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|The New Artists and the Mayakovsky Friends Club, 1986-1990
Text: Hannelore Fobo, 2021
Chapter 1. Soviet Houses of Culture and Clubs
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Before returning to the foundation process of the Mayakovsky Friends Club, it is worthwhile having a look at the significance of clubs in the Soviet system as part of a global approach to create a new man, as formulated in the “Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1961”, Part Two, Chapter V, point E:
The main concept of educating the masses was to demonstrate the superiority of the communist idea – and to convince the masses of it. The anti-elitist idea of clubs offering recreational and educational activities – sport, reading, theatre, art etc. – was part of the concept of adult education. After the October Revolution, clubs were organised on a large scale not only in cities, but in towns and villages, where illiteracy was still a problem. “Reading cottages” (Изба читальня / Izba chital’nia) supplied the rural population with newspapers and books, and some had a radio or showed movies. From time to time, local authorities were instructed how to carry out educational programmes.
The library or reading room became one of the symbols of enlightenment. The Soviet pavilion Konstantin Melnikov designed for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, Paris, 1925, hosted Alexander Rodchenko’s now famous modernist interior design of a workers’ club library. It was recently rebuilt for the exhibition “Rouge. Art et utopie au pays des Soviets” at the Grand Palais, 2019.
Yet from a historical point of view, adult education was not a new concept, and the Soviet approach absorbed older, independent or privately organised institutions.
Such institutions came up in many countries in the course of industrialisation which, in turn, gave birth to the concept of masses and their fundamental needs. An important example are working men’s clubs, which first appeared in England in the nineteenth century as a self-organised social, recreational and educational institution of workers – as a counterpart to the gentlemen’s club.
No less important were educational (welfare) institutions set up by wealthy entrepreneurs or by the nobility – in Russia especially by noblewomen – which often combined charity, children’s schooling and adult education. In Saint Petersburg, for example, Countess Sophia Vladimirovna Panina, a socially engaged woman with liberal views, used her enormous wealth for charity – soup kitchens, classes for poor children, pro bono legal advice for workers and the like – but not only. With a leading theatre company and a highly popular observatory, both located at her Saint Petersburg mansion, she offered people the possibility to excel in art and science.
Countess Panina‘s fate is examplary for how such independent associations and institutions were dissolved after the October Revolution, and, in the case of noble charities, discredited and then forgotten. Her short political career after the February Revolution 1917 was terminated with the outbreak of the October Revolution, when she was arrested. After being released, she fled Russia and died in New York in 1956. Yet her activities left traces in her hometown, since her Petersburg mansion eventually became - and still is – the Railroad Workers’ Palace of Culture. Today, her work is honoured as laying the foundation of present cultural activities.
Besides, the Railroad Workers’ Palace of Culture also played in role in the history of the New Artists, as it was the venue for their last group exhibtion И снится нам / And We Dream Of. The exhibition ran from 29 May to 29 June 1989 and presented both the the New Artists group and Timur Novikov’s Free University.
In the Soviet Union, there were the larger Houses of Culture (Дом культуры) or Palaces of Culture (Дворец культуры) and the smaller Clubs, the term club referring to a group of people engaged in the same circle, but also to the club building itself. As a rule, these institutions were operated by trade unions or industrial trusts and became centres of adult educational and recreational activities. I cannot say to what degree such activities were already provided by pre-revolutionary, private Russian companies and not only by individual patrons. Be that as it may, Soviet ideology successfully propagated the image of the exploiting capitalist, and therefore the concept of Houses of Culture became deeply rooted in the Soviet narrative as a socialist achievement and a symbol of modernity. In Moscow, Konstatin Melnikov’s club buildings from the early Soviet period became architectural landmarks.
The larger Houses and Palaces of Culture were built by city and regional administrations, often for a particular borough, such as the Gorki Palace of Culture from 1927, a well-known example of Constructivism of Saint-Petersburg‘s Moscow-Narva District (today Kirov District), with a theatre hall seating more than two thousand people. The Leningrad City Guide from 1934 dedicates a whole page to this “largest of all Leningrad Houses of Culture and most important trust for political work with the masses and creative work with the public”.
The Gorki Palace of Culture had a letterpress workshop, a library with 35.000 books, two reading rooms, a chess club, an Antireligious University, a Workers’ University with classes in literature, social economy, physics, chemistry and biology; it offered day excursions with meals, excursions by coach to museums, and so on and so forth. In short, according to the Leningrad City Guide, it had 2.400.000 people attending its programme in 1933.
