Soviet Art

Once again via David Thompson, this article by Michael Totten on the ludicrous state of modern art is worth reading in full, and is fully consistent with what I wrote here.

The bit I want to discuss here, though, is this:

By obsessing over politics above all else, identitarian artists of the twenty-first century resemble the Socialist Realists from the Soviet Union in the early- to mid-twentieth century. One could charitably call Socialist Realism an artistic style, one that glorified peasants, factory workers, and Communist values, but it was nurtured by a totalitarian police state and was the only “style” allowed by the government lest hapless artists wished to live out the remaining days of their lives in a Siberian slave labor camp.

At least the Russian Socialist Realists were talented artists. They produced totalitarian propaganda, yes, but they did it competently. Their paintings are interesting and engaging, and not just because they’re curious historical artifacts.

I actually quite like the Soviet Realism art, not so much for aesthetic beauty but, as Totten says, for what they represent historically.  I particularly like those in this sort of style:




Of course, one must understand that they represent bullshit propaganda of the highest order in support of an abominable regime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are not engaging and, in the context of what they represent, historically interesting.  And the artists who created them undoubtedly had considerable talent and skill.

I remember once searching the internet for a story related to the Waffen SS and stumbling across websites and forums devoted to this and other German units, full of people posting photos and pictures of various artifacts from WWII.  I wasn’t surprised, but was rather glad, that the sites weren’t centres of Nazi worship but were instead frequented by incredibly nerdy blokes who simply had a historical interest in the Waffen SS and its symbology.  As, I must confess, do I up to a point: I have a huge hardback book full of photos of the Waffen SS which I picked up at a jumble sale years ago, and it’s a good one.  What I don’t have, however, is a giant Nazi flag hanging up on my wall and an admiration for their policies or methods.

I had to make a similar distinction when I found myself interested in the Soviet Union (my obsession with Russia was always more an obsession of the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet eras; modern-day Russia doesn’t interest me much any more, having now lived in it).  I used to buy items with the Soviet symbols on them, and sometimes even wear them:

Which, I hope, didn’t make me the same as the middle class twats who display the hammer and sickle when screaming “Smash the State” in central London.  I’d not wear the hammer and sickle any more, or really anything Soviet, because my obsession has declined and I’ve grown up a bit and now wear different clothes.  But I still find myself admiring Soviet symbols and artwork, such as this which is on the wall of an old Pioneer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (I wrote about it here back in 2007, I don’t know if the camp and its murals still exist).

And also this wonderfully optimistic mural which I found in the Sakhalin town of Nevel’sk:

What I still find fascinating about Soviet art and other aspects of Soviet culture is that they belong to a country which simply no longer exists.  People say the past is another country, but in the case of the Soviet Union this is literally true.  Culture changes with time and you can visit any country and see its cultural history, but I think the Soviet Union is the only country I can think of which ceased to exist – taking its artistic culture with it – almost overnight.  What emerged from the wreckage in the form of the independent states retained aspects of the Soviet culture to varying degrees, but in all cases they were fast moving in the other direction leaving vast swathes of cultural history abandoned, owned by nobody and claimed by nobody.

You can still see it, especially the well-made examples such as those on the Moscow metro system, but even they seem increasingly alien as modern Russians prefer to commemorate different eras of their history.  Eventually Lenin’s body will be carted away and buried somewhere, the murals will fall into disrepair or be replaced by something more modern, and the last remaining Soviet citizens will die out, taking with them the memories of films, plays, and music which nobody else would even understand.

Except this rather odd Brit, of course.


12 thoughts on “Soviet Art

  1. Interesting that in three of the four examples you show here, the meaning of the image is coming towards the observer (I can argue the foreground in the fourth one of the factory has foreground, but while I may have been to art college I am not Brian Sewell)

    Things in art, and propaganda posters especially, tend to be stronger when they ‘come at you.’ There are lots of examples of good and even great art where the subject is ‘observed’ almost in a neutral state or middle distance, but I am sure these Soviet posters made the people feel as if was reaching to them personally, especially with the woman with gun ‘n’ wheat with it’s ‘take this to defend us while I can harvest this’ approach.

