By Leigh Winstead

Note:  this is the eighth of several articles posted to The New Contemporary that feature writing from this Fall’s Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia in War and Revolution.”  Each student in the class had to select an object from the Andre de St.-Rat Collection in Miami’s Special Collections and write about it.  These writings, as you will see, spotlight the incredible collections in our library.  They also highlight how the Russian Revolutions in 1917 involved a battle over meaning:  through these primary sources, one can read the words, see the images, and therefore gain more insight into the experiences of revolution.  Other papers have been posted to the History Department’s new online journal, Journeys Into the Past:  Special thanks to Masha Stepanova, Miami’s extraordinary Slavic Bibliographer.

Iurii Annenkov, Semnadtsat’ portretov [Юрии Анненков, Семнадцать Портретов], Spec. Folio N7608.A664, 1926

Iurii Annenkov’s Seventeen Portraits is an extraordinary part of Miami University’s Special Collections.[1] This incredibly rare book, inscribed with Annenkov’s personal bookplate, features portraits of many important figures in the early Soviet regime. One of the portraits of great significance is that of avant-garde theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Meyerhold and Annenkov had had a close relationship, and Annenkov had been familiar with Meyerhold’s work since he was in high school. They were both promising artists, intent on pushing the boundaries of convention and adhering to the philosophies of the early avant-garde movement, but Annenkov left Russia for Paris and Meyerhold was executed in 1939. Their philosophies of art and their decisions to either remain in the Soviet Union or to emigrate reflect the rupture of Russian society that began with World War I and Russian Revolution.

Annenkov’s Seventeen Portraits was published in the Soviet Union in 1926 and contains Annenkov’s portraits of, then-prominent Soviet cultural and political figures such as Lev Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Anatoly Lunacharsky. In fact, Lunacharsky wrote the preface for Seventeen Portraits, in which he said that, “[In Annenkov] constructivism overcame realism.” At the time, Lunacharsky’s praise would have been well received, but two years later Stalin ordered that all copies of Seventeen Portraits were to be removed from libraries, stores, and private collections and destroyed. The only portrait spared was that of Voroshilov, who had remained in favor.[2] Even by the time the book was published, Annenkov already understood the dangers of the tumultuous cultural and political climate and had emigrated to France. Both Annenkov’s departure and the destruction of Seventeen Portraits in Russia are demonstrative of the seemingly abrupt changes that took place in political and cultural policy in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Iurii Annenkov’s interest in the arts extended beyond his interest in portraiture, and also included theatre. In his memoirs, he wrote that while in high school he attended theatre shows with his father in which Meyerhold had performed.[3] By the revolutionary era, he was expressing his ideas for the direction of theatre in articles and speeches. Like Meyerhold, he decried ‘serious’ theatre in favor of the circus, arguing that the only performers making real art were those who risked failing a performance if they made a mistake. “The precision and delicacy of the performance is no longer a quality,” he said, “but a requisite condition, a law” in circus performances, like gymnastics.[4] In some ways, this is an interesting assessment for revolutionaries and artists. Like circus performers, both groups are unable to hesitate—if they move to act, they must act. Understanding movement, and its theatrical importance, was important to Annenkov and his work. Not only was it important for the actors and directors to understand movement and how it could influence a character, it was also important for the stage designer to understand the rhythms that make up actors’ movements across the stage. On the stage, there is “a moving pattern of colored rhythms, fighting among themselves and resolving into a general harmony or one triumphing over another, according to the progress of the play.”[5] Annenkov’s unique understanding of acting and theatre, and especially the importance of physical movement was heavily influenced by Meyerhold’s own ideas.

Meyerhold was a creative and innovative theatre director and actor, well known for his avant-garde theatre and the method of acting he pioneered. Following in the footsteps of Konstantin Stanislavski,[6] with whom Meyerhold had worked at the Moscow Art Theatre early in his career, Meyerhold developed an acting technique that connected an actor physically and emotionally to their characters, which he called biomechanics. This system was developed as a response to the weaknesses Meyerhold perceived in early Soviet theatre, and emphasized a “scientific” method of training actors that was supposed to reflect “the same methodologies that were guiding the rest of Soviet life.”[7] This in turn echoed the goals of the early Soviet avant-garde movement, which sought to transform life via art.

While Meyerhold was successful in the period immediately following the Revolution, the advent of socialist realism damaged his position and popularity. Although he had operated his own theatre and advocated for the role of art in the education of the common people, he fell into disrepute when he signaled his distaste for socialist realism. Socialist realism had become the official policy of the Soviet Union by order in 1934, and the next several years saw its firm entrenchment and enforcement by Stalin and his supporters. While the form of socialist realism was vastly different from the form of avant-garde art, Boris Groys argues that “the Stalin era satisfied the fundamental avant-garde demand that art cease representing life and begin transforming it by means of a total aesthetic-political project.”[8] Furthermore, he argues that Stalin was willing to accept converts of socialist realism, but “those who insisted on their own exclusiveness or previous service” were seen as arrogant and “were ruthlessly punished” signaling the end of the avant-garde movement.[9] Thus, although Meyerhold had been an advocate for revolutionary theatre and art ideology, and his refusal to walk the party line was ultimately fatal.

