Orient yourself as an artist, and you will come to a point where you must determine your intent. Philosophies vary. You might work from within, giving voice to your inner world to influence the external; but you might also take the place of a cog in the wheel, a mechanism upholding an ideology that will structure your community.
Would you rise to the challenge when you disagreed with external influence, or would you support this higher ideal?
Throughout the seven decades in which the Soviet Union attempted its social experiment, the artist was recognized as a figure integral to the USSR's social thriving. Artists were treated with esteem and enjoyed certain privileges, not least because they had the responsibility of influencing politics and shaping social opinion.
An artist’s potential was realized when her work reflected her system of belief, and her role was to instruct and influence. Only one official art movement developed during this period. The aesthetic, called Socialist Realism, required that art would only be created in service to Soviet ideology
Under Socialist Realism, artists – filmmakers, performers, sci-fi writers, comics, musicians, painters and others – bolstered efforts to develop a socialist society and a “new man.” The movement demanded a historically accurate depiction of revolution and required that artists record the development of Soviet society. The artist’s work should also re-educate the masses to help them adapt to the ideal Soviet system. Three integral elements of the Socialist Realist movement were ideological correctness, a proper party spirit, and accessibility. The varying art forms were regarded and regulated with the same principles in mind.
Planning for the centralized control of artistic output began prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks began disseminating party literature before they came to power, and once they achieved revolution and conquered the allied forces of the White Army in the Russian Civil War, they began developing organizations such as the censorship office Glavlit (founded in 1922) to formalize their regulation of the arts.
The Bolshevik Revolution made art accessible for the proletariat and it became a vital means for disseminating the new Soviet ideology.
Lenin perceived the role of the arts in society as means to transmit his policies, rather than as a money-making bourgeois pursuit. He believed that self-expression, beauty, or popularity should not distinguish Soviet art. He also viewed literature as something larger than the individual, something that must subserviate itself to the common good, must work for the proletariat cause. Accordingly, during this period some artists began creating to oppose the “old order.”
Artists also had relative freedom at this time. While Lenin preferred traditional artistic movements, he did not attempt to stem others. Rather, he encouraged the development of the arts.
Under Stalin, however, Soviet artists faced severe repression. The Soviet government strictly controlled any art movements other than Socialist Realism and censored dissident creatives.
In 1932, the Communist Party Central Committee “On the Restructuring of Literary and Artistic Organizations” established “creative unions” (творческие союзы) as organizations that would oversee, censor and direct all creative productions. The first unions regulated writers, composers, and architects. During this period, a single union of artists and writers would bind the work of creatives to the regime’s ideology.
Other unions were later established. The Artists’ Union was developed in 1957, the Journalists’ Union in 1959, the Cinematographers’ Union in 1965, the Theatrical Workers’ Union in 1986, and the Designers’ Union in 1987.
During this period, xenophobia and emphasis on Soviet superiority were so extreme that people joked about how Soviet wristwatches were faster than any other. The Soviet government went so far as to claim that they were the first to invent the radio, the electrical transformer, the parachute, and even the airplane.
For Stalin, artists and their creations were a means to reach cultural Orthodoxy. Cultural radicals were first used to diminish non-proletariat art, and once Stalin had the intelligentsia subordinated, he repressed the cultural radicals.
Stalin served as the “first censor” of the arts. While he envisioned a perfect Soviet system, his moods would also determine the fate of artists that displeased him. Their violations of his sensibilities could result in imprisonment, but they might also resolve with the artist’s termination. Stalin’s whims particularly impacted writers due to his high regard for the written word.
After the death of Stalin, artists and creatives had time to relish in new freedom, and during the period of “de-Stalinization,” they gained the confidence needed to begin experimenting with new forms.
This is not to say that Soviet artists attained perfect autonomy once Stalin kicked it. The Soviet government continued to dictate artistic production and messaging at their whim and the logic that determined the principles of Soviet art continued to reign, with minor variations, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
If an artist violated the Communist ideal, the government would censure and even punish her. If the cultural climate strayed too far from the ideal – as can be seen in the way the Soviets regulated the satirical magazine Crocodile – Soviet leadership would condemn transgressions and even replace leaders of a publication.
Once Gorbachev implemented “Glasnost” and “Perestroika,” policies that eased censorship and other social restrictions, artists were free to create without fear. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, artists could create work without any regulation.
Although artists were held to high standards throughout the Soviet period, many led comfortable and privileged lives. The Union of Artists of the U.S.S.R. was a trade union that required that its members maintain “certain ethical, aesthetic and ideological objectives, which are defined in the Constitution of the Union.” The Union welcomed any Soviet citizen to call him or herself an artist, but required that any Union member pass art school and participate in public exhibitions before gaining membership.
