top of page


Engineers of the human soul

Soviet Socialist Realism and beyond.


When I think of Soviet literature (that is, literature published within the borders of the USSR between 1917 and 1991) I usually break it down into two arbitrary and purely personal categories:


  1 Literature that toed the party line to such an extent it may be considered to have been ‘part of the system’ and,


  2 Literature that did not.


To take the second category first: it is worth stressing that much of what we might deem ‘non-conformist’ Soviet literature, especially that produced in the first 10 or 15 years after the October revolution, was not actually inimical to the Communist regime. On the contrary, the novelists, poets and playwrights concerned were usually considered to be poputchiki, ‘fellow travellers,’ a loose term used for writers, artists and intellectuals who were not card-carrying members of the Party but had stayed on in Russia after 1917 and were broadly sympathetic to the aims (if not always the methods) of the Bolsheviks.


The 1920’s were a relatively optimistic period in the history of the Soviet Union. The Civil War had been won. The Party had consolidated its position and Lenin’s New Economic Policy, (NEP) which allowed for a certain amount of free enterprise, was starting to bring a modest level of prosperity to the citizens of the new state. And there was still the feeling that history was being made, that the Soviet Union was a great social experiment that could serve as a model for the rest of humanity.


Much of this optimism can be seen in the creative output of the period. Art, architecture and design were bold, striking, innovative and constantly looking for ways to express the dynamism of this brave new world in the making. Something similar was taking place in literature, with writers relatively free to experiment with form and style as well as content; even satire, highlighting the flaws and weaknesses of the new system, was still permitted. As a consequence the 1920’s can justly be regarded as something of a golden age of Soviet literature, a period that saw the appearance of important work by the likes of Bulgakov, Zamyatin and Babel, and by less well-known (but equally significant in my opinion) writers such as Pilnyak, Olesha, Zoshchenko, Erdman, Platonov and Kharms. But as the twenties tilted towards the thirties things began to change.

A new literary method

1932 saw the introduction of the Soviet Union’s second Five Year Plan, a political and economic blueprint intended to transform the USSR from a proletarian to a classless society. It was also the beginning of a more general restructuring of Soviet society that brought more and more aspects of people’s lives under state control. It was in this context that the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed a resolution in April 1932 ordering the dissolution of all existing literary organisations and the creation of a single body, the Union of Soviet Writers.¹ This all-powerful organisation, which was in effect an adjunct of the state apparatus, required its members to embrace a new literary theory and method, socialist realism.² Tradition has it that the term was thought up by Stalin himself, along with the phrase describing writers as ‘engineers of the human soul.’ However one should bear in mind that a great deal of official Soviet history in the 1930’s was re-jigged to show the ‘Great Leader’ as a highly original thinker, if not a full-blown genius.

What Socialist Realism actually meant in practice was still to be decided. The task of producing a clear methodology was left to Maxim Gorky, the First Secretary of the new body, and other trusted figures from the literary establishment. By August 1934, when the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers was held, that task was complete. What came to be regarded as the canonical definition of the new method was unveiled at the Congress in a keynote address given by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural spokesman and the chief representative of the Party’s Central Committee:


‘Socialist realism, the fundamental method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, demands of the artist a truthful and historically specific depiction of reality in its revolutionary development. At the same time this truthfulness and historical specificity in the depiction of reality must be linked to the task of ideologically remoulding and educating the workers in the spirit of socialism.’ ³


More detail was added to this definition in subsequent speeches and publications that set out the guiding principles for all socialist realist literature. These may be summarised as follows:


1 Partiinost’

Usually translated as ‘Party-mindedness,’ partiinost’ was the single most important concept underpinning Socialist Realism: literature, indeed all art, was meant to serve the ideological position and interests of the Communist party. If it did not, a work could be redacted or re-written before publication, sometimes without the involvement or even consent of the author.


2 Narodnost’

The term narodnost implies the idea of ‘popular spirit,’ which in this context meant that literature was to represent the interests of  ‘the people’, that is the working masses. And since the Party was the revolutionary vanguard of the workers, writers were reminded that partiinost’ was to be be considered the highest expression of narodnost’.


To ensure they did not produce work that might be inaccessible to the common people, writers were also instructed to avoid complex, high-flown or abstruse language. Clearly this requirement sounded the death-knell for any form of literary experimentation. On the other hand writers were not allowed to reflect many features of the true language of the people: the use of dialect forms, slang and obscenities was forbidden. When it came to ideas about what constituted correct literary Russian the Party was definitely conservative.