Annenkov’s memoirs recount the article that finally discredited Meyerhold. His work was defamed, and he was accused of “having devoted his allegiance to Trotsky,” a final condemnation.[10]  Meyerhold was arrested in June of 1937, and shortly after, Meyerhold’s wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, was found clinging to life in their apartment after a brutal attack. She died the next day.[11] While there was some element of mystery surrounding Meyerhold’s disappearance and his wife’s death, it was clear who was culpable for the former. Just as Stalin had ordered all the copies of Yuri Annenkov’s Seventeen Portaits destroyed, he was responsible for the orders to have Meyerhold arrested. From Paris, Iurii Annenkov lamented that after Meyerhold’s arrest, he was never seen or heard from again. “There is no knowing how or when his life came to an end,” Annenkov wrote.[12] Like many of the other figures portrayed in Seventeen Portraits, Meyerhold fell victim to the same revolutionary forces that he had once advocated. Meyerhold’s refusal to adhere to the new party line was taken as “arrogance,” and needed to be dealt with.

Iurii Annenkov and Vsevolod Meyerhold are but two examples of the revolutionary forces at play in early Soviet Russia culture. Their lives and careers exemplify that even though the Revolution and Civil War had formally concluded, shockwaves still reverberated throughout Russian culture and politics. They also represent the rupture that occurred and the divergent paths taken by Russian citizens. Many artists left, by will or by force, and continued the tradition of Russian avant-garde in Europe. The artists remaining were eventually forced to abandon avant-garde form to conform to socialist realism. Although some scholars, like Boris Groys, may argue that socialist realism was an intellectual continuation of transformative avant-garde ideology, artists like Meyerhold did not see this through line. Even though the reputations of the artists were “rehabilitated” in the wake of de-Stalinization, by “these posthumous rehabilitations neither the marshals, the politicians, nor the writers, nor the people of the theatre are raised.”[13]



Further Reading:


Meĭerkholʹd, V. Ė., and Edward Braun. Meyerhold on theatre. n.p.: New York, Hill and Wang [1969], 1969.


Annenkov, IUriĭ, and Aleksis Zamyatin, Evgeniĭ Ivanovich Goble, Paul A. Waldemar George Rannit. Dnevnik moikh vstrech : ìtsikl tragediĭ. n.p.: New York : Mezhdunarodnoe literaturnoe sodruzhestvo, 1966, 1966.


Senelick, Laurence, and Sergei Ostrovsky. The Soviet Theater: A Documentary History. New Haven: RI, Yale University Press, 2014.



Bowlt, John E. “Constructivism and Russian Stage Design.” Performing Arts Journal 1, no. 3 (1977): 62-84. doi:10.2307/3245250.


Eaton, Katherine Bliss. Enemies of the People: The Destruction of Soviet Literary, Theater, and Film Arts in the 1930s. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002.


Gordon, Mel. “Meyerhold’s Biomechanics.” The Drama Review: TDR 18, no. 3 (1974): 73-88. doi:10.2307/1144927.


Groys, Boris. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and beyond. Translated by Charles Rougle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.


Moody, C. “Vsevolod Meyerhold and the “Commedia Dell’arte”” The Modern Language Review 73, no. 4 (1978): 859-69. doi:10.2307/3727599.


Zamyatin, Evgeniĭ Ivanovich, and Mirra Ginsburg. A Soviet heretic: essays. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1970.

[1] Alternate spellings include Yuri, Yury, and Annenkoff. In Paris, he was known as Georges.


[2] George Annenkov, Dnevnik Moikh Vstrech: Zikl tragediya, tom vtoroi (People and Portaits: A tragic cycle, Volume Two). Inter-Language Literary Associates: New York, 1966. 290-291.

[3] Annenkov, Dnevnik Moikh Vstrech 36.

[4] Annenkov, Iurii “The Revolution: 1917-1919.” In The Soviet Theater: A Documentary History, edited by Senelick, Laurence  and Sergei Ostrovsky, 15-79. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. 74-75.

[5] Ibid, 75-76.

[6] Konstantin Stanislavski is famous for pioneering a version of Method Acting.

[7] Gordon, Mel. “Meyerhold’s Biomechanics.” The Drama Review: TDR 18, no. 3 (1974): 73-88. doi:10.2307/1144927. 75.

[8] Groys, Boris. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and beyond. Translated by Charles Rougle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. 36.

[9] Groys, 35.

[10] Annenkov, Dnevnik Moikh Vstrech, 93.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 98.

Leigh Winstead is a second-year MA student in History.


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