Illustration: MOA THELANDER

Illustration: MOA THELANDER

Okategoriserade Theme: Perspectives and narratives of socialist realism Introduction. Ambiguities and dogmas of the real

This special theme focuses on the relation between realism and social or socialist realism from different angles and with examples from different countries. It consists of contributions from eight scholars who took part in the workshop: Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Karin Grelz, Aleksei Semenenko, Susanna Witt, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, Epp Lankots, and Charlotte Bydler and Dan Karlholm.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 4 2016 pp 23-27
Published on on February 7, 2017

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The workshop “Ambiguities and Dogmas of the Real” was aimed at discussing issues of socialist realism with respect to the question of necessity for and function of realism in modern and contemporary cultural spheres. For some reason, scholarship on socialist realism has predominantly focused on the totalizing myths of the avant-garde or the socialist utopia as the basis for the way in which this “realism” became a tool for manipulation and political repression. A central concern of this scholarship has been to analyze the doctrine’s claim to the real—to realism and reality—and the question of its distortion, or what Evgeny Dobrenko calls the “de-realization of the real.”1 As Petre Petrov has shown, there is a line of reasoning in this scholarship, emanating from Boris Groys, that continues to insist that socialist realism can be defined as a distortion of reality according to certain ideological or mytho-poetic principles. This argument, however, operates with a pre-critical idea of reality.2 The question that we wanted to ask instead was how realism as an aesthetic doctrine came to serve as a foundation for the specific role that the socialist utopia played in the engagement with reality in socialist realism. The proposal was not to see socialist realism as the necessary development of realism, but to understand the power of the socialist realist myth by considering it in its quality of being a myth of reality, that is, as writing that was able to deliver “revolutionary reality” to the reader in a narrative form.


This special theme focuses on the relation between realism and social or socialist realism from different angles and with examples from different countries. It consists of contributions from eight scholars who took part in the workshop: Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Karin Grelz, Aleksei Semenenko, Susanna Witt, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, Epp Lankots, and Charlotte Bydler and Dan Karlholm. The first article, by Sven-Olov Wallenstein, analyzes “Adorno’s realism” against the background of the quarrel over Expressionism in the 1930s, which engaged several writers, most notably Ernst Bloch and George Lukács, in the Moscow exile literary review Das Wort. With Adorno, Wallenstein invites us to grasp realism in its historical attempt to understand “what it once meant, and how it attempted to mediate between subjectivity and the world at a historical conjuncture that is no longer ours”. Fundamental to the aesthetic ideology of modern realism as it was formed in the early 19th century is the idea that literature can narrate reality. Reality is understood in its quality as social and historical reality, and literature is predominantly understood as narrative representation. Modern realism was driven by the aspiration to find a narrative representation of social and historical reality, and at the outset, at least, it nurtured an ideal of objectivity in the writer’s representation of reality.3 In other words, there is a question to what extent there is an idealism of the real in realism, as Charlotte Bydler and Dan Karlholm ask with Walter Benjamin in their article on the functions of realism in Swedish art, which is placed last in this special topic section. The flaws in the aesthetic ideology of modern realism became the subject of a debate among writers at an early stage in the development of modern realism,4 and I will bring up just one central problem of realism on which Barthes focuses in Writing Degree Zero,5 namely the inherent and often suppressed opposition between the literariness or formal features of literature and how this literature is measured against its extra literary role in history.6 The extra literary role is both the very aspiration to depict social and historical reality and the education of the modern reader.


In her commentary on the special theme, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback asks how realism invites us to think about the problem of mimetic representation in relation to the socialist realist doctrine of  “the reality of the real”. She shows how the socialist realist text is already interpreted and therefore a read and ready text, which also tells us about the way that realism creates the reality of the real. The question how literature can avoid falling into the traps of realism by having recourse to cinematic effects, and how real-life reality appears as bad cinema, is the theme of the second article in the cluster, written by Karin Grelz. She presents us with a reading of Nabokov’s understanding of the relation between cinema and the doctrines of realism and socialist realism. As Grelz shows, Nabokov displaces the notion of realism in relation to the cinema so that we come to understand not only socialist realist works, but also the reality of the exile community, as bad, insipid, and sentimental movies. He opposes a simple common-sense understanding to an experience of reality in all its unreality, to be best captured by cinematic special effects transferred into literature.

