Aleksandr Laktionov - A Letter From the Front

by Mark Jones

Critics of Stalinist policy towards the arts have difficulty admitting what is actually obvious: that despite the supposed philistinism, bloodthirstiness, stupidity, evil-mindedness and malice of Stalin and his ‘henchmen’, the Soviet Thirties saw the greatest outpouring of works of art, theatre, literature, film, music, sculpture and architecture in Russian history. This takes some explaining: the tally of major 20th century works in any field of culture (symphonic works, novels, paintings, films etc) shows a high number of works created in the Soviet Union under High Stalinism.

It is said that under the rubric of Socialist Realism Stalin inflicted a cruel and stultifying regime on the fine arts, which engendered easel-painting and sculpture of generally second-rate dullness and awful, servile conformity. These defects are said to be matters of principle and outweigh any conceivable theoretical gains which in any case are lacking in the fine arts (compared to cinematography etc). It is usually added that it is no excuse to point out that actually some of the stuff was rather good: since we do not applaud the Borgias because their rule happened to coincide with the flowering of Renaissance art, we should not indulge Stalin’s excesses either. In civilised (bourgeois) society artists and the consumers of their work are each allowed to do their thing in serenity and personal security. Stalin’s ‘Terror’ did not permit this. The Party stood between artist and viewer, subjecting both to its baleful gaze.

Stalin’s policy towards the arts is therefore to be opposed on two general grounds. First, no-one (least of all a jackbooted commissar personifying the absolute state) has the right to mediate between the artist and his/her viewer. Second, the sovereignty of the individual and the right to live free from fear in a law-governed society, is more fundamental even than the right of the state to survive. Stalinist repression and policing of the arts is ‘barbaric’ and ‘unconscionable’ [but one justification for Stalin’s policy towards Russian artists might lie in comparing it with Hitler’s and then trying to judge whether Stalin’s policy helped or hindered the Soviet state in its attempt to prevent Hitler carrying _his_ policy out].

It is not just a matter of the Stalinist liquidation of the avant-garde and their substitution by the alleged aridities of socialist-realism. The real issue is more serious and universal: freedom of expression versus the interests and rights of the state. The Bolsheviks arrogated the right to subordinate art to politics, meaning, to the creation of their dictatorship. Still more heroically, Lenin even wanted not merely to use art for his own purposes but to insist theoretically that art could not even be art unless it served those purposes.

If you grant that art is a class question and must be subordinated to a class politics, then you take your stand with Lenin’s frankly ‘totalitarian’ subordination of art to political life and the interests of the state. Art has no more autonomy than any other sphere of life. The proletarian dictatorship insists on its subjugation. It is clear too that Stalin was the executor of Lenin’s behests, and you cannot separate Lenin’s policy from Stalin’s. If Lenin was wrong, so was Stalin. If both were wrong then we have to admit that the socialist revolutionary project contains a radical defect and cannot be the instrument of human freedom. So the question is important.

Ironically, both Lenin and Stalin turned out to be conservators of bourgeois cultural forms. Lenin destroyed the Proletkult and called instead for the preservation of the finest achievements of bourgois culture, and for making them accessible to the masses. Stalin in his time purged the avant-garde, accusing it of ‘formalism’ and even drove Mayakovsky to his grave. However in terms of the principled question it would not have mattered if the Party had done things the other way round, ie, purged the Socialist Realists and the Victorian novelists and made the practitioners of Proletkult into honoured representatives of official Soviet art. The issue would still be, does the Party have the right to decide which art and which artists shall survive and prosper, and which shall be silenced and purged?

