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Correspondances, art, littérature

Jeffrey BROOKS, The Firebird and the Fox. Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks

Susan Layton
p. 943-945
Référence(s) :

Jeffrey BROOKS, The Firebird and the Fox. Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks, Cambridge – New York : Cambridge University Press, 2019, 346 p.

Texte intégral

1This magisterial study constitutes a century of extraordinary Russian cultural brilliance in synergy with momentous socio-political and economic processes. Brooks brings all this together through judicious use of the metaphor of a dynamic “ecosystem” that eventually incorporated a wide social spectrum of creators and audiences in increasingly commercialized milieux. The cultural ecosystem drew deeply upon Russian traditions as well as immediate experience, encompassed both masterpieces and ephemera, and reflected changing ideas about the social role of the arts. Of special importance, the development of literature and the other arts steadily manifested bi-directional influence between high culture and folk traditions. Eminent authors tapped folklore to produce enduring classics, such as Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (1852). Less widely appreciated, however, is that in Turgenev’s time, that epochal collection concerning the Russian folk exerted varied influence on “authors of cheap popular fiction” to reach non-elite audiences (p. 3). Similar interaction between “high” and “low” occurred in the ecosystem throughout the whole century that Brooks treats. His demonstrating this is a major achievement that links The Firebird and the Fox to his first, pioneering book When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

2The Firebird and the Fox explores three “meta-themes” that pivot around the emblematic figures of the firebird and the fox, two creatures with age-old citizenship in Russian folklore. The first meta-theme is a Russian cultural preoccupation with “the dynamic tension between freedom and order.” Whether caged or in flight, the flamboyant firebird was central to this set of motifs: firebird stories “assert that freedom, despite its evident allure, is not without its perils, and order not without its appeal”— the appeal of “divine rule, constancy, and social harmony” (6). The fox, on the other hand, is most closely associated with the meta-theme of boundaries: self and other, Russian and the foreign, and in-group audiences for art versus those outside those publics. Like the folkloric Fool (whose apparent shortcomings turn out to be qualifications to lead his community), the wily fox is a boundary-breaker, jester, and trickster (frequently marked feminine), by turns sympathetic and chilling in the merciless use of her/his arts of survival against powerful antagonists. Debates about the “societal obligations of art and artists” comprise the third meta-theme. In that context, firebirds continue to stand for the incandescence of art (if only implicitly), while shifting ideas about “the roles and privileges of cultural representatives” relate to breaching boundaries and challenging authorities: as “ordinary people increasingly understood themselves to be active participants in an emergent civil society,” they “came to perceive their own interests distinct from those defined by class, place, and family” (7).

3Organized chronologically, the book falls into three parts, each proceeded by a brief introduction. Part I, “Emancipation of the Arts (1850-1889),” highlights how social change ignited by the Great Reforms energized writers and artists, prompting them to reimagine the Russian nation within the empire and to reach out, through words and images, to new audiences of liberated peasants and growing numbers of the middle class. Brooks demonstrates how the visual arts as well as literature produced a vast store of images of Russian landscapes, Russian people of diverse social strata, and arresting events in Russian history — all of which functioned collectively to challenge the Russian nation’s “historic identity with tsar and Church” (57). The Wanderer school of realistic Russian painting, the persistent circulation of lubok prints, and the emergence of the modern medium of illustrated magazines receive detailed attention, as does the eminent painters’ success in reenvisioning their calling as a professional activity comparable to medicine and law, with a moral mission to help lead the nation. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov dominate discussion of the literary high road. Treating them as exemplars of the “writer as civic actor” (80), Brooks recalls the varied assistance they rendered to afflicted people during the famine of 1891-1892. The analysis also shows how selected writings (especially Chekhov’s The Island of Sakhalin,1895, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection,1899) articulated a shared tendency to expand rather than limit the Russian empire’s “human community” (p. 85), to cast compassionate light on Russian convicts, political prisoners, free settlers, exiles, and, in Chekhov’s case, the Ainu, an indigenous minority of Sakhalin.

