Socialist Realism: Definition, Music & Artists

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Is socialist realism a form of art or a tool for political manipulation? This lesson will look at the origins of this uniquely Soviet form, including some key artists and musicians who made art for the state.

Socialist Realism

Socialist realism was an art form that originated with the proletariat revolution in pre-Soviet Russia and peaked with the death of the country's leader, Joseph Stalin, in 1953. From the 1930s to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it was the only form of art supported by the state. As such, its influence could be found in all forms of artistic expression, such as drama, literature, music and the visual arts. Many artists, musicians and writers found themselves censored when their work did not meet the state's definition of socialist realism - but what was it?

Historical Origins

In 1920, Vladimir Lenin, first head of the Soviet government and a political theorist, wrote a resolution about proletarian culture. According to Lenin, art should be a development of the 'best models, traditions and results of the existing culture, from the point of view of the Marxist world outlook and the conditions of life and struggle of the proletariat'. In 1934, Maxim Gorky, an author and former friend of Lenin, spoke before the Soviet Writer's Congress. In his speech, Gorky attacked pre-revolutionary Russian and Western culture and literature and discussed the future of Soviet writing under Joseph Stalin, stating that the goal of future Soviet art and literature was to celebrate the 'new Soviet man', as shown in this painting by Valentyn Grekov.

Trumpeter and Standard Bearer - Grekov
Trumpeter and Standard Bearer - Grekov

The Soviet Writer's Congress of 1934 further defined the guiding principles behind socialist realism, which the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formalized in a 1932 document: 'On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations'.

According to the state, all forms of art should:

  • Be about and supportive of Soviet workers
  • Be free from abstractions
  • Idealize or romanticize everyday Soviet life
  • Promote the goals of the Communist Party

Socialist Realism in Art

Now that we know that socialist realism in art should clearly portray real life, what does it look like in practice? Well, think about your favorite Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade painting, as idyllic examples of realism, would they really have looked so out of place in a Soviet gallery? Take Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov's First of May Celebration, the most expensive example of socialist realism ever sold at an auction, and you'll see the likeness.

Themes typically found in socialist realist paintings included past and present Russian heroes, as well as responses to historical events, such as World War II. For example, Aleksandr Ivanovich Laktionov's painting, Letter from the Front, shows a family happily learning receiving some news about the war. Like the paintings of American realists, socialist realism involved many, not just one, artistic genre or technique. During the 20th century, it continued to reflect the major events in Soviet life, like Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, which led to the Khrushchev Thaw in censorship during the late 1950s to early 1960s.

Socialist Realism in Music

Can you name more than three boy bands from the early 90s? If not, you know how hard it is to name three examples of socialist realism in music. In contrast to formalism, or the idea that a composition's form determines its meaning, socialist realism in music was benign enough to offend no one and overtly tuneful. Two representative composers included Reinhold Glière and Lev Knipper; in fact, the former's Ilya Muromets, or Third Symphony, was used to welcome passengers at the Leningrad train station.

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