Beating the System: Socialist Realism

During the Soviet Union, especially the Stalin era, the state controlled members of all professions- including artists, architects, writers, musicians, and directors.  Members of these professions were forced to join unions and would be expelled from the unions if they did not follow their strict rules.  Basically, the rules stated that all art had to glorify the state.  Artists who wrote about other topics were expelled from the unions and their careers were ruined.  Artists who dared criticize the state were sent to the gulags.

This basically led to mainstream Soviet art featuring only socialist themes.  Art from this period included portraits of Lenin and Stalin appearing as religious figures, sculptures of laborers, and military marches.  Films, such as the movie Circus (directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov), were first and foremost propaganda films.

Circus is an entertaining movie, both due to the fun circus scenes, and the interesting look at Stalinist propaganda.  The reason why Circus was such a success as a propaganda film was that it used truths about American culture at that time to show the USSR as superior to the US.  The scene at the beginning in which angry Kansas farmers chase the heroine and her biracial child onto a train was no exaggeration.  The US-especially the South- was not an enlightened place in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union used these sad truths about America to their own advantage.  (Although, the US certainly should have been called under attack for their treatment of race.)

Where the film becomes unrealistic is its portrayal of the Soviet Union as a utopia where everyone loves each other and is a big happy family.  At the end of the movie, a famous Jewish actor sings to the baby in Yiddish.  In real life, this actor died under suspicious circumstances, most likely because he had begun to speak out against anti-Semitism in the USSR.  Clearly, the Soviet Union was not the hippie love nest the movie proclaimed it to be.

Critics say that socialist realism caused the death of creativity for Soviet artists.  However, I believe that it enhanced creativity for certain artists who tried to beat the system.  Dmitri Shostakovich composed many official pieces for the government.  He also would sneak messages into his songs.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote “String Quartet No. 7.”  This piece features three beats, symbolizing an officer knocking on the door to the beats “K-G-B.”  This work in considered one of Shostakovich’s finest.

Socialist realism resulted in some interested propaganda, at its worst, and at its best, unknowingly challenged artist to work around the rules.