Fooling Dangerous Minds or Se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato!

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Some pages from Merkurov’s erotic ABC

Interesting how jokes and rumours travel. Some months ago I posted (or rather re-posted) an ‘Erotic ABC’ by, apparently, the Lenin Prize winning sculptor, Sergei Merkurov. The original poster of the album on Facebook- at least on the thread which eventually found its way into ‘Dangerous Minds’ for the record, was Oksana Timofeeva). Reading the original Live Journal post from where it came  I read the following Интересно, для кого она предназначалась? Видимо для ликвидации безграмотности у взрослого населения… (Interesting who was this album for? Seemingly for the liquidation of adult illiteracy). So I posted an additional remark stating something like “The campaign against illiteracy during early Stalinism” adding exclamation marks because the idea seemed absurd. Pulled up by the Russian art critic Ekaterina Degot for stating a patent absurdity, I had to admit that my facebook comment was tongue in cheek. Maybe a poor joke (Merkurov surely would have been fearful that this album could have been discovered in a search during the Great Terror of 1937) but one that was then repeated by Arya Moghadam and then Ross Wolfe and would turn up months later in the Dangerous Minds site. With its half a million likes on Facebook the extent of this Facebook joke seems to have escalated a little. It’s not as though Dangerous Minds (and Ross Wolfe who presumably(?) wrote the text) are hedging their bets. Here is their commentary:

Sergey Merkurov is best known as a USSR People’s Artist, sculptor of Soviet icons and the master of Soviet “death masks”- Merkurov even made a mold of the late Lenin, himself! Merkurov also produced this delightfully dirty alphabet, complete with orgies, flying dicks, and paranormal partners.

The 1931 book that bore these bare bodies was actually intended to encourage literacy, and likely a part of Likbez, the gigantically ambitious Soviet adult literacy campaign of the 20s and 30s. Around the turn of the century, only about 24% of the Russian population could read, but by the 1950s, the Soviet Union had achieved a 100% literacy rate. With such inspiring teaching tools, one need not wonder how!

Unfortunately, the alphabet below is in Cyrillic, so you probably can’t spell your name out in Soviet porn. Sorry typography pervs!

I rather ‘like’ the idea that someone took this further. In many ways it is rather easy to be ‘taken in’ with some of this. My initial attitude on reading the Live Journal blog was that given history is full of absurdity astounding one with its refusal to fit into neat schemas and given that Stalinism’s repression of private life and sexuality was a rather complex historical process and even the history of Stalinism, in its own strange way, could be read as a series of frosts and thaws who knows whether this material could have crept in somewhere, somehow). Perhaps one should have let this story run and see if it will turn up in some book on Soviet history which tries to state that Stalin’s Soviet Union is, for example, the precursor of 1960s Western counter culture.

History is replete with irony and absurdity and to separate fact from fantasy is a rather complex task. I also think, for example, that the history of Stalinism is more complicated than we commonly think, that Slavoj Zizek has a point in comparing Stalinism to contemporary capitalism. Going from here to stating as undisputed fact that Merkurov’s Erotic ABC was in public use in the campaign against adult illiteracy seems one step too far. Nonetheless, as an exercise in the gullibility of certain websites and in how history gets retold and deformed (and let’s be clear western liberal historians from Orlando Figes to Robert Service are not adverse to skewing certain realities to suit their own narrations), this retelling is rather farcical and hilarious but also, in its own way, suggestive.

No wonder Arthur Cravan could convince  the New York Times that Oscar Wilde was still alive in 1913 (so much so that they printed it on their front page).

Anyway as they say se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato and historical fantasy is often much more interesting than historical truth and this ‘well discovered’ piece by Dangerous Minds is, surely, worthy of gaining prominence as long as it isn’t used for legitimizing Stalinism.

 

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

2 responses »

  1. Saying it’s a “hoax” suggests someone has made up the whole thing, but can I check that you are saying it seems to be genuinely of the period and may be by Merkurov?

    • Yes, maybe I should change the title. Not so much a hoax but rather a tongue-in-cheek remark on Facebook that went round the web and was cited as fact. I remember sharing the post from Oxana Timofeeva (this was the original Russian post shared: http://aquatek-filips.livejournal.com/358858.html) and after another share which came to the attention of Ross Wolfe he then transferred the drawings and publicized the album on his site The Charnel House.

      Today I have discovered that another site has shared this (http://bturn.com/10286/soviet-erotic-alphabet) and also suggested that allegedly it was used to combat widespread illiteracy (the post has had over 14,000 shares). To tell the truth I have discovered very little incontrovertible evidence whether it was done by Merkurov’s own hand or the 1931 date was when the album passed into his hands. The belief that it is of an earlier period is based on the fact that some of the characters are pre-revolutionary (and so this absolutely ruled it out as being used for any official purpose). What is apparently true is that there did exist private collections of pornography in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Merkurov may have been one of these collectors. The story of Eisenstein’s pornographic drawings is also an interesting one- I believe that many of the collection is outside Russia. At present it seems that in Russia at least they will not be on public display for some time.

      I’m not sure if there are any specialist articles on this subject (I imagine so if one searched hard enough).

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