Ever since the First Congress of Soviet Writers convened in 1934 and conformed to the censorship laid down by the Party Central Committee, Soviet artists mostly conformed to the style of socialist realism that was required by law (von Geldern). Over the years, this mandated artistic style had become outmoded and boring. Artists of the time still attempted to create meaningful work, however, “Socialist realism… demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art – or as being little more than a means to censor artistic expression” (Wikipedia.org).
Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, a number of Soviet artists finally began to break out of the socialist realist cage. The battle for Stalin’s successor followed by the early days of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization plan proved to be a time of relative artistic tolerance throughout the Soviet Union. Lax enforcement of censorship laws allowed artists to begin experimenting with new styles, the most popular of which being abstractionism (wikipedia.org). By 1960 the art scene in the USSR began to change in ways that the Soviet leadership could not control. As James von Geldern writes, “Whether it was young poets exercising their freedom on Maiakovskii Square, or artists abandoning realist form for incomprehensible abstractions, Khrushchev was like many of his compatriots confused and more than a little bit worried by the trend” (von Geldern).
Despite this period of increased tolerance, Nikita Khrushchev was no champion of artistic freedom, nor did he have any intentions to loosen the censorship laws already in place (Freeze 429). Khrushchev’s opinion of the modern arts can be characterized by his attendance of the “Thirty Years of Moscow Art” exhibition in 1961. The Russian Premier denounced the non-conformist works on display, “[here] Khrushchev gave vent to his crudest reactions, egged on by his comrades. When he reached the works of the abstract artist Ernst Neizvestnyi, he uttered the phrase ‘dog shit'” (von Geldern). Khrushchev was also very suspicious of writers, and often met with them to assure their loyalty and operation within the party lines (Freeze 429).
The rise of the non-conformist art movement in the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death is symbolic of Soviet society at the time. The death of Stalin also marked the end of widespread unity within the party and the state. The factionalization of the Soviet Party, along with societal hardships such as periodic famines and food shortages, created a populace that felt insecure and indefinite. This insecurity can be seen in the abstract work of the time. In the following decades the non-conformist art movement continued to grow in the USSR, nearly unhindered, until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
von Geldern, James. “1934: Writers’ Congress.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1934writers&Year=1934 (accessed November 8, 2014).
—. “1961: Khrushchev on the Arts.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1961khrushcharts&Year=1961&navi=byYear (accessed November 8, 2014).
Wikipedia.org. “Socialist Realism.” Wikipedia.org. n.d. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_realism#Characteristics (accessed November 8, 2014).
—. “Soviet Nonconformist Art.” wikipedia.org. n.d. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Nonconformist_Art#1962_.E2.80.93_mid-1970s (accessed November 8, 2014).