Members of the Artist’s Union were well supported. They received assistance distributing their work and all materials needed to create. Apartment blocks were built for artists alongside housing for scientists and other government appointees during the years of the Soviet Union. Some artists and creatives gained such status that they received special benefits from the Soviet government. They would take paid vacations to resorts designed for both party and government apparatchiks, with all food, lodging, and travel expenses covered.
Some creatives were true believers in the Communist System, and they upheld the principles of the ideology through their work. This is reflected in how artists under Lenin began producing work to oppose the “old order.”
Later in the Soviet period, the ease of living – with materials and accommodation provided – enticed Soviet artists to embrace cultural complacency. They had experienced suppression and the sporadic permissiveness of different eras and so learned to adapt to the Soviet yoke when it was lowered. When it came down to it, they were not especially hurried to eschew their privilege.
For others, however, life as a Soviet creative required sacrifice. Because they needed to consider their subject matter with sensitivity, creatives formed habits that would enable them to survive the displeasure of the Soviet leadership. It was common knowledge what might or might not be created, published, or printed, and many artists learned to self-censor.
The Soviet mechanisms for censorship were strict enough to condition a population to abide by its rules. Literature, for example, needed five editors to approve its content, and if it concerned the officials enough it might reach the Central Committee. Representatives of the Communist Party and the KGB also commonly assessed the works, although it was not always a transparent process when these officials became involved.
It was difficult to survive as an unofficial artist in the Soviet Union. If a creative wanted to avoid a charge of “parasitism” – a charge that might imprison a dissident, as unemployment was declared “non-existent” – they would have to maintain an official job.
There were also those who found ways to dissent, subverting the Party through self-publishing contraband materials also known as samizdat. Samizdat first appeared just after the October revolution, although it gained almost no real ground until after the period of Stalin’s rule. These underground publications opposed Soviet ideology and critiqued an array of Soviet programs including culture, economics, law and how religious and ethnic minorities were treated.
The samizdat provided a space for artists and citizens to challenge the status quo or act as a social record-keeper. One publication, The Chronicle of Current Events, used underground networks to detail human rights abuses and maintained a high level of accuracy.
However, creators of samizdat faced limited printing methods. Copy machines were strictly controlled, and so many turned to the typewriter to produce new copies of the contraband material. A more common method was to use carbon and tissue paper to make multiple copies. Because of copying methods, many texts were also generated with mistakes that would multiply as the material was reproduced by new hands. Other copies would contain smudges, lines running off the pages, or pale type. The material would wear quickly when passed from hand to hand.
There was no way to exist as a Soviet artist without some limitation or making some form of compromise.
Some creatives believed, some resisted, some capitulated, some were comfortable with the demands of the regime. They responded to the strict direction of the Communist Party, as could only be expected, with acts as varied as there are kinds of men.
But some artists chose to escape. Emigre writers such as Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov, artists like Tamara de Lempicka, and musician Lazar Gosman fled the Communist regime. These creators left behind censorship and, in some eras, the threat of physical harm to participate in movements unfettered by Soviet restraints.
This is not to say that creatives of the Soviet period did not produce works of brilliant composition and technical innovation, nor does it imply a lack of imagination.
It has been said that limitations can foster creativity. Creating under Soviet Ideology, with its unique boundaries, produced a generation of art that reformed, reshaped, guided, and constructed the image of the ideal Communist citizen.
1. “In the Land of Soviet Art.” Artsper Magazine. Accessed 3.26.2021. https://blog.artsper.com/en/a-closer-look/art-in-the-land-of-soviets/
2. Komaromi, Ann. “The Material Existence of Soviet Samizdat.” Slavic Review, Autumn 2004, Vol. 63, No.3. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1520346. PDF.
3. Lazrev, M. “The Organization of Artists’ Work in the U.S.S.R.” Leonardo, Spring 1979, Vol. 12, No.2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1573832. PDF.
4. Lilvik, Oleg. “The Elite and their Privileges in the Soviet Union.” October 28 2020. Communist Crimes. https://communistcrimes.org/en/elite-and-their-privileges-soviet-union. Accessed 3.23.2021.
5. Ramm, Benjamin. “The Writers Who Defied Soviet Censors.” BBC. July 24 2017. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170724-the-writers-who-defied-soviet-censors. Accessed 3.23.2021.
6. “Samizdat.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/samizdat. Accessed 3.23.2021.
7. Sanders, Thomas. “The Management of Art in the Soviet Union.” Entremons: UPF Journal of World History, June 2015, No.7. PDF.
8. Somerville, John. “Philosophy of Art in the Soviet Union.” The American Slavic and East European Review, December 1945, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, pp. 1-17. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2491758. PDF.
9. Stelmakh, Valeria D. “Reading in the Context of Censorship in the Soviet Union.” Libraries & Culture, Winter 2001, Vol. 36, No.1. University of Texas Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25548897. PDF.
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602