Cultural Repression: Now and Then


“The seed of revolution is repression.”
Woodrow Wilson

It’s rather remarkable that this particular quote by Wilson only seems to be appropriate in Russia’s case when it’s the other way around. Russia’s history is filled with periods of revolution and repression. That, in itself, is not shocking at all. Almost every nation’s history is, in one way or another, marked by suppression and unrest. In the past 100 years or so, most of the western nations have taken steps to achieve a rather transparant state, with as little as possible (domestic) repression. Has that been the case for Russia as well?

This is of course an extremely complex question, in which too many aspects have to be observed. That is why I will focus on culture solely, more specifically the cultural revolution under Lenin, Stalin’s reaction to this revolution and modern cultural repression.

Only a couple of months after Lenin became chairman in 1923, he felt it was necessary that Russia’s peasantry would be educated in order to ensure their participation in agricultural cooperativization. Although Lenin couldn’t see his plans through, due to his death in 1924, his cultural plans defined the new socialist person: a hard working, devoted and educated labourer. This person should play an active role in the socialistic community.(1)

The period from 1928 to 1931 became known as the cultural revolution. During these years artists experimented with new socialist ideas and enjoyed relatively much creative freedom. The general goal was to show what the socialist state would look like. However, this freedom of art was only for a short period. After Stalin had established his power, he turned his attention to art. Unlike Lenin, Stalin didn’t see the purpose of experimenting with art. During Lenin’s reign, art left room for interpretation and criticism: it made people think about the different aspects of socialism. Yet for Stalin, art was a way to show the greatness of socialism and himself. From the thirties on, restrictions and rules would determine the outcome of art. If artists refused to portray the socialist life such as Stalin wanted, they risked getting arrested. Their sole duty was to create socialistic heroes that would appeal to anyone. Stalin was of the opinion that art should make people feel good about themselves, it shouldn’t raise any doubt. This art form has been labeled socialist realism in 1932 by Stalin himself.(2)

Currently, decades later, the situation appears to be as difficult. The fall of the Soviet Union caused a chaotic situation. In recent years the Russian government has become more concerned with reshaping the Russian identity, which resulted in a more closed society. However, it seems as if this goes accompanied with cultural restriction. The system seemingly rejects artistic criticism. Acts and performances that undermine the tolerance or authority of the state lead to harsh consequences, such as imprisonment or heavy surveillance. The revolution-like situation after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been brought back to a system of cultural repression in which freedom of art is limited. Art should, once again, support the nation.(3)

Some people argue that Russian art reflects and produces the reality, what then can we conclude? We see a cultural repression, in modern and earlier times. Under Stalin, Lenin’s cultural revolution transformed into socialist realism, which was characterized by restrictions. Stalin drastically limited the freedom of art. Nowadays artists are again—or arguably still—repressed. Modern artists, such as Pussy Riot, Petr Pavlensky and Voina, are being condemned by the government. How far has it come? To what extent is the present situation comparable to the cultural repression of the last century? And to what extent do the cultural limitations translate to general repression? How shall we name this modern socialist realism?

Artist Pavlensky, a supporter of jailed members of female punk band Pussy Riot looks on with his mouth sewed up as he protests outside the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg

Petr Pavlensky in 2012

  1. Stephen A. Smith and Richard King, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism (Oxford, 2014), 541-543.
  2. Ronald Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (New York & Oxford, 2011), 291-292; R. W. Davies, review of: Sheila Fitzpatrick, Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928-1931 (Bloomington and London, 1978).
  3. Anastassia Boutsko, ‘Tight Restrictions on Freedom of Art in Russia’, (April 28 2015) website Deutsche Welle. (October 9 2016); Irena Schneider, ‘The Cultural Underbelly of Russian Repression’, (August 13 2013) website Moscow Times. (October 9 2016).

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