Socialist Realism

From the beginning of the Socialist regime in 1917, Soviet art focused on exalting the proletariat and the motherland. Soviet artists were encouraged by the government to create “beautiful” art that would enhance the state by glorifying the masses and their leaders in their socialist society. Lenin himself once said:

Art belongs to the people. Its roots should be deeply implanted in the very thick of the laboring masses. It should be understood and loved by these masses. It must unite and elevate their feelings, thoughts and will. It must stir to activity and develop the instincts within them.

Soviet paintings often depict peasants doing everyday things in everyday life, such as Spring has Arrived by Yuri Sanin. Portraits of Lenin and Stalin as well as of collective farmers, milkmaids, and other workers dominate the portrait paintings of the time. Portrait of the Milkmaid Olga Levont by Anatoli Levitin and Controller in the Port Gtorgiu-Dezh by Vladimir Shpakovsky are good examples. The government encouraged these paintings as uplifting to the population. The style of this art tends to be realistic, because while the rest of the world was experimenting with artistic styles and going more “modern” in its approach to art, the government of the Soviet Union encouraged its artists to stay traditional in style, because this art was considered more “beautiful” – more what the masses could understand and appreciate. Progressive Western artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali were frowned upon as “modern” and “un-beautiful”. While the rest of the world was embracing modern art and the avant-garde – “art for art’s sake” – the Soviet government endorsed Socialist Realism, which was art for the people’s sake.

Artists were called upon to express the promise of Utopia that could be achieved under a perfect communistic society. We, in this day and age, tend to think of Socialist Russia as a dark, cold, dismal society of millions of miserable people. However, if we had arrived at our opinion of Socialist Russia merely by looking at the art exhibited at that time, we would think, exactly as the government wished, “What a marvelous civilization! Everyone works together to strive for a perfect society!” The Communist Party encouraged the artists to express this – the optimistic outlook on life for the people. Their ideal was “everybody working together to create a perfect world in which to live.” It seems somewhat of a paradox that with all our present-day ideas of a miserable, cold, starving people in a remote land, so much art should come out of this time depicting a happy, optimistic people with such collective rewards in their lives. However, this must also be taken with a grain or two of salt – artworks depicting anything other than happy, optimistic scenes were frowned upon by the government. These scenes did not uplift society. They did not uplift the government. They were thus deemed “bad” and unacceptable, especially under Stalin’s rule. Artists painted these types of scenes at their own risk, often hiding them away in cellars and attics, where they remained until the fall of communism in Russia.