Culture and the arts in soviet russia

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  • Created on: 25-04-17 19:45


Bolsheviks were divided over the importance and direction of cultural policy. They wanted to keep high-calibre writers and artists on side as much as possible.1917 created the Commissariat of Enlightenment to replace the heavy restrictions and censorship of the old regime; which encouraged many artists to work with the new government. These artists were lablled as 'Fellow Travellers' as they were sympathetic to the ideals of the bolsheviks and in turn Lenin was happy to accomodate them. -But not all Bolsheviks were happy with this approach.

  • Commissariat of Enlightenment was headed by Lunacharsky
  • Constructivists believed in the creation of a new socialist culture
  • encouraged workers and peasants to create their own culture
  • Government used festivals to develop a new culture 
    • Used extra rations as an incentive for crounds to turn up
  • Also used re-enactments of the storming of the winter palace which were greatly over emphasised
    • Used 8,000 people; more people were killed in the reenactment than the real event
  • Achievement were reinforced through culture
  • Prolekult was a deliberate direct challenge to high culture 
  • Became very populart but the variety of viewpoints it expressed became a concern and restrictions began to be imposed.
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Came about as a result of WW1 which had swept away the old world as well as the new era of Soviet government. Led to a wave of experimentation termed the avant-garde, which had its emphasis on abstract art coupled with Futurism. 

Bolsheviks emphasised the visual arts as the majority of the population were illiterate.Yet the influence of the Futurists on science fiction did have an impact on popular reading.

The Avant-garde theatre movement was led by Meyerhold who produced 'Mystery Bouffe' (1918) which was a fantasy based on the workers defeating their exploiters, but it was so confusing that it was cancelled after one performance.

The experimental nature of this movement was sometimes confusing to the audience and therefore was not the way to mould people's beliefs and values.

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The Cultural Revolution

Freedoms which were tolerated under Lenin began to be criticised in the late 1920s as the pressures of the five year plans grew. The cultural revolution became part of the attempt to sweep the old bourgeois culture away- issued a full-scale attack on traditional writers and artists. Including the fellow travellers who were replaced by those truely loyal to the party.

The youth group, Komsomol undertook this task led by the Russian Association of Proleterian Writers (RAPP) who encouraged increasingly bitter attacks on the Fellow Travellers. They also condemned the individualism of writers who adopted experimental techniques. RAPP preferred works that stressed the achievements of the workers.

Which was then to be named the 'cult of the little man'- eg. Kataev's novel 'Time forward' (1932) recounted the story of a record breaking shift at Magnitogorsk steelworks. These stories were often described as 'boy meets girl meets tractor' but soon lost popularity as themes were constantly repeated.

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Socialist Realism

1932 -party announced that RAPP would be replaced by a new union of Soviet writers which brought the cultural revolution to an end, in order to pursue Social Realism. A new form of art which would present idealised images of life under Socialism. Used to convince the population that Stalin's claim "Life has become more joyous" was true.

This new union was to police the movement, rewarding those who conformed and restricting those who didn't. Many writers refused to work creating 'the genre of silence'


  • No experimentation was allowed
  • Five year plans presented through images of workers and peasants
  • Stalin told them they should make it clear who was responsible for the achievements of Socialism
  • Resulted in the fusion of Social Realism with Stalin's personality cult
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Socialist Realism


  •  Plot: hero from the people who is guided to greater things by the party.
  • 'Lowbrow' literature more concerned with heroes from russian history, war stories or detective stories.
  • Party controlled what was published and by whom


  • Government favoured Military songs more than jazz
  • Jazz was considered to be decadent and therefore the saxophone was banned in the 1940s


  • Promoted 'Stalinist baroque' which made use of classical lines
  • The Moscow metro is an example which was decorated with chandeliers and elaborate murals showing the endeavours of the workers.
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Socialist Realism


  • Able to gain enthusiasm for the october revolution
  • Also used to inspire and promote patroism during WW2

Became a useful tool for propaganda. Images became a satisfying method of escapism. Gave the government many opportunities to use the arts and popular culture to mobilise support at a range of levels for the regime

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Nonconformity under Stalin

After WW2 there were signs that the government was prepared to allow artists and writers greater freedom -both Pasternak and Akhmatova were allowed to give public readings of their unorthodox poerty in Moscow 1946.

