A major aspect of the Bolshevik plan for Russia was to reshape Russian society and culture in the Marxist image. To this end, the Soviet government set about attempting to impose its ideals on the population via the influence of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others. In one sense, they were successful in creating a Communist artistic vision and imposing this upon the intelligentsia and, through the media, upon the rest of the Soviet population. In other more fundamental senses, however, they ultimately failed in their plan. “Indeed,” as historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “it is precisely in social and cultural life that we begin to see signs of the disintegration of the Communist order that would contribute to its collapse.”1
Immediately following the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in late 1917, the Bolsheviks, in accordance with their liberal and progressive ideals, attempted “to nurture a spirit of collectivism and egalitarianism;” to this end, “iconoclasm and imagination were encouraged in the arts and literature.”2 Soviet leaders implemented social policies that contributed to a radical restructuring of Russian society away from agriculture and family life and toward liberation of the individual and even “free love.” The previous period of Russian history under the czars was seen as a period that had stifled intellectual, social, and artistic growth, and had to be overcome. This initial period of relative openness did not last long, however.
As a new generation of Soviet leaders, especially Josef Stalin, began to assume power and the previous generation of radical intellectuals receded into the past, a marked conservatism took hold over Soviet culture. Laws were implemented that restricted the rights of individuals, much of the earlier utopian talk of liberation and equality was repudiated, and greater censorship of the arts was enacted.
Following the death of Stalin in 1953, later Soviet leaders attempted to walk the thin line between the oppressive social policies of the Stalin era and an absolute artistic freedom that would lead to open criticism of the government and its policies. In literature, for example, the post-Stalin era saw a remarkable tolerance for controversial themes and even subjects that might reflect badly on the the Soviet Union itself. Even “forbidden themes such as Stalin’s purges and labor camps were briefly allowed,” though eventually banned once again.3
Great limitations were nonetheless kept in place throughout the history of the Soviet Union, even during periods of relative openness. One example is the Soviet reaction to the 1958 novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. While it was received throughout the world as a great work of literature, its publication in the Soviet Union was banned because the book, whose contents span the end of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union, did not reflect a proper Marxist view of history. When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his novel, the Soviet government prevented him from traveling abroad to receive the prize and he was widely criticized in the government-controlled Soviet press.
Another example of the Soviet back-and-forth between openness and repression in literature is the treatment of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written about the forced labor camps under Stalin, was published with the explicit and personal permission of Nikita Kruschev himself. Kruschev even openly praised Solzhenitsyn and his work, including leading a standing ovation for him at an official state dinner party, in which he happily announced to those gathered, “comrades, Solzhenitsyn is among us.”4 Only three years later, in 1965, however, Solzhenitsyn was banned from ever publishing anything within the Soviet Union again. He continued to write, however, and have his books published abroad, and was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union altogether in 1973.
This kind of vacillating and contradictory approach also marked the Soviet treatment of other aspects of culture. In figurative art, for instance, whereas the Soviet government had once encouraged innovation and expression and officially continued to do so, suppression of the arts was heavy. “In 1962,” for instance, “when Kruschev visited an exhibit of modern art in Moscow,” he proceeded to openly “mock it with crude humor.”5 Later, in 1974, in an even more extreme case of government suppression of the arts, “bulldozers were sent to destroy an informal exhibit in a park outside Moscow.”6
Because of this atmosphere of repression and especially because the Soviet government forbade a wide variety of emotions and thoughts from being expressed, such as any melancholy, pessimism, religious belief, doubt, or irony, the quality of the arts overall in the Soviet Union was very low. Artists, writers, and others believed that the arts in the Soviet Union had been “subordinated to revolutionary purpose and much of the complexity of life deliberately drained out of” them.7 As a result, many Soviet artists and intellectuals began to retreat from the public sphere and create small social circles and cliques “where new poetry or prose was read, art displayed, and ideas discussed.”8 Even among the wider population and especially the youth, counter-cultures began to form that focused on Western trends like rock music, new clothing styles, and sports. Public discourse in the Soviet Union had become so heavily regulated and any dissent or apparent deviation so heavily suppressed that people began turning to new ways to shape and express personal identity apart from the official Soviet doctrine.
It was in these pockets of culture that “dissident movement developed from the late 1960s into the 1980s.”9 Ultimately, this was the backfire of Soviet policy that would contribute significantly to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. The Soviet attempts to suppress freedom of speech, individual identity, and self-expression were, like so many attempts to suppress the human spirit throughout history, doomed to failure from their very inception. In driving differing ideas out of the public sphere, the Soviet government had driven them into the place where they were most dangerous to the continuation of the Soviet Union: into hearts, homes, and other private places where they could no longer be monitored and controlled. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, assumed power in 1985, a significant segment of the Soviet “population had become alienated from the established order in their values, judgments, tastes, and beliefs.”10 This alienation would, in a short time, prove an unstoppable force and would put an end to the Soviet Union and its Marxist experiment.