The Collective Cognitive Dissonance of Soviet Art and Soviet Reality

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).

Movie poster for The Law of Life. 

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.


11 thoughts on “The Collective Cognitive Dissonance of Soviet Art and Soviet Reality

  1. I like the point that you made about how Stalin despised bourgeois culture, yet many of the high ranking officials, including Stalin himself, enjoyed the same anemities as the bourgeois did.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agree. One of the most intriguing parts of the “great retreat” away from revolutionary values in the 30s is the re-embrace of bourgeois values and culture at many levels.


    2. It’s definitely interesting to evaluate the degree of hypocrisy there!


  2. What an interesting post! Your discussion highlights some of the key tensions and ironies of film censorship in the 30s. I’m curious as to what lead you to research “Law of Life”? And why do you think it was condemned so harshly? What do you think about the popularity of films that escaped the censors in the 30s?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think what drew me to this film is how it evoked such a strong reaction from the Central Committee, and how quickly it was banned. I think it was condemned not only because it wasn’t the favorable image of socialism that the Soviet Union wanted to portray, but also more importantly it highlighted the possibility of corruption in a system that identified itself as essentially flawless, even though it was far from it. I think the films of the 30s that escaped this were probably not daring to be as controversial as this film, which makes sense because during the time of the purges a film with a similar plot as this could be means to incriminate someone for conspiracy of a host of other charges.


  3. I think you made some really good points about the emphasis on class conflicts and the redirection of energy towards industrialization and collectivization.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s definitely interesting to see how industrialization and collectivization led to class conflicts essentially of their own volition just based on the adverse circumstances in each the working class and peasant spheres.


  4. Great post! It’s so interesting to look and see how culture impacted how the Soviets acted. As well as the subliminal messages they avoided through censorship. The connection to class conflict in a society that’s supposed to be classless is intriguing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s so fascinating how socialism was supposed to be a classless society but their were still so many different hierarchies that remained!


  5. A very good post and one that poses some great concepts, the idea of the bourgeoisie and Stalin and high party officials being part of it and the regulation of the media


  6. Interesting blog! If a film was taking down, and essentially blacklisted, were the film makers punished by the government?


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