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Sebastian SmeureanuStrategic Influence


July 8, 2022 | | Strategic Influence | Written by Sebastian Smeureanu


B. S. Realism (Before Socialist Realism)

After the Russian Civil War, artists in all fields were very active and varied in their approach to craft as well as in their level of affinity to Lenin and his Bolsheviks. In literature - the first of artistic mediums to eventually fall victim to Stalin’s artistic coercion - groups like the independent-minded Serapion Brothers, the proletariat-themed Prolekult, and the ‘classic’ Formalists were free to experiment and publish works in the monthly Red Virgin Soil, for example, regardless of their political affiliation, and despite the magazine having been initiated at Lenin’s request. Alexander Voronsky, its editor and a Marxist literary critic, even maintained that art should not be created solely for the service of the proletariat cause. And in that opinion, he had a surprising supporter: Trotsky.1

A consequence of the New Economic Policy was the emergence of private publishing houses that started competing with those owned by the state. This competition paralleled that of two main writing groups. The ‘fellow travelers,’ as Trotsky named them, were mainly intellectuals who leaned way left (Mayakovsky’s agit poetry), way right (Zamyatir’s anti-Utopian novels), and everywhere in between. They informally formed the All-Russian Union of Writers and were considered to contain the best writers in Russia. On the other hand, the second group calling themselves the Association of Proletariat Writers (known as RAPP) was constantly vying for the Party’s support in dominating the former group. A truce was kept for a while by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar for Enlightenment, but, by the end of 1927, Stalin was well in control and the sharp direction change in the purpose of art in the Soviet Union was imminent: in December 1928, just two months after the launch of the first Five-Year Plan, the Central Committee decreed that Soviet writing should henceforth be shaped to support the objectives of the Plan through propaganda. For the first time, the Party abandoned its neutrality and gave full backing to the RAPP. By 1930, the aggressive methods of this Association successfully forced most writers, even the ‘fellow travelers,’ to fall in line with Party messaging when writing. But only two years later, the Central Committee, heavily influenced by Stalin’s wishes, decided that RAPP had served its purpose of proletariat propaganda but, now that the Five-Year Plan supposedly achieved so much progress towards socialism, all literature had to be socialist. Therefore, the Committee dissolved all groups to form a single Union of Soviet Writers, one that Stalin could more easily control and ideologically manipulate.2

Definition and Purpose of Socialist Realism

Ivan Gronsky, the head of the Union of Soviet Writers, is credited with first using the term ‘socialist realism’ in a May 1932 Moscow speech to leading writers in which he voiced the demand that writers need to “write the truth, portray truthfully our reality that is in itself dialectic. Therefore, the basic method of Soviet literature is the method of socialist realism.”3 Party spokesman Andrei Zhdanov pushed the mission further in his speech to the First Writer’s Congress by calling on the ‘engineers of human souls’ (Stalin’s term) not only to eschew ‘dead’ and ‘scholastic’ objective reality in favor of depicting “reality in its revolutionary development,” but also to contribute to the ideological reeducation of people toward embracing the spirit of socialism. “This will be no Utopian dream,” he stated, “for our tomorrow is already being prepared for today by dint of conscious, planned work.”4 This charge seems as difficult to carry out as proving Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle wrong by successfully determining BOTH the momentum AND the position of a particle at any given moment. Yet, writers like Alexander Fadeev, the ‘Tolstoy of Socialist Realism,’ managed to work this dynamic into the voice of one of his most celebrated Soviet protagonists, the ‘harmonious man’ Levinson: “To see everything as it is in order to be able to change what exists and to bring nearer what is coming into being and must eventually be…”5 This phrasing parallels other Communist theory semantic challenges like ‘central democracy’ or objectives like a classless society ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Paul Hollander provides a more direct definition of and purpose for socialist realism. He argues that such demands on the artistic content, especially in the literary genre, goes beyond the obvious motivations of political agitation and propaganda into totalitarian objectives of behavior modeling of individuals. It was meant to provide a set of values to be internalized that would support the party’s attempt to “supplement coercion with persuasion.” Two sociological ways to define socialist realism are as a theoretical framework with which to completely subordinate the arts to the wills of the Party or as a ‘set of rationalizations’ to justify stripping the arts of autonomy. This aesthetic doctrine is characterized by “tendentiousness, optimism, simplification, the politicization of conflicts, and typicality,” where typicality refers to “a device for presenting reality as it is supposed to be. As such, it is a means of evading or idealizing reality.6

