Like virtually all aspects of life in the Soviet Union, art was tightly controlled. The officially sanctioned style, Socialist Realism, extolled the virtues of communism and of the Communist Party. Soviet art also played a major role in the creation of Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality as he cemented his position as the leader of the Soviet Union.
Before Socialist Realism: Art in the Time of Lenin
Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, later to be renamed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, seized power in Russia on the 25th of October 1917. In this, the October Revolution, they overthrew the Russian Provisional Government, which had itself replaced the monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II. The early days of Bolshevik Russia witnessed something of a wave of artistic freedom. The country was embroiled in a civil war between the Bolsheviks and the counter-revolutionary forces, known as the White Russians. Embroiled in what was effectively a life or death struggle, the Bolsheviks had little cause or capacity to monitor or control artistic trends and developments. As such, many new movements of avant-garde art emerged during this period, such as Rayonism, Russian Futurism, and Constructivism.
The state was in fact happy to use the talents of these artists to further their cause. An example being El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919. This propaganda poster, an example of constructivism, shows a red wedge representing the Bolsheviks breaking through their White opponents.
During this period, Lenin laid down his thoughts on what purpose art served. He believed that it was important that art was no longer the preserve of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie. He stated that “art belongs to the people. It must leave its deepest roots in the very thick of the working masses. It should be understood by those masses and loved by them.” Lenin argued that art should also serve to educate and enlighten the proletariat masses whom the revolution claimed to liberate: “It should awaken in them artists and develop them.”
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Lenin’s views were reiterated by Anatoly Luncharsky who was appointed head of the newly formed People’s Commissariat for Education (Narkompros) in 1917. He argued that art should focus on depictions of the “New Soviet Man”, a supposed “perfect person”. Through this, the citizens of the Soviet Union would be educated on the value of Socialism and would themselves become “perfect Soviets.”
Stalin & Gorky Tighten the Rules: Birth of Socialist Realism
Joseph Stalin became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922 and built on the earlier ideas of Lenin and Luncharsky. After a leadership struggle following Lenin’s death in 1924, where he dispatched Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and Grigory Zinoviev, he emerged as the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union.
Stalin believed that art should be used to project a positive image of life in the Soviet Union to its inhabitants. It should be realistic, possessing a “true-to-life” visual style. The writer and Marxist thinker Maxim Gorky, a favorite of Stalin, condensed these strands into something identifiable as Socialist Realism. Gorky published an article on the subject in 1933 and laid out the four guidelines for Socialist Realism at the 1934 Communist Party Congress. Art should be relevant to the workers and understandable to them, it should present scenes of everyday life, its representations should be realistic, and it should be partisan and supportive of the aims of the State and Party. Gorky proclaimed that art that portrayed a negative view of the State of the Party was to be illegal. In this manner, Stalin and Gorky had effectively mobilized Soviet art as a form of state propaganda. Soon this new form of art would become yet another aspect of the Cold War.
Building the Cult of Personality in Soviet Art
Socialist realism played a major role in the creation of Stalin’s cult of personality. Building on the paternalistic traditions of Russian culture, Soviet art portrayed Stalin as something of a national father figure. In much the same way as Tsar Nicholas II had been known as the “Little Father”, chosen by God to rule over the nation, so too Stalin was referred to as the Vozhd, a term meaning “leader” or “guide”.
Vasily Yefanov’s 1936 painting An Unforgettable Meeting reflects this image of Stalin as a benevolent father figure. In this composition, a generous Stalin presents a gift of flowers to a representative of the wives of engineering and technical staff working in heavy industry. Presumably, this visit is in recognition of the wives’ supporting role in their husbands’ industrial efforts. Interestingly, it is unclear whether this meeting ever actually occurred. Yefanov created the painting based on an earlier meeting he had witnessed between Stalin and the wives of Red Army commanders.
Alongside this image of a “father”, Stalin was portrayed as the heir of Lenin, a chosen and loyal successor to the man who had built the Soviet Union. Great efforts were made to place Stalin as close as possible to Lenin, ideologically and physically, in the artistic historical record. Observe the two paintings below. Both are entitled First Appearance/Speech of Vladimir Lenin at the Petrosovet Meeting at Smolny on 25 October 1917. In this painting, Lenin addresses the men of the Petrograd Soviet on the day of the October Revolution. He stands heroically, surrounded by workers and soldiers, having overthrown the Provisional Government and brought the workers’ state into existence.
In the version of the painting above, created in 1927, the men standing to the right of Lenin include Trotsky, Kamenev, and Rykov, all of whom were leading communists throughout the period. They had also been Stalin’s rivals in the battle to succeed Lenin. Below, there is an amended version of this painting, created in 1935. The men have been removed and Stalin has been added prominently in their place, implying that he had always been Lenin’s true heir. Between 1936 and 1940, all three of these men were killed as part of Stalin’s Great Purge. Their death and removal from the historical record neutralized any challenge to Stalin’s legitimacy.
Extolling the Virtues of Soviet Life
As well as an idealized image of Stalin himself, Soviet art also sought to create an attractive image of life in the Soviet Union’s factories and on its farms. Under Stalin, industry and agriculture were set production targets, as part of larger state-wide plans of industrialization and development known as Five Year Plans. The second of these plans, initiated in 1935, saw the emergence of the Stakhanovite Movement. The movement was a socialist competition, encouraging workers to exceed their targets with the promise of rewards. The movement took its name from Alexey Stakhanov, a coal miner in Ukraine who was interested in developing new methods to increase production. Coal had traditionally been mined manually using iron picks. In August 1935, Stakhanov used an electric drill to extract 102 tonnes of coal in under six hours. This was fourteen times his target, although he was given a great deal of help including a number of support workers.
