Stalin Restricts Soviet Composers

Joseph Stalin’s mandate that all Soviet music conform to the dictates of Socialist Realism was complicated by the inherent abstraction of music. This resulted in a situation in which composers were not merely expected to conform to socialist ideology—as were all Soviet artists of the period—but were also subject to the unpredictable dictates of subjective taste on the part of Communist Party leaders, as even the presence or absence of realist representation in a piece of music is an almost entirely subjective matter.

Summary of Event

Socialist Realism was an outgrowth of basic Marxist-Leninist philosophy. “Realism,” in the context of socialism, could better be defined as “idealism,” given that the goal of socialism is the elusive concept of a perfect, harmonious life for all. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 established Marxist-Leninist socialism in what then became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The result was the creation of a totalitarian society that provided a fertile ground for the forced application of socialist goals to all areas of life, including arts and culture. [kw]Stalin Restricts Soviet Composers (Apr. 23, 1932)
[kw]Soviet Composers, Stalin Restricts (Apr. 23, 1932)
[kw]Composers, Stalin Restricts Soviet (Apr. 23, 1932)
Music;Socialist Realism
Socialist Realism;music
Soviet Union;music
[g]Russia;Apr. 23, 1932: Stalin Restricts Soviet Composers[08040]
[c]Music;Apr. 23, 1932: Stalin Restricts Soviet Composers[08040]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 23, 1932: Stalin Restricts Soviet Composers[08040]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 23, 1932: Stalin Restricts Soviet Composers[08040]
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;Socialist Realism
Radek, Karl
Zhdanov, Andrei
Prokofiev, Sergei
Shostakovich, Dmitri

Sergei Prokofiev.

(Library of Congress)

In 1925, Soviet leadership was seized by Joseph Stalin, who wanted every aspect of Soviet life under his direct control; his massive ego led to the creation of the “Stalin cult” by 1929. This, in turn, allowed Stalin to begin enforcing his brand of socialism throughout the Soviet Union. His First Five-Year Plan First Five-Year Plan (Soviet Union)[First Five Year Plan] (1928-1933) called for all Soviet artists, writers, and musicians, in their creative works, to support his socialist goals by glorifying the real and imaginary accomplishments of the workers and peasants.

From 1929 to 1932, the idea of Socialist Realism emerged. The term is attributed to Stalin himself. In an early definition of the idea, Karl Radek emphasized that reality, in socialist terminology, is not only what is but also what will be. All Soviet citizens involved in the creative arts were thus expected not only to portray the future but also to help create it. They were to become, again in Stalin’s words, “engineers of the human mind.” The result of that engineering was that the Soviet Union entered a cultural wilderness from which the country did not emerge until after Stalin’s death in 1953.

As Stalin was an avid reader, it was natural that the first application of the doctrine of Socialist Realism should have been in the field of literature. Andrei Zhdanov, a top Stalinist official, led the efforts to silence Soviet writers who would not confess their past “errors” of espousing Western views and who would not conform to Socialist Realism. Zhdanov’s efforts were soon felt in other cultural areas, including music. Soviet writers, musicians, and others were soon being compelled to produce works envisioning a glorious socialist future.

In the field of music, the major enemy of Socialist Realism was Western formalism. However, in music the distinction between realism (or any form of representation) and formalism (or any form of abstraction) is tenuous at best, lending itself to extremely subjective interpretations of given pieces as either realist or formalist. Unsurprisingly, then, “formalism” soon came to mean anything that Stalin and his top officials did not like or did not understand—and as Stalin rarely attended concerts and apparently knew little about music, the latter category was broad. Certain musical concepts, either correctly or incorrectly identified as Western, were soon officially banned. One of these concepts was atonality, the perceived absence of a tonal center in musical compositions.

The rich heritage of Russian music soon began to suffer. Earlier Russian composers such as Mikhail Glinka, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Mussorgsky, Modest and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich had used the age-old themes of Russian nationalist folk music. Soviet composers laboring under Socialist Realism were expected not to renounce the folk traditions but to project them into the socialistic future. Of the earlier musicians, Mussorgsky was the most useful to the architects of Socialist Realism because of his belief that music had to be “true” as well as beautiful. Tchaikovsky was also useful as a model, because his music was international in its scope and thus conformed more readily to the vision of a socialistic world order.

Because music is more abstract than the other arts, it was less easily brought under government control. As long as Soviet composers paid lip service to the dogmas established by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Communist Party;Soviet Union they were able to maintain more individuality than other artists. Music’s inherent abstraction also meant that compositions that included vocal or narrative texts, such as opera or ballet, were best suited to Socialist Realism. Stalin enjoyed these forms because they could combine the nation’s rich folk heritage with plots expressing socialistic goals. Even nonvocal music, however, was expected to project those same goals in some manner.

