The Shackles Of Socialist Realism

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the shackles of socialist realism

The civil strife and chaos that had torn Russia limb from limb in the early 20th Century, although brutally devastating, did not hail the end of the stability and power that had characterized the massive country for so much of history. The continuing strength of what was now the Soviet Union lay in the newly formed support structure provided by Socialist Realism, a force that directed the awareness of, and the arts produced by, the Soviet people. The ideals of Socialist Realism deified Lenin and Marx, attributed the Bolshevik ranks with heroism undaunted by overwhelming opposition, and directed the proletariat towards a better future through reconstruction and industrialization of the state. Socialist Realism was essentially a Party tool that, combined with the Bolshevik ideals of collectivization and unity, would transform the people into a formidable, indestructible mass force.
Socialist Realism's central code of conduct was, in Stalin's words, to "above all portray life truthfully." Any form of art that depicted Bolshevik life was to do so in a realistic and accurate manner, "on its way to socialism"; "that will be socialist art, that will be Socialist Realism." (Lincoln 333) This was the paradigm that all Soviet art was to be modeled after; implemented in 1934, the formula of Socialist Realism would heavily influence artistic life in the Soviet Union until the 1960s.
The rise of Socialist Realism was rapid and dramatic. It dampened Europe's excitement over Russia's post-schism, secular art by redirecting art inward towards the Soviet people and forcing form and function upon it rather than abiding by the ideal of "art for art's sake." Once again, the ancient religious ideals of Orthodox Russia were shunned, and the Party replaced God at the forefront of Soviet life. The Party mimicked Socialist Realism as a model for the people, who were expected to take the example of their heroic yet humble forefathers and arise from the masses to submit themselves to the principles of Lenin, then confidently lead their comrades forward to a bright Bolshevik future where both nature and human opposition would bow to the power of the Soviets.
Although the Soviet Union was markedly secular, it adopted Orthodox Russia's replacement of the individual with the collective. Many artists collaborated on gigantic pieces that depicted the immense size and grandeur of their unified country. Overwhelming all other artistic principles, Socialist Realism became synonymous with the state. It modified the past and the future by making both conform to reality and to Lenin's timeless ideals. Most importantly, it portrayed the Soviet Union's future as being filled with an unequaled prosperity that would forever shame capitalism and its proponents.
However, much of the "reality" that Socialist Realism depicted existed solely in the minds of the Soviet people. Socialist Realism portrayed life only as the Bolsheviks wanted it seen, and in many ways created an idealistic world of fantasy that "overlooked massive failures" (Lincoln 335) such as the death and suffering that continued to prosper in labor camps throughout the country. Socialist Realism was Stalin's aesthetic cover-up of the horrid, truly real Soviet reality, and if an artist intentionally or accidentally ventured too far "behind the scenes" in his work, official confession and apology to the state did not always prevent him from being sent to one of many labor camps.
Socialist Realism was largely effective in indoctrinating simple-minded men and women with Bolshevik ideals. Nowhere else was this practice more effective than in Soviet literature, which was directed towards the unsophisticated, newly literate masses rather than the intellectual elite. Much of this literature focused on the Russian Civil War and the immortalized heroes that were crucial to socialism's victory. It was meant to instill the proletariat with a nationalistic pride that would direct its minds and hearts towards the interests of the state. Because of their overwhelming prominence, the influences of Socialist Realism were nearly impossible to escape.
One of the most paradigmatic, and also one of the first Soviet heroes was Vasilii Chapaev, a Red soldier killed in the Civil War and elevated to the status of legend through the efforts of Socialist Realism. The author Dmitrii Furmanov wrote a novel depicting Chapaev's exploits, which was made into a screenplay in 1934 and became one of the most effective products of Socialist Realism. The book, entitled Chapaev, glorified the efforts and persistence of Chapaev's comrades even in the face of overpowering opposition and thereby turned the Bolshevik cause into a heroic mission. The message of the novel was preserved even through the hero's death, which occurred during a moment of personal weakness and diversion from socialism's inexorable path. Through the novel, Bolshevik values become a superhuman force that imbues its everyday, mortal protectors with awesome power.
Isak Babel, a Russian Jew, followed suit with his novel Red Cavalry, which also portrayed life during the Russian Civil War. Babel's writing embodied the central principle of Socialist Realism; he excised every word that was superfluous to the story's message and made each sentence as clear and straightforward as possible. He wrote about the Cossacks with whom he had ridden and fought during the war, and in his text he addressed issues such as why the strong brought suffering upon the weak and if submission was morally acceptable. He also depicted intriguing contrasts contained in the socialist mission, such as healthy, revolutionary spirit and violent brutality, and often scribbled Hebrew notes in the margins of communist flyers.
A similar history of the Civil War was depicted in And Quiet Flows the Don, written by a 22 year-old Cossack by the name of Mikhail Sholokhov, whose identity remained a mystery during the novel's compilation. An even greater mystery, however, was how such a detailed account of the Civil War could have been written by a man too young to fight in it. Although the book has become the greatest novel ever written about the revolution, accusations of plagiarism still plague its origins. Much of the book is taken from first-hand accounts of the war and from newspaper articles. It tells the story of the war from the Whites' point of view and shows everything they have known - the powers of the Tsar, Orthodoxy and Cossack life - overwhelmed by collectivization and unity. Although the novel was written with the opposition's perspective in mind, the Soviet people could relate to the confusion and destruction depicted in its pages; after all, their entire country had been turned upside-down and it was now their responsibility to rebuild it.
Socialist Realist film, like literature, reflected Bolshevik values and the principles embodied by Stalin's vision for the future. Every feature was required to glorify the ideals of the revolution and depict the power of the collective. This power was exemplified in the people's breaching of imposing obstacles, such as natural disasters and civil opposition to the socialist path. However, this portrayal of Soviet life came at the cost of great censorship and suppression of varied artistic talents. If a film did not portray the Bolshevik cause in a "truthful" light, it would never make its way to a public audience.
One of the first Social

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