Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 11, Day 2. Our subject today is Socialist Realism, which was the official aesthetic for Soviet arts that was established in the 1930s, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
This week, I’ve met with just about all of you to discuss you Research Questions and List of Sources for your final papers. I think these meetings have gone really well. It’s been great to see you all, and I’ve really enjoyed talking through your ideas with you! I still have not met with Liam and Owen. If you guys are watching this video, or if anyone who is in touch with either of them is watching and can pass on this message, please email me! It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do with your paper, or even if you are feeling too stressed out to think about your paper. The important thing is that we should connect, and we’ll figure it out from there.
The next step in our final paper assignment is the three-page rough draft. This draft should include your Introduction and you Thesis Statement, as well as part of the body section of your paper. What I want to do is make sure you been able to identify your argument and see how you are working with primary sources, using them as evidence to support your claims. This is due on Friday, April 24 at 5pm and once again you should submit it on Sakai. I will send you back written comments as quickly as possible. If you want to have another virtual office hours meeting to talk through my comments, we can definitely do that. Just let me know.
Today, we’re taking our investigation of Soviet cultural revolution into the Stalin Era. Believe it or not, this is also the last day of our unit on Cultural Revolution! It feels to me like this unit went by really quickly. Still, here we are, and that means that it’s a good time to connect again with your Timeline Groups and coordinate your posts for this unit on the Revolutions Timeline. You have until the end of the semester to get your Timeline posts up. But you might like to get it out of the way now, before you get knee-deep in your final papers. It looks like we don’t have any posts up yet for Social Revolution, either, so while you’re talking with the folks in your Timeline Group, go ahead and coordinate on that, as well.
So, Socialist Realism: what was it? Well, that’s the million dollar question of Soviet cultural history. The sources we’re reading for today are going to help us explore that question. But first, let’s fill in the historical context. Last time, we discussed the various theories and experiments for establishing a new culture for the Soviet Union in the 1920s. We looked at the two major schools of thought: the Avant-Gardists and the “Proletarians.” The Soviet government didn’t take a side in this debate for the better part of the decade. But with the start of the First Five Year Plan and the Cultural Revolution through which Stalin created his new elite, it finally did. From 1928 onward, the Commissariat of Enlightenment (which was the equivalent of the Ministry of Culture) allowed the “Proletarians” to get the upper hand, led by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It’s worth considering why that side was able to gain official favor. Thinking back over the “Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians,” how did their approach to the arts fit with the state’s other priorities during this period?
Once the “Proletarians” had free rein, they quickly hounded the Avant-Gardists out of work. The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers demanded that all literature be immediately accessible to the masses, many of whom were just learning to read thanks to wide-ranging Soviet literacy campaigns. They declared that the literature of an industrial workers’ state must be about industrial labor and sent writers to visit factories and write about what they saw. But because this literature must educate its readers in Soviet values like collectivism, it shouldn’t have individual heroes or romantic subplots. Rather, labor itself should be the hero, and the characters should focus entirely on goals of socialist construction. A similar situation developed in music: the avant-garde was pushed out, and popular songs and jazz were declared to be examples of bourgeois decadence. New music had to be short, simple, easy to sing, and preferably have lyrics about the glories of labor. In visual art, the Leftist Art Arvatov promoted was removed from view and only the strictest realist images of workers and communist leaders permitted.
By the end of the First Five Year Plan, the result of these policies became clear: bad literature, music, and art. For all its political bona fides, “Proletarianism” was unable to generate anything inspiring in the arts. Hero-less novels about collective labor turned out to be boring and unartistic. Mass songs like “Life Has Become Better!” were fine here and there, but as the entire musical diet, they got on people’s nerves. And strict realism in painting was hardly more exciting. Since the “Proletarians” had also consigned all art of the “bourgeois” past to the dust bin of history, that left the Soviet arts scene just about barren. Something had to change.
