Socialist Realism - What Was It All About?

December 20, 2015

Imagine: The Empire is destroyed. An entire line of princes, kings and emperors longer than one millennium is now terminated. You have terminated it, in blood, cruelly and unmercifully, killing everyone that had anything to do with royalty, even children. The inconceivably large, vast country is yours to command and control. But, not everything is perfect for you: your subjects are illiterate, completely uneducated, neglected and left to themselves. And you have big, huge plans: you want to build your country from the ashes, on totally new foundations, so it could become the most powerful country in the world. You know that it could be done, but not with citizens like yours. Heck, could they be called citizens at all? They were a little more than servants, and you want them to become much, much more: you want them to become new, better people. You need a new man to be born. But in order to do that, you'll need to change everything around them. No problem, you say.

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Vasily Sergeyevich Orlov - Native Land

The Beginnings

Yes, you've guessed it right, your name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, they call you Lenin, and your newly conquered territory was called Russia up until now. You'll name it Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and several years later - the Soviet Union. But here we won't be talking that much about what has been done since 1917, when Bolsheviks took power and nationalized all land, natural resources and industry in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We will talk about how Bolsheviks tried to change and mold the ordinary citizen of the Soviet Union through something called Socialist realism. Now, what is Socialist realism? In short, that was an ideology enforced by the Soviet Union as the official standard for art and literature, based on the premise and the principle that the arts should serve to political and social ideals of communism. In other words, it was the officially approved art - and the only one allowed. Socialist realism was officially endorsed in 1934, ten years after Lenin's death, but it was Vladimir Lenin that paved the way for this kind of art style, let's call it that way. One of the first steps in creating a new Soviet man was exposing that future better man to the enormous amount of propaganda. But, hey, remember: there was no television back then, in fact, there was hardly any electricity at all. How to conduct your propaganda without TV or radio? Press, you say. OK, fair enough, but you can't do anything via press when the vast majority of your citizens is illiterate. So, what do you have left?

painting society stalin works artist russian realist social life arts view history russia socialist realism
Alexander Laktionov’s Visiting My Grandmother, 1930, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2011 for $400,000.

Yep, the good old art: everyone should be able to understand a picture, right? Right. That was exactly the forerunner and precondition which created Socialist realism several years later: according to Lenin's conception, it was necessary for art to belong to ordinary people, proletariat, and to be easily understood. He also believed that this new kind of art should "expose crimes of capitalism and praise socialism", and to be "created to inspire readers and viewers to stand up for the revolution". So, in other words, that was a big no-no to all of that "decadent bourgeois art" that existed before the revolution, such as Impressionist art and Cubism. During Lenin's time, there was a variety of art forms inside the Soviet Union - although Lenin believed that abstract art was useless for propaganda because citizens wouldn't understand it, Constructivism was blooming. Of course, the main course was set, with aesthetics based on the human body, but during Lenin's New Economic Policy there was still some private entrepreneurship allowed, and the artists had produced their art for money. That all came to an end in 1932, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered all literary and artistic groups and organizations to be dismissed and replaced with unified associations of creative professions. In 1934, Socialist Realism was now endorsed as the "official style of Soviet culture".

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Isaak Brodsky - Lenin

The Rules

If you have learned your history lessons, you are well aware of the fact that the 1930s were not good years for living in the Soviet Union. During the Great Purge, more than one million people were executed by the Stalin-led Soviet Union, under false and fabricated charges of sabotage, espionage and undermining the system. With that atmosphere of omnipresent terror serving as inspiration for George Orwell's 1984, you are guessing that things weren't pretty for the art and the artists as well. There were strict rules on how art should look: religious, erotic, expressionist or abstract art were forbidden, as well as the internal dialogue and stream of consciousness in literature. The paintings were supposed to strive towards the absolutely realistic depiction of things, and they also needed to be in line with Marxism-Leninism ideas, "to involve workers in the construction of socialism" and "to claim a leading role for the Communist Party". During the 1934 Congress, when Socialist Realism was endorsed, four rules or guidelines were prescribed - art was supposed to be proletarian (relevant for the working class, and understandable to them), typical (depicting everyday scenes from people's lives), realistic and partisan (to support the proclaimed goals of the state and the party). Any artwork that did not comply with those guidelines was censored or banned, and the artist was severely punished (Pay attention here: take a look at what today's Chinese president Xi Jinping thinks about art and culture. Resembles, right?).

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Viktor Efimovich Popkov - The Builders of Bratsk, 1960

Socialist Realism - Art or Propaganda?

