By Benjamin Arenstein
With waxy ovular leaves precariously stacked in an ever-expanding emerald column, the rubber plant would be aesthetically conspicuous in nearly any domestic environment. Its seemingly unbounded potential to grow threatens to upend order in even the most carefully curated of spaces. It is perhaps by virtue of these traits that the rubber plant was repeatedly defined but never truly fixed within the Soviet order of things. As Svetlana Boym illustrates in her seminal study, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, the position of rubber plants in Soviet ideological discourse was, at various points, both questioned and contested. In the 1920s, Vladimir Mayakovsky grouped rubber plants alongside other condemnable adornments employed as decoration in the homes of the burgeoning Soviet middle class. For Mayakovsky, rubber plants functioned as a constituent part of the petit-bourgeois domestic interior and, consequently, were antithetical to the cultivation of a revolutionary avant-garde environment. Associated with the window-box geraniums of the urban middle class, rubber plants were viewed by the early Soviets as a despicable vestige of bourgeois life. The 1930s brought different tastes and a brief reprieve for the rubber plant as Soviet citizens were confronted with a new official discourse. This discourse pulled its support from the avant-garde, in part to justify the allocation of social privileges and additional domestic space to the Stalinist elite (Boym, 8–9). Caught in the shifting tides of Soviet ideological discourse, rubber plants were nonetheless consistently employed as prominent signifiers within Soviet literature, art, and film. The instability of exactly what these signifiers signified remained a point of consternation for many Soviet critics.
Alexander Laktionov’s painting, Into the New Apartment, exemplifies the contentious ubiquity of rubber plants in the Soviet cultural imaginary. First displayed at the All-Union Exhibition in 1952, Laktionov’s work depicts a beaming Soviet mother at the center of the frame as she takes ownership of her new postwar apartment. To the woman’s left is her son holding a framed portrait of Stalin while to her right is a potted rubber plant resting on the polished parquet floor. In her work on masculinity in Soviet visual culture, Claire McCallum posits Stalin’s portrait as the key to understanding Laktionov’s image. She notes that Stalin serves as both the “paternal leader of the nation” and the surrogate father to the boy holding his portrait. His presence restores domestic harmony to the scene, which otherwise lacks a father figure (McCallum, 111). The Soviet critic Lev Kassil, though, fixates his analysis of this painting on the family’s rubber plant. He remarks that the rubber plant is “sketched out by the artist with unusual diligence and photographic accuracy” to such an extent that it “overshadows the main thing— the newcomers themselves” (Kassil). In Kassil’s view, the rubber plant is the overwhelmingly dominant actor in Laktionov’s image—so much so that it prevents us from engaging with the work’s human figures. If Stalin’s portrait serves to reinscribe the Soviet domestic order as anthropocentric and patriarchal, the rubber plant recasts such a notion of domesticity as inherently unstable. Neither Stalin’s metaphorical spouse nor his child, the non-human and ungendered rubber plant holds no obvious role within Laktionov’s carefully structured postwar family. It upsets the gender-based sense of domestic harmony that Stalin’s portrait had, in principle, restored.
To ensure that it fit within the bounds of perpetually shifting party standards, Laktionov’s work was censored twice. After the painting was first exhibited in 1952, Laktionov’s rubber plant was decried by the Soviet critics as an unacceptable celebration of philistinism. In the 1960s, after Krushchev had initiated a process of de-Stalinization in the USSR, it was the deceased leader’s portrait that had to go (Boym, 7-8; McCallum, 111). Thus, the new apartment was decluttered of its now-defunct icons. The censorial apocrypha found space for Laktionov’s portrait of Stalin alongside the glossy photorealist rubber plant.
Still lining the walls of homes throughout the Soviet Union, the rubber plant functioned in the post-Stalin era as much more than another instantiation of totalitarian kitsch painted onto and then excised from officially sanctioned artwork. Indeed, the house plant seems to have evoked a sense of quotidian wonder amongst the Russophone authors who adopted it as a literary subject. Published just one year after One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1963 short story, “Matryona’s Home” (“Matryonin dvor”), evocatively depicts a group of anthropomorphized rubber plants living alongside the titular Matryona: “The spacious room, and especially the best part near the windows, was full of rubber-plants in pots and tubs standing on stools and benches. They peopled the householder’s loneliness like a speechless but living crowd. They had been allowed to run wild and they took up all the scanty light on the north side. In what was left of the light, and half-hidden by the stove-pipe, the mistress of the house looked yellow and weak” (Solzhenitsyn, 442). The rubber plants here gesture beyond the ideological and toward the ecological. They are figured as autonomous subjects with living agency. Though speechless, the rubber plants in Solzhenitsyn’s story stand witness to Matryona’s loneliness. Yellow and weak, Matryona is presented in direct contrast to the rubber plants with which she resides. While the rubber plants “run wild” and bask in the home’s scant natural light, Matryona recedes into the background. Sequestered behind the ventilation pipe of her stove, Matryona only receives whatever light remains after the rubber plants have had their fill. The rubber plants function as living inhabitants of the domestic space while Matryona herself becomes something akin to an adornment. Brimming with anthropomorphic vitality, Solzhenitsyn’s rubber plants take on a life of their own. They eschew interpretation as a prefabricated motif through which to understand the author’s ideological commitments. Like the story’s human characters, the rubber plants function as a constitutive component of Solzhenitsyn’s literary world.
In the Russian-Israeli writer David Markish’s 1976 novel, The Beginning (Priskazka), rubber plants also people the space occupied by human characters: political exiles newly arrived in Kazakhstan must exchange places with a rubber plant in order to fit into their lodgings; a dead man is carried in a funeral procession accompanied by his rubber plant; an exiled former Stalin double describes the vanished luxury of his dacha, which had been furnished by the government with rubber plants. In their respective works, Solzhenitsyn and Markish portray rubber plants as more than superfluous adornments to the interiors of Soviet homes. Indeed, they shape the very way in which the human characters negotiate their relationships with the domestic spaces of which they are a part. The rubber plants of Russian literature come to embody a signifying potential that extends beyond the reaches of Soviet ideological discourse and opens itself up to the eco-critical. In this sense, the Soviet rubber plant is an apt reminder of the ways in which nature remains present in even the most intimate corners of humanity’s domestic life.
Benjamin Arenstein is a PhD student at the University of Chicago studying Hebrew and Russian literature. His research examines Soviet émigré writing and the emergence of literary networks between Israel/Palestine and the Soviet Union.
Edited by Rachel Kaufman
Featured Image: Marsden Hartley, Rubber Plant, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.