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:
Revolutions have a tendency to spur all sorts of creative activities, not least among those the revolution benefits most – the common workers and farmers. One activity that intrigues me is children’s names. Russian parents were not the only ones to call their offspring Marks, Engelina, Stalina, and Ninel (or indeed Barikada, Ateist, Traktorina, and Elektrifikatsiy). It happened and still happens in India, in circles where the tradition runs strong.
Aware of this situation, the Russian Cultural Centre, in Thiruvananthapuram, organised a day where all those so named were gathered. As reported, Lenin opened the evening, while Stalin was master of ceremonies. Participants were greeted by Khrushchev, while Brezhnev and even Yuri Gagarin made speeches. The oldest person present was Stalin (at 58) and the youngest was a child named Pravda.
I’ve got to ask: where’s the creativity in naming kids in Australia?
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:
I can say that I am not responsible for this one, but it does feel rather comfortable. I guess it goes with the glowing description of a speech I gave in China last year: ‘a velvet-gloved iron fist’ (David Jasper)
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.