One Book, One Chicago Spring 2006
Cultural Life in the Soviet Union
By the 19th century, Russian literary arts had reached a peak of world renown: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov are all considered icons of classic literature. Despite this great tradition, however, Soviet writers and artists of the 20th century were profoundly affected by the changing political climate.
The period surrounding the 1917 Revolution was marked by a brief burst of experimentation and cultural creativity. Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva produced stunning poetry, while prose writers such as Isaak Babel mastered the short story and novella. Chagall and Kandinsky turned toward abstract painting, and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes shockingly premiered Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold refined his methods of highly stylized acting, which influenced filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in such films as Battleship Potemkin.
As the 1920s progressed, political leaders grew wary of these experimental art forms and censorship tightened. The government took over printing presses, replaced writers’ and musicians’ associations with state-controlled unions, and shut down theaters and art studios. These tactics effectively blocked any material deemed politically inappropriate and severely stifled creativity.
In 1934, Socialist Realism was officially declared the only acceptable method for artistic expression. Leaders felt that art should be uncomplicated, support and glorify the Communist party, and “realistically” depict proletarian culture. Criticism of the party was strictly forbidden. Artists who chose to remain in the Soviet Union were forced to work within the confines of Socialist Realism or “write for the drawer,” the practice of hiding questionable material from the authorities. But for some these regulations were unthinkable: many emigrated, others committed suicide, while some were imprisoned and even executed.
A revival of literature and the arts finally emerged following Stalin’s death. In 1954, the New York Times called Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel The Thaw a “minor bombshell” for its critical examination of life in a factory town and discussion of previously taboo subjects. Another new style of prose led by Vassily Aksyonov and Vladimir Voinovich depicted modern youth culture in the style of J.D. Salinger. The poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko was read in crowded soccer stadiums, and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published. By the late 1960s, however, these trends had been reversed once again, and many writers returned to silence or left the country.
Throughout the 20th century, cultural life in the Soviet Union has been subject to political control. Although much of their work was created in secret and condemned by the government, Soviet artists have since achieved rightful recognition in the world’s cultural history.
- Brown, Archie et al, eds. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Former Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Contemporary Authors Online. Thompson Gale.
- New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002.