As we approach the anniversary of the 1917 revolution and the foundation of the Soviet Union, the rewriting of history pertaining to these interesting times continues unabated. The “Cold War” is not over and it won’t be—until the very last memory of an alternative to the society of capital is deemed eradicated. But every now and then, the light of an idea returns to bring discomfort to the existing consensus. One of these is the spectre of VKhuTEMAS.
I began my studies of Architecture in 1965 and have practiced as such all my life, I had heard of, studied and admired the Bauhaus movement in Weimar and Dessau and the part it played in the development of modern art and architecture at the beginning of the last century. Only recently while researching my book, ‘The Republic of Reason & The Poverty of Philosophy’, did I uncover the existence of a larger but similar school that emerged in revolutionary Russia.
On December 19th 1920, Lenin and the Soviet government established the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops — VKhUTEMAS. The aim was to use the visual arts in the training of technically, politically and scientifically educated architects and designers in all disciplines. In the ten years of its existence, VKhUTEMAS became a laboratory of modern architecture and art, in which diverse artistic ideas and methods, such as classicism, constructivism, psychoanalytic approaches and even futurism came together.
Lenin wanted art education to be scientifically based, but he was unwilling to force what he admitted were his own conservative tastes in art. Just how true this is, can be seen from the private discussion he was keen to have with VKhUTEMAS students. Alexander W. Stepanov recorded the following:
“After the founding of VKhUTEMAS Lenin took the opportunity to meet with the students, despite the serious political situation in the country and its claims on his attention. Lenin did not want an official talk with the students and took advantage of his acquaintance with the family of his comrade, Inessa Armand, a very well-educated woman who spoke various languages and served the revolution faithfully until her death. Armand had two daughters, Inna and Varya, the latter being a student at the VKhUTEMAS. Late in the evening of February 21, 1921, Lenin and his wife Krupskaya arrived in the VKhUTEMAS student dormitory in former Myasnitskaya Street. There they talked together for about three hours”.
In 2014/15 an exhibition dedicated to VKhuTEMAS opened in Berlin, its catalogue stated that during its heyday, the works of the students and teachers were “unmatched, and later often served architects as templates and sources of inspiration.” The sheer scope of the training and the vast number of students and teachers make it clear that the Moscow workshops mark a unique stage in the development of modern architecture. Some 2,000 students enrolled in the first year alone, while Bauhaus trained about 150 at the same time. Irina Tschepkunowa, curator of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, writes in the introduction to the catalogue, “that one can scarcely any longer imagine in today’s ‘pragmatically oriented’ Russia the enthusiasm that broke out after the revolution. Hunger and destruction during the war, communism, the ongoing civil war in the country’s border areas and the impoverished everyday life provoked in young people — as strange as this may seem today — not dejection, but an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and willingness to work.”
Many in the West see the Bauhaus movement as a model for the Russian architectural avant-garde. However, this concept is now challenged and although VKhuTEMAS had close ties to Bauhaus and the latter held some concepts and ideas in common with the Soviet workshops, the relationship can be seen to be otherwise.
However, over a period, revolutionary fervour came under stress as external military pressure grew against the revolution in Russia, internal defensive militarisation brought autocratic power. The ideals of the soviet, ‘power from the bottom up’ began to corrode. [See; Struggle & Defeat in ‘The Republic of Reason & The Poverty of Philosophy’]. From the late 1920s, the nationalist policy of “socialism in one country” eventually strangled revolutionary innovations. In architecture, as in the other art forms, “socialist realism” became the only acceptable doctrine. In the west the rise of fascism in Germany suppressed the Bauhaus movement. But, while the legacy of the Bauhaus is regarded as a cornerstone of the modern movement and features in every modern art history book, VKhuTEMAS was air brushed out of history.
My wife, Katherine and I have located the treasure trove that is VKhuTEMAS and with the anniversary of the 1917 Russian revolution approaching are attempting to bring an exhibition of the work to Ireland where it could inspire a stimulating and necessary debate! If this could be achieved on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and at a time of mounting anti-Russian propaganda it could provide an objective assessment of the cultural achievements of the first years of the Soviet Union. This would of great importance as the exhibition would speak for itself. It would refute the lie that the October Revolution inevitably led to oppression, and would demonstrate that the first attempt to create a more humane egalitarian society and unite our species across national, religious and racial divides, retains all its fascination.