After the Bolsheviks had succeeded in taking control of Russia in a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, they still had a long way to go in achieving socialism. The next step was to change the culture of Russia.
Aleksandr Blok was one of the leading poets of the intelligentsia during the late imperial period. He, like most members of the intelligentsia, was from a wealthy bourgeois family, and through his education had come to support the Revolution. There was a shared sense of duty among some of the educated upper class that they had to free the working class because they were benefiting from the unfair conditions in the factories.
However, when members of the intelligentsia actually saw the violence of the revolution, there was less enthusiasm. Blok wrote Scythians in January of 1918. In the poem, he addresses the “Old world”, asking it to be as “sage as Oedipus before the ancient riddle of the Sphinx”. The allusion used here is to the story of the ancient Greek legend about Oedipus meeting a Sphinx when he was on the road coming back from the oracle at Delphi. The Sphinx asked him a riddle: “What has one voice, is four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?”
Everyone coming down the road before Oedipus had not answered the riddle correctly, and had been eaten alive by the beast. Oedipus answered “Man”, which was correct, and as a result, the Sphinx killed herself by jumping off a cliff. This illusion is helpful in understanding Blok’s work, because he is asking the bourgeois and intelligentsia who are now out of power to be patient and use their advanced education to outwit the Sphinx of the Russian proletariat, which would then perish.
The conclusion Blok had come to once witnessing the Revolution was that it was too violent, which is why he likened it to a Sphinx devouring everything about the old culture. He even says near the end of the poem that the “cruel Huns” would “rummage the pockets of corpses, burn cities, drive cattle into churches, and roast the meat of our white brothers!” This violent imagery shows that Blok’s feelings had changed by his death. He no longer supported the Revolution and wanted the old world to wait for its chance to retake power. He also alludes to the war between the red Bolshevik army and the white monarchist army in these last lines.
With Blok’s death in 1921, the age of bourgeois art had come to an end. Gone were the days of the intelligentsia running the show. Instead the literary and art scene increasingly belonged to the emerging proletariat culture, which was supported by the state. Lenin had called for an emphasis on proletariat values and art through a mandate passed by the Proletkult Congress in 1920, and before his death in 1924 called for a Cultural Revolution that would rock the country from 1928-1932.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print
Blok’s Scythians: http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/mdenner/Demo/texts/scythians_blok.html
William G. Rosenberg, ed., Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984), pp. 469-474: http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1921rapp1&SubjectID=1921blok&Year=1921
V. I. Lenin, Selected Works in Two Volumes (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1952), Vol. 2, pp. 316-317: http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1921pcult2&SubjectID=1921blok&Year=1921
Information on Sphinx: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/sphinx.htm