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Socialist Realism and an All-Encompassing Simulacrum

Throughout this essay the term ‘Socialist Realism’ (SR) and the term ‘Stalinist Culture’ will refer to the same thing, which is the wider effort to change the lived reality of Soviet citizens through culture under Stalin. This includes the arts, but also the physical environment, architecture and propaganda delivered to citizens through media like poster art. In this article, socialist realist literature or text will refer to SR narrative fiction, including the novel and film.

Joseph Stalin
Fig 1: The Morning of Our Country (Shurpin, 1946-48)

The reason behind defining these terms so early in this essay is because the aim of the paper is to draw a distinction between the socialist realist text and the wider lived experience of the people for whom they were intended. The argument is that, on its own, a socialist realist text struggles to either effect or affect its audience in a significant way. While SR writers were called ‘engineers of human souls’ (Zhdanov, 1934), in reality their framework is so internally contradictory and requires so much authorial interference in order to incorporate the necessary ideological features that, when confronted with a single SR text, an audience has to do too much legwork to be truly affected. This means that the audience is left either foundering in contradictions or face to face with immersion-breaking literary devices, such as incredibly heavy handed exposition or spoon-fed imagery. For example, Katerina Clark mentions For the Power of the Soviets on page 182 of her 2001 article: the "protagonist receives so many batons [...] that one begins to suspect his primary function is to receive batons". The need for a positive hero is another obstacle as it precludes the level of conflict that would allow the hero to suffer any real defeats. This means that the character development happens in a selected few scenes with the mentor or father while the rest of the story struggles for meaning (Clark, 1981).

This flaw in socialist realist texts, however, is only a flaw in isolation. Stalinist culture does not reach out to its audience so much as it grasps them from all sides, at all times. Therefore, where the 21st century reader spends most of their time with an SR text attempting to unravel the conflicting threads in the story and form, the 1930s Russian reader is so conditioned by their surroundings to engage automatically, allowing themselves to be caught up in the action scenes or musical numbers, because they already understand what the story is trying to tell them. This is because drawing on the work of Michael Epstein, socialist realism (in the broad sense) was really a kind of proto-postmodernism; SR creates a simulacrum as "all material life [becomes] a product of ideology" (Epstein, 1995, p. 204) and signs of reality become far more significant and widely used than reality itself. That is, worlds are created, both literary and literal (i.e. physical), that erase "the semantic differences between idea and reality, between the signifier and the signified" (Epstein, 1995, p. 208). Conversely, by approaching SR texts as constructions and simulations of reality, emerges a method of engaging with them that allows the 21st century analyst to study them on a deeper level and get much more out of them, as the discussion of Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (1944) at the end of this paper will show. In addition, Russia as a culture is very open to this kind of top-down, symbol-oriented imposition of ideals, right back to its first Christianisation in 988 AD, which is exemplified by the city (and perhaps more crucially, the idea) of St. Petersburg. In this explicitly heroic civilisation of plausible labels, there is worth in peeling off the labels to see what lies beneath (Epstein, 1995).

Socialist Realist Art
Fig 2: Farm Girl on a Bicycle (Deineka, 1935)

This paper first must look at what problems a SR text has when isolated from its context. The first is the concept of mutism, or more specifically the denial of mutism following the decline of the Soviet Avant-garde. Mutism is the idea that every art form speaks through its own medium: painting uses colour and shape, film uses montage, literature uses the word and so on. This concept was very popular with early revolutionary creatives, and following the shift into SR all of these media became subjugated to the word. This was done in the spirit of narodnost (roughly folk-mindedness), to move away from so-called bourgeois ‘formalism’ (or the experimental Avant-Garde) and towards an art that could be easily digested by the masses (Shumatsky, 1935). SR authors "were to avoid all approaches and language that might not be accessible to the masses. […] meant that socialist realism is lowbrow, or at least middlebrow" (Clark, 1981, p. 175), and this manifested either in imagery being used that was clearly explicable, or large amounts of text explaining what was going on. This can be seen in painting, for example, in Alexandr Deineka’s Farm Girl on a Bicycle (1935) [Fig 2], which shows a girl riding a bicycle through a countryside awash with red. This clearly shows both Soviet technological advancement, the spreading of luxury to the masses, and the domination of Communism over the natural world.

In film, this is clear in the opening to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part 1, which is a mesmerising scene full of religious imagery and beautifully crafted shots. Eisenstein spends a lot of time establishing gazes between the various pro- and anti-Ivan groups through his montage, yet from 3:12 he breaks this with a deeply out of place series of exposition dumps, breaking the rhythm of what is otherwise an incredibly immersive scene. A better version of this scene would be to trust the audience’s recognition of the sign of Ivan and to trust their historical education. The groups are typical enough that they can infer who is who there is no subtext here (aside from perhaps the man at 3:24, about whom Clark goes deep in her Renaissance essay, cited below) beyond treating the audience like they cannot understand what is going on.

