Electrification as Enlightenment in El Lissitzky and Maks Al‘pert‘s photo-essay on Dneprstroi for SSSR na stroike (1932)

Erika Wolf
University of Otago

25. Juni 2018
15:15 Uhr

El Lissitzky: Where the current goes. In: SSSR na stroike, No. 10. (1932)

Aus: Erika Wolf: Aleksandr Zhitomirsky. Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War. Chicago. 2016.

Begun in 1926, the Dneprostroi hydroelectric dam project was one of the first massive Soviet industrial construction projects to be realised. Official representations of this project provided significant prototypes for envisioning the economic and social transformations that would result from Soviet industrialization. This presentation examines the representation of Dneprostroi in an issue of the photographic propaganda magazine SSSR na stroike that celebrated the completion of the dam. The plan for this issue, the first to extensively employ photomontage, was developed by the artist El Lissitzky and the photojournalist Maks Al’pert, who together gathered materials and formulated a complex narrative photographic essay that begins with the meeting of Vladimir Lenin and H.G. Wells in 1920, shortly after the Bolshevik leader had announced a detailed plan for the electrification of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the devastation of Russia during the Civil War, Wells observed that Lenin had succumbed to “the Utopia of electricians.” The primary cause of Wells’s doubts lay in his impressions of the “absolutely illiterate and collectively stupid” peasantry, which he prophesised would become “a sort of human swamp in a state of division, petty civil war, and political squalor” (Wells, Russia in the Shadows, 1920).  Lenin invited Wells to return in ten years, an invitation that provided Lissitzky and Al’pert with inspiration for their work: “We . . . availed ourselves of this invitation of Lenin and on its pages was shown what Wells would have seen in 1932 by means of the language of the photo-essay” (Al’pert, Bespokoinnaia professiia, 1962). Employing modernist photomontage compositions, the resulting issue show the realisation of Lenin’s electrical utopia through the transformation of the peasantry through participation in industrial construction.