The Second Five Year Plan period (1933-1937) is often seen as a time of pulling back from revolutionary fervor in terms of society and culture. As we’ve learned, Stalin ended the policy of promoting workers from the bench into higher education, and his new elite settled into privileged lives. Now that that the Soviet Union had been industrialized, urbanized, and modernized and taken its place among the leading nations of the world, Stalin felt that it needed to be a leader in culture, as well. And the low-quality art of the Cultural Revolution was not going to cut it. So, the Stalinist state pursued two avenues. On one hand, classics like Pushkin, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and painter Ilya Repin were reconceptualized as forward-thinking artists of the past, worthy of a seat at the Soviet table. And on the other hand, the Soviet art world was turned on its head once again by anew official policy.
This policy began in 1932, when the Central Committee announced that all “Proletarian” organizations would be disbanded and replaced by official creative unions. The Union of Soviet Writers formed almost immediately and scheduled its first all-Union conference for 1934. It was at this conference that Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov, whose brief included ideological affairs, announced that all arts must now adhere to the official Soviet aesthetic of Socialist Realism. All new works would be vetted by government censors, and anything that didn’t meet this standard would be banned. Among European censorship policies, Socialist Realism is unique in that it dictates not only what artists must not do, but also what they must do. Even so, as you’ve no doubt noticed, Zhdanov’s definition is rather vague. As a result, it became part of the work of organizations like the Union of Soviet Writers to look back through previous works that had received approval and create a new canon, from which more specific aesthetic principles could be derived. Valentin Kataev’s 1932 novel “Time, Forward!”, from which we’re reading an excerpt today is one such work. We’ll be discussing it through the lens of Western scholar Katerina Clark’s study The Soviet Novel, which also aims to explain Socialist Realism.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Let’s start with our secondary source, chapter 1 of Clark’s The Soviet Novel. She begins by outlining two different versions of how Soviet literature developed, one created by Soviet scholars and the other created by Western scholars. How does each side tell this story? According to Clark, what is wrong with each version? How does ideology factor into these narratives? Given that we are dealing with a policy derived from official Soviet ideology, why is it important to look past that ideological framework? How will doing so help us understand Socialist Realism?
2. Clark explains that Socialist Realism was pieced together from two previous, competing theories: “proletarian realism” and “revolutionary romanticism.” What do these terms mean? What is valuable in each of them, from the perspective of the Soviet state? How do they relate to Belinskii’s ideas about the purpose of literature? How do they relate to the utopian experiments of the 1920s?
3. Clark describes the effort to bring the two theories together as “modal schizophrenia.” She asserts that Soviet novels feel kitschy and poorly written because they’re trying to bring together opposing tendencies. She describes these through a variety of terms:
- The everyday + the heroic
- Verisimilitude (being true to life) + the mythic or utopian
- Complexity + simplicity
- “What is” + “What ought to be”
Can you unpack these terms? What does it mean for literature to try to do any of these things? How does each side of the plus sign fit together (everyday/verisimilitude/complexity/what is OR heroic/mythic/simplicity/what ought to be)? What makes it so hard to work across the plus sign and bring these two sides together? Is “schizophrenic” the right way to describe this phenomenon?
4. Are these two tendencies ultimately incompatible? Is this a recipe for bad literature? Is the problem that Soviet novelists aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do, or that that they’re being asked to do something that isn’t possible?
5. According to Clark, the way Socialist Realism asked Soviet writers to think of the world does make sense with official Stalinist rhetoric. Soviet citizens in the 1930s were encouraged to think of themselves as living and striving in real time, but also to project themselves into the glorious future and envision future Soviet achievements as if they already existed. Why might this type of “vision” be particularly important to the Soviet project? Is it sustainable in the long term? Can it survive something like Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”?
