The Strange Enforcement of Socialist Realism: Soviet Theater 1917-1960 [Excerpt]

Published: November 24, 2004

The following is an excerpt from a longer thesis. To access the full thesis in PDF, click here.

Chapter I presented a practical definition of Socialist Realism: a dramatic genre emphasizing Marxist historicism, realistic presentation, populism, and which supports the Communist Party in its goals. Defining Socialist Realism is difficult because the Soviet government never clearly defined the term and applied it in varying ways as party policies changed over more than five decades. To enforce the nebulous definition, the Soviet government employed a vast bureaucracy as enigmatic as the genre itself; just as there was not a precise definition of Socialist Realism, there was no singular agency enforcing it. There were agencies for censoring plays, agencies for censoring playwrights, and agencies that provided economic incentives to encourage compliance. Furthermore, these varied agencies changed their names, bureaucratic alliances, and foci over time, presenting a substantial complication for historians investigating the genre’s enforcement. That successive historians have described the system in widely varying ways is not at all surprising.

This chapter, like the last, will begin with an examination of the subject’s historiography to provide a needed historical context. Then, as the most straightforward method of presenting such complicated information, a series of anecdotes will illuminate the system’s Byzantine history and function. Lastly, both the historiographical and historical data will be synthesized into a concise picture of the enforcement system.


The historiography of this subject is in some ways similar to that of Chapter I, with historians attributing the system’s origin to various times and authorities. Despite these differences, each treatment can be seen as correct, but for different reasons than in Chapter I. Here the simplest answer is not the most workable. Rather, the Soviet enforcement system was large enough that each description with its concomitant plethora of authorities and agencies is correct, if only incomplete.

Many histories vastly oversimplify the system. For example, Boika Sokolova, whose simple definition of Socialist Realism was featured in Chapter I, asserts that the system required Theaters to justify their repertory as early as 1924[1] and that by 1932, there was a “Soviet cut” of Hamlet: an official version of the play edited for ideological content.[2] For Sokolova, these cuts were implemented through a “monitored dialogue” enforced by fear:

The 1930s set in motion the nightmarish mincing machine of Stalinist reprisals. Fear ruled the lives of millions. In conditions of excessive ideological pressure, directors desperately groped for ways of bringing their productions close to safe political platforms and tuned carefully into the latest news spread by the Party press.[3]

This brief description leaves many open questions. If the fear began in the 1930’s, why did repertories require justification in 1924? To whom were they justified? How could all the work required to edit all mention of the afterlife, God, moral compunction, suicide, and even graveyards out of Hamlet (which the Soviet version quite amazingly did[4]) be organized by simply compelling directors to read the latest newspaper?

Although problems with this type of simple explanation are apparent, it seems to be the most popular. Historians Mel Gordon, Christopher de Haan, Paul Dukes, and Anatoly Smeliansky all use similar arguments. Gordon and de Haan,[5] for instance, treat the repression of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s avant-garde techniques as part of a personal conflict between Meyerhold and Stalin which eventually resulted in Meyerhold’s arrest and execution; again, Socialist Realism is seen as enforced through fear of death. While the personal tastes of Stalin and the fear of death were part of the enforcement system (as this chapter and the next will discuss), the Gordon/de Haan description is incomplete. Stalin could not have personally controlled all of the Soviet Union’s Theaters (approx. 500 in 1934) or playwrights (approx. 1500 in 1934): an organization would be needed for such a monumental task.

