In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the avant-garde sensibilities of Russian art were infused with a kind of utopianism, manifested in a dizzying array of aesthetic approaches that cut across fiction, poetry, art, architecture, photography, graphic design, theater, and film. Much of this explosive and experimental wave in the 1920s was designed explicitly to counter bourgeois ideas about art and culture.
One early manifestation of this mood was Proletkul’t (or Proletarian culture / Proletarskii kul’tur), a movement organized in September 1918 by Aleksandr Bogdanov, a comrade-in-arms to Lenin and author of the trend-setting cosmic fiction novel Red Star (Krasnaia zvezda, 1908) about a socialist revolution on Mars, the red planet, get it?. Proletkul’t’s goal was to foster and develop culture among the proletariat in order to allow it to participate in the proper organization of society. To a large degree, Proletkul’t’s mandate derived from Bogdanov’s belief that a cultural revolution among the proletariat had to precede a political one. Proletkul’t disseminated Bogdanov’s notion that not only was there such a thing as proletarian culture, but also proletarian science, which unlike bourgeois science recognized that science was socially determined. (Modern philosophers of science, of course, now basically agree that science is socially determined and not structured around objective notions of “reality”).
By 1919, Proletkul’t had about half-a-million recruits who were actively fostering working class culture and art, helped by as many as 34 publications, 300 local organizations, and even a university. As work by Lynn Mally and others have shown, Proletkul’t had a significant degree of autonomy from Bol’shevik orthodoxy and was a genuine contribution to avant-garde art. This forward thinking ethos came, I like to think, because Proletkul’t members took the most forward thinking ideas from bourgeois art, ejected all the elitist stuff, and added a dollop of millenarianism.
Although Proletkul’t basically died off in the early 1920s by the time Lenin died, it cast a long shadow over Soviet art. You had futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky taking on many of its themes, the rise of proletarian theater, a fascination with modern technology, and often even bits of iconoclasm. The most famous example of this outpouring were probably Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s movies of the 1920s, including Battleship Potemkin (1926), one of the one most critically revered movies of all time.
A curious postscript about Bogdanov: He became rather obsessed with various “sciences” such as tectology and the science of blood transfusion. He came to believe that blood transfusion between people could be the model of a collective society (as a path to eternal youth). Alas, he died in 1928 after he injected himself with the blood of a student who had tuberculosis to test out his theory. Nikolai Krementsov in a recent biography of Bogdanov connects Bogdanov’s early work on science fiction, his Bol’shevik political work, his campaign for Proletkul’t, and his blood transfusion research as reflective of a single unified ideology about collective notions of existence.