Socialist Realism


Socialist Realism Essay, Research Paper

The civil strife and chaos that had torn Russia limb from limb in the 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.

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