Soviet architecture and ‘socialist realism’ more generally have a poor reputation. These movements and their products are disdained by many, and deprecated in artistic terms. But each, despite their associations with totalitarianism and mass murder, can instead be seen as testament to the power of beauty, even in its monumental form. And all of this can be true despite the designs and intentions of the less than pleasant people who held political power in the Soviet Union.
In the course of my own visit to Moscow (which was all too brief), the chief attraction was Soviet history, and this was manifested through the architecture and art which has been left behind. More than the tower blocks and the tenements, that is the true legacy of the state; art demonstrates what a society’s highest ambitions were, how it viewed itself (in idealised terms), and where it saw itself in history. There can be no finer way of viewing the soul of a country – and especially a country which was at heart a political idea made real, as the USSR was intended to be.
There I saw an aerospace museum which was built to resemble a rocket taking off, the Museum of Cosmonautics, which crystallised an element of self-perception: the Soviet Union wanted to lead the world in technology, to lead the word into a new era of scientific advancement – and it commemorate these fine intentions in titanic style. This architecture could be vast and imposing – it could be inhuman and impersonal in its scope and scale – but it is not. Amid the turbulent sea of metal which represented Earth’s atmosphere, the sky itself, a slender silvery shape – one which represented humanity’s spirit of and hope for advancement – surmounts the place. It is not impersonal; it is deeply personal, and deeply human.
The vast statues, monuments to long dead workers, which retain a real vitality regardless of their original intentions, also conform to this trend. Though the Stakhanovite message they embody may be as false as the burnished metal muscles of long-forgotten farmers and factory girls, the world they depict – and the sheer human effort they embody – cannot be worthless; they cannot be worth nothing.
In the 1930s and before, academics and social reformers the world over flocked to the Soviet Union. They were the useful idiots of popular parlance. They lied to themselves and willing publics abroad; they wanted to believe that the place was a paradise, that it represented the pinnacle of possibility. This failure – in both moral and political terms – is as understandable as it was tragic, and many reputations will never recover from the exposure of this vast delusion. But the plays of George Bernard Shaw are no less impressive because of his dalliance with the Soviet experiment; the history of Eric Hobsbawm will endure despite his frankly callous view of the masses of humanity killed in pursuit of this promised better world. Is it not better to attempt to understand how these people thought and felt – both in the Soviet Union itself and worldwide? That impulse is solidified and propagated in Soviet art.
Martin Amis wrote in Koba the Dread that one could not be a good writer under Stalinism. Good writers were killed in the Gulags; they were driven to suicide or exile; they were forced, by the sheer power of the state, to stop writing. Only the bad writers – the writers of doggerel odes to factory production targets and the Politburo – could prosper under this system. This is an emotive argument, and it holds some truth. But I think he was wrong – or at least that, in terms of architecture and public art, he could be mistaken. And Amis’ theory is not even entirely borne out by assessing the literary situation.
After all, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the most effective chronicler of the Gulags and the horrors therein, survived the Soviet Union; he outlived the entire thing. This is not to denigrate his work and the suffering he endured; it is noticeable, after all, that he was only allowed to publish one full-length work in the USSR proper and that he was forced to leave the country in the 1970s. But he did survive. And that endurance of spirit is what I am interested in here; the beauty of Soviet art, rather than traducing the lives of millions, demonstrates the endurance and resilience of the human spirit.
Take the vast, incandescent Moscow metro stations under Stalin, built to resemble bomb shelters and palaces; take the vast glory of the ‘Seven Sisters’ tower blocks, each of them vast and glorious and brutally functional, to be surmounted – and superseded in size – by the never-completed notion of a Palace of the Soviets. There is something entrancing about each, and this cannot be forgotten amid condemnations of the style more generally, or entirely understandable and necessary attacks on what the Soviet state did during its comparatively brief period of existence. Art, however, is above all that – and it remains detached, even aloof, regardless of how much it is influenced or even directed by those in power.
Rather than demonstrating the terror of the Soviet system and standing testament to the destruction of the artistic impulse, these styles are a monument to the exact opposite. Rather than symbolising the crushing of beauty, the suborning of all individuality and the collective destruction of culture itself, the art of the Soviet period can instead be seen in another light: as the era in which artistic talent and individuality succeeded and survived in spite of political realities. And that is something to be proud of and to be inspired by – a real lesson from history.
Of course a great number of the artists and architects who completed these works were ardent Stalinists, and in their minds, no doubt, the aforementioned were intended to glorify the new system – this great experiment in Communism – and its leaders. There can be no denying that; and creating tales and myths in order either to distract from the truth or to fashion some alternative reality, in which artists and writers who flourished under Stalinism can be recast as heroes, has little validity outside wish fulfilment.
Artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich have inspired entire debates among historians and admirers as to their true political beliefs – and it is true that for Shostakovich to have covertly rebelled against the destruction of Russian musical traditions before the great strength of Soviet power, as has been suggested by some, represents a good story. But in a way none of this matters – or the impact of such debates cannot be said to resonate as widely as the works themselves. And who can say that Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, dedicated to besieged Leningrad, is made more entrancing and beautiful by the knowledge that he may not have believed tenets of official Soviet doctrine? The work stands on its own merits and on its own more generally; everything else is interpretation, mere theory.
The monolithic entity which Soviet state power represented was said to have a tremendous ‘weight’; this is why I have made such frequent use of the imagery of crushing and the forced submission of the individual. Amis writes of the many millions who met their ends as the result of that weight, and he is right to do so. He writes more personally and more pressingly of how, when individuals defied the apparatus of the state, they and the Soviet Union itself – for that moment, at least – ‘weighed about the same’.
That is an image of great power, but there were ways other than outright defiance for individual men and women to demonstrate their personhood in the face of this mechanical, impersonal force. In art, that could mean as little as being competent, in producing something, regardless of its outward political motivations, with skill and an eye for the beautiful. Though the vision of history and of the future which the sculpture Worker and Kolkhoz Woman appeared to signify has come to little, the statute itself – and the work of Vera Mukhina – is still of value, and both she and it exhibit genuine and lasting artistic merit.
Anita Pisch writes in a paper on Soviet propaganda that ‘there was no private ownership of anything, everything had to be accessed through the State and through State officials’. This fact is entirely true, and it is one of the things that was so evil about the Soviet system in general – and why it led to so much suffering and so many unnecessary deaths in pursuit of an unattainable goal. But the human spirit could not be nationalised; it could not be forced to take only party positions and party lines. One of my favourite propaganda posters from the Soviet era has Stalin sitting at a humble desk, bathed in lamp light as he contemplates some official documents. The man himself stoops diligently, attending to the great work of running the Soviet Union. Underneath this illustration is emblazoned the following: ‘In the Kremlin, Stalin takes care of every one of us’. It is asking too much, hoping too much, to imagine that the above was not printed with at least the hint a wry smile?
In this interpretation, the work of the individual can almost be removed from context. The fact of its being created is all that matters, and the intrinsic value which all art worth the name deserves – even if, in Amis’ view, it cannot be considered ‘good art’ because of its political associations – has something noble and even beautiful to it. This is monumental beauty, but it is also an individual triumph; and that ironic note, which survives the Soviet Union and continues into the current century, is something to be appreciated and even relished.