Stakhanov was feted, becoming something of a celebrity in the Soviet Union and abroad. According to his daughter, Violetta, Stakhanov was rewarded with a new flat and a horse and cart. Newspapers and posters held him up as an example for workers across the country to follow. The Communist Party used images such as the one above of Stakhanov as the symbols of the Stakhanovite Movement, which soon spread from mining to other industries across the country. The Team of Stakhanov is exemplary of the realistic, almost candid nature of many paintings in the genre of Socialist Realism. The workers are portrayed in a heroic, yet ordinary fashion. Despite their achievements and skill, they wear the simple, utilitarian clothes of their trade. The red flag features prominently behind them, as does the electric drill, a symbol of Soviet industry and technology.
Likewise, peasant farmers working on state collective farms were portrayed as being well rewarded. Arkady Plastov’s 1937 work, Collective Farm Celebration, is typical of this type of image. Here, villagers are celebrating a successful harvest. Tables are filled with an abundant supply of fresh food. The people are well-fed and wearing bright-colored, clean clothing. Stalin’s portrait gazes down from above as the villagers relax in the sun.
In reality, conditions were often quite different. The Soviet Union had endured a terrible famine just five years earlier, in which it is estimated that around 3.5 million died. The famine had been at least partially caused by Stalin’s forceful drive towards collective farming, which had been resisted bitterly by the peasantry. The situation was particularly harsh in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, the modern Ukrainian state considers the famine a deliberate genocide aimed at its people.
Soviet Art During and After the Great Patriotic War
The German invasion of the 22nd of June 1941 was initially a disaster for the Soviet Union. With the country unprepared for war and having signed a ten-year non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, Stalin refused to believe that he had been betrayed. German forces made a rapid advance from starting points in Poland and by November were advancing on Moscow. In the face of this military disaster, Socialist Realist art and propaganda were mobilized to rally the nation behind the state and against the German invaders.
Posters such as the above encouraged unity between the different sections of Moscow’s population. A Red Army Soldier stands alongside armed workers from the city, including a woman, in front of the Kremlin’s walls. A massive defensive operation was put in place to defend Moscow as the Germans advanced. 250,000 women and teenagers worked to dig anti-tank trenches and defenses around the city. Factories building peacetime goods such as cars were hastily converted to the production of weapons and explosives. An armed force of civilians known as the Narodnoe Opolcheniye, or People’s Militia, was raised, with sixteen divisions in Moscow.
The USSR suffered enormously during the Great Patriotic War. It is estimated that between 18 and 26 million people, military and civilian, died during the war. This was by far the greatest figure of any of the belligerent nations. Leningrad and Stalingrad, the country’s second and third cities after Moscow, had been left in ruins after sieges and battles lasting several years. In addition, while the USSR had recaptured all territory that had been occupied by the Germans, there were concerns over the integrity of the nation’s population. Collaboration with the Germans had been widespread in the occupied territories, especially in Ukraine, and it is estimated that around one million Soviet men joined the German Army or SS.
At the end of the war, in the context of a collective mix of suffering and joy, Soviet art presented Stalin as a figure behind which the whole country should unite. He was presented as the driving force and visionary behind the victory, and the man who would lead the country as it rebuilt and renewed itself. The painting The Morning of Our Motherland, 1948, by Fyodor Shurpin is an excellent example of these themes. As Daniel Milnes, former assistant curator of the Haus Der Kunst writes, the painting “depicts a mature and distinguished Stalin with greying hair, seasoned by the trials of war.” Behind Stalin are his life’s achievements. Smoke rises from factories, transmission pylons bear witness to the success of his electrification of the country, and tractors plow the fields. Stalin gazes into the distance, past the viewer, “Shurpin’s image, therefore, not only celebrates industrialization, electrification, and collectivization, but also alludes to the country’s continued development, promising an even brighter future for the Soviet people.”
With the Soviet Union taking control of Eastern and Central Europe after the war, Soviet art was used in an effort to demonstrate the benefits of Communism to the population in order to win over their support, or at least acquiesce, towards the regimes installed by Moscow.
Jules Perahim’s Fighting for Peace, 1950, is an extremely striking example of Socialist Realism being adopted in an Eastern Bloc state, in this case, Romania. The painting depicts the world communist movement marching forward out of the grey clouds of war into a bright future, under Stalin’s gaze. The key themes of Socialist Realism are carried through into this painting, such as the glorification of the worker, the importance of education, and the nobility of the socialist armed forces. Notably, several of the figures are in identifiably Romanian clothing. This is a theme repeated in much of the propaganda in the Eastern Bloc as the authorities sought to give their regimes an air of authenticity and a connection to long national histories.
Socialist Realism Post-Stalin
Stalin would die in 1953, and the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc entered a period known as “de-Stalinisation”, prompted by Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncing of Stalin’s cult of personality in February 1956. From then onwards, images of Stalin were far less common in Soviet art. Socialist Realism continued to be the official art style in the USSR until the 1980s, maintaining the same familiar ideals of progress, education, and the glory of the worker.
State controls on the arts continued to be strict in the Soviet Union, although the satellite states gained greater leeway from the mid-1960s. In 1974, a group of artistic dissidents organized an unofficial art show in a field near Moscow. The event was broken up and the artworks destroyed by water cannons and bulldozers. This event became known as “The Bulldozer Exhibition”. By the mid-1980s, the official rules were relaxed in the Soviet Union as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. Artists gained far more creative freedom in the art that they could create and display.