Theses Doctoral

The Rise of Insider Iconography: Visions of Soviet Turkmenia in Russian-Language Literature and Film, 1921-1935

Holt, Katharine

This study investigates how Turkestan generally and Turkmenia more specifically were represented in Russian-language film and literature in the early Soviet period. By analyzing the work of writers and filmmakers as well as the ideological and artistic constraints that they faced, I explore not only depictions of these spaces, but also the biographies of several of their key depicters, delving into the historical circumstances in which given texts were produced and the relationship between these texts and the larger artistic fields into which they were released. The study opens with a discussion of texts by "outsiders" who positioned Turkmenia as a space worthy of exploration between 1921 and 1927. Chapter One examines two essay collections by the Eurasianists - Iskhod k vostoku. Predchuvstviia i sversheniia. Utverzhdenie evraziitsev (Exit to the East: Forebodings and Events: An Affirmation of the Eurasians, 1921) and Na putiakh. Utverzhdenie evraziitsev (On the Way: An Affirmation of the Eurasians, 1922) - as well as Dziga Vertov's documentary film Shestaia chast' mira (One Sixth of the World, 1926) and two literary works by Nikolai Tikhonov, a "fellow traveler" who passed through Turkmenistan in the mid-1920s. Despite the differences in the approaches of the Eurasianists, Vertov, and Tikhonov, I argue, all of these men envisioned Turkmenia as an undelimited space within a larger landmass that was worthy of further exploration. In Chapter Two, I discuss how "outsider" writers and filmmakers were inscribed into the Soviet project of building socialism in Turkestan during the First Five-Year Plan. First, I turn my attention to two texts about the construction of the 1,400-kilometer Turksib railway, the flagship construction project for Central Asia in the First-Five-Year-Plan era: Viktor Turin's documentary film Turksib (1929) and Viktor Shklovsky's related children's book Turksib (1930). In my analysis of these works, I discuss how the two texts position their authors as facilitators of modernization and as mediators between the Soviet periphery and the center. Next, I discuss the first literary "shock brigade" sent to Central Asia, in 1930, and analyze the contributions made by Tikhonov and his fellow Serapion Brother Vsevolod Ivanov to the 1932 almanac Turkmenistan vesnoi (Turkmenistan in the Spring). I suggest that Tikhonov adapted to his new roles as an official representative of Soviet Russian literature and a witness to socialist construction with special ease, while Ivanov displayed deep ambivalence about taking on new, more institutionalized responsibilities vis-à-vis the Soviet Central Asian periphery. Chapter Three takes up the shift in official Soviet poetics toward "insider iconographers" and the changing practices of writers and filmmakers visiting Turkestan during the Second Five-Year Plan. First, I discuss Vertov's film Tri pesni o Lenine (Three Songs about Lenin, 1934), which I claim is paradigmatic for the turn toward native voices that characterized official Soviet culture in 1933 and 1934. Next, I describe the work of the national commissions that were set up in Moscow in advance of the first All-Union Writers' Congress in 1934. These commissions, I suggest, helped establish new conventions for the representation of space in Turkestan, pushing writers and other artists to show the region's constituent republics as landscapes mastered by the local populations. I then analyze the almanac one of these commissions produced, Aiding-Giunler: Al'manakh k desiatiletiiu Turkmenistana, 1924-1934 (Aiding-Giunler: The Almanac for the Tenth Anniversary of Turkmenistan, 1924-1934). In a discussion that centers on Petr Skosyrev's novella Oazis (Oasis), Grigorii Sannikov's poem cycle "Peski i rozy" ("Sands and Roses"), and Oraz Tash-Nazarov's translated poem Bairam-Ali, I argue that the volume bears traces of the moves toward "native voices" and an iconography that equates Turkmenistan with the concept of a transformed, flourishing desert. Chapter Four examines "insider iconography" from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on texts that illustrate the paradigm in its purest form, I look at a set of literary works that not only accommodated it, but also refracted it. Specifically, I read Platonov's "Turkmenia cycle" as an outgrowth of the kind of landscape production that was being practiced by the national commission for Turkmenistan and other cultural producers in the mid-1930s. Along with Platonov's letters and journal entries from the period, this cycle, I argue, suggests that cultural producers operating in the Soviet Union were well aware of the conventions that were developing for the representation of Turkmenistan. At the same time, I maintain, the cycle represents a unique artistic achievement, one that not only encapsulates but also transcends the cultural trends that were dominant when it was produced. As a whole, the dissertation shows how the space of Turkmenia was gradually transformed into Soviet landscapes and places in Russian-language literature and film; how the rise of high Stalinism affected the production of texts about the region, redirecting responsibility for its representation to insider iconographers and those willing to pose as such; and how Platonov can be considered as both a practitioner and an articulate critic of the paradigm I call "insider iconography." I argue that between 1921 and 1935: 1) Turkestan and the rest of Central Asia became clearly visible in Russian-language cultural products for the first time; 2) the signifier "Turkmenistan" began to take on a specific meaning in the Soviet ideological system; 3) there was a paradigm shift in the dominant strategy of the Soviet "East's" representation in officially sanctioned texts, as "insiders'" views and simulacra of them became increasingly valued; and 4) Platonov reflected on this shift in his "Turkmenia cycle," which can be read as the apotheosis of "insider iconography."


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages and Literatures
Thesis Advisors
Izmirlieva, Valentina B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 20, 2013