Hygiene Propaganda and Theatrical Biopolitics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s–40s

The Bolshevik Revolution strove to create a “new man,” a morally and psychologically superior human being. This new man required a complete physical and mental renewal, including, among other measures, the hygienic literacy of the masses. A wide range of media were employed for the Revolution’s ends, including not only various forms of print but also mobile cinemas and theatrical productions. A theater movement aimed at instructing the masses gained strength in the early years of the Revolution, and many theatrical performances addressed prevailing problems in public health. The hygienic awareness of the population was especially crucial during World War I and the Russian Civil War that followed, when diseases flourished in conditions of hunger and claimed millions of lives. In the 1920s, the performances came to local clubhouses and reached even the kolkhoz fields to entertain and educate workers and farmers. Beginning in 1925, theatrical hygiene propaganda was centrally managed by the newly founded Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture (1924–1947).

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The political importance of popularizing healthcare knowledge has often been addressed in the historiography of the Soviet Union.1 Historians frame hygienics as a modern technology of power. Conceptions of hygiene and health encompassed more than just the care of body; they shaped the construction of Soviet institutions and identity.2 However, the innovative role of theater in promoting medical knowledge has not been systematically studied.

The theater as an art form that uses the body as its medium was seemingly predestined for hygiene education. Moreover, the mostly illiterate target audience could be reached almost exclusively through audio-visual media. There was cinema, but the theater offered the opportunity to involve the audience in the performance and thus to break the stage’s fourth wall.

We have some international examples of the hygienic plays. Between 1910 and 1920, the German Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases staged Damaged Goods, by the French playwright Eugéne Brieux (1858–1932), for educational purposes.3 In 1939, the United States Federal Theatre Project addressed syphilis through the Living Newspaper “Spirochete.”4 Living Newspapers were a genre of live performance that usually used newspaper content and entertainment elements such as music or acrobatics to present information surrounding current events to a popular audience. These actions were isolated, however, with no systematic background. By contrast, the Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture dealt with various themes of hygiene education strategically. It managed to develop a significant network and became a model for other theaters of sanitary culture in the Soviet Union. By the end of 1920s, similar theaters had been established in Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Perm, Tiflis, Odessa, Charkov, Lugansk, Artyomovsk, Dnepropetrovsk, and Sumy.

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The first theatrical form of hygiene propaganda in the USSR was the so-called sanitary trial (sanitarnyj sud), a sort of mock trial (agitsud) that appeared immediately after the October Revolution. Mock trials not only promoted the Bolshevik regime but were meant to create the impression that Soviet citizens played a crucial role in determining “proletarian” justice.5 The subject matter of mock trials came directly from daily concerns and was related to burning social and political issues: prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism, tuberculosis, new and healthy lifestyles, proletarian physical education, protecting mothers and children, combatting infectious and nervous diseases, and son.

These staged trials drew a clear line between friends and enemies of the Soviet people. A fictional defendant should be reeducated to fit in the new proletarian society. In Trial of a Prostitute, for example, the accused appeared both as criminal and victim. She was guilty of syphilis transmission, but she was a victim of the capitalist system and required integration into proletarian society. In the mid-1920s, the Soviet government introduced social programs for prostitutes such as “work prevention.” Prostitutes infected with a venereal disease could get treatment and learn new job skills.6 Prefiguring the spirit of these social programs, Trial of a Prostitute was to be performed in all provincial centers on March 8, 1923, International Women’s Day.7 In Moscow, in 1921 alone, it had already been staged in Moscow in 1921, running for 150 performances and being judged a success.8 Other frequently staged sanitary trials were Trial of a Drunkard; Trial of a Midwife; Trial of a Syphilitic; Trial of a Mother, Guilty of the Poor Care of her Children. A tubercle bacillus or malaria carrying mosquito also made satirical appearances among the genre’s defendants.