Long before the official proclamation of Socialist Realism, organs were in operation in the Soviet Union to support the ideological goals of the movement. On January 1, 1929, the journal Proletarskii muzykant (proletarian musician Proletarian Musician (magazine) ) began publication in Moscow. In the preface of the first issue, the editors declared that they would be opposing the decadent influence of Western bourgeois music, supporting the ideologically acceptable contributions of the past, and promoting new styles of proletarian music. The editors, however, had not yet been told what those new styles were.

In March, 1931, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians held its first convention in Moscow. This group, and similar groups in other cultural arts, was controlled by its own leaders, who were then to obey the dictates of the Central Committee. This arrangement, however, did not give the Central Committee members the immediate control they desired. On April 23, 1932, the Central Committee dissolved by decree the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians and the other cultural organizations, an event that marked the official beginning of Socialist Realism. From that date until Stalin’s death, cultural leadership was in the largely uncultured hands of the members of the Central Committee.

In September, 1934, the Soviet government decreed the amount of money that composers would get for their work; it thus became financially advantageous for composers to create works that supported Socialist Realism. The obvious result was that some musicians, especially the younger ones who were trained after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, began to channel their creativity in order to gain favor with Stalin and other government leaders. Sergei Prokofiev, an older composer, dared to remark that Socialist Realism in music really meant the writing of tunes that Stalin could whistle. Later, however, even Prokofiev helped to create those tunes.


The first impact of Socialist Realism on music was its application to composers of worldwide fame. Because Stalin enjoyed the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven was declared in conformity to Socialist Realism. In fact, some Soviet leaders classified Beethoven as the first Socialist Realist composer. The work of Johann Sebastian Bach, on the other hand, was respectfully rejected by Stalin; Stalin could not perceive the meaning of Bach’s compositions. It is obvious that Igor Stravinsky, Stravinsky, Igor a Russian composer in exile, was a major factor in the rejection of Bach. Stravinsky sought to return to many of Bach’s principles; Stalin interpreted this as an expression of preference for the past rather than for the bright future of socialism.

In 1934, when Stalin’s bloody purges of the Soviet Union began, the avalanche of Socialist Realism buried the once-rich Russian culture. Replacing that richness was the ideologically uniform culture of the Communist Party. This new culture was molded around the personality of Joseph Stalin. The terror of the purges had a savage, sadistic twist when it was applied to cultural leaders. Writers and musicians were often forced to be the instruments in declaring their own condemnations. One by one, Soviet composers and other cultural greats either capitulated to the dictates of Socialist Realism or disappeared into the oblivion shared by many others who were a perceived threat to Stalin’s tyranny.

Sergei Prokofiev provides a classic example of the impact of the constant and ever-increasing pressure of the state’s mandate to conform to the values of Socialist Realism. After living and working in Paris during the 1920’s, Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in 1934. He first tried to ignore the concept of Socialist Realism, but this soon proved to be impossible. Prokofiev’s music then became more practical and even propagandistic. For the remainder of his life, Prokofiev fell in and out of favor with the leaders of Socialist Realism. The reasons for the periodic attacks on Prokofiev remained obscure to Western observers, given that most of his music appeared to conform to the dictates of Socialist Realism.

The government’s reception of Dmitri Shostakovich provides the best example of the official cultural policy toward the younger Soviet composers who were trained after 1917. The starting point for the music of Shostakovich was Beethoven—which put Shostakovich in good favor with the government of Stalin. Shostakovich, however, soon exhibited a spirit of individuality that provoked official criticism. His famous opera Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda (1930-1932; Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Shostakovich) is an intense satire that fell far short of Socialist Realism. Trouble for Shostakovich began when Stalin attended a performance of this opera. After being sharply attacked, Shostakovich tried, without immediate success, to redeem himself. Finally, his Fifth Symphony in 1937 sufficiently conformed to accepted standards, and Shostakovich settled down to produce a series of patriotic works with heroic themes. His later Leningrad Symphony (1941) Leningrad Symphony (Shostakovich) expressed both the fury of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the successful Soviet defense of the city and country.

Two other composers of the post-1917 generation, Aram Khachaturian Khachaturian, Aram and Dmitry Kabalevsky, were sufficiently able to uphold the ideals of Socialist Realism so as to avoid serious criticism. To some Western critics, however, the music of these men had a superficial character that might have been absent in a free environment. Fortunately for Soviet composers, the bloody purges of the late 1930’s concentrated on perceived political and literary threats to Stalin. The purges were soon followed by World War II (called the “Great Patriotic War” in the Soviet Union), when all energies were directed toward survival.

