Jan Plamper


On his book The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power

Cover Interview of February 14, 2012

A close-up

Socialist realism was arguably the 20th century’s most successful artistic phenomenon, especially if measured in terms of quantitative output and geographical reach.  Yet socialist realism remains notoriously difficult to define. Scholars can’t seem to agree if it was a style or a set of doctrines, art or propaganda.

I submit that socialist realism was inherently instable and its expressive registry the result of historically variable practices.  A great entryway into socialist realism thus defined is a 1949 discussion of a socialist realist painting-in-progress at an institution called “art soviet.” At this discussion a senior painter named Plastov commented on a socialist realist portrait, V. I. Lenin’s Funeral on Red Square, by Yerushev, who was present. Plastov’s comments come as close to an elaboration of the principles of socialist realism in situ as one will find.

Here’s an excerpt from the pages 187-188:

Plastov: Comrade Yerushev, what happened on that woeful day? The leader died, next to him stands another leader, Stalin, stand comrades, comrades-in-arms, soldiers, stands the entire Russian people. . . . And how are you solving this question? You are solving it, it seems to me, without an understanding of the moment and the faces that you are depicting. How are you composing? In the foreground, you devote one-third of the composition to the most motionless [element] in the composition—the balustrade, the branches, the smoke, etc. The main, key elements—Stalin, Kalinin, Dzerzhinsky, and other comrades-in-arms of Lenin—cannot be seen. . . . It is confusing. Then you begin searching—who is standing there? That is probably Stalin—yes, it is him. . . . And altogether you get neither the people, nor the atmosphere in which this is taking place, nor the people behind these leaders, nor the leaders in front of the people. . . . Furthermore, regarding the psychology of those present: Stalin’s face should express the sorrow of a great man about a genius who has passed away, and how have you expressed this? You have not. All we see is a man with a lowered head, and so forth. . . . Do keep in mind that you have chosen an exceptional moment in the history of the country, in the history of mankind, and all of a sudden you approach this moment somewhat mechanically. I do not think this is right.

Yerushev’s subject was a moment of truly mythic proportions in the history of the first socialist society: the transfer of power from the founding leader Lenin to his successor Stalin. To depict this crucial moment, realism as the style of choice was never in doubt. Yet this realism should move beyond mimesis. The task of this kind of realism—socialist realism—was to express on canvas a time characterized as kairos rather than chronos. A depiction of Lenin’s funeral had to show more than just Lenin’s funeral. It had to show not just history as it was, but history as it ought to be and indeed would be. It had to give an inkling of a place mankind had not yet been to but was inexorably moving towards—utopia.