In order to achieve a maximal effect on audience members, the line between the fictional and the nonfictional in a mock trial was rendered invisible. Theatrical sanitary trials followed detailed scripts and how-to manuals, while conveying the illusion of reality unfolding before the viewers. Sanitary trial playwrights visited real trials in order to recreate a contemporary courtroom experience on the stage, albeit with much more lenient sentences.9

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With the establishment of the Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture in 1924, the search for new theatrical forms of hygiene propaganda began. The first theater manager, Aleksandr Narodeckiy, engaged famous playwrights and directors to put on sanitary plays in Moscow. For example, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940), whose satirical play Zoyka’s Apartment (1926) was received by the public with great enthusiasm, staged A Single Woman by Natalia Venkstern (1891–1957) in 1929. Vasilii Toporkov (1889–1970) and Mikhail Kedrov (1893/94–1972) worked at the Moscow Art Theater and also staged some plays for the Theater for Sanitary Culture. Both actors collaborated closely with Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938), widely recognized for his approach to actor training, becoming theater directors themselves in the 1930s. Some plays were adaptations of classics, like Anton Chekhov’s short stories or Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, whereas others were commissioned by the theater.

The theater’s management tried to persuade playwrights that plays about hygiene problems could be of high artistic value, but the 1934 attempt to attract new scriptwriters through the Literaturnaya Gazeta (the official trade journal of the Union of Soviet Writers) failed.10 That year marked an official shift from the principals of productivist art to those of socialist realism. This change in emphasis not only necessitated different staging strategies but also other topics. In the 1920s, hygiene theater productions were informed by a faith in the value of deterrence. They informed the audience in detail about the contagion risks, symptoms, and effects of dangerous diseases. With the transition to socialist realism, however, hygiene propaganda focused on other topics. Instead of realistically depicting diseases and unhealthy lifestyles, socialist realism depicted the future life ideal that Soviet society was working toward. Thus, the Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture reoriented its discursive strategies from showing disease to portraying health in its plays.

With World War II, the sanitary plays were staged in military hospitals and garrisons as well as factories. Their main topics were inoculation, blood donation, protection against chemical weapons, and the heroism of Soviet physicians. In light of the Soviet people’s own heroism, the struggle against sexually transmitted diseases no longer seemed relevant to the theater’s management.11

Oxana Kosenko is a research fellow in the DFG-funded “Hygiene Propaganda” project at the Institute of the History, Philosophy and Ethics of Medicine, University of Ulm. Igor Polianski is a lecturer (Privatdozent) at the same institute, where he directs the “Hygiene Propaganda” project.

  1. For example, see Tricia Starks, The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 4. ↩︎
  2. Ibid.; Igor J. Polianski, Das Schweigen der Ärzte: Eine Kulturgeschichte der sowjetischen Medizin und ihrer Ethik (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2015), 20. ↩︎
  3. Jan Lazardzig, “Inszenierung wissenschaftlicher Tatsachen in der Syphilisaufklärung: ‘Die Schiffbrüchigen’ im Deutschen Theater zu Berlin (1913),” Hautarzt 53, no. 4 (2002): 268–76. ↩︎
  4. Sarah Guthu, “Living Newspapers: Spirochete,” The Great Depression in Washington State, http://depts.washington.edu/depress/theater_arts_living_newspaper_spirochete.shtml. ↩︎
  5. Julie A. Cassiday, The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000), 51–55. ↩︎
  6. Natalya Lebina and Mikhail Shkarovsky, Knutom ili zakonom? Prostituciya v Peterburge: 40-e gg. XIX v. – 40-e gg. XX v (Moscow: Progress-Academia, 1994), 132–78. ↩︎
  7. “Borba s prostituciyey,” Izvestiya, March 3, 1923, 4. ↩︎
  8. A. Edelshteyn, “Neskolko slov o sanprosvetsudakh,” in Sud nad prostitutkoj, ed. A. I. Akkermann (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoye izdatelstvo, 1922), 4. ↩︎
  9. Under Article 155 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1922), anyone knowingly communicating a venereal disease to another person should be deprived of his or her freedom for no more than three years. Punishment for the same offense in a mock trial, contrast, entailed referral for medical treatment and public censure. ↩︎
  10. Letter from the directorate of the Institute for Sanitary Culture to Maxim Gorky, September 1, 1934, Russian State Archive for Scientific-Technical Documentation (RGANTD), F. 178. Op. 1. D. 59. L. 1–7. ↩︎
  11. Minutes from the meeting of the Repertory Commission of the Institute for Sanitary Culture, June 19, 1945, RGANTD. F. 178. Op. 1. D. 278. L. 4–8. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Oxana Kosenko and Igor Polianski, “Hygiene Propaganda and Theatrical Biopolitics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s–40s,” History of Knowledge, May 20, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/05/20/hygiene-propaganda/.