The penchant for the primitive: Archaeology, ethnography, and the aesthetics of Russian modernism
This dissertation examines how the various factions of Russian modernism understood and employed the category of the "primitive" from roughly 1890-1930. Russian modernist primitivism became a potent source of myths and fantasies whose cultural, political and aesthetic assumptions and values offered a corrective to industrial modernity and served to reevaluate the terms underpinning Russia's relationship to the West and to the East. In possessing a positive moral and aesthetic value, the fantasy of the "primitive" served the Russian modernists as a lens through which to diagnose and critique the present, measure its shortcomings, and chart its prognosis, and in so doing provided new avenues for literature and art. While the primitive could thus refer to a hypothetical past, point of origin, or to a locus of positive cultural values, it could also be projected onto the future as a utopian goal beyond the upheavals of the present. The dissertation focuses on the primitive in two guises—as a speculative concept and as the object of concomitant ethnographic and archeological study—both of which constituted a convergence of cultural and political values, formal features, mythologies, and behaviors systematically exemplified in literary and artistic practice.
This dissertation maintains that the appropriation of the primitive generally served to counteract the reinvigorated orientation towards Graeco-Roman antiquity that also marked the modernist period, inventing an indigenous antiquity that could serve as an autochthonous counterweight to that tendency. Secondly, it suggests that unlike primitivism in Western European countries, most notably France, Russian modernists located their sources of the primitive in the cultures that had once occupied or indeed were still ostensibly present within the contiguous spaces of the Russian empire. Thirdly, it argues that while nineteenth-century debates in political and moral philosophy and those regarding Russia's relationship to the West and to the East were important sources for Russian modernist primitivism, concomitant developments in archaeology and ethnography were no less crucial in stimulating the appropriation of the primitive. And lastly, that even as the Bolshevik Revolution overturned the axiological and semantic values attributed to the primitive in the pre-Revolutionary period, the primitive continued to exercise a powerful conceptual role well into the 1920s, as writers and filmmakers grappled with the legacies of Tsarist imperialism, tested the escalating value ascribed to technological and industrial modernization, and confronted the sheer presence of ethnic and cultural heterogeneity in the Soviet Union.