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Did Stalin Succeed in Creating a

New Soviet Culture in the Thirties?


As Stalin became the focal point of power in Soviet Union in the late 1920s and 1930s
profound economic-social changes began. These were accompanied by large-scale changes
in Soviet culture. As the economic policies of the NEP were replaced with the 5-year plans
and terror became more and more widespread, Soviet culture did not remain unchanged.
Arts, media and personal interactions all changed at the same time. I shall be arguing that
these changes in culture were in fact the emergence of a new, a Stalinist culture. The extent
to which the creation of this can be attributed to Stalin is a two-fold affair: on the one
hand, Stalin did very closely monitor the workings of culture, especially the arts. On the
other hand, a new culture required the consensus of those who form it: artists, journalists
and in the end the everyday person. This consensus, I believe, did exist but largely due to
the more indirect effects of Stalinism policies and less so because of conscious construction
of identities and culture. As I will presently argue, the culture of the thirties can be
characterised as new because it appeared to change both the psychology of the masses and
the individuals relations to society. This was accompanied by the creation of specically
Stalinist forms of expression that reected these changes. Arts and everyday interactions
both reected the new narrative of Stalinism.
To assess the role of Stalin in the formation of this new culture is my rst goal.
Contemporary sources indicate that it was in fact Stalin who called for a cultural
revolution.

He was presented as the chief engineer of social realism, the new literary
1
movement that started 1932.

He was attributed the leading role in dening what the new
2
Soviet literature has to encapsulate.

While it is true that culture was always at the centre
3
of the Partys attention, as it was seen as the way to connect people with politics, it is

David Priestland, Stalinism and the Politics of Mobilisation: Ideas, Power and Terror in Interwar
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Russia, (Oxford, 2007), pp. 191-192.

Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from the Revolution to Cold
2
War, (Princeton, 2000), pp. 108-112.

See for example his speech at the Writers Congress, quoted in Priestland, op. cit., p. 269.
3
worth noting that the spreading of these ideas was not solely due to censorship and
terror.

As Sheila Fitzpatrick and other revisionist scholars pointed out, the cultural
4
revolution was initiated from above but answered from below.

What remains to be
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accounted for is Stalins enthusiasm for reforming culture. Two reasons to this may be
given. The rst draws from the contemporary cult that presented Stalin as the genius of
communism, the great thinker.

That is to say that it was Stalins conviction that his
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actions will lead to the achieving of the goals of the Revolution. A more nuanced look,
7
however, reveals that controlling culture was one of the key ways in which Stalin
centralised power in his hands. Even the most nuanced analysis of Stalins personality
cannot reveal whether one or the other was his real goal. However, the important fact is
that contemporaries acted as if the former was true, therefore legitimising Stalins cult.

It is
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therefore clear that while full responsibility for the new culture in the thirties cannot be
attributed solely to Stalin, his role was undeniably crucial and most importantly conscious
in its creation, therefore the use of the term Stalinist culture gains legitimacy.
As I have said, Stalinist culture can be described as new. The playwright Sergei
Tretiakov described the task that lay ahead as the need for the recasting of cultural forms
as well as sociological bouleversement.

Stalinist culture stemmed from the conviction
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that arts and the thinking of the individual have to be subjugated to politics.

The master-
10
plan of politics was to achieve the leap in economy. The key to this was seen in the
creation of a new Soviet man. However, what being the Soviet man implied remained
relatively vague and uctuant. In fact, Stalinisms most powerful self-denition was as an

Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of
4
Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, (London, 2011), pp. 79-82.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, Cultural Revolution as Class War, in Sheila Fitzpatrick (ed.), Cultural
5
Revolution in Russia 1928-1931, (Bloomington, 1978), pp. 8-41; Fitzpatricks contribution continues
to inuence scholars, see for example G. Alexopulos et al., Writing in the Stalin Era: Sheila
Fitzpatrick and Soviet Historiography, (New York, 2011), esp. chapter 11.

Brooks, op.cit., p. 66.


6

Ibid., p. 64.
7

Priestland, op. cit., pp. 191-192.


8

Clark, op. cit., p. 49.


9

Ibid., p. 79.
10
antithesis of capitalism.

The Soviet Union was placed in comparison with the capitalist
11
world: whereas in the West, workers are exploited, in the Soviet Union, they work for
themselves and through this the country of the future.

