Avatar and Red Pinkertonism
Text by Ian Mitchell
It has been well said of Ireland that if you kick history out of the door, it will come smashing back in through the window. Russia is much the same, despite the fact that it is a country of high-rise buildings, with windows well beyond the reach of Paddy’s longest ladder.
Perhaps more so than in most countries, it is wise to refract thought about Russia today through the prism of history. Since this is the first in a series of essays written with that aim in mind, it is appropriate to start with the issue of thought itself—in other words the role in Russian culture of the intelligentsia on whom so much of nineteenth and twentieth century history depended.
Russians bemoan the decline of “Moscow kitchens”, a place where vodka, tea, black bread and salt cucumbers aided the consideration of questions like the nature of being, the potential of perestroika or the poems of Mayakovsky. Visiting Western academics and bohemian culturevultures used to love the cosy world of the Moscow intelligentsia. Many people felt that Russia did boho chic exceptionally well, or at least better than we did in the philistine, materialistic West.
But now that the cushy jobs in easygoing institutes have become victims of capitalist economics, and most of the literary critics are now journalists or marketing executives, the question arises: what did, and do, ordinary Russians think of this high culture?
It was announced in mid-January that the film Avatar overtook Irony of Fate 2 to become the highest-grossing film in Russian history, taking more than $70 million in the first three weeks after release. In this respect, Russia is in tune with the rest of the world, where the film has already taken $1.5 billion and is set to overtake Titanic (which took $1.9 billion) as the biggest box-office hit in world cinema history.
Defenders of Soviet culture often say that things were better under the old regime when titles like Honoured Artist of the USSR were conferred on people whose over-the-counter sales did not seem to match their artistic worth. But the story of Red Pinkertonism suggests that this is a highly selective view of history.
Red Pinkertonism was the Soviet version of a phenomenon which resulted, co-incidentally, from the work of three famous Scotsmen: Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Allan Pinkerton. Allan who? Allan Pinkerton was a Glaswegian who emigrated to Chicago in 1842 and soon afterwards was appointed the city’s first detective. In 1852 he founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency which went on to solve innumerable train robberies, to chase the James gang, provide body-guard services to Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration and to run the Union’s military intelligence service during the Civil War.
Pinkerton was a businessman and a hustler, and in the 1870s he decided that the best way to publicise his Agency was to follow the example of Robert Louis Stevenson and write action- packed thrillers which, in his case, would be based on his experiences as a detective. The resulting books, featuring a private eye called Nat Pinkerton, are readable even today—certainly more literate than John Grisham—and they were a run-away success.
Pinkerton died in 1884, but his son, Frank, carried on producing the books. Other writers jumped on the band-wagon, many introducing the techniques of Sherlock Holmes to add an element of mystery and puzzle to the action formula. By the 1900s, the Pinkerton detective novel, usually published in weekly instalments, was an international phenomenon.
They were as popular in Russia as anywhere else. One authority has calculated that in May 1908 in St Petersburg alone 622,000 copies of Pinkerton partworks were sold. A literary critic, writing in Novy Mir in the 1970s, disdainfully explained this by saying: “The Pinkerton books were written in a coarse style and were saturated with expressions like: ‘”Damn it,” screamed Bob as he fired at the elusive McDonald’, or ‘”Aha, got you my lad,” said Pinkerton as he put the handcuffs on the villain. “Now at last I’ll put you in the electric chair.’”
The popularity of the genre survived the Revolution, partly because an early Soviet critic compared the style favourably with that of the Russian realist prose which had been the backbone of nineteenth century Russian literature. These classics featured “a magnificent refined style” and “subtle psychology”, he said. “But there is no entertainment. It is boring. Boring.” He recommended that proletarian writers look to the West and learn about action and plot in order to compose entertaining adventure novels.
That is exactly what Soviet writers began to do. It was Nikolai Bukharin who coined the phrase Red Pinkertonism, in 1923, and in doing so gave to the NEP period a distinctive popular literature which was in keeping with the public mood. Mikhail Bulgakov, Ilya Ehrenburg and Aleksei Tolstoy all wrote highly successful books of this sort.
A typical example of the genre, by someone who called herself Jim Dollar (real name: Marietta Shaginyana) was titled Yanks in Petrograd. The plot hinges on a conspiracy to destroy the new Soviet republic, but the Yanks are foiled by the workers who make everything, and therefore are the most powerful group in society. The book features secret tunnels, coded messages, obscure passwords and mysterious signs on doors, windows and railway carriages. Several sequels followed.
Hundreds of authors wrote similar books. They were saturated with violence, hatred and revenge. They featured improbable plot twists and bizarre, stereotyped characters. There are death rays, light cords, things called “hyperboloids” (Tolstoy) and, in one book, the extermination of the population of France through the mass sale of an aphrodisiac which causes impotence. They were wildly popular.
Exotic foreign locations helped sales too. One novel ended with a fight to the death in the Paris sewers. Another had guests at Lord Haig’s country seat complaining about colonial savages over a meal prepared from the corpse of a fellow guest who had been unwise enough to visit his Lordship’s cellars.
Ilya Ehrenburg (who had been at school with Bukharin) introduced a note of mocking parody, as in his description of genocide in England: “People were dying while still observing dignity and rank. They groaned quietly, they writhed obsequiously, and they did not forget to smile at the vicar.”
Americans came in for their share of mockery too. For example, the owner of the world’s largest cured meat factory heard that a man excretes $2.65 worth of matter per day, so immediately arranged with a market gardener to visit his premises every morning after breakfast. The book in which this occurs was so successful that it was adapted for the stage in a play directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold.
In short, the genre was about as popular then as the film Avatar is in Russia today. The difference is that the books were attacked by later Soviet literary critics who sniffed at the success of genuinely popular fiction. The cultural bureaucracy had its revenge during the first Five Year Plan, when Stalin introduced Soviet Realism for all art. Detective fantasies were replaced by novels about the construction of Siberian steel-mills or Ukrainian dams.
Each of the writers named above adapted successfully to the new cultural milieu and continued to enjoy success writing completely different books, despite the trial and execution of Bukharin in 1938. Ehrenburg went on to achieve international fame in the 1940s with his hate-filled, anti-German propaganda.
When Stalin died, he completed the circle and wrote a book called The Thaw, which gave the name to the period of intellectual relaxation in the later 1950s. It was because of that loosening of cultural control that the Moscow kitchen achieved its status as a bohemian cultural symbol, a situation which lasted until capitalism destroyed its economic base, and made way for an entertainment-orientated world symbolised by the mass popularity of films like Avatar.