Although they may seem monolithic in retrospect, the vast majority of artistic and cultural movements are actually the product of multiple competing perspectives. Few movements provide a clearer example of this fact than socialist realism, the style of art and literature that became dominant in the Soviet Union after the revolution. This Plan examines the forces, individuals, and organizations that worked to create and define socialist realism.
After the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik government and the intelligentsia were interested in encouraging the arts among the proletariat class. Collectivization and urbanization had forced Russian peasants to move to the cities and abandon their previous identities, and the upper classes saw this as an opportunity to develop a new group of revolutionary artists—or, as the Soviet writer Maksim Gorky called them, “engineers of human souls.”
A massive literacy campaign was undertaken, which saw Russian literacy rates rise from 24 to 81 percent in less than half a century. This provided the new urban proletariat with the skills to both consume and produce cultural material. Although the stated goal was the spontaneous, grassroots creation of socialist culture by the proletariat class, the development of socialist realism was always tightly overseen by the academic and ruling classes. Socialist realism, though ultimately guided by the upper classes, grew out of the complex interactions between and within these different groups.
“The concern of this paper is not whether socialist realism was properly party-minded or properly proletarian, but rather how competing conceptions of the purpose of literature and fostering a culture of socialism framed the development of Soviet culture in the two decades following the revolution.”
“Socialist realism arose in the context of mass social displacement and unstable class structure, and one cannot consider the debates concerning culture and proletarian literature in isolation from that context.”
“Literature was a realm in which Soviet authorities and the masses together were engaged in the production of a distinctly Soviet social discourse.”
“I remember reading a ridiculous number of books and spending hours in the library, and sitting on the library balcony talking with other students about the ideas behind whatever paragraphs we had just been working on. And coffee breaks, too—lots of coffee breaks.”