The end of World War II in 1945, and the simultaneous advent of the Cold War with the West, initiated a revival of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union. A pathetic scene was created in 1946 when Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian were forced to repent publicly for some of their earlier works that did not uphold the tenets of Socialist Realism. Soviet citizens were accustomed to seeing their political leaders publicly confess to imaginary crimes, but seeing their composers and other cultural leaders grovel at the feet of Stalin was a shock. For most of the remainder of his life, Prokofiev conformed, at least outwardly, to Socialist Realism, although not without criticism. Vocal texts were often added to his compositions to help achieve the desired goals. One of his last works, On Guard for Peace (1950), On Guard for Peace (Prokofiev) was widely hailed by Soviet leaders.

From 1946 to 1948, the revival of Socialist Realism was led by its earlier spokesman, Andrei Zhdanov. By then a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Zhdanov demanded the total abolishment of Western cultural influences. Because independence was the greatest threat to Socialist Realism, the most independent-minded composer, Shostakovich, was specifically attacked. Shostakovich then performed the usual repentance and produced several works in honor of Stalin. Zhdanov’s death in 1948 did not mean the end of his campaign. Although his replacement, Mikhail Suslov, preferred to work behind the scenes, the pressure to conform with Socialist Realism did not weaken. Once again, Prokofiev was attacked and forced to recant in a letter to the Central Committee.

The total impact of Socialist Realism on Russian culture becomes clear when it is realized that professional composers were compelled to produce their work according to the dictates of professional politicians who knew little or nothing about music. The very livelihood of the composers, who were under contract to the State Committee on Arts, depended on their conformity to those dictates. This did not mean that the composers were mere stooges of the Communist Party. The subtle nature of music, combined with the musical ignorance of most party leaders, meant that the good composers could still manifest their independence. One cannot help but wonder, however, what kinds of works Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and others would have produced if they had not been compelled to labor under the weight of Socialist Realism.

The death of Stalin in March, 1953, brought sighs of relief in many areas of Soviet life. One of these areas was culture. The full weight of Socialist Realism died with Stalin; Stalin’s successors found milder means of cultural control. As the reality of this began to spread, musicians and others began to produce more independent works. Music;Socialist Realism
Socialist Realism;music
Soviet Union;music

Further Reading

  • Bek, Mikuláš, Geoffrey Chew, and Petr Macek, eds. Socialist Realism and Music. Brno, Czech Republic: Institute of Musicology, Masaryk University, 2004. Proceedings of a conference on Socialist Realism in music held in Brno in 2001. Includes relevant sheet music from compositions discussed in the papers presented.
  • Dobrenko, Evgeny. Aesthetics of Alienation: Reassessment of Early Soviet Cultural Theories. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2005. Study of Soviet aethetics, specific governmental groups and institutions, and their negotiations by individual artists. Includes a chapter on the Prolekult movement’s effects on Soviet music and composition. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Fitzsimmons, Thomas, Peter Malof, and John C. Fiske. U.S.S.R.: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF Press, 1960. Provides an excellent overview of Soviet life and culture. Published just seven years after Stalin’s death, this book is valuable for readers who are not familiar with Stalin and the oppression of his regime.
  • Heller, Mikhail, and Aleksandr Nekrich. Utopia in Power. New York: Summit Books, 1985. Written originally in Russian by authors who were raised and educated in the Soviet Union, this book reveals the tragic effects of Marxist-Leninist socialism on Russia. Particularly valuable in showing the reader the progress of Socialist Realism after World War II.
  • Kulski, W. W. “The Party and the West.” In The Soviet Regime: Communism in Practice. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1954. This chapter by Kulski presents a detailed picture of Stalin’s attempt to rid the Soviet Union of all Western influences, including music styles. The author defines what the Central Committee of the Communist Party meant in classifying Western music as “pathological.” Readers familiar with composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich will better understand the pressure under which they labored.
  • Randall, Francis B. “The Culture.” In Stalin’s Russia. New York: Free Press, 1965. Randall tries to analyze Stalin’s personality in order better to understand Socialist Realism. He emphasizes the use of censorship and terror to discourage dissent by cultural leaders. Compares what Stalin called the “bourgeois realism” of the nineteenth century with the Socialist Realism of the twentieth century.
  • Salzman, Eric. “National Styles.” In Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Salzman presents an excellent survey of twentieth century music styles. Himself a composer, the author in this chapter discusses the influence of Socialist Realism on Soviet composers and also describes the changes it produced in the Soviet Union’s nationalist music styles.
  • Treadgold, Donald W. “Stalin’s Cultural Policy, 1927-1945.” In Twentieth Century Russia. 9th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. In this chapter, the author, a respected scholar of Soviet studies, evaluates Socialist Realism in the light of Stalin’s full totalitarian rule. Reveals the influence of the Communist Party and officials such as Zhdanov in determining what was or was not acceptable in music and other cultural areas.

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