Socialist Realism as an inverted reality

​From the 1930s onwards, the official art doctrine in the Soviet Union was Socialist Realism, which ruled equally in all creative fields, from literature to figurative art and film. Its aim was to add to the general propaganda in trying to make people think and behave as befitted the authorities. When the Soviet regime was established in Estonia in 1940, the existing Estonian culture and its legacy was forbidden, destroyed and re-evaluated. The empty space was to be filled with a new, Soviet culture.

The heyday of Socialist Realism in Estonian culture overlapped with the culmination of the Stalinist persecution policy. In the late 1940s and early 1950s society suffered in the overwhelming atmosphere of fear and confusion. A drastic gap stretched between reality and the ideals promised by the Communist Party. Art had to mask, cushion or suitably explain this gap, by showing that the problems were all caused by people working against Soviet power, and were just exceptions to be quickly eliminated. People had to be convinced that the party’s aims and methods were exclusively right, and were encouraged to co-operate. Reality in art was therefore shown as an ideal, regulated world, dominated by general optimism, a will to work and achieve and a sincere faith in the party, which was leading everyone into the bright future of communism.

Connections with realism, as the name indicates, were not altogether lacking. Special attention was paid to simplicity and precision of depiction, in order to make the message clear to everybody. When a campaign was underway (e.g. collectivisation), people obviously had to be pointed in the right direction, and art then had to reflect the latest events. However, both the past and present subject matter was distorted, as everything was supposed to show a development through class struggle towards communism.

In practice, Socialist Realist art had to follow the ideologically accepted examples. Amongst writers, the models were for example Maksim Gorky and Nikolai Ostrovsky; of artists Aleksandr Gerassimov, Isaak Brodsky etc. On a somewhat lower level from the Soviet cultural greats stood local classics, whose work was supposed to set an example to others (e.g. Soviet Estonian artists Viktor Karrus and Evald Okas, writers August Jakobson and Hans Leberecht).

Art born in this way was inevitably repetitive. Aesthetic considerations were not important in Socialist Realism, as propaganda had to prevail. Control over such art was strict and a creator’s individuality was almost totally suppressed.

Socialist Realist art depicted an ideologically distorted past and present, and predicted a utopian future that never arrived.

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