Socialist Realism Limitations in Soviet Music Essay

August 9, 2021 by Essay Writer


Socialist realism appeared as a result of communists’ intention to control all aspects of the cultural life of the Soviet Union. As far back as 1917, communist leaders realized the importance of the persuasive power of culture and employed it in the machinery of a new government (King, 2013). New state leaders encouraged artists to create works that promoted an image of “realistic, active, vitally collectivist and filled with limitless creative faith in the Future” (Lennox, 2009, p. 5).

Cooperation with the new government promised writers, painters, and composers great benefits of state protection. In the case of artists refused to adapt their views and creative works to the new ideology, they risked being condemned and punished by the new state’s government. Socialist realism had a great influence on the cultural life and history of the Soviet Union on the whole, since cultural repression and limitations that were imposed on artists, particularly on composers, significantly affected all artistic works of the Soviet era.

Socialist Realism

Socialist realism has greatly influenced the history of Russian art. It created an entire era during which “artists were not judged solely on their artistic achievements, but rather on how well those achievements matched the party’s agenda du jour” (Tirman, 2011, p. 2). Though the term ‘socialist realism’ was coined in 1932, its main ideas started to develop in the early years of the Russian Revolution. At that time, Vladimir Lenin posed several objectives of the revolutionary movement, and the education of laboring classes was one of them.

This objective could be achieved through a cultural revolution, in which art “became a tool to educate the proletariat in the spirit of socialist progression and to link the social base with the ideological message of socialism” (Lennox, 2009, p. 4). Communists defined socialist realism as a “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development” (Petrov, 2011, p. 891).

However, this truthful representation should also serve as an ideological tool that helped to consolidate the lower classes and strengthen their spirit of socialism. Soviet officials controlled all aspects of the state’s culture including literature, cinema, theaters, and music using them as leverages of a new political machinery’s promotion. According to Maes (2002), “in early years, scholars and artists continued to enjoy a fair measure of intellectual freedom” (p. 237).

However, when Stalin came to power, the state’s control of cultural life toughened. In general, the purpose of the cultural revolution and socialist realism was to create “an image of what socialism should be and would be if things went according to plan” (King, 2013, p. 543). The achievement of this goal resulted in a continuous series of ideological artistic works that significantly affected the history of Russian culture.

Socialist Realism Limitations on Musical Art

Having realized the persuasive power of arts, communists started to use them in their statecraft, and the music was the most favorable tool in achieving ideological goals. Since the interpretation of music could be more abstract and did not require literacy or a high level of education, communists made the opera and musical theaters available for all social classes. Mills (2013) states that the role of music shifted “from the role of entertainment for the upper class to the role of education for the working class” (p. 28). Since the new government intended to control the education of masses, it significantly intervened in music by imposing various limitations on composers’ activity.

The new government needed musicians that were prepared to create their works by the new ideology. Those who agreed to follow the given rules obtained “secure employment, status, and a reasonable salary”, and those who rebelled against communist policy suffered from “ostracism, humiliation, imprisonment, and death for their disloyalty” (King, 2013, p. 533). To control the activity of composers, Communists created The Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, whose members were told to “forget their ‘bourgeois technical skills’ and instead create music for ‘factory and field’ “(Lennox, 2009, p. 28). Composers that refused to write music according to this directive were stigmatized as formalists.

For example, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was disapproved by Stalin, who referred to it as ‘chaos instead of music’. Many Russian composers were not able to act against the new system because they were afraid of their freedom and even lives. They gave in to the demands of the new government creating ideologically appropriate masterpieces (Lennox, 2009). Thus, the state’s control over music imposed limitations not only on the artistic creativity of composers but on their lives as well.

Effects of Socialist Realism Limitations

Communist control of culture and limitations that were imposed on composers resulted in two main features of socialist realism musical art: it glorified the Communist state building a cult of personality of Stalin that represented the power and lacked the innovations in genre and form.

Because socialist realism was aimed at the creation of a successful and glorious image of socialism, the artistic purpose of all artists was to praise the existing regime and its leaders. According to Mills (2013), “The Soviets were fascinated with the practice of worshiping and idolizing individuals, and under Stalin revamped their entire culture to reflect this and glorify the spectacular individual as a model for the society as a whole” (p. 40). Thus, during the socialist realism era composers were prohibited to write on abstract themes and encouraged to cultivate the concrete image of the successful and flourishing communist state led by a strong and determined leader.

Under such strict authoritarian conditions, the development of new genres was virtually impossible. Since the purpose of art was to praise Communism, innovation and creation of “new, often controversial methods of characterizing a culture and society” were relegated to the background (Mills, 2013, p. 40). As a result, Russian music fell into the continuous period of stagnation in course of which composers created many monotonous works that nowadays are of value only among historians of musical culture (Mills, 2013).

While imposing limitations on music and its creators, communists followed their political objectives. They used music and other forms of art as ideological leverages to control the political, economic, and social life of the state.


Socialist realism contributed to the creation of a unified Soviet culture that worshiped the power of the Communist state and its leaders. Unfortunately, this objective was achieved at the cost of “creative freedom and lives of millions of artists, composers, and ordinary citizens” (Mills, 2013, p. 43). Socialist realism left a significant mark in the history of Russian culture and remains the subject of many studies and debates among historians, political scientists, and culture experts.


King, R. (2013). Cultural Revolution. In S. A. Smith (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the history of communism (pp. 542-557). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lennox, R. (2009). Art for art’s sake. Web.

Maes, F. (2002). A history of Russian music: from Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Mills, T. C. (2013). The effects of totalitarian regimes and the individual on Russian and Soviet music. Web.

Petrov, P. (2011). The industry of truing: Socialist realism, reality, realization. Slavic Review, 70(4), 873-892.

Tirman, M. R. (2011). Socialist realism and Soviet music: The case of Dmitri Shostakovich. Web.

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