Between the dissolution of RAPP and the First Writer’s Congress, three major concepts were generally agreed upon to support the doctrine of Socialist Realism. The first was that of ‘partiinost,’ the central element of the doctrine that presumed complete acceptance and support with the Party’s policies and activities. The next two address aesthetic concepts. ‘narodnost’ (“people-ness”) limited the acceptable characters to ordinary people and advised that their treatment should evoke love for them and for patriotism for Soviet Russia. It further castigated the ‘formalist’ and experimental language of the 1920s in favor of simple, plain language that common people could understand. As Ewa Thompson explains, this directive alone was to have long-term negative implications not just on the quality of post-Soviet writers’ vocabulary but also in how the language limited the perception of both the writers and their readers of their history and culture, even giving it a very chauvinistic tone.7 The third concept was ‘klassovost,’ or class character/nature. The aim here was to represent the fictional society as classless, on one level.8 This, of course, also posed a challenge in a territory with widely diverse groups whose art Lunacharsky often described as “folklore” and “folk art” so as to subordinate it to proletariat art. Stalin attempted to clarify this dilemma declaring that the new Soviet aesthetic be “socialist in content and nationalistic in form.” In other words, if the content for art was produced by the appropriate social class, namely the proletariat, then the resulting culture is the appropriate national culture. So Georgian fine art might show tea harvesting, but an Uzbekistani painting might show the harvest of cotton.9

To find a protagonist that fit within these parameters and place him in a narrative that followed Party line, the writers had to go in search of the new Soviet Man… and Woman. Two peculiarities can be pointed out regarding the resulting definition of this New Soviet Person. First, morally and intellectually, the person intended to represent the ‘ordinary’ individual was modeled often after intellectuals like I.P. Pavlov, or Gorky, or even Stalin himself, meaning the Party-approved perception of Stalin. In the visual arts, the Soviet Man could have been any cliché Hollywood leading man. Only the New Soviet Woman was purposely constructed to counter the “delicate grain of the Western ideal.”10 Second, it seems that many of the literary, theatrical, and even musical works referred to as exemplifying the doctrine of socialist realism were completed, or at least started, before 1934. Luker points this out to support Geoffrey Hosking’s claim that Socialist Realist work was already created by the artists themselves before it was ‘imposed’ by the state, but it stemmed from their personal instincts and ideas. This meant that the main contribution of the Party was actually “to assemble from the models available to it at the time a ‘synthetic prototype’ which suited its ideological purpose, and then set about imposing it on the literary community.” It also could account for the trend that the most popular works dealt with the periods of the Civil War and WWII, neither of which was particularly characteristic of the Soviet Regime.11

The positive hero

If one of the aims of socialist realism was, as Stalin put it, the ‘shaping of human souls,’ the result of this ideological and social sculpting was embodied in the artistic protagonist of the ‘positive hero.’ Hollander assess the common traits of the positive hero in Soviet (and Soviet Hungarian) literature. Many of them easily betray the underlying objectives of the Party and pose interesting and subtle consequences. The previously mentioned party-mindedness, for example, means the hero’s complete identification with the Party’s actions and policy but it also implies the hero, therefore, has no secrets and limited privacy from the Party. Collectivism or anti-individualism is often shown through the hero’s willingness to subject to self-criticism in front of the collective and to view personal problems as a hindrance to the better good: a helpful ally to the Soviet mechanism of atomizing the individual into hopelessness. Related to this trait are discipline, the willingness to obey orders at an instant and modesty, Stalin’s antidote to ‘dizziness with success.’ Complementing the move to ingrain distrust among the Soviet citizens is the hero’s constant vigilance for the Enemy and his attribution of all mistakes in institutional malfunctioning to the malevolence of the Enemy rather than to accident. Activism and the love of work of the hero protagonists serves both to increase the importance of productivity in the industrialization efforts and to render inferior the activity of reflection and contemplation. Replacing the need to reflect on one’s environment is the hero’s constant optimism, the feeling that any present ‘inconveniences’ or imperfections are irrelevant in the face of the historical magnitude of the hero’s pursuits and of the promise of what is to come. When describing the positive hero’s selective emotionalism, Hollander corrects the often- mistaken characterization of the hero as non-emotional and points to the manipulated energy of emotion away from personal life to the encouraged passionate support of external political and human symbols of the Party. But other traits would appear equally applicable to Western protagonists. Puritanism, in the Soviet sense, shows a hero preoccupied with spiritual/ideological themes who is always sensitive to violation of his moral code, by him or by others. Similarly, his adaptability and drive for self-improvement could serve him equally well if done in the service of the Party12 or on command from God. The difference lies in the level of coercion.

