early 20th Century, although brutally devastating, did not hail the end of the stability and power that had characterized the massive country for so much of history. The continuing strength of what was now the Soviet Union lay in the newly formed support structure provided by Socialist Realism, a force that directed the awareness of, and the arts produced by, the Soviet people. The ideals of Socialist Realism deified Lenin and Marx, attributed the Bolshevik ranks with heroism undaunted by overwhelming opposition, and directed the proletariat towards a better future through reconstruction and industrialization of the state. Socialist Realism was essentially a Party tool that, combined with the Bolshevik ideals of collectivization and unity, would transform the people into a formidable, indestructible mass force.
Socialist Realism’s central code of conduct was, in Stalin’s words, to above all portray life truthfully. Any form of art that depicted Bolshevik life was to do so in a realistic and accurate manner, on its way to socialism; that will be socialist art, that will be Socialist Realism. (Lincoln 333) This was the paradigm that all Soviet art was to be modeled after; implemented in 1934, the formula of Socialist Realism would heavily influence artistic life in the Soviet Union until the 1960s.
The rise of Socialist Realism was rapid and dramatic. It dampened Europe’s excitement over Russia’s post-schism, secular art by redirecting art inward towards the Soviet people and forcing form and function upon it rather than abiding by the ideal of art for art’s sake. Once again, the ancient religious ideals of Orthodox Russia were shunned, and the Party replaced God at the forefront of Soviet life. The Party mimicked Socialist Realism as a model for the people, who were expected to take the example of their heroic yet humble forefathers and arise from the masses to submit themselves to the principles of Lenin, then confidently lead their comrades forward to a bright Bolshevik future where both nature and human opposition would bow to the power of the Soviets.
Although the Soviet Union was markedly secular, it adopted Orthodox Russia’s replacement of the individual with the collective. Many artists collaborated on gigantic pieces that depicted the immense size and grandeur of their unified country. Overwhelming all other artistic principles, Socialist Realism became synonymous with the state. It modified the past and the future by making both conform to reality and to Lenin’s timeless ideals. Most importantly, it portrayed the Soviet Union’s future as being filled with an unequaled prosperity that would forever shame capitalism and its proponents.
However, much of the reality that Socialist Realism depicted existed solely in the minds of the Soviet people. Socialist Realism portrayed life only as the Bolsheviks wanted it seen, and in many ways created an idealistic world of fantasy that overlooked massive failures (Lincoln 335) such as the death and suffering that continued to prosper in labor camps throughout the country. Socialist Realism was Stalin’s aesthetic cover-up of the horrid, truly real Soviet reality, and if an artist intentionally or accidentally ventured too far behind the scenes in his work, official confession and apology to the state did not always prevent him from being sent to one of many labor camps.
Socialist Realism was largely effective in indoctrinating simple-minded men and women with Bolshevik ideals. Nowhere else was this practice more effective than in Soviet literature, which was directed towards the unsophisticated, newly literate masses rather than the intellectual elite. Much of this literature focused on the Russian Civil War and the immortalized heroes that were crucial to socialism’s victory. It was meant to instill the proletariat with a nationalistic pride that would direct its minds and hearts towards the interests of the state. Because of their overwhelming prominence, the influences of Socialist Realism were nearly impossible to escape.
One of the most paradigmatic, and also one of the first Soviet heroes was Vasilii Chapaev, a Red soldier killed in the Civil War and elevated to the status of legend through the efforts of Socialist Realism. The author Dmitrii Furmanov wrote a novel depicting Chapaev’s exploits, which was made into a screenplay in 1934 and became one of the most effective products of Socialist Realism. The book, entitled Chapaev, glorified the efforts and persistence of Chapaev’s comrades even in the face of overpowering opposition and thereby turned the Bolshevik cause into a heroic mission. The message of the novel was preserved even through the hero’s death, which occurred during a moment of personal weakness and diversion from socialism’s inexorable path. Through the novel, Bolshevik values become a superhuman force that imbues its everyday, mortal protectors with awesome power.
