Generational Attitudes Reflected through Soviet Socialist Realism
Faculty Mentor: Tony Brown, Russian
In his biography “Raising the Banner” artist Geli Korzhev, a Socialist Realist artist, believes that
Socialist Realism should have been titled as “social realism”; that “socialism is associated with
politics but it should be aimed at social issues,” and that “truth is a means to learn reality.”1 By
studying Socialist Realism we see more than just the politics that governed the USSR between
the 1940s leading up to its collapse in 1991. My original intent for writing this paper was to
show the generational attitudes reflected through Socialist Realism, by comparing how the topics
of the pieces changed over time. However, as I proceeded with my reading and analysis of
Socialist Realism, I began to see that many of these topics remained consistent of showing the
lives of everyday men, women, and children living in the USSR.
Through the direction of my mentor, I used print, digital, and physical sources to conduct my
research. A critical focal point was the collection of Socialist Realism at the Springville Museum
of Art, in their “Russian Stories, Soviet Ideals” gallery. Important print sources include, the
Minneapolis Museum of Russian Art’s In the Russian Tradition: A Historic Collection of 20th
Century Russian Painting, (2004); Sergei Petrovich Tkachev’s Masters of Russian
Impressionism: Sergei Petrovich Tkachev & Aleksei Petrovich Tkachev, (2002); Jana Grostina’s
Soviet Joy, (2008); Adele Barker’s The Russian Reader, (2010); and Vern Swanson’s Soviet
Impressionism (2001), Hidden Treasures (1994); and Soviet Impressionist Painting (2008). From
these works I analyzed over 95 pieces done between the years of 1917-1989 from the Baltics, the
Caucasus, Russia, and Ukraine. I organized each piece by the year and topic. I was able to
calculate the political climates during the creation of each work as I read through the history of
the USSR. With the help of my mentor and this grant I was able to live in Riga, Latvia to
continue research on the influence that Socialist Realist art had there.
Through my research I gathered that the standards set for Socialist Realism was driven by
optimistic portrayals of the working class, historical scenes of achievement, landscapes, and
political leaders. These criteria while politically backed allowed censorship and restrictions on
artists and their expression. Socialist Realist art through its soft medium created a more
approachable atmosphere to the seemingly harsh customs and laws that governed the USSR. The
working class is also a popular theme of Socialist Realism as it reflects the direct contributions
that were done by the people for the state. Depicting people working inspired others to continue
to contribute to the Soviet cause, and portray the hope that came from a hard day’s work. From
my analysis I discovered that one of the most prominent scenes portrayed in Socialist Realism
involved kinship relationships between mother and child, father and son, couples, and the
elderly. These relationships show an intimate view of family life during the USSR and many
parallels to traditional family life.
The information gathered from the study of Socialist Realism I found while living in Latvia,
showed that while this style of art was greatly encouraged, many local Latvians creatively used
other mediums to portray Socialist Realism in addition to painting. At Riga’s Porcelain Museum
there are many ceramic pieces featuring Lenin and victories of World War II. I discovered that
porcelain became commercialized during the 1930s and was easily accessible to use as a form of
art. Porcelain dolls and figures were also labeled as Socialist Realism, as working men and
women were portrayed wearing tradition Latvian clothes but depicted as working for the state.
While art did under-go “russification”, it shared the idea that while socialist in content, it could
still maintain elements of national pride. Their style of Socialist Realism focused more on the
human condition showing us an intimate view of life under USSR occupation.
From its historical, political, and social context, Socialist Realism still fascinates artists
and art historians around the world. Strictly funded by the USSR it perpetuated the teaching of
Marx and Lenin, inspired the rising workforce, motivated education, and showcased the great
achievements of the party. However, it also is art of the people, by the people, and for the people.
It showed their emotions, their desires to progress, and who they loved and were loved by.
Through this mode of art one can better understand not only the people of the USSR’s past, but
also the people who reside there today. Socialist Realism will yet continue to be a discussion for
many years to come. Is it strictly propaganda? Is it just a myth? Is it a façade? The answers to
these questions lie behind the strokes.