Seeing Ukrainian Socialist Realism

If you’re in New York, go see the Ukrainian Institute of America’s “Ukrainian Socialist Realism” exhibit, which opened on September 14th. The Soviet-era paintings from the Collection of Jurii Maniichuk and Rose Brady will force you to consider some tough questions.

Socialist realism is an intrinsically controversial art form, having been adopted and imposed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and surviving in one form or other until the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned most official strictures on the arts. Although socialist realism resembles traditional 19th-century realism and has roots in both Ukrainian and Russian artistic traditions, it also resembles the art of other totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany, Communist China, North Korea, and the socialist satellites of East Central Europe. Happy, healthy, and exceptionally well-groomed peasants and workers abound, almost invariably in heroic poses. Leaders usually have visionary expressions, pointing to the future and smiling at the adoring masses.

It’s hard not to feel unease viewing paintings that were part and parcel of the self-promotional ethos of what may be the most murderous regime of the 20th century. It becomes doubly hard not to feel unease when one considers that socialist-realist painters made conscious choices to collaborate with such a regime, very often to the detriment of the non-conformists who refused to go along and paid for their stubbornness with their lives. Those who cringe upon viewing socialist-realist paintings may be excused: their doubts are no different from those of Israelis who cannot listen to Richard Wagner’s music, or Germans who refuse to consider Adolf Hitler’s watercolors as art.

And yet it’s equally hard not to conclude that socialist realism is a legitimate form of realism, and that many of the works produced by socialist realists were of high artistic quality, possessing a variety of laudable formalistic qualities on the one hand and being bereft of all too obvious propaganda on the other. Indeed, the distinction between art and propaganda is at best overdrawn and at worst false. Artists have historically promoted the cause of the state, the church, or the rich, being more than happy to draw hefty honoraria from institutions and individuals with morally dubious qualities. The bottom line is that art can be propaganda and propaganda can be art. Moreover, the fact that artists themselves are often odious does not detract from the quality of their work. Few would suggest that T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism or Ezra Pound’s fascism or Mykola Khvylovy’s Bolshevism or Ernst Jünger’s proto-Nazism disqualifies these men from the status of great poets or writers.

Indeed, as Lyudmyla Lysenko of Kyiv’s Academy of Art and Architecture pointed out, seeing Ukrainian socialist-realist art out of context—not in Ukraine’s museums, but thousands of miles away, on 79th Street and Fifth Avenue—was a jarring experience for her. Understandably so, as “decontextualization” inevitably transforms the paintings themselves from manifestations of the cultural policy of Stalin and his successors to examples of a particular artistic genre that resembles those a few blocks away in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Context therefore matters: where we see art affects how we see it. And who sees it also affects how it will be seen. And while a Ukrainian-American audience is unlikely to be sympathetic to socialism in any of its guises, it is by the same token less burdened by the specifically Soviet past that afflicts Ukrainians in Ukraine.

Whatever one’s take on socialist realism as art, it’s unquestionably the case that the subgenre constitutes a large part of modern Ukrainian history and culture. Some may laud that fact, others may bemoan it, but everyone must, for better or for worse, recognize it. The challenge for Ukrainians everywhere is to imagine Ukrainian history and culture as consisting, as they obviously did, of Communism and anti-Communism, collaboration and opposition, villainy and heroism—as well as everything in between. Reconciling such irreconcilables may very well be a project that can succeed only with the passage of much time and the emergence of new generations unfettered by the past. After all, how long did it take for the American North and South to find something resembling a common narrative? Or for whites and blacks to do the same?

The American experience suggests that the coexistence of irreconcilables, even after one side’s defeat in war, eventually leads to reconciliation. Germany’s experience suggests that irreconcilables can be reconciled only if one of the options—totalitarianism—is condemned and suppressed. Spain’s experience suggests that reconciliation can work, more or less, if one of the options—fascism—is forgotten.

Ukraine’s three main regions appear to have taken these divergent routes. The Center wants totalitarianism and its opposite to coexist. The West has condemned and suppressed Communist totalitarianism. The East has forgotten the horrors of Communist totalitarianism.

Which approach is best? America, Germany, and Spain are all decent places and their experience may mean that all three approaches can work—eventually. Perhaps that’s the good news for Ukraine: that, given enough time and perturbations, decency will in fact triumph. Of course, given too much time and too many perturbations, there may be no one around to enjoy the victory.


Photo Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #21733 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0



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