Socialist Realism

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Socialist realism was declared the reigning method of Soviet literature at The First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in August, 1934. The movement was enunciated by Maksim Gorky as a continuation of the Russian realist tradition best represented by Lev Tolstoi, infused with the ideology and optimism of socialism. It had roots in some pre-revolutionary intellectual circles, and was at least as appropriate as any other artistic method to express the vision of a socialist society. Socialist realism was unique only in that it was the sole official method of the state. Soviet critics would have denied that this was new. Other ruling classes – the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie – had enforced official aesthetics through sponsorship and taste. Of course the proletariat would do the same.

Socialist realism was best characterized by the watch words accessibility (dostupnost’), the spirit of the people (narodnost’), and the spirit of the party (partiinost’). The most authoritative if vaguest formulation of the method was Joseph Stalin’s, who was cited (somewhat inaccurately) to affirm that socialist realism was ‘socialist in content, national in form.’ Writers were wise not to use fancy language, artists and composers not to be too refined in their techniques. The subjects and heroes of these works were usually uncomplicated, reliable, their politics predictable (if not always the core of the tale). Such works could be entertaining, as was Yuri Krymov’s Tanker Derbent (1938), an adventure tale that hinged on an undisciplined crew brought together by their Communist captain.

Proclaimed as a unitary method, socialist realism took many different forms depending on the time, the artistic medium and the national culture in which it was created. Fashionable at the time of the method’s declaration were production novels, including the fine Time Forward! of Valentin Kataev (1932), about young workers’ attempts to build a huge steel plant in record time. Painters produced works celebrating the industrial achievements of the first and seconds Five-Year Plans. Music was a more difficult medium to work in, since there is nothing inherently realistic in musical composition. The prescribed method underwent frequent changes as it followed the party line. At all times the going description was proclaimed to be permanent, rooted in Marxism-Leninism, and official. Writers, even loyal and servile writers, had great difficulties following the line. History is riddled with examples of canonic writers such as Fedor Gladkov, author of the classic Cement (1924), and Aleksandr Fadeev, chairman of the Writers’ Union and author of such classics as The Rout (1927) and The Young Guard (1945) being forced to rewrite their work to conform to the standards. At its worst, socialist realism was turgid and cliché-ridden. Its heroes were chaste, patriotic, loyal; it featured the leaders of party and state, foremost Joseph Stalin. Such was the overwhelming pattern in the years after the Second World War, when Andrei Zhdanov reigned as party chief of ideology and culture.

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