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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 15, issue 2 (June 2017) : 341-368
In a Muddy Land, Wearing a Historical Costume
Posttraumatic Humanism in Post-Stalinist Soviet Culture
Ilya Kukulin
Rubric A: Episodes in the History of Ideas
Rubric B: Russian Literature


This paper discusses the reinvention of the humanist ideas and values in the Soviet post-World War II and post-Stalinist culture (the 1950s and the1960s) with the help of Renaissance plots and images in Soviet semi-official art, the main examples being Pavel Antokolsky’s poem Hieronymus Bosch (1957), the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Hard to Be a God (1963), and Grigory Kozintsev’s films based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970), as well as David Samoilov’s poem Bertold Schwarz: A Monologue, set in the late Middle Ages. The paper isolates an aesthetic movement that developed in the Soviet culture of those decades; I propose to call this movement “posttraumatic humanism.” It was based on the new aesthetic idiom of “gloomy Renaissance,” including images of conflagration, ruins, violence. The works of this movement did not use the Aesopian language — or, at least, did not use it as a primary or only tool. Rather, it involves a covert comparison of the Soviet present with the European pre-Enlightenment past and aesthetical valorization and sublimation of 20th-century catastrophic experience. Images of “gloomy Renaissance” conveyed the erosion the Soviet belief in progress and moral modernization as inevitable consequences of Bolsheviks’ revolution. One of the earliest mature works of posttraumatic humanism in Soviet culture was Vasily Grossman’s essay The Sistine Madonna (1955). Alexei German Sr.’s film Hard to Be a God (2013) can be regarded as the concluding and summarizing work in this movement.

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