Smeliansky alludes to such an organization, but never directly names it. He refers only to “central censorship” and, again, implies that the whole system was run purely on fear. This fear was created by Stalin and, Smeliansky states, was great enough to be effective well after Stalin’s death as “his shadow continued to strike fear into the country for many years to come.”[6] In his 200-plus-page history, no censoring agency is specifically mentioned.[7]

Dukes also argues enforcement-through-fear, but names some specific organizations: “During the 1930’s the unions for writers, musicians and other artists increasingly imposed their control over the creative output of their members, many of whom disappeared temporarily or forever during the purges.”[8]

For Dukes, authority rested with the unions and was derived from fear. Interestingly, he attributes the purges, which created the fear, not to Stalin but to the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the “ruthless” A. A. Zhdanov, the same Zhdanov who opened the First Congress and whose quote Oscar Brockett and Inna Solovyova used to define Socialist Realism. However, Dukes accounts for changes in the severity of the enforcement system largely by the death of Stalin, stating the “thaw” that occurred after his death brought new, gentler enforcement procedures, such as that of enforced emigration from the USSR.[9]

These histories are cursory, characterized by brief, rhetorically charged descriptions of a system driven solely by fear. Few describe specific enforcement policies, few name specific enforcement agencies, and all effectively date censorship to the 1930s.[10] Oscar Brockett makes the first substantial break from this trend. He indicates that authority rested with both the unions and other government agencies. He dates censorship slightly earlier, and names specific enforcement policies. For him, “The pressure to subordinate artistic to ideological ends was intensified around 1927.”[11] He explains that a few virulently proletarian organizations such as Proletcult, which had pressed for greater homogeneity in art, received official government support in that year: party members were installed as Theater managers and, after 1930, productions had to be licensed through RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) before they could be legally performed.[12] In 1934, he states RAPP was replaced with the Union of Soviet Writers. Interestingly, while Brockett credits the Union for being “somewhat more liberal” than RAPP, he also credits the Union with “the first truly repressive measure” in art: implementing Socialist Realism. He does not explain what happened to the systems of Theater management and licensing with the demise of RAPP, which implies that they were inherited by the Union. But this was not exactly the case, as shall be shown later.[13]

While Brockett’s description is far more detailed than most, it is still far from complete, as a look at Inna Solovyova’s description will show. Solovyova dates censorship even earlier, to 1923, the founding of the governmental agency Glavrepertkom (Central Committee on Repertories). This agency, which cooperated closely with the Soviet political police (known in 1923 as GPU and, later, the KGB), supervised the repertoires of Theaters. Solovyova also mentions the role of Proletcult, RAPP, the Writer’s Union, and states that the Department of Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop) held authority over playwrights as well. Also, unlike most of the previous historians discussed, she describes those measures the Soviet government used to encourage Socialist Realism, rather than just censoring its opposite. These measures included lavishing funds, titles, and praise on favored Theaters and artists. These issues, discussed in greater detail later, effectively demonstrate that even Brockett’s more inclusive summary is still lacking. Clearly, a new, more complete description of the system is necessary.

Historians have tended to oversimplify the system for three reasons. The first reason is evidenced in their rhetoric. These historians do not provide specific evidence, apparently writing for an audience that would not require such details. I, personally, was more than halfway through Smeliansky’s book before realizing that the censorship discussed was largely undefined and without source. Having lived most of my life with the image of a Soviet bureaucracy that loomed like an Orwellian dystopia, I was, at start, a ready audience for such arguments. In this study, however, I will not assume an uncritical audience and will thus consider these details as crucial. A second reason for the simplification is that official Soviet policy did not allow a free exchange of information within the country or over the border. Historians have long been dependant on interviews and “leaked” information to piece together enforcement procedures. Depending on what sources were used, different scenarios surfaced. These differences do not render the various scenarios incorrect, but simply incomplete. The third and final reason stems from the system’s sheer size and complexity. To fully understand the system, a book-length study would be needed.

Given this difficulty, an exhaustive discussion of Soviet enforcement will not be attempted here. Instead, the remainder of this chapter will attempt to describe first, the nature of that system and second, its major agencies and policies more comprehensively than heretofore attempted. These agencies enforced their policies not only by promoting fear, but also by controlling the resources playwrights needed to survive: those for both printing and producing a script.


Two key concepts are necessary to understand the nature of the censorship system. First, the severity of censorship varied over time. Second, the Soviet bureaucracy generally operated on a system of personal favors rather than on a system of definite policies enforced by “blind justice:” those with the best connections got the best “justice.”