As the anti-stalinist Aleksandr Sidorov of the USSR (now Russian) Academy of Arts put it, under the Bolsheviks ‘Man, and especially ‘simple’ Soviet man, was thought of exclusively as a viewer, but by no means a consumer or possible possessor, of decorative art works, and at best he had to be content with a mere reproduction, copy or album of an artist’s work. This circumstance is indissolubly linked to the following four processes. Firstly, public awareness was transformed into the object of demagogic manipulations and speculations. Secondly, aesthetic requirements were depersonalised, and the interests of the individual were completely dissolved in ideological and artistic programmes imposed by the State. Thirdly, leaders appeared who acted as mediators of culture and invariably took up a position above the viewer, reader or listener and knew better than others what to teach, how to educate, what the people must know and what they must not know, what the people needed and what was contrary to their needs, what was ‘good’ and what was ‘bad’. And fourthly, art criticism was reduced to a concrete exposition of ideas sent down from on high; it played the role of a priest of a new belief who explained the postulates of that belief to the parishioners of the church of socialist realism.’ (Matthew Cullerne Brown, ‘Art Under Stalin’, (1991) pp 12-13). [Sidorov is worth debating even if it seems unfair to blame the Bolsheviks for flooding the country with cheap editions of colour prints of the fina arts, which they did.]

Related to this totalitarian Bolshevik intent is the Stalinist notion that art, like society itself, can make progress, and that since socialism is ‘a higher stage’, socialist art too must be higher, must be ‘the most forward looking and progressive of all the artistic methods that have ever existed.’ (ibid). All these assumptions, needless to say, have been falsified by events. Or have they?

The decay of Soviet culture under Brezhnev, its progressive atrophy, fissiparousness and lack of direction, and the growing cynicism of official circles towards its products, the growing public indifference to socialist-realist art and the hypocrisy of its practitioners and apologists, and the growth of ‘dissident’ oppositional art, might seem all the evidence we need that the goals of Stalinist High Art were absurd and self-defeating: as Sidorov says (or seems to), only the market, with its purveyors and possessors, can clean up the arts.

In Stalin’s own time, such cynicism and hypocrisy was largely absent. Officially-sanctioned art was also the art consumed privately by leading officials, including Stalin himself, who was a great admirer of the works of socialist-realists like Sergei Gerasimov, Oganes Zardaryan, Martinos Sarayan and Aleksandr Laktionov (above: Letter from the Front)

The belief in the unfailing superiority of socialist methods, and in the certain victory of socialism and decline of capitalism, was genuine and widely held. By the time of Brezhnev, such ‘naivete’ was openly mocked within the ruling circles, whose corruption was almost boundless, as was their contempt for the stupidity, helplessness and vulgarity of the masses. Thus official attacks on the avant-garde coincided with growing immorality and debauchery in the ruling circles, such that Brezhnev’s own daughter held up banks at gunpoint – aided by her husband (the chief of police!) in order to fund her jewelry acquisitions; and every high official had his ‘own’ private collections of forbidden Western art, literarture, and pornography. Sovietart was soon divided into sinned-aganst and sinners; most execrated were the portrait-painters of Stalin himself; they and their works (irony!) were purged from the historical record and Stalin’s once-ubiquitous image was effaced from public spaces.

Since 1991 there has been a reversal of attitudes. The bourgeois collector has decided in his counting-house of a soul that works of Socialist Realism are high-value items. Of course! What else could you expect, given the way of the art world?

However, it was unexpected. The first Sotheby auctions, held in Moscow during the era of Peretsroika, showed formerly forbidden avant garde (often openly anti-soviet) works. The history of those works and of these auctions was curious: they did not fetch the prices hoped for, and these first attempts to stimulate and profit from, anti-soviet and post-soviet painting in Russia, did not lead anywhere. But Socialist Realism, on the contrary, has powered on from strength to strength. Socialist Realist paintings, especially from the era of High Stalinism, proved highly collectible and now fetch extravagant prices in auctions. That such political works should end up as prized commodities seems odd. I am not aware that the same posterity obtained for Nazi High Art, so it cannot be a question of the general collectibility of alleged totalitarian art forms.

Of course, despite everything there is no reason why Socialist Realist works should not prove to be art. After all it is no disqualification of any artwork that it was produced to state order, or according to an ideological plan of some kind. Western art began out of church and state patronage, or out of fawning depictions of the persons, families and possessions of powerful and wealthy men.