So, in a way, in the Soviet Union, art was used as educational information. The relationship between art and politics was crucial here - its biggest goal and purpose was to show the citizens how everything got better after the revolution, and because of the revolution. Stalin himself described the Socialist realist artists as "engineers of souls". And what were those engineers creating? In a nutshell, everything that had shown why the communist system of Soviet Union was the best system in the world: happy workers, youth, school children, sunlight, industrial successes, planes, tractors, flowers, harvests; everyone was happy and healthy and strong.

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Ivan Bevzenko - Young Steel Workers, 1961

Now, some say that, after these rules for Socialist realism were set, this kind of art truly had blossomed and improved; it actually diversified inside the given framework, and, all in all, it was a great period for the development of art in the Soviet Union. Painters achieved technical perfection, and many of their paintings - landscapes, portraits, studies - were not at all ideological: they were just great paintings, free from all kinds of ideology. While it is true that this was the period of time when art was really important to the state - the state was the biggest and the only customer - it is also true that art was seriously maltreated and abused by that same state.

One of the main qualities of any good art is its creativity. And yet, creativity was not an important part of Socialist realism, to say the least - actually, it was a rather unwanted guest. The only thing that mattered was commitment and loyalty to the Party; does it really matter whether those kinds of paintings were technically perfect? Also, another line of argument goes like this: Socialist realism is just an extension of traditional Russian realism, that was presented by such masters as Ilya Repin, back in the 19th century. And while Hyperrealism is "beautiful, but soulless", Socialist realism had actually brought true emotions of the period when it was in charge. Yet, we fail to see how Socialist realism was "realism". Realism should depict things the way they are, and Socialist realism was not depicting reality, but the idealistic vision of a communist empire. It was showing how utopia looks like, and it didn't have anything in common with real, everyday life of Stalin's Soviet Union. In a way, since it was depicting the world that didn't exist, Socialist realism should be called Socialist Surrealism. After Stalin's death in 1953, repression loosened up a bit, resulting in the creation of a new kind of realism that was known as Severe Style. The Socialist realism was going towards a dead end, and it was when new liberties were introduced with Gorbachev in the middle of the 1980s that the "movement" was pretty much done. Ordinary people were completely sick of it - at first, they did not want to see anything like it, and then, later, they made fun with this kind of art.

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Picking up the Banner 1957-1960. Painted by Gely Mikhailovich

The Comeback

Yet, not everyone made fun of Socialist realism art. The value of most of the artworks from that period simply collapsed just like the Soviet Union did in 1991. Nobody from the former Soviet Union wanted anything to do with the art from Socialist realism period. And guess what happens when prices of goods go so low? There's always someone who shows up and buys it. This happened to Socialist realism artworks, as well. Several Western collectors, as well as some Russian tycoons, spotted the chance and started to buy off that forgotten art. As time went by, the new generations had grown, and they did not know anything about how life between 1930 and 1980 was depicted. General public started to rediscover these artists, and this process was often followed by a sense of nostalgia in older people. After the year 2000, some auction houses started including Socialist realism art into their offers; the Sovkom auction house from Russia sold more than 50,000 lots of this art during the past decade. Big auction houses followed the trail - in 2010, Yuri Pimenov’'s First of May Celebration from 1950 was sold for $1.5 million at Sotheby's London, and it is considered to be the highest paid Socialist realism painting so far.

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Dmitry Zhilinsky - Bathing soldiers (The builders of a bridge), 1959

According to some data, during the past 20 years, the masterpieces of Socialist realism have increased their prices up to 20 times, and the biggest buyers are Chinese and American collectors. Apart from the masterpiece market, there are also a lot of works that are valued in four digits - there is a vast amount of artworks from that period that cost as much as $10,000. These pieces are being bought by Russian collectors, many of whom have grown up during those times. In 2014, Sotheby's London held a non-commercial exhibition named Soviet Art. Soviet Sport. with about 40 artworks from Socialist realism period, and in June they sold a collection of 24 works by Soviet artists for almost $8 million. It appears that this period and its art has somehow erased stigma from their names, especially in the eyes of those who never lived in the Soviet Union. That old saying that everything can be sold if you have enough time, apparently, applies to Socialist realism art.

Editors’ Tip: Socialist Realisms: Great Soviet Painting by Matthew Bown and Matteo Lanfranconi

Explore further about the Soviet realist movement. The development of this style over fifty years is presented in this comprehensive publication through a selection of works from Russia’s leading museums. As an outstanding phenomenon in the twentieth-century art, it referred the value of content over form and restored the central role of traditional practices. It presented an alternative artistic system. The works of the leading artists such as Deineka, Malevich, Adlivankin, Laktionov, Plastov, Brodsky or Korzhev, feature multiple themes and approaches to art. The movement did not originate solely as the product of totalitarian control and political pressures but it also reflected internal issues and great historic events of the twentieth century.

Featured image: Boris Vladimirski - Roses for Stalin, detail. All images used for illustrative purposes only.