The nature of the system changed over time as funding waxed and waned and as politics changed. This seventy-year process is succinctly summed in the following table:


Changes in the Severity of Censorship in the USSR Over Time[14]

1917 – 1940 Development of the Soviet system; as agencies are established and their power is augmented through the nationalization of resources, enforcement becomes more severe. This process peaks ca. 1936-40

1940 – 1945 Preparations for WWII and WWII itself stretch the USSR’s resources thin. Enforcement is relaxed predominantly as a cost-cutting measure.

1945 – 1952 The Cold War develops. As the country is rebuilt and becomes a super-power, enforcement surpasses pre-1940 levels.

1953 – 1963 Stalin dies in 1953. Nikita Khrushchev succeeds to the office, calling for a more liberal Soviet society and officially denouncing Stalinist policies in 1956. Enforcement is relaxed.

1964 – 1979 Brezhnev, a political reactionary and sympathizer with Stalinist policies, succeeds Khrushchev. Enforcement grows more severe, though never again approaches the severity of the Post-WWII era.

1980 – 1985 Russian invasion of Afghanistan again stretches Soviet resources thin. The liberality created by this is augmented by political turmoil created by a leadership crisis in the Communist party. Gorbachev emerges as victor and begins dismantling the enforcement system as part of his perestroika ca. 1985.


The web of personal favors on which this system operated is perhaps best summed by an anecdote recorded by Juri Jelagin of the Vakhtangov Theater. [15] The story is set in 1934 (the year of the First Congress) and concerns Lev Ruslanov, actor and the House Manager of the Vakhtangov Actor’s House (an apartment building built for employees of the Theater). One of Ruslanov’s tenants, the famed director Alexsi Popov, lived on the fifth floor and kept a series of flower pots affixed to the outside of his balcony rail with plumber’s tape. Ruslanov, noticing the pots as a potential safety hazard, sent Popov a friendly note asking him to remove them. Popov, however, took great pride in his flowerpots and sent Ruslanov back a friendly letter explaining that they were firmly affixed and did not constitute a hazard. Ruslanov’s authority was not to be challenged and the second note was answered with a third, bearing Ruslanov’s official title, seal, and much more officious language. Popov was so indignant he did not bother to respond to the letter. The next day, Ruslanov had his acquaintance the district police chief send orders to Popov that the flowerpots were to be removed. Popov, however, contacted his friend Comrade Vul, the Moscow Chief of Police, and had the orders revoked. Ruslanov, not to be outdone, called on Comrade Markarian, Chief of the National Police of the Soviet Union, to reinstate the repealed orders. Popov re-repealed them with a favor called in from Marshal Voroshilov, the Commander in Chief of the Red Army and, furthermore (and perhaps ironically), The People’s Commissar of War. Ruslanov was adamant about the flowerpots and obtained orders for their removal from Mikhail Kalinin, President of the Executive Committee of the USSR. Popov removed the flowerpots, but apparently not before considering appealing his case to the Politburo (Central Committee of the Communist Party), the country’s most powerful agency, or to Stalin himself.

Admittedly, this case has little to do directly with the enforcement of Socialist Realism. However, the kind of erratic behavior it describes was quite common within the enforcement system. Take, for example, the strange case of Alexandr Tairov. From the early nineteen-teens Tairov established himself as one of Russia’s most creative anti-realists. However, in the early 1930s he, along with others such as Konstantine Stanislavsky and Nemirovitch-Danchenko, declared allegiance to Socialist Realism[16] apparently as part of a process of “self-preservation and self-transformation.”[17] He was proclaimed a Peoples’ Artist of the USSR in 1934. However, he apparently continued to practice anti-realism,[18] provoking the government, in 1936, to forcibly merge his Kamerny Theater with the aptly named Realistic Theater. Through petitions to the government, however, the Kamerny was reestablished in 1939. In that same year his troupe was “evacuated” to Siberia due to the war. Incidentally, Siberia is a long, long way from any front line Russia experienced in WWII and was the traditional repository for those considered politically dangerous. Nonetheless, he was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1945 for wartime services. He was also again charged, in that year, with “formalism” (a blanket term used to describe anything not considered to be Socialist Realism) and continuously charged with formalism every year thereafter until his Theater was again stripped from him in 1950. This bizarre process was halted that year only by Tairov’s death.[19] Such was the nature of the Soviet system.

