Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet Literature

The Communist state regimented the Soviet literary world, reversing the encouragement of artistic innovation shown in the years immediately following the 1917 revolution.

Summary of Event

The year 1932 was a milestone in Russian literary history. Persecution of literary figures in the Soviet Union had begun before 1932, and it would worsen later, as part of an even more rigorous regimentation of the arts in general. It was in 1932, however, that the Soviet government officially eschewed pluralism and tolerance of differing literary ideologies. Instead, it was declared that Socialist Realism was to be the only school of Soviet literature; all other literary movements were prohibited. [kw]Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet Literature (Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934)
[kw]Soviet Literature, Socialist Realism Is Mandated in (Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934)
[kw]Literature, Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet (Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934)
Socialist Realism;literature
Literature;Socialist Realism
Soviet Union;literature
[g]Russia;Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934: Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet Literature[08050]
[c]Literature;Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934: Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet Literature[08050]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934: Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet Literature[08050]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 23, 1932-Aug., 1934: Socialist Realism Is Mandated in Soviet Literature[08050]
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;Socialist Realism
Zhdanov, Andrei
Gorky, Maxim
Averbakh, Leopold
Bukharin, Nikolay Ivanovich

Under Communism, the age of broadest freedom for Soviet writers before the late 1980’s was the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy era (1921-1928). Led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the Bolsheviks, victors in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, did not at first try to enforce literary conformity. Indeed, they welcomed a plurality of viewpoints, in keeping with Karl Marx’s ideal of the free expression of species-being. A spirit of experimentation flourished in poetry, fiction, drama, music, and cinema. Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mayakovsky, Vladimir a fiery young poet and playwright who would commit suicide in 1930, ardently defended both the new regime and avant-garde literature. Exile was not yet permanent; the literary portrayer of late czarist Russia’s urban poor, the novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky, left the Soviet Union in 1921 but was later allowed to return home. Writers were even permitted to maintain contacts with Western European publishing houses. In contrast with later periods, varied schools of literary thought were permitted.

Two principal types of Soviet writers coexisted in the 1920’s: the proletarians, who glorified the new regime in works of fiction about the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) and the tasks of reconstruction, and the fellow travelers, who, although they did not make propaganda for the new regime, were non-Communist rather than anti-Communist. Proletarian novelists included Fedor Vasil’evich Gladkov, Gladkov, Fedor Vasil’evich Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Fadeev, Fadeev, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich and Mikhail Sholokhov. Sholokhov, Mikhail The satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin, Zamyatin, Yevgeny the short-story writers Boris Pilnyak Pilnyak, Boris and Isaac Babel, Babel, Isaac and the novelists Konstantin Aleksandrovich Fedin, Fedin, Konstantin Aleksandrovich Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Tolstoy, Aleksey Nikolayevich Yury Olesha, Olesha, Yury and Leonid Maksimovich Leonov Leonov, Leonid Maksimovich were fellow travelers. Mediating between the two was Aleksandr Voronsky, Voronsky, Aleksandr a literary critic and editor of the journal Red Virgin Soil, Red Virgin Soil (journal) who urged both government aid to and broad freedom for writers. In June, 1925, the Communist Party Communist Party;Soviet Union Central Committee, while explicitly encouraging proletarian literature, ordained continued freedom for other approaches as well.

Politics destroyed this climate of tolerance. After Lenin died in 1924, Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin vied for power; by the end of 1929, Stalin had won the upper hand. Stalin believed in agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialization, but not in freedom for the arts. In 1927, Voronsky had to resign the editorship of Red Virgin Soil. Mayakovsky’s satirical plays Klop (pr., pb. 1929; The Bedbug, 1931) Bedbug, The (Mayakovsky) and Banya (pr., pb. 1930; The Bathhouse, 1963) Bathhouse, The (Mayakovsky) were withdrawn from the stage after sharp official criticism. In August, 1929, the leader of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), Leopold Averbakh, attacked Pilnyak and Zamyatin as traitors. Pilnyak’s career was ruined; Zamyatin left Russia in 1931. RAPP seemed about to take over the Soviet literary world.

On April 23, 1932, the Communist Party suddenly called a halt to the strife by ordering that all competing literary associations be dissolved, to be replaced by a single Soviet Writers’ Union. Soviet Writers’ Union The term “Socialist Realism,” first used by Izvestia editor Ivan Gronsky Gronsky, Ivan in a speech of May 20, 1932, was defined publicly by Stalin’s spokesman Andrei Zhdanov at the First Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union First Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union held in August, 1934. Although this congress had a pro-Stalin majority, it was attended by writers of all viewpoints, including such mavericks as Babel, Olesha, and the poet Boris Pasternak, Pasternak, Boris as well as by the out-of-favor Communist Bukharin, who praised Pasternak’s poetry. Gorky, back from Italian exile, was named president of the new union; his novel Mat (1906; The Mother, 1906), Mother, The (Gorky) about a woman converted to the revolutionary cause by her son, was now praised as a model of Socialist Realism. The adoption by the congress of Socialist Realism as an official creed was a bad omen, yet some writers, tired of the zealotry of RAPP, mistakenly thought that a new era of tolerance was at hand.