  2. @ Watcher,

    Yes, when I was scanning through the pictures I noticed in a lot of cases the subjects were all leaning in one direction in parallel to indicate decisive movement forwards. An interesting observation.

  3. Social engineering agitprop at its best, that good that it has been comfortably merged and taken up by the West.

    Kollontai’s views on the role of marriage and the family under Communism were arguably more influential on today’s society than her advocacy of “free love.” [23] Kollontai believed that, like the state, the family unit would wither away once the second stage of communism became a reality. She viewed marriage and traditional families as legacies of the oppressive, property-rights-based, egoist past.

  4. Hitler was rather good at vulgar art, which is not surprising given his background. The Nazi flag is itself a masterpiece, as were his son et lumière displays (not that they were called that then).

    It all adds to my suspicion that “Art is Good for You” ain’t necessarily true.

  5. @Bardon: This 1932 poster seems a late example both of that style and that message. From the mid-1930s onwards, Soviet propaganda reverted to traditional roles for women, although with a Communist or patriotic (WWII) twist. The style also shifted from the avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s to old-fashioned naturalism. Kollontai spent the years 1930-45 as ambassador to Stockholm, doing her best to keep Sweden neutral.

  6. 45 years ago, the Trots I knew would send themselves up by adopting poses from Soviet posters.

    I recall that back then Lefties had a, sometimes excellent sense of humour. Gone now.

  7. What you’ve overlooked is that the USSR was very good at obliterating the culture, language and history of its component states. The Russian composite that was lauded didn’t really reflect its populace.

  8. “the middle class twats who display the hammer and sickle when screaming “Smash the State” in central London”

    About 15 years back, I saw a car with “capitalism is the problem // socialism is the solution” on the bumper sticker. The driver looked like a college student. That was in the south of the US, surprisingly. I had much to say but ended up saying nothing.

    Back to the pictures — honestly, I’m not very much impressed by the first one and the murals: I think it’s boilerplate stuff typical of the late Soviet period. It paid OK so it got made. The wartime posters are a different class, and the constructivist pitch for the “3rd industrial bond” (1929?) is just great. If you’re into over-the-top wartime propaganda, here’s one example (terribly exploitative yet very artsy) and here’s a whole gallery.

    Apart from posters and such, Soviet painting got less socialist and more realist after Stalin’s death. Ideology played a part but it was Agitprop no more.

  9. @Alex

    Yes it is a different style from earlier works and I wasn’t crediting Kollanti with creating it. I do think it is a good example of the use of Agitprop and with a feminist angle. They say that it was Kollanti who amongst other things championed the feminist cause at the leadership level during the Bolshevik era thus my connection between Agitprop and her.

    “After the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolshevik Party member Alexandra Kollontai persuaded Vladimir Lenin to make the International Women’s Day an official holiday in Russia. It should be noted that only in 1965, by the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR it was declared a non-working day “to commemorate the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communist construction and in the defense of their Fatherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in the rear, and also to mark the great contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples, and the struggle for peace”.

  10. @Bardon: I was trying to say this: in the early 1930s, the Bolsheviks turned away both from some radical social agendas and from avant-garde art. The nuclear family and “realism” in arts and letters were laid down as the foundations of the new social and cultural order. Kollontai’s ideas were never accepted into the mainstream, and, ironically, her role in Stockholm was the mirror image of a radical feminist. She was to use her upper-class upbringing, education and manners to woo the Swedish political establishment, which she did with some success.

    As for March 8, it evolved into a kind of Mother’s (and wife’s and girlfriend’s and sister’s) day after WWII.

  11. If we’re talking poor fashion choices, let’s not forget that you were wearing a Wigan mongo rugby shirt last time we met.

    To be fair, I was in drag, so I don’t have much to shout about either…..

  12. If we’re talking poor fashion choices, let’s not forget that you were wearing a Wigan mongo rugby shirt last time we met.

    I still wear that! Love that shirt, mainly because it is very old now: 1999/2000 seasons IIRC.

    To be fair, I was in drag, so I don’t have much to shout about either…..

    Weren’t you in a shell-suit?

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