A ‘portrait’ of coercion and persecution

Plekhanov, much admired by Lenin despite their ideological differences, examined how art can be connected to the Marxist concept of society and concluded that ‘art for art’s sake’ only happens when the artists are blind to the social changes around them and that art that expresses “the great emancipatory ideas of the time is preferable.” And those ideas, of course, are always based on economic causes. But he did not discount the importance of some objective measures of art, such as beauty, not in the aesthetic sense of the subject himself, but of the compositional presentation of the subject. And he also did not believe its purpose to be propaganda. Such nuances were enough to enter conflict with the likes of Lunacharsky.13

Lenin, however, sought to capitalize on art’s evangelical potential and set out in his Plan for Monumental Propaganda (1918) the order to ‘urgently’ build more than fifty monuments to famous figures. They would include those of Garibaldi, Robert Owen, Chopin, as well as Russian luminaries, apparently aiming to present the international nature of the Bolsheviks at the time.
This was followed by a progressive attack against anything labeled avant-garde, formalist, or experimental. By 1919, the winner of an art competition titled ‘The Great Russian Revolution’ was a portrait of Lenin. But for Lenin, this was about the power of branding, not about a personal cult.14

Not so for Stalin. The radical intrusion of his ‘socialist realist’ aesthetic doctrine forced artists to create art that presented anything but reality. This omnipresent cultural environment of what Pipes calls ‘surreality’ over time created a psychological schism, a schizophrenia of known versus publicly admitted truth that caused people to lie just to survive and that destroyed the social ethic of an entire part of the world.15 For those who resisted the doctrine, the best they could hope for is the freedom to no longer create art. The worst outcome, however, is well exemplified by the tragic journey of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the theater director, actor, and theater producer. Although early in the affront on formalism and the avant-garde he managed to navigate the dangerous waters of non-conformance by proactively engaging in self-criticism, his repeated dedication to his own ideal of art and what art Russia actually needed placed him in the crosshairs of Stalin’s apparatus. In June of 1939, while addressing a theater director conference presided over by Vyshinski (by now one of the famous prosecutors of the Moscow show trials), Meyerhold bravely declared that “if what you have been doing with the Soviet theater recently is what you call anti-formalism, if you consider what is now taking place on the stages of the best theaters in Moscow as an achievement of the Soviet theater, then I would prefer to be what you consider a ‘formalist.’ In my heart, I consider what is now taking place in our theatres frightful and pitiful.” On his return to Leningrad he was arrested. Days later, his Moscow apartment was breached and his actress wife, Zinaida Raikh, stabbed more than a dozen times. That apartment apparently then went to the driver of Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD. Archives later revealed a journal entry in which Meyerhold graphically describes his torture at the hands of the NKVD during which he ‘confessed’ just so he can escape the excruciating pain. He was shot on February 2, 1940.16


