Ilya Repin, Bargehaulers on the Volga (1870-73)
Repin’s painting was a precursor of socialist realism. It not only
interpreted the scene in a realist style, but it conveyed a
message about the inhumanity of Tsarist Russia, revealing a
The most famous definition for socialist realism is
Aleksandr Gerasimov's (1881–1963) explanation:
"Realistic in form, Socialist in content."
According to Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), Socialist Realism
employed theory to portray the importance of social activity
in shaping humans. Socialist Realism is primarily optimistic
about life, Gorky explained, and is cognizant of the
educational role of art, whether portraying information
through images, sounds or text.
combined techniques of
academic realism with an
Impressionistic light touch,
and favored ―heroic realism,‖
which featured images of
Revolutionary leaders such
as Lenin as larger-than-life
heroes. However, as Stalin
tightened his grip on the
country, Gerasimov's work
descended into pompous
official portraits, such as
"Stalin and Voroshilov at the
Kremlin Wall," for which he
won a Stalin Prize in 1934.
Gerasimov, Lenin on the Tribune (1929 – 1930)
Aleksander Deineka (Deyneka),
Battle at Sevastapol
The ―Great Patriotic War‖ (WWII) figured extensively in
socialist realist painting. The restrictions on style did not
prevent talented artists from creating dynamic and
strongly composed works of art.
Wassilij Satischenko, Return of the Winners, 1953
Although Marxism rejections nationalism in favor of the unity of
mankind, it was easier to motivate people to respond as Russians to
a German invasion, than as socialists to a national socialist
invasion. And the returning heroes were feted as saviors of Russia
rather than saviors of socialism.
Rural Idyllism & Agriculture
As discussed in class, socialist realism differed from Nazi
realism in that it did not look backwards, but forwards.
Industrialization, and advancing technology—such as
bringing mechanization to agriculture—was seen as a
Female Worker .
Although the Soviets’ claims
of gender-equality were
largely false, women as
productive members of society did figure prominently in
socialist art. The figure here, if not heroic, is at least meant
to be stoic.
T. S. Naumova,
Because the peasantry had been the oppressed class in
Russian feudalism (rather than a true laboring class
proletariat), images of happy peasants under
communism were inherently propagandistic.
Us in Pravda
Rural idyillism was strong in socialist realist painting, but this
may have had more to do with Russian culture than with
Marxism. Nevertheless, the title reveals the ideological
Convoy (1984) .
Although much later than the Stalinist era, at a time when
food production had diminished as a problem, agriculture
still appeared as a subject.
At the time of the October Revolution, Russia was an
underdeveloped agrarian society. In part because they
needed industrial production, and in part to help fulfill the
Marxist outline (whereby feudalism gave way to capitalism,
rather than directly to communism), the Soviet government
rapidly industrialized. Consequently, favorable
representations of industry promoted the official viewpoint.
Ivan Bevzenko, Young Steel Workers (1951) .
Communism emphasized social unity, rather than individual
striving. In paintings like this one, the very composition of the
work is the message, as all the figures around the sheet of
steel are clearly working as one. This also highlights that the
―realism‖ of this style was meant to reflect the real truth about
the world, when properly understood.
Socialist realism’s focus on industrial development continued
into the late stages of the Soviet Union’s existence. Here,
a subject unlikely to be treated positively by, say, an
is given the full
―glory to socialism‖
prominent use of
the color red.
The Cult of Personality
Stalin as an
Organizer of the
When Stalin assumed power, he created a ―cult of personality‖
(that contradicts Marxism’s anti-individualist approach), and
great effort was put into exaggerating the significance of his
role in the October Revolution.
Aleksander Gerasimov – Stalin at the
Sixteenth Party Congress of the Russian
Communist Party (1929-30)
Stalin in the Civil
War (ca. 1950)
Although Stalin is shown here as a front-line commander in the Civil War,
he actually never was near the front. But in totalitarian ideology,
historical truth is no more than what the government says it is.
―Realism‖ refers to the visual style—not to the content’s historical
Roses for Stalin
This image of Stalin as hero to children blissfully obscures his
responsibility for the death of tens of millions, including countless
children who starved to death as a consequence of his ill-conceived 5
Lenin’s Arrival at
Lenin also remained a predominant subject of socialist realism.
While many prominent early members of the party were
purged, and their existence stricken from the official records
(including being ―photoshopped‖ out of pictures), Lenin
remained a hero on the order of George Washington.
Although Lenin was long-dead by the time this was painted,
the message needed no narrative for Russians. Lenin’s
presence, his posture, and the fact that he is listening,
contrasts sharply with the how the feudal nobility of
Tsarist Russia had treated the peasants.
E. G. Usikova,
Sun of Communism
Although the state tightly controlled the arts, they didn’t demand
complete uniformity. Here ―realism‖ is allowed a fuzzier, less crisp,
appearance. But close inspection reveals that the human forms are
still idealized, unlike, for example, the German Expressionists.
ideas reviled the past and
predicted a glorious future,
developed visual cues to
convey that message,
particularly the ―forward
and upward‖ look of the
outlook is also revealed by
the train and the electrical
towers, which the
characters are building to
bring electricity across the
Despite the pretense to
realism, most of these
projects were built by
forced labor. Serafima Ryangina, Higher, ever Higher (1934)
Black Ravens (also called
Black Marias) were the
cars used to arrest
dissidents (note the
prison in the
created intense fear
among the population
during Stalin’s reign. It
is unclear how this
painting passed the
The Chinese communists also supported a style of social
realism. And like the Soviets, they liked to highlight the
mutual love between the leader (Mao) and the peasants.
The use of socialist realism often
became excessively sloganistic.
In this example from Lao, the
poster reads ―The Popular
Democratic System Under the
Leadership of the Party is the
Path to Successful