After existing as a monarchy for centuries, Russia had finally experienced a change in its government following the Bolshevik revolution in the early 1900`s (Wickham, 1992) , leading to the rise of the Soviet regime. Such a radical change in its government and economic system did not come without any drawbacks however, leading to a drastic rise in policing and censorship, which served the purpose of maintaining the Soviet regime`s grip over a new generation of people growing up in such turbulent times.
This censorship, while serving the purpose of maintaining the regime`s deified image, had a consequence on artists living under such conditions, who were forced to comply with the regime`s rigid standards for the arts.
The Soviet government`s artistic standards led to the further development of an emerging genre that would come to be known as socialist realism. Although the existence of this artistic style had predated the Soviet union, it would not become a tool for spreading Soviet doctrine until Anatoly Lunacharsky, the head of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, would postulate that artistic depictions of the ideal man which he called the “new soviet person” could lead it`s viewers to learn to follow in it`s example and become ideal Soviet citizens (Ellis,2012).
This artistic style eventually became part of the rule of law in Soviet Russia in 1934 (Wickham, 1992), and all artists were expected to create works which fell under this style. Socialist realism was a style which wasn’t characterized by any artistic intent, but rather, meant as a tool for the government to educate people, imparting onto them the ideologies they wished all citizens to uphold.
As such, socialist realism came to be dictated by guidelines which stated that all works of art must be relatable to the average Russian worker, realistic and support the Soviet government`s goals and ideologies (Juraga & Booker, 2002). Despite being referred to as socialist realism, one might say that this genre was realistic only in name, as where realist artists chose to portray the world in the most true to life fashion, with all of its positive and negative elements, socialist realism omitted all reference to anything negative happening in Russia during the time and instead chose to focus on a romanticised view of the worker, government, standards of living, and future of Soviet Russia, leading to the coining of the term “revolutionary romanticism” (Ellis ,2012). Furthermore, realistic depictions of people were also heavily scrutinized, and any characters which were not entirely good or bad were also banned (Frankel, 1972), cutting out any moral intricacies these characters may have displayed in favour of a dualistic form of morality.
One of the most notable artists of the era was Vsevolod Meyerhold, an actor and director most known for his concept of biomechanics, a style of actor training which is based on Meyerhold`s belief that one Is able to elicit emotion both from the actor as well as the audience through the use of movement (Leach ,2010). Meyerhold saw the use of extravagant stages and costumes as merely part of an illusion, one which he broke during his production of `the fairground booth` which involves a backdrop being destroyed and removed during the performance, signifying his rejection of such extravagance , preferring to focus on the significance of the actor instead. Meyerhold was also responsible for advancing constructivism, a philosophy regarding set design which prioritized the use of the set for the enhancement of the performance, rather than for decoration, the most notable example being the set of `The Magnanimous Cuckold`, a mechanical set which would move along with and complement the actors biomechanical movements (McConachie, 2010). Meyerhold`s philosophies did not correlate well with the socialist realist movement. Where socialist realist works often featured idealized scenes of the Russian landscape, Meyerhold tended to favour more practical scenic elements, preferring to allow the actor to be the main source of spectacle. Where socialist realist works were made accessible to the layman, Meyerhold`s works were made with a self-conscious audience in mind (McConachie, 2010). Meyerhold`s style won him no favours with the government, and eventually, not only was his theatre shut down, but so was his life, finding himself victim to one of the soviet union`s mass executions along with many other artists shortly after the implementation of socialist realism as part of the law in the 1930`s (Leach, 2010). His name and any records of him were also erased, only resurfacing following the death of Joseph Stalin, after which point people finally learnt of his significance in the field (Leach, 2010).
One of the best embodiments of the socialist ideal within the performing arts are the blue blouse troupes, groups of travelling performers who`s goal was to spread the communist ideology to the workers, who often did not have had the luxury of being literate, eventually being given the name “living newspapers” thanks to their educative properties (McConachie, 2010). These troupes would often perform comedic skits, music and other easily accessible styles of performance, all laden with political messages which preached the values of socialism. The troupes obtained their name from the blue shirts they always wore, which were meant to signify that they too were members of the working class, just like the spectators (McConachie, 2010). The style of performance which these troupes would put on were often focused on themes of the positivity of the Soviet regime and the worker`s ability for change and control over their life despite of their past, thus rejecting naturalistic standards (McConachie, 2010). Keeping with socialist standards, the topic of the play would often bear anti-bourgeoisie sentiments, featuring characters such as capitalists or bureaucrats who would play the role of the villain (Mally, 2000). Adding to how relatable to the workers these troupes were was the fact that they performed their acts in areas which would usually be occupied by workers, ranging from more domestic locations such as cafeterias to industrial locations like factory floors (Mally, 2000), meaning that these troupes would often bring the show to the workers, making sure they`re even more noticeable. Apart from playing a part in the indoctrination of Russian workers, these troupes also later played a part in the spread of socialist ideology in other countries. In England, these groups were responsible for the development of a new style of play called `Agit-Prop` (short for agitation and propaganda) which would later became popular in Europe and America (McConachie,2010). The blue blouse troupes also found some success in Germany, inspiring the director Erwin Piscator to develop a style for teaching socialist ideals in a simple and digestible manner, who later fled Germany during the rise of the Nazi party (McConachie, 2010).
Not all works which complied with socialist realist standards were necessarily pro-government. Some artists during the era managed to subvert censorship and produce works which were laden with anti-government sentiment hidden under seemingly pro-government works. One such artist was Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who is nowadays known for his provocative compositions, which seemingly mock the Soviet regime whilst maintaining a facade of compliance. Although he managed to outlive Stalin, avoiding the same fate as Meyerhold, he was not without controversy, becoming the target of a smear campaign, following a performance that was accused of catering to bourgeoisie taste, that was meant as a threat to all prominent artists who defied the Soviet regime`s artistic standards, Meyerhold being one of such artists, causing Shostakovich to put all his other compositions on hold and compose his fifth symphony, which would bring him back into the government`s good graces (McSmith, 2015). Some of Shostakovich`s regime defying works include the ballet `the golden age` which according to him was meant to highlight the differences between Russia and the west, seemingly portraying the west as evil and decadent, while composing more intricate music pieces for the parts dedicated to the western characters, as well as his 9th symphony, which was composed following the fall of the Nazi party as an apparent ode to the Soviet unions victory and expected to be a heroic piece, yet maintains a lighthearted and sarcastic tone throughout, seemingly mocking the regime`s self-congratulation (Tantacrul, 2019). Apart from mocking the government, Shostakovich also defied Soviet artistic standards by making frequent reference to Jewish musical styles, amidst an anti-semetic campaign, though this may have been more out of personal interest rather than out of any rebellious intent (Wilson, 1994). Despite picking up the style out of interest, Shostakovich would wind up using it to create more provocative work, this time portraying the mistreatment of Jews in Russia in his composition, while adding a few positively connoted compositions to confuse the censors (Wilson, 1994).
The effect of censorship on the arts can be highly impactful and shape the artistic output of a country for years to come. Some are able to thrive under such conditions, producing work which fits demands and perpetuates government ideology, while others fail to do so, suffering whatever punishments their rulers lay out for them. However, most interestingly of all, some are able to thrive, making creative and expressive content despite the limitations set upon them, through some creative workarounds. While bleak, the Soviet union provided an excellent outlook on how artists deal with such conditions, and the adaptations, or lack thereof that they come up with