At Large  January 31, 2023  Effie Jackson

Exploring the History of Socialist Realism

WikiArt

Ilya Mashkov, Soviet Breads, 1936.

As empires fell and made way for nation-states, dissolving Medieval social structures, rapid industrialization led to the development of Realism, a period from the mid-to-late nineteenth century that rejected the conservative and elitist structure of the Neoclassical movement that had ruled since the Renaissance. Being under royal rule until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Realism was used as a vehicle of political commentary during the early nineteenth century. However, as the Communist party of the USSR formed, Socialist Realism developed as a vehicle for social control and manipulation that figuratively, and literally, held artists hostage and dictated the movement to become a factory for Soviet propaganda.

WikiArt.

Boris Kustodiev, Poster Leningrad Department of State Publishing (Lengiz), 1925.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russia abolished its monarchy and saw a violent civil war that threatened national stability and identity until the installment of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) as leader of the Russian Communist party. The success of the Russian Revolution at dismantling the nation’s former monarchy and aristocracy bred similar movements across Europe, such as the German Revolution of 1918 establishing the Weimar Republic, which ultimately led to the formation of the Nazi regime. Since both regimes were infamously totalitarian and committed atrocities regarding human rights and genocide, Socialist Realism was developed and embraced as a method of social control and manipulation. Socialist Realism began, like other Modern art movements, as a protest of the conservative and elitist Neoclassical structure that had dominated salons since the Renaissance. 

Ironically, the movement originally began during the early twentieth century when the House of Romanov ruled Russia, as a celebration of nature and humanity. As the political landscape shifted farther right, however, the style transformed into a tool of Communist propaganda. The representations of humanity to come after the Russian Revolution were ones that embraced the ideals of Marxism-Leninism that inspired Stalin’s policy, such as images of labor, a government of and for the people, and a myth of a utopian society far from the reality of Russian life during the period.

WikiArt.

Pavel Filonov, Udarnitzi (Record Breaking Workers) at the Factory Krasnaya Zaria, 1931.

With the reality of Russian life being grimmer than the utopia it presented in art, Russian literature and culture scholar Petre Petrov categorizes Socialist Realism as Stalin’s “premeditated rape of the real” in its “epistemic violence against reality”. According to Petrov and other scholars, Stalin was a leader whose power relied on hiding the truth of a failing Russian economy. Works such as Udarnitzi (Record Breaking Workers) at the Factory Krasnaya Zaria (1931) by Pavel Filonov (1883-1941) and Soviet Breads (1931) by Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944) portray a bustling workforce, stable economy, and food surplus. According to Petrov, the sociopolitical structure of Communist Russia was arguably just as oppressive as it was under the Romanovs, with the elite and privileged living comfortable lives while millions of peasants starved. Despite their intentions of emancipating the proletariat, Communist Russia abandoned lower social classes while exploiting them for propaganda. Petrov suggests that Socialist Realism was potentially a tool for manifesting a better and stable future for the Russian economy, but that it was not successful as a tool of falsification.

The Lithuanian Art Fund.

Paškevičius Mykolas, In the Ruins of War, 1942.

Although it originated in Russia with the political installment of Josef Stalin in 1924, a breakout of Communism throughout the early-to-mid twentieth century saw art, literature, theater, and music throughout these regimes embrace Socialist Realism. The romanticization of fantasy in Socialist Realism became dangerous after the German Revolution of 1918 saw the violently unstable Weimar Republic eventually give way to the horrendous National Socialist Party in Germany, also known as the Nazi party. As Russia had success in covering up its impoverished reality, other Communist regimes such as the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Since both regimes have notoriously used propaganda to portray an altered reality, it contextualizes the complex, and even dangerous, history of the Socialist Realism movement.

WikiArt.

Boris Kustodiev, Peoples of the USSR before and now (old and new life in Central Asia), 1926.

With current regimes in North Korea and Russia continuing to threaten global peace, the realities of Socialist Realism continue today. With the war in Ukraine as a decades-old Soviet grudge, and North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons across borders, these regimes continue to use methods of propaganda to portray a need for liberation from Western ideals, despite the grueling reality of their failing governments. As Petrov argues, the difference lies in perspective: is it “our” or “their” world? Socialist Realism sought to balance powers at be, but only further perpetuated atrocities it once portrayed freedom from.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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