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Rude awakening

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Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West By Susan Buck-Morss.MIT Press, 2000. 368pp. £30.95

Dreamworld and Catastrophe is a brilliant and thought-provoking work. The cropped image of Aleksandr Kosolapov's 1983 painting presaging the ruins of Marxist-Leninism suggests that this might be about the disintegration of the Soviet Union, for which catastrophe seems an understatement. Indeed, a central theme is that in emulating the industrial model of progress from the West, the revolutionary vision was fatally compromised - as the famine brought about by collectivisation, the vanished lake Aral, and Chernobyl all testify.

But the subtitle, The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, indicates that this is no triumphalist celebration of the (so-called) victory of the 'free market'- far from it.Susan BuckMorss suggests that, when industrialisation was still a dream world for the new workers of the Soviet Union, for workers in capitalist countries it was already a catastrophe.

Around the lived experience of modernity, the author has woven an awesome tapestry of idiosyncratic scholarship, the innovative structure of which struggles with the limitations of the MIT Press format. The preface explains that, although written in fragments, it is the whole that needs digestion, 'for the argument cannot be divorced from the experience of its reading'.

And what a rich experience this is.

Styling itself as 'an experiment in visual culture', and with surprising juxtapositions that challenge accepted understandings, it seems to owe something to John Berger's Ways of Seeing (that groundbreaking collaboration of television and publishing designers in 1972).

The first chapter sets out the political frame, while the second illustrates the work of those avant-garde artists who claimed to represent the aims of the Russian Revolution, and then presents a series of 'Time Fragments'. The first of these, 'Mythic Time', introduced by an image of Lenin inserted within an Egyptian fresco, chronicles that bizarre history of mummification, last used for the North Korean Communist leader Kim Il Sung in 1995, when it apparently saved the embalming lab from bankruptcy. The second, 'Reverse Motion', concludes with the rebuilding of the cathedral demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets. 'Against Time', fragment three, looks at Malevich's return to figuration, with paintings which he misdated to suggest that that they preceded the Black Square of 1915.

This leads to the concluding fragment, 'A Short History of the Square', and the irony of such abstraction becoming the hallmark of post-war 'high culture' in the US.

The interaction of the ideologies of the US and the Soviet Union, inextricably bound for almost a century, is the subject of the next section; and perhaps the most interesting example lies in the visit that Wallace Harrison, with his team for New York's proposed Radio City Music Hall, made to Melnikov in Moscow, and their subsequent adoption of principles from his Green City rest home. 'Two hours in the washed, ionised, ozoned, ultrasolarised air [of Radio City Music Hall] are worth a month in the country.'

But it is only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that the massive extent of the collaboration between US industry and the Bolsheviks has come to light. In one year, Andrew W Mellon, secretary of the US Treasury, bought some $7 million worth of Hermitage paintings, including $1.7 million for Raphael's Alba Madonna; which the author suggests, juxtaposing two images, paid for half the design cost of the Magnitogorsk steelworks.

Reflections on mass culture and domestic space, and the awakening from the deferred dream, conclude with an afterword on the writing of the book - a disarming account of the extraordinary events of the recent past, as witnessed by BuckMorss and her colleagues in the East.'As a friend observed. . .intellectuals and politicians rush back and forth across the stage while political and economic structures crumble beneath them.'

David Wild is an architect in London and author of Fragments of Utopia (Hyphen Press)

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