Joseph Stalin reports to the 8th All-Union Congress of Soviets (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Marxist Magic Realism

How Soviet society, gripped by political correctness, descended into madness

It is a truism that every revolutionary becomes a conservative once he attains power. On a dime, the drive for revolutionary justice turns into defence of the status quo. The Russian Revolution is a prime example of a movement of Millenarian fervour and radical avant-gardism ossifying in a few years into a project of containment and conservatism, while never admitting to any such change having occurred. 

Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Politics, by Evgeny Dobrenko, Jesse M. Savage, Yale University Press, 2020, £45

In Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Power, Evgeny Dobrenko (professor of Russian studies at University of Sheffield) characterises Late Stalinism as a state of low-level civil war with the overt features of “aggressive nationalism […] anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, imperialism”. That imperialism extended both outside the USSR (the Eastern Bloc) and inside the USSR, by suppressing the distinct cultural identities of non-Russian states. Stalinist culture was propaganda made during the Cold War, created for the purpose of maintaining the status quo domestically and internationally, preventing escalation to military conflict (externally) and political dissent (internally).

Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 definition is “Socialist Realism, as the fundamental method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, demands of the artist a truthful, historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development. Furthermore, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic of reality must be combined with the goal of ideological transformation and education in the spirit of socialism.” Revolutionary romanticism should imbue images of the working people with “the greatest heroic spirit and immense perspectives.” Refashioned and repurposed elements of history used to project an image that serve a political purpose we call “historicism”. 

This study lays bare the madness that overtakes a society in the grip of political correctness

Realism was by no means objective; instead, it was adherence to absolute pragmatism and utilitarianism, defined by the Party in its capacity as representative of the people. Realism was equated to submission, free of all objective markers of comparison, to the will of the Party. Soviet art was a distortion that was reassuring and incorporated elements of human and natural reality in a larger picture (or extended oeuvre) that was fantastic, impossible and guided by the hand of the Party. It was a form of Marxist Magic Realism. 

“[…] Prewar Soviet culture still largely preserved an internationalist model. Late Stalinism, however, was already totally disconnected from revolution. It was a purely nationalist-state project and almost exclusively ethnically based.” The isolationist position of Stalin in the late 1930s led to the split of Left Communism (Trotsky’s internationalism) and Right Communism (Stalin’s nationalism).

Miracles of impossible science bloomed in Soviet laboratories

The military victory of the Great Patriotic War reified the historic inevitability of the triumph of Socialism, sanctified by the blood of soldiery and citizenry of the most politically advanced state in the world. Superiority had been demonstrated. The cult of Russian patriotic victory, forged in 1945 and neglected after Stalin’s death, was restored by Putin as a means of reasserting meaning through a commonly binding noble heritage.

Sergei Eisenstein’s epic biographical film Ivan the Terrible (1942-6) was intended as a coded celebration of another autocrat – Stalin. The first part met Stalin’s approval but the second part was condemned (through the Party) as “anti-historicism and anti-artistic nature” and banned from public showing. The unfinished part III was destroyed. Stalin took personal charge of historical-film production by selecting subjects, approving screenplays and appointing actors to roles. In films such as The Vow (1946), which depicted the leader as a character in a historical drama epitomised the cult of Stalin (“the world’s genius”) at the heart of Soviet culture. Dobrenko describes how Stalin rejected a proposed Order of Stalin to complement the existing Order of Lenin. The precedence given to Stalin’s order would have required making infelicitously explicit what was implicitly known to all: Stalin’s stature eclipsed that of Lenin.

When Stalin became obsessed by the phantom of Jewish conspiracy, the state apparatus bent to his will

Writers were considered Party functionaries, subject to guidance and discipline. Phrases such as “denigration of Soviet reality” – sinister and absurd at the same time – were levelled at works which failed to meet standards of political correctness (another Soviet term). Punishment ranged from demotion, withdrawal of opportunities to practice, exile, imprisonment and execution. Poet Anna Akhmatova and story writer Mikhail Zoshchenko were censured in 1946 by leading official Andrei Zhdanov. Zoshchenko was a representative of anti-Bolshevik forces, “vulgar” and (in the words of Stalin) “a mudslinger”; Akhmatova was condemned as “one of the standard-bearers of empty, unconscientious, aristocratic-salon poetry”. Added to which, Akhmatova had recently met Isaiah Berlin (who was visiting the USSR to prepare a report) and was therefore accused of acting in league with capitalist enemies of the state. Both had their income reduced through restrictions on publication; neither were imprisoned.

Theatre censors found there was a need to constantly weed out older plays with elements of farce and bawdiness, which proved to be irksomely popular. New plays were written and produced multiple theatres (sometimes over 100) simultaneously, generating drama the way tractors or toothbrushes were fabricated. Most plays ran for one season and were then permanently discarded. This was a period when an opera production could be halted by Stalin for “politically mistaken content” and ideological objections could be lodged regarding restricting “singers by keeping them at half an octave, or two-thirds of an octave, when they can produce two octaves”.

Miracles of impossible science bloomed in Soviet laboratories. Dobrenko discusses at length the Stalinist influence on biology, especially through Trofim Lysenko. Mendelian genetics was a cover for bourgeois imperialism, which had been overturned by Soviet biology that proved beings were not limited by the inherited characteristics. Yet reality failed to conform, with Lysenkoist agriculture precipitating famine. Olga Lepeshinskaya was awarded the Stalin Prize for claims she could generate life from non-cellular matter. Her endeavours were (according to non-Soviet experts) incompetent, fraudulent and worthless. Rather than viewing the pair as charlatans duping the establishment, we should see them as fulfilling the need for heroic Marxist quasi-science created by the systems and ideology of Stalinist USSR.

When Stalin became obsessed by the phantom of Jewish conspiracy, the state apparatus bent to his will and (despite there being no Revolutionary precedent for anti-Semitism) anti-Semitic propaganda, such as the play The Golden Plague (1952) was produced. That Soviet cultural production could encompass pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish material indicates the philosophical vacuity of a system predicated upon only the incontestable authority of the Party to arbitrate all matters.

Drawing from Russian-language texts, Dobrenko analyses instances of Stalinist cultural production and control in film, literature, theatre, music and linguistics, deftly counterpointing the political situation with the strict, unexpressed and mutating demands placed upon creators. Dobrenko does not touch upon the expansion of historicism in the visual arts, especially fine art and architecture, during Stalin’s last decade. Generally, the author is clear and his sources noted, though the narrative becomes a touch dry, especially relating to the wrangles over philosophy and linguistics, perhaps unavoidably so. Nonetheless, this study is both serious and approachable, laying bare the madness that overtakes a society when in the grip of political correctness.

Alexander Adams has previously written an article about Soviet Brutalism.

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