The era of High Stalinism in the 1930s was characterized by strong Soviet sentiment for industrialization, collectivization, and the escalation of class conflict. However, the results that The Party was portraying to yield to the public were actually a stark contrast from the reality of Soviet lives. This was perhaps an attempt to rid Russian “backwardness” by a means of simply stating so, rather than expressing and analyzing the true results.
This time experienced a return to tradition, emphasizing conservative family values by condemning free love, divorce, and abortion. This transcended into literature, song, and cinema as well. Society began to celebrate outstanding individuals and the arts echoed this by creating stories that centered around heroes, such as Chapaev by Dmitry Furmanov. The Union of Soviet Writers was the only literary association that remained after the dissolution of all others in 1932. Stories glorified the success of socialism and were kept simple as to be accessible to the masses. Writers for the Union, however, enjoyed many special privileges including “foreign delicacies, high-end clothing, and even the highly sought country homes (dachas)” (Source). The irony is hard to ignore, Stalin despised bourgeois culture and propriety, while these writers for the Soviet agenda enjoyed many of the same privileges as the bourgeois did under the autocracy. Furthermore, the only way to get published in the Soviet Union after 1932 was to be a member of Writers for the Union, “[b]y the time of the congress, control of printing, distribution, publishing, radio, film, and theater had been firmly centralized, with the Party Central Committee having absolute power of veto. The Writers’ Union served as model for other cultural unions (Cinematographic Workers, Actors, Artists) that were soon established” (Source).
These organizations were essential in helping Stalin maintain the Soviet image, whether it was accurate or not. In one such case, the film The Law of Life, from directors Aleksandr Stolper and Boris Ivanov was released and taken off the market a week later after a vilifying review from Pravda deeming it a “false film”. The film was about the character Evgenii Ognerubov, who portrayed “a morally corrupt head of a regional branch of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) exposed by his subordinates” (Source). The implications of the film were clear, it did not align with the happy-go-lucky attitude that The Party was trying to portray, and it instead attributed a whole film to the negative Komsomol leader, and in turn, was a false portrayal of socialist realism. The film also emphasized many other Komsomol members, “falling under the influence of the corrupt Ognerubov. This taught the audience the wrong message, Pravda suggested, for the vigilant Komsomols should have unmasked Ognerubiv early in the film, as would have been the case in real life” (Source).
I draw on this censorship of The Law of Life in 1940, to parallel the campaign against cinema under High Stalinism that existed most notably in 1932 and 1936. Months after the ban on The Law of Life, the Central Committee met and banned more films leading Zhadanov to eventually tell filmmakers, “Let there be fewer pictures but no failures” (Source). This reflects the notion of socialist realism and the engineering of human souls. Much of what comprises the human soul is rooted in culture, therefore what impact does it have when this culture has such strict laws and prescription surrounding it? The era of High Stalinism was in many ways a collective societal cognitive dissonance, The Party was portraying only the exaggerated successes of the Soviet Union, while the proletariat was faced with their unappealing reality. Yes, the economy was growing as the means of production increased, but at what cost? The return to traditional values repressed the worker, and the famine that plagued the collective farms in Ukraine killed the spirit (literally and figuratively). Perhaps in one way repression can lead to great shifts in culture, such as instances where writers were able to either engage in samizdat or publish their works abroad, however, this was usually associated with great risk and reached outside the sphere of influence before it could later be discovered by the masses at home.