Socialist realism has had a bad press. Due to Cold War mindsets and the corroding effects of liberalism, many still see it as a crude ideological imposition on the freedom of artists, writers, film makers and so on. ‘Stultifying’, ‘stilted’, a sign of Stalin’s ‘dictatorship’ – these and more are some of the observations you still hear. A common narrative is that after the creativity of the late 1910s and early 1920s in the Soviet Union, Stalin stifled these developments in favour of a ‘conservative’ artistic agenda.
But I have travelled enough and seen enough art, sculpture, posters and so on to realise that socialist realism is an amazing genre, producing some fantastic art. It was the dominant genre in the Soviet Union from the mid-1902s until the 1980s. It also deeply influenced other socialist states, from Eastern Europe to Asia, and it is still manifest in the DPRK, Vietnam, Laos and China. As for literature, long ago I read Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don (1935-1940). Regarded as one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, it focuses on the lives of the Don Cossacks before and after the Russian Revolution. And it has the unique distinction of being awarded both the Stalin Prize in 1941 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. From a different part of the world, I recently completed ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi’s al–Ard (1954), translated as Egyptian Earth. Not only is this one of the great Egyptian novels, and not only did it break dramatically from traditional Arabic literature, but it was inspired by socialist realism. In other words, this genre had a significant effects in many parts of the world, especially in the context of anti-colonial struggles.
It is high time for a complete reassessment of a major artistic genre.
James Endicott (1898-1993) was both a Christian missionary and a communist. Of Canadian background, he was ordained as a minister in the United Church. His claim to fame was active support of the communists leading up 1949 and then, back in Canada after more than two decades in China, speaking and agitating openly for support of the PRC. He was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, for his work towards peaceful coexistence between communists and Christians.
This was a meeting between Endicott and Zhou Enlain in 1972.
Apparently, a potent weapon against the old bourgeois world is tractors. Here is Stalin, writing to the tractor works in Stalingrad, 1930:
Greetings and congratulations on their victory to the workers and executive personnel of the giant Red Banner Tractor Works, the first in the U.S.S.R. The 50,000 tractors which you are to produce for our country every year will be 50,000 projectiles shattering the old bourgeois world and clearing the way for the new, socialist order in the countryside (Works, vol. 12, p. 241).
No wonder ‘Tractor Drivers’ won the Stalin prize in 1939:
It’s always intriguing to look at the plans for the Stalin Prize that were not realised. Many were and you can travel across Eastern Europe and the former USSR to see many of them still in use, such as glorious constructions of Stalin Baroque. But when you look at the projects that were dreamed, planned, and even approved, but never built for whatever reason, you realise how massive the imagination really was between the 1930s and 1950s. A couple of my favourites, but you will find more here.
This one was for the Palace of Technology:
This one for the Aeroflot headquarters:
And here is a stunning residential building in Uprising Square:
With significant reluctance, one of the greatest pleasures for a man or indeed woman comes to an end – my tiling. Over the last few weeks, in those regular breaks from writing, I have been cleaning carefully around each tile, removing traces of stray tiling cement:
As you may appreciate, this is a task only for the patient. But then the grouting began, filling in those trenches around 450 tiles or so.
A messy job at times, but satisfying (Mick Jagger obviously never tiled …):
I can certainly get some …
… satisfaction from this:
I … can … get … some …
… sa-tis-fac-tion …
Well, maybe not quite … I have already identified the next task or three: the kitchen floor, the walls, the exterior of our apartment block. You name it, I’ll tile it.
At last, the full version of the Lenin letter template, using only phrases and sentences from the man’s own letters:
I am writing under the fresh impression of your letter, which I have just read. Although you have resented my previous missives, I shall try to be mild and kind.
I know of no task more fatiguing, more thankless and more disgusting than to have to wade through this filth. Yet your senseless twaddle is so exasperating that I am unable to suppress the desire to state my opinion frankly.
You propose that we should [fill in proposal here, such as:] collaborate with magniloquent liberal windbags, that we should philander with reaction. Strictly speaking, this proposal is too ludicrous to merit serious consideration, the product of either a charlatan or an absolute blockhead. The only answer can be a bitter laugh. You may couch it in pompous, high-blown phrases, but it is really befouled and spattered with shit. All your talk about freedom and democracy is sheer claptrap, parrot phrases, the product of mean-spirited boors, and your education, culture, and enlightenment are only a species of thoroughgoing prostitution. It is a ridiculous and puerile attempt to be clever.
You either cannot think logically, or you are a liberal hypocrite, wriggling like the devil at mass. May I make one suggestion, as difficult as it may seem: scrape off all this green mould of intellectualist opportunism.
P.S. I cannot share your regret at not having met. After your tricks and your conniving attitude, I do not wish to have anything to do with you except in a purely official way, and only in writing.
When I have no option but to get on a plane, I prefer to travel with Air China, doing my bit for the cause. But one of the few pleasures is to wake up from a groggy, drug-induced sleep, and find a decent film to see me over the final dopey hours. What exactly is a decent film? One that would be worthy of the Stalin Prize, of course. And only on Air China can you find such a film. Celebrating 90 years since the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party is The Beginning of the Great Revival. It has Mao and Lenin and Zhou Enlai and Li Dazhao, the man who studied and introduced Marxism to China in the 1910s and whose statue I have seen on the campus of Peking University (see below). Needless to say, I loved every minute of it, so it becomes a nomination for the revived Stalin Prize.
And Li Dazhao