The movement, despite being classified as “realism,” included many features that were idealized. That is, it changed aspects of everyday life to fit a specific viewpoint, in this case—that of the Soviet Union. But, the movement was not confined to what is now Russia. Authors from around the world were inspired by communist values and included these elements within their works.
Explore Socialist Realism
Socialist Realism Definition
Socialist realism was a literary and art movement that began in the 1920s and lasted into the late 1960s until the official break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is a great example of a restrictive arts movement. It lasted for years and confined the artists living under Soviet rule to certain subjects and opinions.
Commonly confused are “social” and “socialist” realism. The former refers to art and literature that depicts subjects that are of social importance, usually the real-world conditions of everyday working people. Socialist realism was the most important approved art form in the Soviet Union. This meant that everything an author wrote or an artist created was at the mercy of the government. One’s livelihood, and life, depended on their willingness to conform their creative output to the government’s idea of what was proper art.
Characteristics of Socialist Realism
- Socialist realism depicted communist values.
- Often depicted hardworking, improvised men and women.
- Focused on labor and economics.
- In art, socialist realism was inspired by classical sculpture.
- Figures in visual arts were highly idealized.
Examples of Socialist Realism
Pelle, the Conqueror by Martin Andersen Nexø
Martin Andersen Nexø was a Danish author who is commonly associated with Socialist realism. He is best known for his novel Pelle Eorbreren, or Pelle, the Conqueror, published in four volumes between 1906 and 1910. This novel is a great example of a book that was not written within the confines of the Soviet Union but conformed to many of the characteristics associated with work that was. It was translated into English between 1913 and 1916. Here is a quote from the English translation, completed by Jessie Muir and Bernard Miall:
It was dawn on the first of May, 1877. From the sea the mist came sweeping in, in a gray trail that lay heavily on the water. Here and there there was a movement in it; it seemed about to lift, but closed in again, leaving only a strip of shore with two old boats lying keel uppermost upon it.
The novel follows a young Danish man, Pelle, who immigrates to Copenhagen, where he becomes a leader in the labor movement. The novel was based on many of the author’s personal life experiences.
Mother by Maxim Gorky
This well-known socialist realism novel was published in 1906. It is generally considered to be the first novel of this movement and is usually cited as influential on authors who followed. Interestingly, Gorky also penned an important pamphlet defining Soviet art titled, On Socialist Realism. Gorky was a five-time nominee for the Nobel Price in Literature. His other well-known works include The Lower Depths, The Song of Stormy Petrel, and My Childhood. Here is a quote from Mother:
Every day the factory whistle bellowed forth its shrill, roaring, trembling noises into the smoke-begrimed and greasy atmosphere of the workingmen’s suburb; and obedient to the summons of the power of steam, people poured out of little gray houses into the street.
Gorky famously wrote Mother while on a trip to the United States in 1906. Scholars note that he penned it in order to elevate his countrymen, who had recently been defeated in Russia’s first revolution. A mood of defeatism was plaguing the revolutionaries, he believed. The novel is based around Anna Zalomova, a working woman who endured poverty and hunger.
The Road to Calvary by Aleksey Nikolayevich
The Road to Calvary is a trilogy of novels written by Aleksey Nikolayevich between 1918 and 1941. It traces the fate of Russians during the revolution of 1917 and beyond. The story begins in 1914 in St. Petersburg and follows two sisters. Nikolayevich was awarded the Stalin Prize for his trilogy, which included a cash amount (which he transferred into the Defense Fund).
The central concept of Soviet realism is a promotion of Soviet beliefs about society, politics, economics, and more. Authors and artists depicted everyday life in an idealized, often false way.
Stalin liked Socialist realism because he believed that art should be used in a way that promoted his beliefs. In this case, a positive image of life and the Soviet Union promoted the beliefs of his government.
Maxim Gorky is generally described as the first author of the Socialist realism movement. It was described as the “reigning method” of Soviet Literature at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934.
It is important because it taps into a way of thinking that was very popular between the early 1920s on through the 1960s in the Soviet Union and beyond. Authors and artists who created work within this movement promoted a particular political, economic, and social outlook on the world.
Related Literary Terms
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Experimentalism: one part of modernism and postmodernist literature. Writers take risks, try strange new techniques, and attempt to create something that’s never been seen before.
- Naturalism: a nineteenth-century literary and arts genre that focuses on the realistic depiction of life and all its struggles.
- Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
- Formalism: a school of literary criticism and theory. It’s concerned more with the structure of the text than it is with any outside influence on the author.
- Acmeism: a literary movement that emerged in the early 1910s in Russia. The movement is also referred to as the Guild of Poets.