The vibrant artistic culture that existed in post-revolutionary Russia thrived up until the early 1930s. During that time, the Soviet government allowed a great deal of creative liberty, with a number of independent artistic and architectural movements sprouting up in the aftermath of October. Some state oversight existed in the capacity of Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. Its Fine Arts division sponsored some projects, but gave no special preference to any particular group or style. Narkompros’ director (and Lenin’s old friend) Anatolii Lunacharskii may have been more fond of the classics of Western civilization than he was of the modernists’ brash iconoclasm, but he was remarkably tolerant of any group that displayed enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks’ social and political revolution.
Post-revolutionary art and architecture can be disaggregated into three main categories: the modernist, the atavistic, and the “proletarian.” This third category traced its origins to Aleksandr Bogdanov, one of leading figures in Russian Social-Democracy and Lenin’s early rival within the Bolshevik party. Modernism had emerged in pre-war Russia out of the fragmentation of Symbolism in the fields of literature, poetry, and art, but absorbed international influences as well. The traditionalist eclecticism of artistic and architectural atavism was passed on through the Imperial Academy system, which had been imported from Western Europe some two hundred years before.
Out of these three groups, the modernists were the first to lend their support to the Bolshevik cause during the Revolution. Only months after October 1917, Maiakovskii and others declared their solidarity with Lenin’s party. They saw the social and political revolution carried out by the communists as a parallel to the artistic revolution that they were attempting to realize. But the Soviet avant-garde was far from being a unitary movement. In the fifteen years following the October Revolution, numerous avant-garde currents were established, each with their own agendas and often antagonisms against one another. They shared a rejection of the ways of the past, and they tended to be more internationalist and experimental in orientation. There were the Russian Futurists (very different from their Italian counterparts), painterly and architectural Suprematists, Productivists, artistic and architectural Constructivists, and Formalists in architecture and literary theory, etc. These various groups also invited modernists from other countries to join in the project of building a new society.
At the same time, however, there was the more conservative brand of eclectic art and architecture inherited from the old academy system. These artists and architects were generally referred to as the academicians, and were generally despised by the avant-gardists. They saw artistic and architectural history as a sort of inventory of recognized styles that could be arbitrarily combined or juxtaposed at the whim of the artist or architect. This is why their style was often referred to as “historicist.”
Alongside this, there was the Proletkult/proleterian art movement that Lenin and Trotskii were so uncomfortable with, that tended to be more realist and “heroic” in its representation of workers, Bolshevik leaders, and revolutionary battle scenes. They believed that there would emerge a new form of art and architecture that was both created by and legible to the revolutionary proletariat. They believed that the working masses had already established their own essential culture in opposition to bourgeois taste and high society under capitalism. Lenin and Trotskii criticized them for believing that the culture of the proletariat would be that drastically different than the culture that had predominated under capitalism. The other aspect that disturbed them was that the Bolshevik Revolution was meant to create a classless society, not a specifically proletarian society. Nevertheless, Proletkult and proletarian art merged with elements of a strange brand of monumentalist avant-gardism that in architecture banded together in the group VOPRA, and this led to the Stalinist synthesis of Socialist realism.
Around 1931-1933, Stalin and his henchmen intervened and wanted to put an end to the various competing groups and form an official style that would be run by forcibly unionizing the different art and architectural groups together. Once all the groups had been subsumed into All-Union appendages of the state, bureaucratized and monitored closely, the decision was made to institute Socialist realism. This way, all artists and architects had to be registered with and licensed by the state and made to conform to union mandates handed down from above, by the Stalinist hierarchy. Those who did not join with the state-funded unions would not have their work supported or even recognized by the Soviet government, and would not receive the regular income that the union provided.
Works now had to be:
- Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
- Typical: scenes of every day life of the people.
- Realistic: in the representational sense.
- Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.
Socialist realism literally killed all the vibrant creative energies that had been unleashed after the Revolution, in the following ways:
1. In literature, it meant that books predictably had to have some sort of conflicted petit-bourgeois or intellectual who was nostalgic for the old order and thus initially resisted socialism or collectivization. A protagonist, usually a virtuous, handsome young worker who was enthralled by the revolution, either helped lead his conflicted comrade to embrace the glorious new regime of Stalinist collectivization or was set up in contrast to the greedy, wily supporter of the old order as an example of the New Man — industrious, courageous, and heroic. Every book was supposed to have either a happy ending or an ending that taught a moral lesson.
2. In the visual arts, it meant an end to the daring work of abstract painting and creative photomontage experimentation and a return to representational verisimilitude. It would characteristically paint noble portraits of wise Uncle Stalin, gazing out with a look of kindliness and resolve. It would portray scenes of Stakhanovite workers dutifully toiling away inside of the factory or happy, smiling peasants pleased with the joys of collectivization. Of course, it was all fantasy, but the figures portrayed in the paintings were made to look like real people.
3. In architecture, perhaps the strangest blend was arrived at through the combination of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical stylization — columns, arches, and decorative facades on an enormous scale. It resulted in what was later sometimes called the “Stalinist Gothic,” towering buildings that almost looked like gigantic wedding cakes set against gray skies. One of the final deathblows to modernism in Soviet architecture was the design chosen as the winner for the competition for the Palace of the Soviets in 1932. Google “Palace of the Soviets” and you’ll see the enormous wedding-cake building with a huge stature of Lenin on top.
**Post-script: Susan Buck-Morss hilariously compared the choice for the Palace of the Soviets with Lenin atop a towering pedestal to King Kong, perched up on the Empire State Building in eponymous movie.