While the Gorki Palace of Culture was the largest of its kind, it wasn’t the only one. It is remarkable that this city guide, which is rather a directory of Leningrad’s public institutions than a guide for tourists, lists twelve Houses of Culture and a selection of thirty-six clubs, but only eighteen cafés– and nine hotels.
Clubs offered activities for all ages, and its range expanded with time. A Leningrad city guide from 1986 mentions 20 theatre houses – probably including the Houses of Culture offering a regular theatre programme – and 236 clubs with a total of over five thousand circles or working groups. The term club remains somewhat unspecific with regard to the level of knowledge or skill one may have acquired as a member of a particular club. Most probably, not all amateur circles were guided by highly professional instructors like those teaching children’s ballet classes at the Gorki Palace of Culture – an institution staging professional theatre performances, shows and concerts to this day.
The socialist idea of enlightenment from “cradle to grave” included Pioneers Palaces for pre-school and older children, as well as circles offered by museums or other educational institutions. These circles weren‘t necessarily politicised, and many adults nourish nostalgic feelings towards their first attempt to construct a model aeroplane or to play the drums. In fact, a number of New artists attended such art circles in their childhood, for example E-E Kozlov at Leningrad’s Pioneers Palace and Timur Novikov at the Hermitage.
Last but not least, clubs, cultural houses and palaces of culture were essential for the development and consolidation of Leningrad's underground culture. For instance, the Lensoviet Palace of Culture was home to the Contemporary Music Club, where Sergey Kuryokhin staged his experimental jazz concerts, developing the concept for what were to become his "Pop Mekhanika" concerts at the Leningrad Rock Club and other concert halls.
Besides, the Leningrad Rock Club, which opened in 1981, was by far the most famous Soviet club in the decade of the 1980s. Like all other clubs, it was not an independent organisation, but a members club affiliated to a host organisation – the LMDST, the Leningrad Inter-Union House of Amateur Culture or Ленинградский межсоюзный Дом самодеятельного творчества, ЛМДСТ, responsable, among other things, for the censorhip of songs (under the not-so-secret supervision of the KGB) more>>.
Regarding visual art and music, the Leningrad Youth Palace played a leading role more>>, especially for TEII exhibitions more>> and Pop Mekhanika concerts more>> But the first official Leningrad exhibition of the New Artists – with a poster and booklet – took place from 22-25 April 1988 at the House of Culture of the LSPO Sverdlova [LSPO = Ленинградское станкостроительное производственное объединение / Leningrad machine tool production association named after Sverdlov] – in short “Sverdlov House of Culture” more>>.
For any Leningrad musician and artist who wished to partake in public life, there was no getting around clubs. In 1986, the initiative to create and operate clubs was partly handed over to private initiatve – for the first time since the 1930s.
 Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1961. With a Special Preface to the American Edition by N. S. Khrushchev. New York: International Publishers 1931, p. 123. Italics as in the original text.
 See: Ivanova S. Театральное дело в СССР в 1928-36 гг. [Teatral’noe delo v SSSR v 1928-36] (Theatre in the USSR from 1928 to 1936), chapter Учреждения культуры в СССР периода 20-30-х годов [Uchrezhdeniia kul’tury v SSSP perioda 20-30-kh] (Cultural Institituions in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s.) Website of Historicus, https://historicus.ru/Teatralnoe_delo_v_SSSR
 More about Rodchenko‘s project on the MOMA website https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1998/rodchenko/texts/workers_club.ht ml
 Путеводитель по Ленинграду, издательство Леноблисполк Ленигнрад, 1934 [Putevoditel‘ po lneingradu, izdatel‘stvo Lenoblispolk Leningrad, 1934.
 Самый большой Д. К. в Ленинграде п крупнейший комбинат массово-политической и худож.-зрелищной работы. Ibid. p. 309.
 Статья «Культурное строительство в Ленинграде» дает читателю общее представление о достижениях культурного строительства в Ленинграде, знакомит с его учебными и научными учреждениями, с широкой сетью клубов, домов культуры и библиотек, с достижениями ленинградских театров. Ibid, p. 4
 Ibid., pp. 310-314)
 Ibid., p. 255
next page: Chapter 2. Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky
Uploaded 17 August 2021