Isak Babel, a Russian Jew, followed suit with his novel Red Cavalry, which also portrayed life during the Russian Civil War. Babel’s writing embodied the central principle of Socialist Realism; he excised every word that was superfluous to the story’s message and made each sentence as clear and straightforward as possible. He wrote about the Cossacks with whom he had ridden and fought during the war, and in his text he addressed issues such as why the strong brought suffering upon the weak and if submission was morally acceptable. He also depicted intriguing contrasts contained in the socialist mission, such as healthy, revolutionary spirit and violent brutality, and often scribbled Hebrew notes in the margins of communist flyers.
A similar history of the Civil War was depicted in And Quiet Flows the Don, written by a 22 year-old Cossack by the name of Mikhail Sholokhov, whose identity remained a mystery during the novel’s compilation. An even greater mystery, however, was how such a detailed account of the Civil War could have been written by a man too young to fight in it. Although the book has become the greatest novel ever written about the revolution, accusations of plagiarism still plague its origins. Much of the book is taken from first-hand accounts of the war and from newspaper articles. It tells the story of the war from the Whites’ point of view and shows everything they have known – the powers of the Tsar, Orthodoxy and Cossack life – overwhelmed by collectivization and unity. Although the novel was written with the opposition’s perspective in mind, the Soviet people could relate to the confusion and destruction depicted in its pages; after all, their entire country had been turned upside-down and it was now their responsibility to rebuild it.
Socialist Realist film, like literature, reflected Bolshevik values and the principles embodied by Stalin’s vision for the future. Every feature was required to glorify the ideals of the revolution and depict the power of the collective. This power was exemplified in the people’s breaching of imposing obstacles, such as natural disasters and civil opposition to the socialist path. However, this portrayal of Soviet life came at the cost of great censorship and suppression of varied artistic talents. If a film did not portray the Bolshevik cause in a truthful light, it would never make its way to a public audience.
One of the first Socialist Realist films was Chapaev, based on the aforementioned novel by Furmanov. It remains the most popular Socialist Realist film ever made. As in the Furmanov’s novel, Vasilii Chapaev is portrayed as a socialist hero whose successful exploits glorify the ideals of the Party. Chapaev was exactly the cinematic model that Stalin was hoping for, and he praised it as the formula that all subsequent films should follow.
The filmmaker Eisenstein didn’t reach instant success as the creator of Chapaev did, for Eisenstein was reluctant to replace his previous cinematic style with that of the burgeoning socialist era. His films, which focused primarily on life in Russia before the revolution and thus held little relevance to the Bolshevik cause, were often rejected by the censors. Success eventually found him with his release of Aleksandr Nevskii, based on the medieval Russian hero of the same name who countered the Teutonic invasion of the 13th Century. Unlike his previous efforts, this film was relevant to the times because it portrayed the constantly urgent threat of foreign invasion of which Stalin and the Party often warned. In Eisenstein’s film, Nevskii is depicted as a people’s hero who rallies his comrades to defend their motherland. Following a common thematic practice of Socialist Realism, Eisenstein pitted Nevskii and his army of common men and women against the immense, technologically superior Teutonic forces. The Russians’ belief in God and their country imbues them with the power to defeat the invaders. Eisenstein’s film was applauded by the Party and the Soviet people for showing the timeless, steadfast perseverance of the Russians against all odds. Like Chapaev, Aleksandr Nevskii became a model for Soviet defense, especially in regard to the contemporary German threat. The score was composed by Prokofiev, who created modern music that was reminiscent of medieval Russia rather than recycling the exact musical styles of that time. This contributed to the modern feel of the film and its relevance to the Bolshevik cause.