This of course stems from Marxs
12
view of dialectic materialism and class struggle. However, by this time, the comparison
with capitalism has become much more: they have become what Reinhart Koselleck
described as asymmetrical counterconcepts.

According to Kosellecks thesis, the self-
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denition of a group can remain vague, as far as there are well-developed
counterconcepts (Gegenbegriffen). By contrasting these, the self-denition of a group can
be strengthened without a strong sense of coherence in the depiction of either side.
Extrapolating from this concept, we can see that a similar self-denition was in place in the
USSR. Stalinisms aim was to draw sharp boundaries between Good (i. e. building
Socialism) and Evil (Capitalism and all its agents).

This led to the emergence of class-
14
struggle rhetorics and the search for internal enemies: kulaks, members of the
intelligentsia, and what was deemed bourgeois elements in culture.

All aspects of life
15
were militarised: the industrial front and literary front opened, the battle for coal
began.

An example would be G. B. Gelmans speech at the First Congress of Shock
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Brigades: Working in the foremost lines of the economic battlefront, one must not forget
that we nd ourselves amid the ercest class struggle.

However, there was no coherent
17
image of what a kulak or an opportunist agent was.

What everyone knew was the fact
18

Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilisation, (London, 1995), pp. 187-192.
11

Brooks, op. cit., p. 150.


12

Koselleck uses different case studies, however, I believe that his theory corresponds with the
13
themes of Stalinist culture. Reinhart Koselleck, Historical-Political Semantics of Asymmetric
Counterconcepts, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, (London, 1985), pp.
159-313.

Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin,
14
(London, 1997), p. 212.

Brooks, op. cit., pp. 56-59.


15

Bonnell, op. cit., p. 212.


16

Quoted in Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in
17
Documents, (New Haven, 2000), p. 32.

Brooks. op. cit., p. 135.


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that there was them and us, that there was Honor and Dishonor.

The key value
19
therefore became vigilance (bditelnost), the constant surveillance of those around one.


20
This gives us a potent explanation why the Purges of the thirties reached such extents as
they did. Again, the initiative came from above, but as a result of the cultural recasting of
society, society purging itself propelled itself forward. We can therefore see that one of the
aspects why Stalinist culture can be called new is the recasting of the psychology of self-
denition on a mass scale. This however, as I have argued, happened with the use of
Gegenbegriffen.
Another key aspect of the new Soviet culture of the thirties were the creation of new
social structures. This is an important aspect of Stalinist culture, as it is intimately linked to
the value-system of the new culture. The key of this new value-system were the new ideas
of what work meant for the individual. The Stalinist idea of work was that individual
labour is in fact part of a larger process of building the country of tomorrow.

The key to
21
the economic leaps envisaged by Stalin was seen to be in the attitudes of the workers:
they must strive to full the economic capabilities of the Soviet Union. The solution to
22
this was seen in the phenomenon of shock work and later the Stakhanovite movements,
both designed to maximise work output in short burst, thus mimicking the idea of
development by leaps, of constant improvement.

Maximising production was therefore
23
a question of ideology. However, being a shock worker or Stakhanovite was also a way of
self-identication. Stakhanovites were presented as socialist heroes.

As Leonid
24
Potyomkin, a shock worker in the thirties who later rose to the rank of vice minister of
geology, described:
At the age of twenty I celebrated the seventeenth anniversary
of the October Revolution for the rst time satised with a

Ibid, chapter six, especially p. 136.


19

Clark, op. cit., p. 93; For a concrete example, see Kotkin, op. cit., pp. 196-197.
20

Ibid., pp. 201-202.


21

Priestland, op. cit., pp. 228-229.


22

Kotkin, op. cit., pp. 201-215.


23

Priestland, op. cit., p. 290.


24
certain degree of personal worthiness. In the rst place as a self-
respecting trade-union organiser (social activist), then as a shock
worker conrmed by the Trade Union Committee, one of 2 out of a
total of 60 students []


25
Therefore we can see that individual work, personal achievements created new
hierarchies in society.

These hierarchies were highly dynamising: people from all walks
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of life were given a chance of advancement if they complied with Party ideologies. The so
called vydvizhentsy, the upwards moving proletariat promoted to leadership positions,
became a pillar of Party power that endured even after the Stalinist period.