3 Ideinost’

According to the Soviet-era Dictionary of the Russian Language this meant ‘suffused with progressive ideas.’ In other words an impeccable ideological commitment was expected from the writer. It almost goes without saying that competing ideologies such as capitalism and other forms of socialism could not be portrayed in a positive way.


4 Tipichnost’

‘Typicality’ meant the exclusion of whatever the Party deemed ‘atypical’ of Soviet reality. Thus depictions of the fortuitous and exceptional were to be avoided, so too was ‘obscurantism’ which meant, in effect, that there could be no positive portrayals of religion, mysticism or the occult. Also considered atypical and therefore prohibited was what was rather quaintly termed ‘physiology,’ that is descriptions of sexual activity or ‘crude’ bodily functions.


5 Istorichnost’

‘Historical specificity,’ the depiction of reality in its ‘revolutionary development’ meant that the writer should always show that the Party, through policies inspired by wisdom, integrity and impeccable socialist ideology was leading the people inevitably towards a brighter future.


Positive heroes and master plots

As well as incorporating all the requirements outlined above, writers were also encouraged to produce works, particularly novels, with storylines that followed a standard pattern. This pattern, which can be discerned to a greater or lesser extent in all the ‘classic’ novels of the Stalinist period, has come to be known as the socialist realist ‘master plot’.*

The master plot usually ran along the following lines. At the beginning of the story the reader would be introduced to a clearly recognisable ‘positive hero,’ someone with potential- that is someone who had many good qualities and was committed to the cause, but could not as yet be considered a ‘class leader’ because he still lacked the requisite level of ideological consciousness (the uncharitable might say ‘unquestioning obedience to the dictats of the Party’). The plot would involve the hero taking on some monumental task for the good of socialism (building a hydro-electric dam, rooting out ‘wreckers,’ kulaks and other class traitors) whilst at the same time gradually achieving a greater level of political awareness. On this journey towards enlightenment the hero would invariably be helped by the guiding hand of a so-called ‘father figure’ - an ideologically mature

individual whose status as class leader had been forged in a previous struggle for the cause (he might have been a Civil War hero, for example). By the end of the novel, when the dam had been built or the enemies of socialism had been vanquished, the hero would be ideologically ready to take over the role of leadership from his mentor.


This idea of progression, of each generation taking socialism onto ever greater heights, was a key component of Socialist Realism. It should also be noted that although writers were expected to portray the Soviet Union in an unrealistically positive way, they were not to show it to be a socialist utopia. The difference may seem slight but was crucially important. According to Marxist-Leninist theory, once the final stage of socialism—communism—had been reached, there would no longer be the need for any kind of government apparatus, and the state as a governing body, would simply ‘wither away’. In Stalinist Russia, ‘withering away’ was the last thing on the Party’s mind.


Despite Zhdanov’s confident assertion at the First Union of Writers’ Congress that ‘Socialist Realism guarantees the creative artist exceptional opportunities for the manifestation of his creative initiative, for the choice of various forms, styles and genres’** (one wonders how he managed to keep a straight face while he said it) it is hardly surprising that much of what was published after 1934 was of questionable literary value. As for those writers who refused to conform, exclusion from the Writers Union meant their work would not be accepted for publication. And by the late 1930s, the time of the Great Purges, artistic non-conformity became a virtual death sentence. The brutal repression of the thirties and forties did ease to a significant degree after the death of Stalin in 1953, but that is not to say that dissenting voices were suddenly tolerated. The fates of such dissident writers as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn illustrate that clearly enough.


Given its unfortunate history it is easy to see why Socialist Realism has a such a poor reputation in the West. And yet some conformist literature of value was written, even during the Stalinist period. It is this area of Soviet literature, now largely forgotten, that I will briefly examine in the next issue of this blog.

Soviet poster advocating greater literacy amongst the peasantry

The sun always shone on Stalin's Russia:

A. A. Deineka, The Relay Race on Ring Road B (1947)



¹ A similar reorganisation was applied to the visual arts. See, for example, Matthew Cullerne Bowns Art under Stalin. 


² For a succinct overview of socialist realist literature, see Katerina Clark, Socialist realism in Soviet literature,in The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature (edited by Neil Cornwell). Also useful are Victor Terras, ‘The twentieth century: the era of socialist realism 1925-1953,’ in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (edited by Charles A. Moser) and the article on Socialist Realism in the Handbook of Russian Literature (edited by Victor Terras).


³ Quotation taken from The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (edited by Charles A. Moser) page 459.


* The standard work in English on the socialist realist master plot is Katerina Clarks The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. 


** Quotation taken from David Gillespie, The Twentieth-Century Russian Novel, page 63.

bottom of page