Chapaev movie poster
Fig: 3: Chapaev (Vasilyev, G & Vasilyev, S, 1934). Note the heroic positioning of the main character here.

Similar techniques are used in less complicated films too (this is no slight, as almost no films are as complex as Ivan the Terrible), notably in the Vasilyev brothers Chapaev (1934) at 19:01 when the hero smashes the chair, and at 28:50 when he theatrically undresses. Both instances are very heavy handed ways of showing that Chapaev is not yet conscious. In the first, he loses his cool and smashes the writing chair, associated with calm planning and reminiscent of the writing-desk in which Stalin is so often portrayed by SR artists, and in the second he rips off the veneer of consciousness that Furmanov gave him in the form of his trim. Stripping is common in SR texts, appearing in Gladkov’s Cement (1925) as well. It represents elementalism, and in this case a return to it, very clearly. To a modern reader this comes off as trite, obvious, and somewhat silly, making very little real world sense in the moment (especially in Cement).

SR texts regularly suffer from a lack of conflict, and here this means conflict in the traditional three-act structure sense, where the hero has a moment of total failure before victory. There are obstacles, but they are there to be overcome, not to win any ground against the positive hero. In Chapaev, the White Army is routinely defeated before the protagonist is martyred at the end, because the master plot is really unconcerned with the actual plot. This leads to a kind of uncanny method of storytelling, which is seen perhaps more clearly in Aleksandrov’s Circus (1936). There is an ideological plot regarding Marion Dixon’s road to understanding the greatness of the USSR, but about halfway through the film her struggle against her wicked manager is almost put on hold so that her romantic plot with Martinov can take place, before being picked up again at the end during and in the immediate aftermath of the climactic song The Flight to the Stratosphere. Katerina Clark is, as always, reliable in her analysis of this: "[the process of spontaneity to consciousness] unfolds at a deep, structural level and is manifested largely only in the encounters between father and son which […] are infrequent but crucial" (Clark, 2001, p.179). The conflict between the two plots is always won by the master plot, and as such the actual plot can seem ephemeral and often secondary.

A final, short point on the failures of SR as a whole: it just isn’t true. Chapaev was a fairly minor commander in the Civil War rather than this quasi-Napoleon; Ivan the Terrible’s wife, Anna, died of natural causes and was his first of three marriages; the Soviet Union was not as egalitarian as Circus suggests and one of the actors singing Wide is my Motherland was purged in an anti-semitic pogrom years later. This ahistorical nature is no fundamental problem ⁠—nigh everything Sergei Eisenstein ever made involved dramatic fictionalisations of history, from Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Alexander Nevsky (1938) and beyond⁠— but the nature of SR as this all-encompassing allegory makes the tightrope of historical accuracy much more precarious. Potemkin works because it can inspire people with its relatively simple revolution narrative serving as a backdrop to an incredibly intense series of on-screen events, while Chapaev struggles to create the same upswell of Soviet fervour while also taking time out for slow, dialogue heavy scenes as the hero becomes conscious.

Red Army Theatre
Fig 4: Red Army Theatre (Alabian and Simbirtsev, 1934-40)

However, while SR may not be particularly ideologically potent in individual texts, that is never how it was designed to work in the first place. Epstein describes SR as a whole as a process of simulation, and a hugely widespread one. "Simulation is an attempt to substitute for reality those images that appear more real than does reality itself" (Epstein, p. 190), and on a societal level this means that every aspect of reality is altered to fit the Stalinist mould. The most significant is the physical landscape, or the architecture. This can be seen in buildings like Alabian and Simbirtsev’s Red Army Theatre [Fig: 4] or Zholtovskii’s Apartment Building on Mokhovaia Street using aspects of classical styles: symmetry (especially compared to the Avant-Garde), classical columns, large entryways and overall the idea that the façade itself is a unified object, with all the parts working in unison, rather than in conflict, representing a move away from Marxist dialectical thinking. However, it is a sanitised classicism, much more focused on reproduction rather than creation. The reason for this is to do with the relationship between legitimacy and temporality.

The Stalinist idea was to shift the sense of time "to a new sense of the importance of history and genealogy" (Clark, 1981, p. 136). To give something the facade of deep time gives it the appearance of permanence and legitimacy ⁠—nobody is going to argue that the Roman Empire was illegitimate, because it is part of the historical furniture. It symbolises stability, order and things that last, both the 2000 years that it can be argued it existed for, and the material structures they built which still stand today. Therefore, Stalinist architecture simulates this idea as it represents not only a reproduction of the Roman style, but also a return to French revolutionary neo-classicism. By simulating those movements, Stalinist architecture looks to imbue itself with a facade of legitimacy and revolutionary heritage.

