Exactly halfway through Moscow, The Fourth Rome, we read that "1935 might be described as the high point of Soviet internationalism". This assertion flies in the face of conventional historiography, which has good reason to see Stalin's "Great Break" with the cultural politics of the 1920s as the end of internationalism in the Soviet Union. Indeed, 1935 might be described as the midpoint of a decade in which an increasingly Russocentric, nationalistic, xenophobic Stalinist civilisation replaced the revolutionary dreams of proletarian internationalism of the first post-revolutionary years. Here, Katerina Clark refocuses our attention on the streets, books, buildings, festivals and fantasies that Moscow's citizens actually inhabited during this most strident decade of Soviet nationalism and parochialism, one in which most Soviet citizens lost the right to travel abroad, but in recompense gained the "knowledge" that there were native Russian forerunners of everything worthwhile. In nine enormously erudite chapters, Clark builds the compelling case for her thesis that this decade of insular Stalinism and the Great Terror was also a highpoint of Soviet cosmopolitanism.
In the early 16th century, the monk Filofei proclaimed Moscow the "third Rome" in a line of centres of religious and political hegemony, following Rome itself and then Constantinople. In the 1930s, Moscow aimed to reclaim that status, as a fourth Rome that was both a world political power and a transnational cultural capital of post-Christian secular enlightenment. Clark resets the context of our understanding of many of the writings of Gyorgy Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin and Mikhail Bakhtin when she highlights their fundamental (and often subterranean) role in the polemics over language and power that helped to shape an emerging "national" identity for Soviet citizens. The designated protagonists of her story, however, are Sergei Eisenstein, Ilya Ehrenburg, the journalist and publisher Mikhail Koltsov and the journalist-photographer Sergei Tretiakov. All four were highly placed cultural figures and genuine agents of Soviet "soft" power, and all had deep personal and intellectual connections to the West. Clark's great contribution is to show that the conflicting impulses towards insular nationalism and cosmopolitanism coexisted and shaped each other in unexpected ways.
In some places, the precision and originality of Clark's argument is nothing short of revelatory. A reading of the transcripts of the show trials in 1937-38, with their staged melodrama of "unmasking the truth", is cast in a pas de deux with a reading of Konstantin Stanislavsky's writings on his theory of acting - a "Method" of emotional unveiling that was canonised as the foundation of "socialist realist" theatre in the same year (1938). A brilliant analysis of the pan-European subtext in the visual imagery of Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein's cinematic vindication of Ivan IV's (read: Stalin's) role as a unifier of the country, provides an astonishing challenge to the cliché that medieval Russia simply remained dark during the Western European Renaissance. Clark reads Veniamin Kaverin's The Two Captains (1938-44), a classic tale of Arctic conquest, as an example of the "Imperial Sublime", a kind of nationalist romance with deeply cosmopolitan roots. In short, she is able to show that throughout the 1930s, writing and publishing for the masses ensured that "'Boy' was not just meeting 'tractor,' he was also encountering Western culture".
The main point of Moscow, the Fourth Rome may be larger than its relevance to Soviet history. It reminds us that the dominant characteristics of our own cultural moment - which we eagerly acknowledge as transnational, global and ineluctably cosmopolitan - could also potentially coexist with powerful countervailing programmes of isolationism and chauvinism. It demonstrates the crucial importance of comparative literary and cultural studies in the 21st century.
Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941
By Katerina Clark. Harvard University Press. 432pp, £25.95. ISBN 9780674057876. Published 26 November 2011