Socialist Realism

In 1930 Alexander Efremin, attacked the writings of Yevgeni Zamyatin: "Zamyatin has a complete and unmitigated disbelief in the Revolution, a thorough and persistent skepticism, a departure from reality, an extreme individualism, a clearly hostile attitude to the Marxist-Leninist world view, the justification of any "heresy", of any protest in the name of that protest, a hostile attitude to the factors of class war - this is the complex of ideas within which Zamyatin revolves. Thrown out beyond the bounds of the Revolution by its centrifugal force, he, of necessity, is in the enemy camp, in the ranks of the bourgeoisie."

The theory of Socialist Realism was adopted by the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. Approved by Joseph Stalin, Nickolai Bukharin, Maxim Gorky and Andrey Zhdanov, Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man's struggle toward socialist progress for a better life. It stressed the need for the creative artist to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic and heroic. The doctrine considered all forms of experimentalism as degenerate and pessimistic.

Experimental and non-conformist writers such as Yevgeni Zamyatin, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov, Victor Serge, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin, Konstantin Fedin, Victor Shklovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered under this policy. Zamyatin and Serge managed to leave the country, whereas Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide. Writers who refused to change, such as Babel and Pilnyak, were executed or died in labour camps.

Yevgeni Zamyatin complained to Joseph Stalin: "No creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year. In each of my published works these critics have inevitably discovered some diabolical intent. Regardless of the content of a given work, the very fact of my signature has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal. Of course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil. I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men, as soon as there is at least partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist."

Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1957: "I think Stalin's cultural policies, especially the cultural policies imposed on Leningrad through Zhdanov, were cruel and senseless. You can't regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick, or by barking orders. You can't lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don't deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Victor Serge, was a close friend of Boris Pilnyak in the early 1930s. He wrote about him in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

Boris Pilnyak was writing The Volga Flows into the Caspian Sea. On his work-table I saw manuscripts under revision. It had been suggested to him that, to avoid banishment from Soviet literature, he should remodel Forest of the Isles, that 'counter-revolutionary' tale of his, into a novel agreeable to the Central Committee. The body's Cultural Section had assigned him a co-author who, page by page, would ask him to suppress this and add that. The helpmate's name was Yezhov, and a high career awaited him, followed by a violent death: this was the successor to Yagoda as head of the GPU.

Pilnyak would twist his great mouth: "He has given me a list of fifty passages to change outright! "Ah!" he would exclaim, "if only I could write freely! What I would I not do! At other times I found him in the throes of depression. "They'll end up by throwing me in jail. Don't you think so?" I gave him new heart by explaining that his fame in Europe and America safeguarded him; I was right, for a while. "There isn't a single thinking adult in this country", he said, "who has not thought that he might be shot."

(2) In 1924 Boris Pilnyak wrote an article explaining why, despite receiving government funds, he could not write Communist Party propaganda.

I am against a writer having to live "willingly not seeing," or, simply, lying. And a lie results when some sort of statistical proportion is not observed. I am not a communist, and for that reason I do not agree that I should have to write in a communist manner. To the degree that the communists are with Russia, I am with them. I admit that the fate of the communist party is less interesting to me than the fate of Russia. The Communist Party to me is only a link in the history of Russia.

(3) Alexander Efremin attacked the writing of Yevgeni Zamyatin in his article The Fatal Path (4th January, 1930)

Zamyatin has a complete and unmitigated disbelief in the Revolution, a thorough and persistent skepticism, a departure from reality, an extreme individualism, a clearly hostile attitude to the Marxist-Leninist world view, the justification of any "heresy", of any protest in the name of that protest, a hostile attitude to the factors of class war - this is the complex of ideas within which Zamyatin revolves. Thrown out beyond the bounds of the Revolution by its centrifugal force, he, of necessity, is in the enemy camp, in the ranks of the bourgeoisie.

(4) Yevgeni Zamyatin, letter to Joseph Stalin (1931)

No creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year. In each of my published works these critics have inevitably discovered some diabolical intent. Regardless of the content of a given work, the very fact of my signature has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal. Of course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil. I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men, as soon as there is at least partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist.

(5) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

When the Press denounced Zamyatin and Pilniak as public enemies, the first for a biting satire on totalitarianism, the other for a fine realist novel, my author friends (in the Soviet Writers' Union) voted everything that was expected of them against their two comrades.

(6) Boris Pilnyak, in conversation with Victor Serge in 1933.

I do believe, Victor, that one day I too will send a bullet into my head. Perhaps it would have been better if I had done that. I cannot emigrate like Zamyatin: I could not live apart from Russia. And I have the feeling that as I come and go, there is a gun in my back, with a pack of blackguards on the trigger.

(7) When Osip Mandelstam was being investigated by the Secret Police he went to see the short-story writer, Isaac Babel, who was still a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. The meeting was later recorded by Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda Khazina.

The next person we consulted was Babel. We told him our troubles, and during the whole of our long conversation he listened with remarkable intentness. Everything about Babel gave an impression of all-consuming curiosity - the way he held his head, his mouth and chin, and particularly his eyes. It is not often that one sees such undisguised curiously in the eyes of a grown-up. I had the feeling that Babel's main driving force was the unbridled curiously with which he scrutinized life and people.

With his usual ability to size things up, he was quick to decide on the best course for us. "Go out to Kalinin," he said, "Nikolai Erdman is there - his old woman just love him." This was Babel's cryptic way of saying that all Erdman's female admirers would never have allowed him to settle in a bad place. He also thought we might be able to get some help from them - in finding a room there, for instance. Babel volunteered to get the money for our fare the next day.

(8) Nikita Khrushchev was critical of Stalin's cultural policies implemented by Andrey Zhdanov.

I think Stalin's cultural policies, especially the cultural policies imposed on Leningrad through Zhdanov, were cruel and senseless. You can't regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick, or by barking orders. You can't lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don't deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.