6. Read through Appendix A and explain the steps of the Master Plot to yourself in your own words. (You don’t have to write this in your post. Just confirm that you understand each step). Now consider Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward! Can you trace the steps of the Master Plot in the excerpt that I’ve assigned you? Does it make for a good story? Does it leave you with a sense of Soviet values and what it means to be a New Soviet Person? If you were a Soviet citizen, would you find it reassuring or annoying if every story you read, no matter what the subject, followed this basic story arc? Do we have literary genres that serve a similar function in our society?
7. The first section of “Time, Forward!” sets up a particular kind of rhythm. Read it out loud to yourself. You might find that its rhythm is similar to Mosolov’s Iron Foundry, which we listened to last time. What do you make of this echo of the avant-garde in Socialist Realism? How does it help to bring together the disparate elements of “what is” and “what ought to be”? We also get a lot of details about the production of concrete in this passage. Why might that be useful in a Socialist Realist novel?
8. What is the source of drama in this piece of the novel (the full excerpt I’ve assigned you)? You might find that you get pretty swept up in it. I know that I do. What’s the message here about the First Five Year Plan? What would a “good” Stalinist citizen like Pasha Angelina think of this? What would a “bad” citizen like Ekaterina Olitskaia think? If you were someone like the young Ludmilla Alexeyeva, how would your reaction to a novel like this help you think through your relationship to the government?
9. Because this novel is so realistic, there are some moments that are very revealing. For one, when the brigade first thinks they’ve broken the world record, everybody collapses with exhaustion. For another, when Smetana gets seriously injured, the brigade carries on without losing pace. Finally, almost at the end of their marathon shift, we learn that the concrete hasn’t actually been tested and may not be fit for use. What do these moments reveal about the ethos and methods of the First Five Year Plan? Why do you think Kataev included these less than flattering passages? How do they help to build up the mythology of Soviet labor?
10. The last passage takes place in the superintendent’s office, where the staff is putting together some propaganda materials. Georgii Vasilievich is writing an article, which we get a quote from. Find the paragraph that begins with “Recently we have noted two opposing currents…” and read it closely. What are the two sides in this debate? In what way is this reminiscent of Stalin’s Social Revolution? How does this novel, written in 1932, work to ensure that Soviet citizens understand the deposing of the “bourgeois experts” and creation of the new Stalinist elite in the right way?
11. Now let’s look at Zhdanov’s speech, “Soviet Literature—The Richest in Ideas.” The first five paragraphs of this speech are about economic successes, not literature. This seems weird. But then, in the sixth paragraph, Zhdanov starts talking about things that are not yet going so well economically. How is he exhibiting Socialist Realist thinking by setting up his speech this way? If this speech has a story arc, who is the hero?
12. Eventually, Zhdanov gets down to business. Find the paragraph that begins “The key to the success of Soviet literature is to be sought for…” Read that paragraph and the next two closely. Can you unpack his claims here? According to Zhdanov what role is literature expected to play in Soviet society? How does this compare to his assessment of “contemporary bourgeois literature” in the next few paragraphs? Is it fair to assess literature by its relationship to the economic basis of society? Is a corrupt or decaying society incapable of producing good literature? Will a thriving society always produce good literature?
13. Zhdanov quotes Stalin’s famous line that “writers are the engineers of human souls.” We might consider this metaphor itself, in light of the drive to build up heavy industry during the First Five Year Plan. But let’s look further. Find the paragraph with that quote in it. Make a close reading of the text from there up to: “This method in belles lettres and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.” What do you make of this definition? Why isn’t he being more specific? How might it be a good strategic move for Soviet officials to leave it just a little bit vague? Do you think that literature is really capable of “engineering” a human soul?
14. Throughout this speech, it’s clear that the Soviet state is now taking literature extremely seriously. What are the pros and cons of a government that cares that much about the arts? How might artists benefit? How might they be harmed? If you were an artist, which would you prefer: to be given strong support but also ideological restrictions, or to have the freedom to fully express yourself but also to starve?