In asking what realism meant in the doctrine of socialist realism, we can see that in an extreme and unprecedented manner, Soviet literature came to fuse literature and reality on the model of realist literature, measuring literature against its extra literary role in history, that is, against its role in the formation of Soviet “revolutionary” society and Soviet “revolutionary consciousness”. As Barthes7 asserts, the writer first became important in conjunction with modern realism’s claim to positivism and universalism. It was in realism that the author-person acquired such a high status, but it was also in realism that this status was undercut by “the castrating objectivity of the realist novel.” In other words, the high esteem accorded the writer in modern realism is related to his or her ability to describe the world objectively. The “castrating” objectivity or universalism of the great nineteenth-century realist is guaranteed by the writer’s very ability to write or narrate. Indeed, in realism, writers’ artistic skills are closely related to their knowledge or awareness of the world as social and historical reality. It was in fact as representatives of knowledge and through engagement that Soviet writers were subordinated to the politics of repression and at the same time it was in that capacity that they were authorized to be masters of the historical narrative.


The realist novel was supposed not only to reflect social and historical reality, but also to enter it as a tool for aesthetic and democratic education. The formation of the educated subject is one of the roles that the realist novel plays in modern democratic society, because if the writer is the representative of knowledge, the reader, by and large, is its recipient. This formative role of the novel was arguably what made realism so attractive for official doctrine in the massive Soviet project of modernization. At an early stage, Lenin made education the main task of the new proletarian culture, which he initially argued must learn from the literature of nineteenth-century realism.8 Andrei Zhdanov9 insisted that the task of Soviet literature was the “education of the working people in the spirit of socialism.” However, it was not only the people, that is, the readers, who were to be educated, but also the writer himself. The Soviet writer was arguably not an erudite bourgeois by birth, but a proletarian or a man of the people who followed Gorky’s educative “road to awareness” by appropriating the knowledge and status of the bourgeois. As the realist tradition was appropriated in the name of revolutionary, proletarian, or Soviet literature, the writer and reader were paradoxically not only supposed to be representatives of “spontaneous revolutionary” awareness, but were also to be taught how to understand the Revolution, how to engage in it and live it— in other words, they were supposed to learn how to experience and form or construct the narrative of the revolutionary world. Thus as a school, socialist realism continues the already existing realist school of Bildung and of éducation sentimentale, but in transposing Bildung to Soviet education in socialist reality, socialist realism becomes an éducation sentimentale politique — that is, an education in political sentiments associated with the Revolution and Soviet society.


With Nabokov, we can also make certain distinctions between art and reality, because both Groys and Dobrenko maintain that socialist realism was detrimental to reality as such or to reality in art — that is, socialist realism was detrimental both to the perception of the world and to the depiction of “reality” in art — and that the reason for this is that the avant-garde held that it was bringing about the event of art as reality. However, there are good arguments that what socialist realism undid in its forms of instruction was instead the reality of art, or, really, the reality of the aesthetic experience of writing as well as of reading.10 We cannot go to the socialist realist work of art and simply ask if it is a form or expression of an aesthetic experience of the world, because we will always first meet it in its “literary” or narrated ideological relation to history, to society, to the Revolution, as well as in its concrete relationship to the entire apparatus of institutions, representations and instructions.11 Realist literature is always dependent on its relation to historical and social reality.12 The quest for realist art is based on the fact that we read literature as social and historical reality. Irina Paperno13 shows how this fusion of literature and reality leads to a merging of writer and hero. The coalescence of literature and reality in critical realism is arguably the origin of its fusion in the socialist realist novel. Literature and its intermingling with reality, however, became a theme of the modern novel as early as Cervantes’s proto-modern Don Quixote, but it also occurs in Goethe’s Werther and Flaubert’s meticulous descriptions in Madame Bovary, to name a few. Nabokov, of course, made it one of his main devices. In realism the writer is the educated reader of literature, the hero is his or her often educated or at least highly reflected alter ego, and in reading the novel, the reader also becomes reflected, taking the place of the writer in the name of that alter ego. Thus the reality of realism becomes a gray zone between reality and imagination where the two seem to be potentially interchangeable, not only on the level of imagination, but also as realities, or rather as myths or narrations of reality.

The fusion between art and reality in socialist realism becomes very evident in the third article, “The mystery of The Blue Cup”, in which Aleksei Semenenko analyses the story The Blue Cup by Arkadii Gaidar. The Blue Cup was a classic of Soviet children’s literature that served to “mold young Soviet citizens”, and it deals with the typical fusion between life and reality according to the idea of “revolutionary romanticism” that was established as a feature of socialist realism at the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress. Because of its insistence on literature as the narrative of reality, realist literature also became the exemplary guide in modern society’s quest for a teacher of cultural taste and knowledge. From the very beginning, the representation of reality in realism was coupled with another task: the education of the modern subject. Realism, in other words, was not only to represent but also to shape social reality. Integral to the notion of realism was the idea of aesthetic formation, that is, Bildung, or éducation sentimentale, the term Flaubert coined in his novel. As Roman Jakobson notes in “On Realism”,14 realist writing is dependent on its reader. It is a kind of visual education, a training of the reading subject in how to see, perceive, or experience the common reality of the social world in its actuality. The goal of the novel was to tell about the “new.” Its theme par excellence was instruction in modern historical and social “reality,” and — it should be added — the writer and the reader were to learn in a mutual process of reading and writing. This seems to confirm Hannah Arendt’s idea that “the novel is the only entirely social art form”.15 The two tasks of representation and instruction in combination were supposed to guarantee the role of literature in society and the public sphere, and it was this assumption that allowed literature to become such an integral part of journals, periodicals, and education both in the media and in schools.

