When the Soviet Union entered World War II, the struggle became a battle for the Russians to prove to the rest of the world how strong their nation had become. Intense patriotism fueled the home front during the difficult winters of the war while the Nazis tried unsuccessfully to capture Russia. The Russians made sure to emphasize the role that all of the population played during the war, especially those on the home front, which is epitomized in the popular wartime poem “Wait for Me”.
The poem “Wait for Me” was designed to strengthen and comfort the women that the soldiers left behind when leaving for battle. The poem became very popular and was set to many different melodies to become songs. It became a huge testament to the strength of women, and the intensity of the love they held for their soldiers. It acknowledges that the soldiers may very well not return from war, but that one day the couples will be reunited and the women will be rewarded for their loyalty. This poem can also be seen as symbolic for Mother Russia, and how it will always be there for its citizens, no matter what or how long it takes.
The poem “Wait for Me” is a beautiful example of how all aspects of art during World War II helped to promote the Russian cause and encourage patriotism.
Source: Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, p. 335-336.
While one part of the 1930s seemed to focus on how much life in Russia had improved under the Soviet Union and specifically the policies of Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, there was a great amount of fear, due to domestic policies like the Purges and international pressures, like the eve of World War II. As a result of the pressures faced by the artists, a new form of art known as Soviet realism became quite popular. The poem “Narkom Yezhov” by folk poet Dzhambul Dzhabaev is an excellent example of Soviet realism, as it incorporates accessibility to the newly literate Russian (dostupnost), Russian ideals and spirit (narodnost), and the spirit of the Soviet Party (partiinost).
“Narkhom Yezhov” is based on the Soviet leader Nikolai Yezhov. Yezhov was the head of the NKVD during the deadliest stage of the Purges. He helped to create the Purge Commission, and used that position along with his role at the helm of the NVKD to extend the Purge from Stalin’s enemies within party leadership to the general Russian population as a whole. Millions died in the ensuing liquidation processes. However, by 1940, Yezhov himself had displeased Stalin, and found himself executed by the very process he had helped to create.
Yezhov reached the height of both his power and cruelty in 1937, the year that Dzhabaev came out with his poem that exalted him. In the poem, Yezhov is depicted as being a god-like man who “Lenin and Stalin sent to us” in order to aid the Kazakh peasants in their fight against the rich landowners who abused them. Dzhabaev addresses Yezhov in the poem, saying, “You are a sword, bared calmly and fiercely… You’re the eye of the nation, brighter than diamonds.” This praise hardly seems fitting for a man known throughout most of the Soviet Union as “Stalin’s Poison Dwarf” (a reference both to his cruelty and his short stature).
The poem “Narkom Yezhov” is a great example of Soviet realism, as it is in the form of traditional Kazakh folklore, which makes it accessible to the common peasants, and it also incorporates the spirit of both Russia and the Party by praising Yezhov’s valor and by making a Party leader seem like a god. The glory of the poem can also be seen as an attempt to mask the horrors of the time period in which it was written, another key facet of Soviet realism.
In the 1930s, the Soviet government became firmly established and Stalin was seen as the clear leader of the Russian people. With an economy that was now booming and food now available for most people after the horrors of the early stages of collectivization, culture was free to bloom once more. Cinema prospered in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, as was evidenced by the overwhelming success of Grigorii Aleksandrov’s 1934 smash movie musical Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows.
In Aleksandrov’s hit film, the story is centered on a shepherd whose talent for singing is discovered. He is taken to Moscow and becomes the leader of a jazz ensemble that achieves great fame. The movie makes a departure from the Soviet cinema of the 1920s; instead of focusing on avant-gardism and pioneering new cinematographic techniques, Aleksandrov chose to take advantage of the new sound technology and make a rich soundtrack for his film. Additionally, the political message is far subtler. The movie is instead more focused on the adventures of its hero, rather than promoting Soviet values. It is also worthy to note that the movie incorporates a great deal of jazz, which was typically seen as a very Western music style. The reason for this is likely to convince the audience of just how good life could be under Stalin’s Soviet regime, and to attempt to ease the bitter memories of the hunger and violence of the previous decade.
The above video is a scene from Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows that shows off the features of the new sound films with its rich jazz. Additionally, the scene offers lots of comic relief, and it feels very free, which is generally not how we think of the Soviet Union.
Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows is an excellent example of how cinema changed during the 1930s. It changed with the mentality of the citizens of the Soviet Union, and reflects how the Soviet Union of the 1930s was freer and more prosperous than in the years before and after.
In 1924, the great Soviet revolutionary and leader Vladimir Lenin passed away, and Joseph Stalin took his place as the head of the Soviet Union. Stalin was determined to expedite the process of making the Soviet Union a true communist society. He and advisors went over several different plans to make this happen, eventually deciding to adopt what would become known as the First Five Year Plan. The aim of the First Five Year Plan was to collective nearly all agriculture and to improve upon the infrastructure of Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. While these goals were mostly accomplished, they were met at great cost to the peasant class, especially in Ukraine, where nearly all members of the kulak class were deported or executed, leading up to one final crushing blow in the winter of 1932-33: a man-made famine (known in Ukraine as Holodomor, “extermination by hunger”) that was designed to crush all spirit of rebellion and make the peasants know that collectivization was the only way of survival. The effects of this brutality had long-lasting ramifications on Ukrainian-Russian relations, which continue even today.
The Ukrainian members of the kulak class proved to be stubborn at the start of the First Five Year Plan, as they did not wish to collectivize their farms. This resistance did not sit well with Stalin, who was in a hurry to collectivize agriculture because he saw it as the fast pass for the Soviet Union to modernize and grow their economy. He initiated a “class war” on the resisting kulaks, declaring them to be enemies of the state and beginning to deport and even kill them. By the winter of 1932, Stalin was determined to finally crush all Ukrainian resistance to collectivization. The Soviets put food production on the quotas that were impossible to meet, and confiscated all their grain. The Ukrainians began to starve to death, and thousands died while the Soviet government refused to send or accept relief and continued to withhold food. By 1934, around four million deaths had been caused as a result of the high grain quotas and mass food exportation (Holodomorct.org).
Many Ukrainians who survived the Holodomor were reluctant to speak about it in any way, especially during the years that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. However, some artists did make works inspired by the famine. Volodymyr Kutkin was an artist who spent time in the gulags, and then when he was returned home he made many sketches inspired by the pain of the Holodomor. The bleakness of the medium illustrates the horror and despair felt by the Ukrainian people during this time of starvation (Wumag.kiev.ua).
In addition to inspiring some artists, the Holodomor left a lasting negative impression on Ukrainian-Russian relations. Most Ukrainians insist that the Holodomor was genocide, while the Russian government has always said that it was an unfortunate but unavoidable famine, which afflicted many other regions of the Soviet Union as well. This obviously creates a tension in the Russia-Ukraine relationship (BBC).
The Holodomor is an example of how collectivization shaped the peasant culture by basically eradicating an entire class. While Stalin’s plan to modernize Russia and bring it into communism worked, it came at such great cost to human life that it can hardly be viewed as a success. It had cultural ramifications that are still being felt today.