The issue for Sidorov and for us is still therefore not whether works produced for supposedly bad reasons or under difficult circumstances can be art but whether or not socialists who hold state power acquire a right to decide the content of art and the style it is produced in.

In any case, Sidorov’s prioritising of the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, in a solipsistic and private discourse, also makes little sense. In capitalism, artworks make the same uncertain journey of realisation as do all other commodities and in the process become the bearers of social relations. Under socialism, artworks may enjoy a different modality, which subverts their existence qua commodities. But in either case it remains true that any work submitted for public scrutiny enters the social world and is subject to the conventions, controls and internalised censoriousness which exist in all cultures, times and places and arguably provide not a straitjacket but the *form* of a representation without which it would be impossible for the artist to create anything meaningful. While for art to be art the epiphanic relationship to the viewer must exist and be real, it is useless to deny the social context.

The moment of repression/internalisation of normative categories is also the moment of creation. This is literally so. Not for nothing was the Stalinist 1930s characterised BOTH by the fierce and relentless struggle against formalism in music, literature and the arts that ended careers and even lives, AND by a torrential outpouring of new work. The famous Pravda attack on Shostakovich in 1934 put an end to musical adventures like Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but also led to the towering achievements of Shostakovich’s middle years. The arts were to not merely prefigure socialism but also to serve the goal of ‘communist education’. In a society of total mobilisation, art too was mobilised.

Even when railing against the patronising, authoritarian state, Aleksandr Sidorov (quoted above) is certainly aware that the issue is thus more complicated than it seems (he ends his tirade with these words: ‘I may have thrown too negative a light on the range of art in the Stalinist period, and perhaps I have paid too much attention to the ‘extreme’ manifestations of that art. But, as the Russian saying has it, things are seen more clearly when observed from one side.’)

Socialist Realism was meant to take art beyond capitalist commodity production. Just as the avant-garde of the Twenties strove to push beyond the limits of the frame of the picture (its conceptual, formal, technical or expressive frame; and even the ‘frame’ itself) so, too, did the anti-formalist ‘Realism’ of the Thirties actually have the same avowed goal: to push art beyond the boundary of its commoditised frame of perceptual reference, of social signing or emblematage, and even of the picture’s physical frame which encapsulates it, marks it off from the world, and makes of it a potential commodity. Realism inducted the viewer thru the frame and beyond it into a world of concrete objectivity, of limitless possibility and boundless growth.

Socialist realism is art precisely because it was the strict opposite of ‘realist socialism’, ie, the unvarnished depiction of actual (blemished, faulty, dysfunctional, warped) Soviet reality, the socialism of the everyday world of overwork, shortage, ennui, of private feuding and conspiracy. Socialist realism was a confabulation of impossible opposites, an explosive equilibrium founded on the concrete-objectivity of the form of representation of allegedly normal, everyday events, scenes and contexts which are actually unreal, hyperreal, or simply fabulous. That is why when one contemplates them now, these paintings often have a mirage-like quality, a hallucinatory, iconic, narrative substance which can arouse intense feelings, which can wound the observer, and all this of course sharply contradicts the technical realism of the specific representation. It is as if all of them: Stalin, his politburo, the stern-faced captains of the Workers and Peasants Red Army and the masses themselves: the miners, railwaymen, aviators and constructors, the collective farmworkers, the plump, well-found, ruddy-cheeked maidens in their banya – creamy-skinned, full-bodied women holding infants, in images so violently real that the intense scents of birch leaves and pine resin, the steam hissing from the furnace, the sound of gaiety and laughter, almost overwhelm the viewer – or labour-scenes, with tanned, lithe men working a lathe or scything a field, or the shining-eyed masses at a factory-committee meeting, an avuncular bust of Lenin beaming impishly on — all are part of a landscape of pure dreams, which we can behold with a kind of nostalgic languor, with feelings of desire which seem to have neither a source within ourselves nor in the object-field of the painting.