Theater during Socialist Realism approached the Party and its artistic doctrines from a very different angle, showing unmistakable signs of discontentment with and dissent towards the entire system. Meyerhold and Maiakovskii were the two men who led this theatrical, anti-Socialist Realism movement beginning in 1928, when their collaborated efforts produced The Bedbug. Aleksandr Rodchenko designed the set and Dmitrii Shostakovich composed the score. The play was an outright parody of Stalin’s regime and attempted to expose the pettiness and meaninglessness of Party codes. Its goal was to lift the Socialist Realist veil that clouded the vision of the Soviet people, and it depicted resentment towards and loss of faith in the principles to which many people had given their entire lives.
Meyerhold’s and Maiakovskii’s following production, The Bathhouse, was an even more skeptical satire of Party policies. It accused the leaders at the forefront of the Bolshevik cause of betrayal and negligence towards the true ideals of the revolution. As political anger over the plays began to mount, Meyerhold took The Bathhouse on a timely and opportune tour of Europe. Meanwhile, Maiakovskii committed suicide on April 14, 1930. When Meyerhold returned to the Soviet Union, he found himself left with very few supporters when the Party officially confronted him regarding his subversive efforts in 1932. Heedless of the Party’s warnings, Meyerhold continued to write plays of a rebellious nature until his statement that Socialist Realism had nothing to do with art (Lincoln 347) exceeded the Party’s tolerance. He was temporarily incarcerated before he was officially executed for encouraging undemocratic ideas aimed at undermining the honorable Bolshevik cause. Meyerhold was essentially the only independent playwright to bring life to the stage during Socialist Realism. After his death, Stalin used the theater primarily to espouse pro-Party propaganda and slogans.
The visual arts were likewise greatly affected by Socialist Realism. The most characteristic works of the Stalin era were colossal murals and friezes that were created by whole contingents of artists. These giant works portrayed the life that was supposedly growing better every day under Stalin’s rule. Stalin himself played a role in many of these works, portrayed as a teacher and comrade to the common man. He appeared in idealized portraits of classroom scenes or in cityscapes, always among his people.
Following one of its central principles, Socialist Realism attempted to stifle all individualism in art. It focused on the collective and on communal unity, often depicting men and women working happily in the fields to produce food for their rapidly improving society. However, one artist, Deineka, was able to preserve his own individual style while still remaining more or less in the public eye. He had fought in the Red Army during the Civil War and had pledged himself to the Bolshevik cause. Although he strongly believed in the socialist path and the future that it strove to create, he saw fundamental weaknesses within his country’s leadership.
Although art from Russia’s past was almost uniformly rejected during the Socialist Realist era, Deineka managed to adopt old styles and include them in his works. These were seen in The Defense of Petrograd, a piece that portrayed the persistence and determination of the Soviet Union’s workers to defend their motherland at all costs, and also in later works in which he used bright colors and healthy, robust men and women to portray society’s harmonious relationship with a natural world that socialism would one day actualize.
In 1935, Deineka decorated the newly built Moscow Metro station with colorful ceiling tiles that depicted a day in the Land of the Soviets (Lincoln 357). They showed men and women working in nature and harvesting resources for their country. However, Deineka did not always conform to the artistic standards of Socialist Realism. He often straddled the line that divided Socialist Realist art with subversive, undemocratic art. For example, A Mother, which portrayed a nude Soviet woman holding her child, was called The Madonna of the 20th Century by some and a disgrace to Soviet ideals by others. During World War II, Deineka shifted his focus to the battlefront and depicted Soviet men and women again defending their homeland, this time from the Germans. He avoided overt glorification of the Bolshevik soldiers and instead portrayed them in an honest and truthful light. After the war, however, Deineka, along with much of the Soviet nation, realized that the bright future that socialism had once promised would never come.
This skeptical outlook towards Socialist Realism became more common as the years progressed and noticeable improvement in the country failed to occur. Whereas Socialist Realism had begun as a boon to Soviet artwork and had acted as an inspiration for many, it had become a strict regime of censorship and repression. Those artists who wished to create their own individual, progressive works that didn’t fit the Socialist Realist mold had to go into hiding or keep their art far from the public eye. They wouldn’t be able to emerge until the 1960s, when Socialist Realism – and the shackles with which it constricted the art world – would crumble with the fall of Stalin.