After Leningrad party boss Sergey Mironovich Kirov Kirov, Sergey Mironovich was assassinated in December, 1934, Stalin’s purges began. In 1938, Bukharin was tried and executed. Vladimir Stavsky, Stavsky, Vladimir who headed the Writers’ Union after Gorky’s death in 1936, ferreted out suspected anti-Stalinists among the literati. Artist victims of the purges included Ivan Katayev, Katayev, Ivan who had once written a short story expressing doubts about agricultural collectivization, Pilnyak, Babel, the poet Osip Mandelstam, Mandelstam, Osip and the innovative theatrical director Vsevolod Yemilyevich Meyerhold. Meyerhold, Vsevolod Yemilyevich Ironically, Averbakh himself was purged as an alleged Trotskyite; fellow RAPP member Fadeev survived to become a key Soviet Writers’ Union bureaucrat. The purge was the final stage in the regimentation of literature.

Socialist Realism may be viewed as mixing formal conservatism with ideological radicalism in its content, although many literary critics believe that ideology is inseparable from form, greatly complicating that formulation. Initially applied to fiction, it was later imposed on the theater, motion pictures, the visual arts, and music. The novel was seen as the highest expression of literature; its protagonist, according to the doctrine, should be a positive hero who fights for the goals of socialism and attains these goals despite stiff social or natural obstacles. A novel should pay heed to the Communist Party’s role in guiding people toward a new society; its ending must be happy for the community as a whole, if not for individuals. Writers were urged to use a simple style, avoiding any experimentation that might make their works difficult for ordinary people to comprehend, yet they were also commanded to go beyond mere realism and to educate people toward socialism. Ironically, such “realist” literature often ended up sugarcoating some of the harsher realities of life in the Soviet state.


Any discussion of the impact of the imposition of Socialist Realism on Soviet writers must treat both the effect on individual writers and the effect on those writers taken as a group. Even in the Stalinist era, not all writers who strayed from Socialist Realism were purged. Some, unwilling to produce literature of the approved type, simply stopped writing original work altogether. Olesha, who published nothing from 1934 until the 1950’s, was one of these; so was Pasternak, who turned from poetry writing to translation. If permitted to remain writers, those literati who were judged to have deviated from the creed either revised their own works or saw them revised by others.

Loyalty to the creed of Socialist Realism was enforced with carrots as well as with sticks. After 1934, writers who became members of the Writers’ Union and steered clear of Stalin’s wrath were guaranteed a market for their writings; various material perquisites were also attached to membership in the Writers’ Union. Those recognized as writers by the state came to enjoy both high social status and a privileged lifestyle, important considerations given the narrow range of white-collar occupations permitted in a socialist economy. Just how seductive the allure of privilege could be is indicated by the fact that some of the writers who did well under Stalin (such as Aleksey Tolstoy) had been fellow travelers rather than proletarian writers in the 1920’s.

The enforcement of Socialist Realism as the state literary school was somewhat capricious. Once the creed was imposed, works published by first-time writers under official auspices adhered to Socialist Realism slavishly. Hence a book such as the autobiographical novel Kak zakalyalas stal (1932-1934; The Making of a Hero, 1937), Making of a Hero, The (Ostrovsky) by Nikolai Alekseevich Ostrovsky, Ostrovsky, Nikolai Alekseevich about a boy from a poverty-stricken background who fights bravely for Bolshevism despite severe physical handicaps, is regarded as an example of Socialist Realism by both Russian and Western critics. However, some works published before 1932 that are cited by Russian literary critics as models of Socialist Realism are found by Western critics to deviate from that literary creed in some way.

Thus Sholokhov’s Tikhy Don (1928-1940; translated in two parts as And Quiet Flows the Don, And Quiet Flows the Don (Sholokhov) 1934, and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, Don Flows Home to the Sea, The (Sholokov) 1940), the first two volumes of which were published in 1928-1929, is not only beautifully written but also remarkably impartial. In this novel of the civil war in the Don Cossack country, the Bolsheviks are not portrayed as plaster saints, nor are their enemies cartoon villains. The protagonist, no positive hero, switches back and forth between the Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik sides, and the ending is not a happy one, yet because of the enormous popularity of the novel both in the Soviet Union and abroad, Communist critics praised it as a Socialist Realist classic. Sholokhov’s fame may even have saved him from being purged in the 1930’s. In his hurriedly produced novel about agricultural collectivization, Podnyataya tselina (1932; Virgin Soil Upturned, 1935), Virgin Soil Upturned (Sholokhov) Sholokhov tried harder to glorify the role of the Communist Party without entirely glossing over the disruptions collectivization had imposed on the peasantry.