4Entitled “Politics and the Arts,” the book’s second part covers the years between 1890 and 1916. Against the backdrop of the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and the 1905 Russian revolution, Brooks examines artistic rebellions against dominant Realist traditions of prior decades. Looming large in this section is the arts entrepreneur, publisher (the celebrated World of Art magazine), and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, featured primarily for exporting to Western Europe an “innovative mix” (125) of Russian music, art, and dance in the Firebird ballet (1910) and other theatrical extravaganzas. At home, the Russian avant-garde reveled in creative disorder, articulating varied aesthetic and political values but united in eschewing old beliefs in art’s social mission. They shocked the public with arty magazines replete with blasphemous, bizarre humor, and they fed the fires of a new cult of celebrity, enabled by the rise of the retail fashion trade, advertising, photojournalism, and cabarets. The romp was fun while it lasted, and yet, in cultivating their coteries of cognoscenti, the avant-garde alienated a large swath of the public “still struggling to master the classics” (165). A fateful rift, this new division between “us” and “them” foretold the persecution that would befall many cultural producers in Soviet Russia.

5The Firebird and the Fox plunges into those twentieth-century developments in Part III, “The Bolshevik Revolution and the Arts (1917-1950).” Here we witness the Soviet Communist Party supplanting the state as “arbiter of public taste and overseer of cultural development” (p.189). That process overlaps Brooks’s Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), a book that traced the evolution of a one-sided discourse idealizing the state, the Party, and the leader in Pravda and other influential Soviet newspapers. The Firebird and the Fox, however, nuances the history by identifying “cultural undercurrents” in competing media which “quietly challenged the values of the Stalinist order” (176).

6This argument culminates in “Goodness Endures,” the concluding chapter which privileges the affirmation of humanitarian values in the arts during the bloodiest years of Stalin’s reign. As elsewhere in the study, Brooks remarks here how various Russian writers, artists, and/or their relatives were murdered during the purges (such as the book illustrator Nikolai Rosenfel´d, shot in 1936); or else survived torture and the GULAG (the fate of Sergei Prokofiev’s divorced wife Lina). The Firebird and the Fox nevertheless gives pride of place to stories and visual art that celebrated kindness and compassion. Such material abounded in children’s literature, including Kornei Chukovskii’s cherished tales of Doctor Aibolit (Ow-It-Hurts). A delightful illustration shows the physician in his hospital with his staff of animal helpers, tenderly caring for a mouse, goose, pig, and crow, as other creatures arrive for admission. Published in successive editions in 1935 and 1936, such stories were “implicitly drawing a sharp contrast to the pitiless terror that broke in waves over the artistic community and many ordinary readers” of the time (259). The upbeat finale of Brooks’s book may dumbfound some readers all too familiar with the atrocities of High Stalinism. In my view, though, The Firebird and the Fox marshals many persuasive sources in support of the argument that goodness did endure to a significant degree, attesting not only to the artistry but also to the “moral genius” of those authors and illustrators whose achievements live on today as an “inspiration to global culture” (11, 266). While taking into account a good deal of Bolshevik brutality and yet identifying artistic resistance to it, The Firebird and the Fox offers a newly complicated picture of the production and consumption of culture under Stalin.

7Numerous illustrations of exceptionally high quality enhance Brooks’s finely nuanced narrative. Including many fascinating postcards from his own collection, the images in color are particularly effective. The Firebird and the Fox is a gift to general readers, students, and specialists alike. Scholars in literature, folklore, the visual arts, and music will all benefit particularly from Brooks’s stimulating illumination of inter-disciplinary fertilizations throughout the century he maps.

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Susan Layton, « Jeffrey BROOKS, The Firebird and the Fox. Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 943-945.

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Susan Layton, « Jeffrey BROOKS, The Firebird and the Fox. Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Susan Layton


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