive stratum as broadcasters for Radio Moscow. 

It is clear how authorities benefit from foregrounding token voices.  African-Americanist Hortense Spillers writes, “the position of the speaker in discourse goes far to decide the credibility of her report”: a Soviet broadcaster decrying Jim Crow carries far less authority than a Black American.  The Black American presents an additional advantage as a native speaker of English: the USSR could carry English-language broadcasts to London and its colonies, former colonies and protectorates, from Palestine to India and Australia. 

But the token performer’s power is ephemeral: should an American on Radio Moscow stray, she would find herself as disposable as any other Soviet citizen.  Furthermore, according to performance scholar Yan Haiping, those who cross cultures to perform may earn money and fame, but “lose themselves” in the process.  Drawing on performativity studies of token hypervisibility and charismatic transnationals, I examine the cases of Williana Burroughs and Lloyd Patterson, African-American Radio Moscow broadcasters in the 1930s and 1940s.  Their early demise (both dying before 1945) can be compared to the happier fate of Robert Williams, of “Negroes with Guns” fame who later broadcast “Radio Free Dixie” from Havana.  Williams represents an exception to the pattern described by Yan in that he “found himself” in his transnational performances: after years in exile, he returned to join the faculty of the University of Michigan.