However, as
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much as the new experience of work and advancement based on personal merits was
liberating to certain previously underprivileged groups, it was also conning. For the new
ideology of work, central to the culture of Stalinism work was not a material necessity. It
was a moral commitment. As Brooks very convincingly argues, individuals were made
morally compelled to work by planting a sense of indebtedness towards Stalin.

It also
28
constricted the way everyday interactions took place. Everybody had to learn to speak
bolshevik, that is, to act in accordance with what was deemed appropriate by the Party.


29
For some, of course, this was stemming from a true conviction with the ideas of Stalinism.
However, it is sensible to assume that for many, it was comforting to the Soviet system by
role-playing.

Based on this, we can see that Stalinist culture, by introducing a new idea
30
of work changed the way people thought and acted in everyday life. Therefore we can see
that Stalinist culture was indeed new and also very penetrative, although its penetration
did not necessarily stem from true conviction.
Italicisation by me. In Vronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya and Thomas Lahusen (eds.), 25
Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, (New York, 1995), p. 255; for a general overview
of the interpretation of diary-writing in the thirties, see Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind:
Writing a Diary under Stalin, (London, 2006).

Much in accordance with Clark, op. cit., pp. 106-107; Priestland, op. cit., p. 290.
26

One of the rst revisionist scholars to point this out was Sheila Fitzpatrick. See, for example
27
Fitzpatrick, op. cit., pp. 8-41.

Brooks, op. cit., especially chapter four.


28

Kotkin, op. cit., pp. 154-156.


29

G. Alexopulos et al., op. cit., p. 184.


30
So far, I have focused on Stalinist culture in its broader sense, looking at the way it
changed everyday relations and quotidian mindsets. I shall now shift my attention to the
more conscious creation of culture: Art. Following up on Tretiakovs assertion, quoted
above, I will focus on the role of Art and the expressions of this role. As I have pointed out,
Stalin and his inner circle were closely monitoring and consciously initiating the
development of Soviet culture. The main device for this was Art, which was seen as
mediator of high ideas to the public.

In the thirties, and extensive rethinking of what the
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Arts should convey, how should this be done, and whom should they be aimed at took
place. My focus shall be on literature for two reasons. Firstly, printed press was the most
widely distributed media. By the 1930s, 80% of the Soviet population were literate and the
circulation of daily newspapers, especially Pravda was the main source of information.


32
Second, despite other media, such as photographs or sound movies, were more accessible
the primacy of literature was maintained. It was believed that the best way of expressing
Stalinism, were the literal arts and therefore all other media were in fact converging on it.


33
In literature, the call for a culture bet Stalinism manifested itself in the so-called
Literature of the Fact, and later the pan-artistic Social Realism.

The central thesis of this
34
was the idea that aesthetics are not self-valuable, therefore they must be subjected to
ideological analysis to be properly understood.

The aim of Socialist Realism was to give a
35
narrative to life. This was to be achieved by presenting the lives of Soviet heroes, rst and
foremost Stalin himself.

Based on this, we can see that it is in the Arts where we can
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speak of the conscious creation of a Stalinist culture. Social Realism, however must be seen
in the context of the broader changes in Soviet culture, the depiction and strengthening of
which was its key role.

Clark, op. cit., p. 129.


31

Brooks, op. cit., pp. 3-18; Clark, op. cit., p. 139.


32

Clark, op. cit., especially chapters 2 & 5.


33

Ibid., pp. 49-50; Brooks, op. cit., pp. 108-112.


34

Clark, op. cit., p. 122; Kotkin, op. cit., pp. 151-152.


35

Brooks, op. cit., pp. 66-82.


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Therefore, we can see that the Soviet culture of the 1930s can indeed be called a new
culture, as all aspects of life and its depictions in art were reconstructed. The recasting of
social relations was twofold. Firstly, a new self-denition of the individual and society was
put in place. I have argued that this denition in fact remained vague and was only
achieved through the formation of antagonistic counterconcepts and a mentality of
constant struggle. Secondly, the ways in which individuals interacted with society and the
Soviet state was recreated. The measurement of an individuals worth became the work he
was capable to do fro the greater good. I have shown that this led to the emergence of
social hierarchies and an increasingly dynamic society. The extent to which this new
culture was the creation of Stalin was limited. It was always the initiatives from above,
answered from below that drove the evolution of Soviet culture.
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