These thoughts were quickly dispelled as elements of Western Culture were condemned in a campaign referred to as the Zhdanovschina. This 1946 campaign was lauched to remove all aspects of 'Bourgeois' culture from the west. Was heavily influenced by xenophobic attitudes (showing a dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries) that had been enhanced by the development of the Cold War.

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Impact of de-Stalinisation

There was greater hope from Khrushchev's policy of de-Stalinisation as he allowed works to be published that had previously been banned.

K's personal intervention led to the publication of Solzhenitsyn's 'one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich' which recounted appalling experience of life in the gulags as it fitted in with the new political emphasis of de-stalinisation.

Writer's began to explore new themes such as spiritual concerns, the bleakness of rural life, adultery, divorce and alcoholism. This 'Literature of conscience' was used to criticise the regime as it no longer focused on the idealised life portrayed by socialist realism.

Late 1950s nonconformity impacted youth culture as they became influence by Western music as herd on the Voice of America. 

Galich a leading guitar-poet addressed the feelings of the individual and spoke to socially allienated audiences at underground venues. Magnitizdat (tape recorder self-publishing) became a common way to spread messages to a wider audience and was a constant headache for the authorities.

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Nonconformity under Brezhnev

1964 did not see a return to Socialist realism after Khrushchev's cultural thaw but it did narrow the boundaries of what was acceptable which were nonetheless continually pushed. Official culture focused on propaganda and the achievements of socialism which the majority of the population preferred.

  • artists and writers were more likely to get into trouble for writing about sex than political reasons
  • derevenshchiki school of village prose highlighted the values of rural life
    • often romanticised
    • it could be read as a critique of urban life
  • 'Russites' (writers who took up the theme of russian nationalism) alienated non-russians and came close to criticising the USSR
  • Soviet Youths continued to be drawn towards western music and was increasingly alienated by the gerentocracy which had developed in government

The Brezhnev years made it easier to undermine the system while readers and audiences became skillful at grasping the messages behind the work.

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Clashes with Khrushchev

Khrushchev banned Pasternak's 'Doctor Zhivago' without fully reading it, yet it was smuggled abroad and published. Pasternak then proceeded to win the 1958 Nobel prize for Literature and K refused to let Pasternak travel to sweden to recieve his price. It caused international embarrassment for the soviet government.

Abstract art was one of Khrushchev's pet hate- on visiting the exhibition hall in the kremlin K said "a donkey could smear better art with its tail". Despite his fury, no action was taken against the artists.

Komsomol groups were employed to patrol the streets and dance halls and report on young people whose behaviour was deemed unacceptable. 1961 the government went as far as to hold a conference that decided on which dance moves were permissable -Enforcing the decision was a complete failure.

Khrushchev's cultural policy reflected his personality in that it was subject to mood swings. He became less tolerant of nonconformity in his last months as leader and this attitude was entrenched by his successors.

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Control and futher clampdowns

Government attempted to control  and direct cultural output by an extensive system of subsidies. For those who continued to push the boundaries, gov had to resort to more punative measures.

  • Solzhenitsyn- was expelled from the writers union and then the USSR for his writings about the harshness of soviet life
  • Abstract and experimental art was a source of conflict. 1970 the local art director at Novosibirsk was sentenced to 8 years in prison for displaying art by dissident artists.
  • Brezhnev's gov lanuched a propaganda campaign against the artists and 'enraged public' (officially recruited hooligans) attacked the work.
  • It was left to Andropov to clamp down on the subversive elements of pop culture
  • A commission was set up to vet all rock groups before they were allowed to perform
  • Komsomol were again employed to report on unacceptable activity

Clashes were a cause of bad publicity in the west, yet most artists and writer preferred to conform to avoid trouble with the authorities. More often than not the general public were happy with the traditional cultural output provided by the government. 

Nonconformists were often viewed by the public as se;f-indulgent and out of touch with the harsh realitities of daily life.

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