Similarly, SR texts are often myth-making, such as Chapaev, which takes a minor commander and turns him into a martyr, or Ivan the Terrible, which again is set back in the deep past and is given an inherently legitimate-looking aesthetic, with the co-opting of religious imagery. The frescos of Jesus are all distorted to look like Ivan, and the final scene where the crowd follows him carrying icons (1:35:58) resembles very closely the end of Circus (1:27:06) and Stalinist parades more generally, specifically the large portraits of Stalin/Ivan. There are far more examples of SR’s pervasiveness, but the point is that this incredibly deep pushing of the same ideas infiltrates the minds of the people, allowing them to access SR texts more easily. They are less likely to get bogged down by the failings of SR literature, and can engage with the best parts directly. Socialist realism has produced some excellent scenes ⁠—Chapaev’s potato scene (9:38) is funny, informative about the characters, and overall very well shot. Sergei Eisenstein more or less invented the modern battle scene from scratch in Alexander Nevsky (55:20), and Ivan the Terrible is a masterpiece. Even musical comedies like Circus are enjoyably light hearted and contain well made set pieces. Once an audience can move past the ideological pitfalls, SR can reach out to people, and with the society wide effort that is socialist realism, the 1930s Russian has a much better chance of doing that.

Ivan the Terrible
Fig 5: A scene from Ivan the Terrible pt. 1 (Eisenstein, 1944) - Ivan looks over his supporters, arranged to resemble a Stalinist parade

But how could this be done so easily? Epstein argues that Russia as a culture has always, in some sense, been primed for this kind of top down pushing of ideas: "the production of reality […] has been routinely accomplished" (Epstein, 1995, p.191) from 988 AD and onwards. St. Petersburg represents this well, a city whose reality "was composed entirely of fabrications, designs, ravings and visions" (Epstein, 1995, p.191). Into this scene comes socialist realism, to place new labels on the culture ⁠—telling the people that what they had built was permanent, was legitimate, and was socialism.

To conclude, a short analysis of Ivan the Terrible because it is a microcosm of everything discussed. Katerina Clark examines how Eisenstein constructs from scratch a story and a world in which Stalin can be identified with Ivan and authoritarian rule can be made to seem totally necessary. Part of how he does this is through Renaissance imagery and literary references, perhaps an example of authorial "room for some play" (Clark, 2001, p. 182) as it is far more complex and less easily verbalised than almost any film ever made. More to the point, Eisenstein uses signs of the Renaissance, for example "having Basmanov resemble a portrait of Giuliano de Medici" (Clark, 2012, p. 52), and this creates a simulacrum of that time, in which he regularly ignores actual historical events in favour of telling his story. This idea that SR reality is false is what Epstein embraces, and built on top of ‘utter emptiness’ (Epstein, 1995, p.192). It is in peeling away these labels, as Clark does in her article on Ivan the Terrible, that 21st Century readers and audiences can first gain an insight into that reality and truly experience the best of SR texts, but also dig into the "meanings that [authors] might not have been able to make explicit" (Clark, 2001, p. 182) and the truly art side of the simulacrum.

Bibliographic References

Aleksandrov, G. (1936), Circus, Lenfilm.

Clark, K. (2001), Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature, 172-83 in The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature, ed. Cornwell, N. London and New York: Routledge.

Clark, K. (1981).The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clark, K. (2012). Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and the Renaissance: An Example of Soviet

Cosmopolitanism? 49-69 in Slavic Review, Vol. 71, No 1 (Spring 2012). London: Cambridge University Press.

Eisenstein, S. (1944), Ivan the Terrible Part 1, Mosfilm.

Eisenstein, S. (1925). Battleship Potemkin. Kino Lorber.

Eisenstein, S. (1938). Alexander Nevsky, Mosfilm.

Epstein, M. (1995). After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Gladkov, F. (1925). Cement: A Novel, (Arthur, A. S. & Ashleigh, C, Trans.) New York: Ungar.

Shumatsky, B. (1935). Cinema for the Millions, Moscow, In Christie, I and Taylor, R. (2012) The Film Factory, Routledge

Vasilyev, G. & Vasilyev, S.(1934). Chapaev, Lenfilm.

Zhdanov, A. A. (1934) Soviet Literature – The Richest in Ideas, The Most Advanced Literature, 15-27 in Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress. London: Martin Lawrence.

Visual References


Author Photo

Jack Preston

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