The Russian Revolution that launched the world’s first self-proclaimed communist state - the Soviet Union - was billed as a great leap out of the benighted past into a radiant future. The second revolutionary turning point in Russia’s terrible and fascinating 20th-century history came just over a decade later, when Stalin took the reins and announced another “Great Break” with the past. This time, according to Stalin’s mandate, citizens would meet impossibly high quotas in almost every area of vital production - agriculture, heavy industry, hydroelectric engineering, coal mining and steel milling - by sheer force of will and, as it turned out, by magical disappearance acts (paid workers ended up as unpaid labourers in the Gulag), sleights of hand (on paper, impossible numbers confirmed a phantom reality of plans fulfilled) and by countless acts of genuinely heroic endurance.
There’s nothing like a circus to give spectators a “great leap” they can count on and a “Great Break” they can see, even as it violates ordinary standards of what is humanly possible. The first chapter of Miriam Neirick’s history of the Soviet circus shows us how the clown Vitaly Lazarenko would recite his opening verses, “Finding our road to freedom/to happiness we are taking a leap/across the tsarist throne”, and then literally perform a series of spectacular leaps across the ring, clearing every obstacle. By the second chapter, we have moved from the role of the circus in the jazzy and still flexible Soviet economy of the 1920s to its place in Stalin’s new order in the 1930s. Here again, Neirick allows us to see the antics of the circus performers in the context of prevalent ideology. Circus performers “juggle six plates while spinning a hoop on one foot. They stand perfectly still on a slack wire. They fold their bodies in half, and in half again. They change their clothes in the blink of an eye. They disappear and reappear. They dance with bears.” These acts appear to us as both literally true - the audience reportedly roared with laughter and gasped with awe - and symbolically true of what the state wanted its audience to believe: heroic efforts will produce the impossible.
However, Neirick’s book is never so naive as to posit a straight line between the message that Soviet policymakers wanted to send and the one circus audiences actually derived from this most beloved form of mass entertainment. Instead, she argues convincingly, the Soviet circus was such a popular and important cultural phenomenon precisely because it could perform the ultimate high-wire trick of reliably delivering the state’s current line of propaganda while simultaneously offering audiences exactly what they wanted to see - even if they were diametrically opposed. When one clown portrays the embattled little man who causes the entrenched Soviet bureaucrat (another clown) to shoot himself, do people laugh with delight because the little man has won - fulfilling a fantasy of things going right - or do they relish the satire and the tacit acknowledgement that their suffering at the hands of bureaucrats is never-ending? Even the state could laugh approvingly: in the post-war years, it wanted to publicise its campaign against petty corruption, and the clowns could send the message without impugning the whole system.
Neirick’s book is admirably researched, very well written and able to make its case with great clarity. Best of all, it provides a succinct refresher course on the history of Soviet society, in which, yes, pigs could fly, bears could dance and polyvalent meanings were worth applauding.
When Pigs Could Fly and Bears Could Dance: A History of the Soviet Circus
By Miriam Neirick. University of Wisconsin Press. 232pp, £25.50. ISBN 9780299287641 and 87634 (e-book). Published 21 September 2012