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Socialist realism

Socialist realism is a teleologically-oriented style of realistic art which has as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. It is related to, but should not be confused with, social realism.

Rooted in traditions of Realism in Russian literature of 19th century that described the life of simple people and exemplified by the aesthetic philosophy of Maxim Gorki, it was supported by Soviet state officials, and from its adoption by the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 at the Congress of Soviet Writers it was the official policy of the Soviet Union:

"Socialist realism is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historically concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism."

Socialist realism in other Communist states

In addition to the Soviet Union (particularly during the rule of Stalin), it was the predominant art form in all the Communist countries, e.g. the People's Republic of China during the rule of Mao Zedong or in Albania during the rule of Enver Hoxha. Here, many paintings in the socialist realist style were reproduced on postage stamps, too. Today, arguably the only country still focused on these aesthetic principles is North Korea. However The People's Republic of China still produce idealised poster propoganda, for example to promote their recent manned space launch successes.


Censorship and attempts to control the content of literature and other art did not begin with the Soviets, but were always a feature of Russian life. The Tsarist government also appreciated the potentially disruptive effect of literature and required all books to be cleared by the censor. Writers in nineteenth century Imperial Russia became quite skilled at evading censorship by making their points without spelling it out in so many words. Soviet censors were not so easily evaded.

Characteristics of socialist realism

Socialist realism, designed and approved by Nikolay Bukharin, Maxim Gorky and Andrei Zhdanov, held that successful art depicts and glorifies the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress. The art produced under socialist realism is realistic, optimistic, and heroic.

The purpose of socialist realism was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable. In other words, its goal was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of Communism. In practice, socialist realism demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art - or as being little more than a means to censor artistic expression. Western critics sometimes wryly encapsulate the principles of socialist realism as "Girl meets Tractor." Czeslaw Milosz, writing in the introduction to Sinyavsky's On Socialist Realism, describes the products of socialist realism as "inferior", ascribing this as necessarily proceeding from the limited view of reality permitted to creative artists.

The period after the Russian Revolution and before the creation of the Union of Soviet Writers has often been praised for its spirit of tolerance. In art, constructivism flourished. In poetry, the nontraditional and the avant-garde were often praised. Socialist realism changed all this. Painting subjects were limited to the glorification of communist ideals or Soviet leaders, especially Joseph Stalin.

The First Tractor by Vladimir KrikhatskyThe "realism" part is important. Soviet art at this time depicted the Russian worker as he truly was, carrying his tools. In a sense, the movement mirrors the course of American and Western art, where the everyday human being became the subject of the novel, the play (Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman), poetry, and art (Andy Warhol comes to mind). The proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; hence, his life was worthy subject for study. This was an important shift away from the aristocratic art produced under the Russian tsars of previous centuries.

A relief from the Soviet military cemetery in Warsaw showing workers greeting victorious soldiers.Maxim Gorky's novel Mother is usually considered to have been the first work of socialist realism. Gorky was also a major factor in the school's rapid rise, and his pamphlet, On Socialist Realism, essentially lays out the needs of Soviet art. Other important works of literature include Fyodor Gladkov's Cement (1925) and Mikhail Sholokhov's two volume epic, And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to Sea (1940).

However, as a result of the rigid precepts of this school of art, many artists and authors found their works censored, ignored, or rejected. Mikhail Bulgakov, for instance, was forced to write his masterwork, The Master and Margarita, in secret, despite earlier successes such as White Guard. Sergey Prokofiev found himself essentially unable to compose music during this period.

Socialist realism as an official school of art dominated Soviet art until the late 1980s. The doctrines of socialist realism were most strongly enforced in the period immediately following World War II, but were somewhat relaxed after Stalin's death in 1953. This caused many artists to chose to go into exile, for example the Odessa Group from the city of that name.