As we write the lesson of the Soviet Union’s history and of the flaws of Soviet culture in terms of cultural memory, the view is currently more widely accepted that the Soviet project should be considered not only as a totalitarian regime, but also as a gigantic modernization project. In order to understand the nature of the modernization of the countries in the Soviet sphere, it is crucial to understand not simply how the Socialist myth was formed, but also the role that was ascribed to literature as an éducation sentimentale politique under the aegis of realist literature. The task realism took upon itself involved the aesthetic education of humankind in history and the historical moment. If modern realism was based on the idea of the lonely author as an earnest pioneer of a form of writing and a vision of reality, however, socialist realism made the work of the writer an object of public concern, because insight into the historical moment was to come not from the aesthetic experience but from the acquisition of knowledge and awareness as dictated by party-mindedness. The Soviet writer is the reader of the realist novel who enrolls in a school in order to learn how to appropriate his own revolutionary experience.


The main focus of this introduction has been on literature, reflecting the author’s sphere of knowledge. However, the workshop was multidisciplinary and a collaboration between researchers in literature, art, philosophy and cultural studies. Leaving the time of the formation of socialist realism, that is, the 1930s, it is also important to emphasize the fact that, during Soviet times, socialist realism came to be applied to other areas of cultural practice besides literature. In her article, “Socialist realism in translation: The theory of a practice”, Susanna Witt poses the question how the doctrine formed not only a school for writing, but also for the Soviet school of translation. She shows how the notion of a “realist translation” came to acquire a particular meaning in post-war translation practice as “literal translation” excluding foreignness, and how it came to be defining for the art of Soviet translation. With the development of socialist realism in the 1960s and 1970s, the doctrine persisted in a stale form and as a model of instruction, yet diminished in its importance as the singular doctrine for culture in the Soviet sphere.


In the field of art, Epp Lankots returns us to the question posed by Wallenstein of what realism means at a particular historical moment. In her article, she explores the relation between history and reality by examining what realism meant to the Estonian artist and art historian Leonhard Lapin in the 1970s and 1980s from a historiographic viewpoint, and by studying his works. She shows that we must understand how this particular historical moment cannot be understood simply in the “narrow context of fluctuating ideological prescriptions”, but in relation to “the wider field of late-socialist cultural changes” and the development of new technologies. Last but not least, the contribution by Charlotte Bydler and Dan Karlholm allows us to move on from socialist realism to the question of the nature and importance of socially engaged realist art in Sweden in the 1970s, returning to several crucial questions posed in some of the first articles. Bydler and Karlholm distinguish socialist realism from the realism that formed the development towards “new realism” — a notion coined in the early 1970s — a realism which also was based on new media. They show how this “new realism” , as a realism after modernism, and hence truly as a realism, at the same time offers a way of reading, thinking, and seeing realism in its functions beyond those ascribed to it according to the divisions between critical and affirmative realism or between modern and socialist realism. Instead of seeing politics or the socialist myth as the reason for the distortion of reality, they ask with Walter Benjamin whether the new realism cannot instead avoid the idealist universalism of modern realism by being a “dialectical flashpoint” in history. Thus they also show how the idealism of realism still remains an issue to be discussed. ≈



1 Evgeny Dobrenko, Political Economy of Socialist Realism (New Haven: Yale University Press: London, 2007), 14. The assumption that socialist realism is a construction of reality has been discussed in a variety of ways. Regine Robin, (Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press: 1992, 84) writes that realism is “calling for an art of mimesis and verisimilitude, of typical and truthful representation.” As presented in Petrov (“The Industry of Truing: Socialist Realism, Reality and Realization” in Slavic Review 70, no 4, 873-892), Dobrenko largely repeats the fundamental arguments of Boris Groys in The Total Art of Stalinism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

2 Petrov (“The Industry of Truing”) has forcibly argued that we cannot separate political from historical reality because,  although the Soviet state lied about socialist reality, people were still living it as a historical reality. He therefore turns our attention to the way that reality, the real, and authenticity were at work in Soviet culture. However, when he suggests that we should understand Socialist realism as a Heideggerian realization of reality, a truing and a happening of Socialist reality, he not only simplifies Heidegger; he also seems to offer another tool for investigating the ideological means of implying and making true a certain vision and perspective of the real in the Soviet Union. Heidegger’s concept of truth as a deconstruction of the idea of truth as adaequatio rei et intellectus, the adequation between the thing and its mental representation, is an idea that supposes that reality is a matter-of-fact, given thing, and Stalinist reality was directed precisely at the fabrication of the empirical reality of the actual socialist present. For Heidegger, truth is not evidence but concealment, the appearance of its own withdrawal. For Stalinist reality, truth is evidence issued by society.