I am just now examining an image of a painting by Aleksandr Samokhvalov entitled ‘Woman Metro Builder with Penumatic Drill’, (1937, from the Russian State Museum collections). This shows a woman shock-worker briefly resting from excavating the tunnel for the Moscow Metro. In reality it is a Palladian scene; classical and statuesque, there is a stillness about her face, which is strongly illuminated from the front, and as she gazes into the bright light, we almost see the socialist Arcadia she is seeing, the disclosed/hidden, future/past utopia. One half-clenched hand, plump and dainty, unmarked by labour, rests upon a rock; she has tied her jacket round her waist and the effect is of a classicial, robed piece of statuary that seems to have emerged from the living rock; the face is youthful, plastic, inquisitive, robustly beautiful and determined: there is defiance in her eyes. Whatever this painting is of, it is not of a woman metro builder (but there were tens of thousands of women volunteers, often office workers, who did help dig the tunnels, even during lunch-breaks; it is them the painting celebrates, not as they are but as they should be).

As the magazine Sovietskoe Isskustvo (Soviet Arts) said in 1935, Moscow was to become ‘a city of happiness,’ which would inspire ‘feelings of harmony and well-being’. This was not so much socialist town-planning as a kind of delirium. And only it was only a year before that Zhdanov officially declared to the writers’ congress, the policy of ‘socialist-realism’.

There are not many art historians writing much about socialist realism. Two are Brandon Taylor and Matthew Cullerne Brown, whose 1998 book ‘Socialist Realist Painting’ is a resplendent, coffee-table edition and highly recommended; it is glorious feast of ‘art of Stalin’s time [that is] full of purpose – always ready, as it were, to die with its boots on’ (Cullerne Brown, Art Under Stalin, (1991) p277). Importantly, Cullerne Brown locates the origins of Socialist Realism in the prerevolutionary history of Russian iconography, and of the peredvizhniki, the 19th century Itinerants who celebrated everyday life. He does not manage to answer Sidorov’s questions, but perhaps they are unanswerable anyway. Brandon Taylor’s two-volume work on Soviet art which Pluto published in I think 1992-93 have this market pretty much to themselves.

If all art is socially conditioned (as well as conventionally constrained) then at least Leninist-Stalinist policy has the merits of transparency, openness and honest partisanship, expressed in the idea that artists, like everyone else, shall be driven by what was known as partiinost’, that is, the over-riding commitment to the Party and its principles and endeavours. These were about generalising to the masses the promise of bourgeois civilisation, and increasing the education, health, welfare and life opportunities of the common woman/man. The Party strove to make art a mass and not just an elite activity and was proud of its achievement, announcing in the late Thirties, in the style of High Stalinist statistics, that 80 percent of Soviet artists hailed from the working class and the peasantry. According to the party, that made them part of the new ruling class’s (proletarian) intelligenstia. This is shaky Marxism, but anyway this is not the real achievement of Soviet Socialist Realism: which is that actually it DOES fulfil Sidorov’s requirements: because at its best it is art that communicates in an immediate, epiphanic, and thaumaturgic way.

But even this fact (subversive of ‘bourgeois’ critiques) is not the real reason for acclaiming Socialist Realism. More radically, it is because Socialist Realism really did point beyond the ‘framing’ of art within the commoditised object world of reified social relationships. Far from being a step backwards, of being the expression of the (non-existent) ‘Stalinist Thermidor’, Socialist Realism was a step into a different world, a de-technicised, de-fetishised world of representations that made it the true successor/displacer of the avant-garde movements of the first quarter of this century. Socialist Realism tried to portray a postcapitalist universe of transparently human intersubjectivity based on what Gorky called ‘the true data of our socialist society’. In striving to do so, it actually created a mythical back-projection of heroic grandeur onto the drab face of Soviet reality. But so what? Compared to this the West could only show the dementia of Jackson Pollocks’ CIA-expressionism, or Warhol’s pathetic juvenilia, or the empty scatologies of postmodernism.

Mark Jones


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