The relevance of this surreal and tragic period in art to our times hinges on whether we think its influence has dissipated. Recent adjustments to the definition and purpose of what is known in social sciences as ‘social justice’ intimates that the aims of socialist realism are alive and well. Far from the traditional objective of fighting for human rights for all around the world, social justice ‘warriors’ in the United States are increasingly exhibiting characteristics of socialist realism aesthetics with similarly constructed goals. Distort reality to create or increase societal conflict and gain political ground on the promise of what ‘could be.’ As Hollander reminds us, “the most fundamental and far reaching … goal of socialist realism is to alter people’s perception of reality.”17 The socialist content is now provided by the multitude of academic and media institutions whose purpose is to create the perception that legitimate problems are more serious than they are: gender, race, LGBTQT rights, wealth inequality, etc., are used as ammo for the atomization of American society. Today, just as with the targeted attacks on specific artists during the Soviet regime, social justice activism makes the political “narrowly personal, while the personal becomes nothing but politics. The individual person is reduced to mere emblem of political meaning, while politics is reduced to the political (moral) worthiness, or lack thereof, of the individual person. Politics becomes individual morality based on social justice standards.”18 National security’s ‘borders’ have always been in a state of breach. What makes today’s environment more precarious is the difficulty of identifying atomizing and agitating threats to our democratic institutions and civil life as initiated by ‘fellow travelers’ of adversaries or just by ‘useful innocents’ vulnerable to polarization.


1 Luker, Nicholas J. L. From Furmanov to Sholokhov: an Anthology of the Classics of Socialist Realism. Ardis, 1988, pgs. 11-14.

2 Ibid., pgs. 16-17.

3 Ibid., p. 18.

4 Ibid., p. 20.

5 Ibid., p.28.

6 Hollander, Paul. “Models of Behavior in Stalinist Literature: A Case Study of Totalitarian Values and
Controls.” American Sociological Review, vol. 31, no. 3, 1966, p. 353-354., doi:10.2307/2090823.

7 Thompson, Ewa M. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism. Greenwood Press, 2000, pgs. 34-36, 150.

8 Luker, From Furmanov to Sholokhov, 1988, p. 21-22.

9 Tagangaeva, Maria. “‘Socialist in Content, National in Form:’ the Making of Soviet National Art and the Case of Buryatia.” Nationalities Papers, vol. 45, no. 3, 2017, pp. 393–409., doi:10.1080/00905992.2016.1247794.

10 Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Art under Stalin. Holmes & Meier, 1991, p.114.

11 Luker, From Furmanov to Sholokhov, 1988, p. 24.

12 Hollander, “Models of Behavior in Stalinist Literature: A Case Study of Totalitarian Values and Controls,” 1966,
pgs. 355-360.

13 Copleston, Frederick. Russian Philosophy. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2003, pgs. 273-279.

14 Bown, Art under Stalin, 1991, pgs. 27-30.

15 Pipes, Richard. Communism. Phoenix, 2002, pgs. 69-70.

16 McSmith, Andy. Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: the Russian Masters - from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein - under Stalin. New Press, 2015, pgs. 353-355.

17 Hollander, “Models of Behavior in Stalinist Literature: A Case Study of Totalitarian Values and Controls,” 1966, p. 354.

18 Rectenwald, Michael. Springtime for Snowflakes: "Social Justice" and Its Postmodern Parentage: a Memoir. New English Review Press, 2018, p. 116.



Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Art under Stalin. Holmes & Meier, 1991.

Copleston, Frederick. Russian Philosophy. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2003.

Hollander, Paul. “Models of Behavior in Stalinist Literature: A Case Study of Totalitarian Values and Controls.” American Sociological Review, vol. 31, no. 3, 1966, p. 352., doi:10.2307/2090823.

Luker, Nicholas J. L. From Furmanov to Sholokhov: an Anthology of the Classics of Socialist Realism. Ardis, 1988.

McSmith, Andy. Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: the Russian Masters - from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein - under Stalin. New Press, 2015.

Pipes, Richard. Communism. Phoenix, 2002.

Rectenwald, Michael. Springtime for Snowflakes: "Social Justice" and Its Postmodern Parentage: a Memoir. New English Review Press, 2018.

Tagangaeva, Maria. “‘Socialist in Content, National in Form:’ the Making of Soviet National Art and the Case of Buryatia.” Nationalities Papers, vol. 45, no. 3, 2017, pp. 393–409., doi:10.1080/00905992.2016.1247794.

Thompson, Ewa M. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism. Greenwood Press, 2000.

Sebastian is a M.A. candidate at IWP in the Statecraft & National Security program, a Creative & Executive Director of Dacian Wolf Productions, and Associate Director of Academic Resources, Inc. He is interested in Public Diplomacy, soft power, narrative and information operations.