3 This crisis resulted in what Roland Barthes (Writing Degree Zero, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1977, 84 ff.) calls “the utopia of language,” namely the idea that writing will resolve the problem of objectivity through artistic universalism.

4 As scholars on realism have shown beyond any shadow of a doubt, realism is not an art devoted simply to depicting the real, but is directed towards a certain form of representation or discourse of the real in which the real is equal to the modern world of social fluidity, and the theme par excellence of the novel is the problematic way of relating to this new world. Erich Auerbach (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953, 491) distinguishes what he calls “modern realism” as a literature that understands itself as realism, that is, as an artistic practice that was preoccupied with depicting “reality.”. The “reality” it rendered was the following: “The serious treatment of everyday reality, the rise of more extensive and inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for problematic-existential representation, on the one hand; on the other, the embedding of random persons and events in the general course of contemporary history, the fluid historical background — these, we believe, are the foundations of modern realism, and it is natural that the broad and elastic form of the novel should increasingly impose itself for a rendering comprising so many elements.”Hayden White (The Fiction of Narrative, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010, 170) emphasizes the discursive aspects even further: “The ‘truth’ of the realistic novel, then, was measurable by the extent to which it permitted one to see the ‘historical world’ of which it was a representation. Certain characters and events in the realistic novel were manifestly ‘invented,’ rather than ‘found’ in the historical record, to be sure, but these figures moved against and realized their destinies in a world that was ‘real’ because it was ‘historical,’ which was to say, given to perception in the way that nature was.”

5 Barthes, Writing Degree Zero.

6 Barthes maintains that in modernity, literature becomes dependent on a “beyond language, an ‘au-delà du langage’.” Realism in particular has embarked upon a mode of writing whose function is “the imposition of something beyond language, which is both History and the stand we take in it.” (Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, 1).

7 Barthes, “The Death of the Author, ” in Image, Music (London: Text, Fontana Press, 1977), 143.

8 In “his “Draft Resolution on Proletarian Culture” (“Nabrosok rezoliutsii o proletarskoi kul’ture”), Lenin wrote that proletarian culture should be not the “invention” of a new culture, but “the development of the best models, traditions and results of the existing culture” ( Lenin, O Literature i ob iskusstve, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1969, 455). See also, for instance, “Zadachi soiuzov molodezhi” (ibid., 440—54) and “O proletarskoi kul’ture” (ibid., 454—5), both from 1920.

9 Andrei Zhdanov, On Literature, Music and Philosophy (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1950), 15.

10                  It is beyond the scope of this essay to expand on the notion of an aesthetic experience, which stems from hermeneutics. However, an important impulse for thinking of this experience is provided by Maurice Blanchot He writes about it in terms of the original experience (“l’expérience originelle”), in which truth is in exile —that is, truth is at stake or at risk — because the writer experiences how social, outer reality distances itself: “This experience is the experience of art. Art — as images, as words, and as rhythm — indicates the menacing proximity of a vague and vacant outside, a neutral existence, nil and limitless; art points into a sordid absence, a suffocating condensation where being ceaselessly perpetuates itself as nothingness.” Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 241—2.

11                  For a fascinating account of the real behind a socialist realist story, see Tomas Lahusen, How Life Writes the Book: Real Socialism and Socialist Realism in Stalin’s Russia, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

12                  Vladimir Nabokov (Lectures on Russian Literature, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, 77) asserted contemptuously that “[by] ‘realism,’ of course, I merely indicate what an average reader in an average state of civilization feels as conforming to an average reality of life.” Nabokov always insisted on the subjectivity of the writer and on the aesthetic qualities of the realist writer, because it was the writer’s relation to that “average real” which arguably made the reality of realism prone to social and political manipulation.

13                  Irina Paperno, Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism: A Study in the Semiotics of Behaviour, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988).

14                  Roman Jakobson, “On Realism in Art”, in Language in Literature (Balknap, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

15                  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 39.


  • by Tora Lane

    Project researcher at Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) and the Department of Culture and Education at Södertörn University. Currently she is working on the project “Man Builds and Gets Destroyed: Aesthetics of the Sublime in Soviet Russian Literature”.

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