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,
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
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
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
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
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.