On the other hand, Leonov’s Doroga na okean (1935; Road to the Ocean, 1944) Road to the Ocean (Leonov) was severely criticized for its pessimism, individualism, and emphasis on personal tragedy and death, and it was practically suppressed. Leonov, turning to the writing of plays, did not publish another novel until 1953. Fedin was not punished in the 1930’s for his somewhat unorthodox (by 1934 standards) work of the 1920’s; he did, however, try to ingratiate himself with Stalin’s new order in art by writing a cliché-filled novel, Pohkishchenie Evropy (1933-1935; the rape of Europe). Pohkishchenie Evropy (Fedin) In the cases of Sholokhov, Fedin, and Leonov, one could argue that the contortions necessary to make their literary works politically acceptable stultified to some extent the creativity that all three had shown in the 1920’s.

During World War II, controls were relaxed; the strictest enforcement of Socialist Realism came during the period between the end of the war in 1945 and Stalin’s death in 1953. In 1946, the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, Zoshchenko, Mikhail tolerated up to that time, was driven from his profession by Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural watchdog, for a story that seemed to compare Soviet man to an ape. Even Fadeev, a party literary stalwart, was compelled to rewrite his World War II novel Molodaya gvardia (1946; the young guard) Molodaya gvardia (Fadeev) because it did not sufficiently emphasize the role played in the war effort by the Communist Party. Writers were now expected to refrain from portraying either the less pleasant sides of Soviet society or the conflicts within it. During the period from 1945 to 1953, Socialist Realism was also imposed on the literary world in those Eastern European states on which Stalin had imposed Communist regimes. Thus it grew from the mandated literary school of the Soviet Union to become the mandated literary school everwhere the Communist Party held sway. Socialist Realism;literature
Literature;Socialist Realism
Soviet Union;literature

Further Reading

  • Brown, Edward J. The Proletarian Episode in Russian Literature, 1928-1932. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. This study of the rise and fall of Leopold Averbakh and RAPP emphasizes the diversity of viewpoints within the proletarian literary movement. Views proletarian writers not as mere fanatics but as defenders of artistic autonomy and victims of Stalin’s regimentation of literature. Endnotes, selected bibliography, index.
  • Clark, Katerina. The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. 3d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Using the tools of anthropology and literary criticism, Clark, examining novels by various authors, outlines a prototypical Socialist Realist plot. Denies that Socialist Realism was simply imposed by bureaucrats; sees its roots in pre-revolutionary literature and its influence in the writings of post-1953 dissidents. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • Dobrenko, Evgeny. Aesthetics of Alienation: Reassessment of Early Soviet Cultural Theories. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2005. Study of Soviet literary aethetics, specific governmental groups and institutions, and their negotiations by individual authors. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Ermolaev, Herman. Soviet Literary Theories, 1917-1934: The Genesis of Socialist Realism. University of California Publications in Modern Philology 69. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. A pathbreaking study, repeatedly cited by scholars of Communist-era Russian literature. Analyzes critical articles, speeches, resolutions, and debates. The treatment of the period from 1932 to 1934, when an official definition of Socialist Realism was hammered out, is especially good. Sees Socialist Realism as imposed by Stalin. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • Estraikh, Gennady. In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2005. Study of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union, ending with a chapter on Socialist Realism in Soviet Yiddish literature. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Garrard, John, and Carol Garrard. Inside the Soviet Writers’ Union. New York: Free Press, 1990. Contains two historical chapters that treat the Stalin era. The account of the 1934 Writers’ Congress relies partly on survivors’ testimony published in the 1980’s. Tries to estimate exactly how many writers were purged by Stalin. No analysis of literary works. Endnotes, index.
  • Maguire, Robert A. Red Virgin Soil: Soviet Literature in the 1920’s. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. A history not just of Voronsky’s journal but also of literary politics in the 1920’s. Suggests that writers’ poverty spurred them to form associations to secure government help and argues that Socialist Realism combined Voronsky’s reverence for past literary models with the activism of the proletarian writers. Footnotes, index, bibliography.
  • Simmons, Ernest J. Russian Fiction and Soviet Ideology: Introduction to Fedin, Leonov, and Sholokhov. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. Shows how three writers who had made their reputations in the relatively liberal 1920’s adapted to the literary dogmatism prevalent in the 1930’s; the damage done to artistic integrity varied with each writer, being probably greatest with Leonov. List of works discussed, index, photographs of each writer.
  • Struve, Gleb. Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. A useful survey. Nine chapters out of thirty treat the 1930’s; the 1934 Writers’ Congress gets an entire chapter. Sees proletarian writers as accomplices in, as well as victims of, Stalin’s regimentation of literature. Discusses the influence of Socialist Realism on fiction, poetry, and drama. Bibliography, footnotes, index.

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