January 01, 2022

Exploring Early-Soviet-Era Insect Culture

Exploring Early-Soviet-Era Insect Culture
Illustration from The Extraordinary Adventures of Karik and Valya.

In the Soviet-era children’s book,The Extraordinary Adventures of Karik and Valya, a boy and girl are suddenly reduced in size and find themselves in a world of ruthless insects. A professor, who has also shrunk, sets out to save the children and is constantly forced to enter into mortal combat with bugs who now look like towering, repulsive monsters. The fact that this work was published in 1937 – the worst year of Stalin’s purges – leads to a search for additional layers of dark meaning in this engaging fantasy. Now the mole cricket’s newfound power over a man who just the day before had been hundreds of times bigger begins to look like a metaphor for the precariousness of social roles through the twists and turns of Russian and Soviet history.

According to art historians Nadya Plungyan and Alexandra Selivanova, the insect world had a sort of heyday in post-revolutionary Russia. The pair curated an exhibition last year – Beetles and Caterpillars: Insect Culture in the 1920s-1940s – and introduced it with these words: “The ‘tiny creatures’ closest to the body, buzzing through the air, and burrowing through food crept into Soviet mythology and culture and gained a firm foothold there.”

Plungyan and Selivanova are known for their explorations of obscure facets of Russia’s post-revolutionary arts. “In Russia, late-Soviet Cold War rhetoric persists in art studies,” Plungyan said, “and the tension between socialist realism and the avant-garde is still the main paradigm applied to the study of Soviet Era art. Unfortunately, for now, this is still the program being taught in Russian institutions of higher learning. But it also persists in the West, where, since the 1960s, the ‘Russian avant-garde’ has been transformed into an oriental commercial brand. All this makes it harder to move toward a deeper look at Soviet art and hinders scholars’ efforts to discover its more complex aspects.”

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