What the average playwright went through to get a play produced was no less complicated. He[20] faced two distinct phases of censorship: literary and dramatic. To concisely describe these phases, the following history will assume a narrative form. The history will also assume that our average playwright is writing sometime before the outbreak of WWII, but the basic system remained throughout the Soviet Era.

The story begins simply enough: after our playwright has written his play, he needs to submit copies to the literary departments of several hundred Theaters for production consideration.[21] Here, the playwright encounters the first of many complications: by 1921, the government had fully nationalized the printing industry and thus controlled all publishing, publishing equipment, and distribution of published materials under an agency called Gosizdat (State Publishing House), officially founded in 1917.[22]

In order to use a mimeograph or press, the playwright needs permission from Gosizdat. After 1923, however, Gosizdat could not approve any play not already approved by Glavit (Central Administration of Literature and Publishing). Glavit was founded in 1922 as part of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment to help “orient” the ideology purveyed by literature.[23] In 1923 it was given specific authority over new dramatic texts. In 1929, after the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment fell from favor for not being sufficiently stringent ideologically, Glavit was removed from the Commissariat and made an independent agency. The Commissariat, however, was not fully disbanded until 1932 with many of its remaining powers bequeathed to the newly established Writer’s Union. Glavit, now officially independent, worked closely with Cheka (Secret National Political Police)[24] so its decision would be heavily influenced by the “ideological profile” obtained from Litkontrol (Bureau for the Control of Literature), a department of Cheka. The purpose of Litkontrol was to monitor the “life, creative work, moods, friendships, and statements of all Soviet writers.”[25] It is unclear exactly when Litkontrol was founded, but it is clear that Cheka was performing these functions as early as 1920.[26]

Glavit, however, is the organization with which our playwright will first have direct contact. This contact begins as the playwright submits his text through a narrow window at Glavit’s large but cramped building. [27] Over the next few months, several censors read and annotate the text. They indicate where changes should be made to correct the work’s “class orientation” and “historical accuracy.” For example, the protagonist must represent the proletariat and if a leader from a previous era is depicted, that leader should be shown as oppressive to the proletariat (although, as Chapter III will show, there were major exceptions to this last rule). [28] Generally, then, the censors are concerned with assuring that the play conforms to the four tenets of Socialist Realism: realism, historicism, populism, and adherence to Party goals.[29]

To achieve the desired corrections, censors cut lines, add lines, and/or make general notes on how characters or scenes should be changed. Now, a single version with all annotations from all censors is created. Glavit now interviews the playwright: he is presented with this final copy and questioned about his intentions, his political orientation, and specifics about his play. These “interviews” will often become interrogations because semi-retired Cheka agents constitute much of Glavit’s staff.[30]

After the interview, the playwright takes the annotated copy home and rewrites his text. Once done, the new version is resubmitted to Glavit for one of three fates. First, the revision may be denied by Glavit and declared “politically deficient,” in which case the text is sent to Litkontrol with any other information the agency has compiled about the author. This action officially bans the text, makes discussing the text illegal, and may result in the author’s arrest. Second, the revision may be re-censored and the process begun again. Third, the revision may be approved. If the third option occurs, Glavit binds the three copies (original, final annotated, and final revised) together. Glavit writes on the non-bound side of the book the author’s name, the number of pages contained in the text, and how many copies of the final revised version are authorized for printing. Over this is placed a large wax seal to prevent the information and/or the final version from being changed post-censorship.[31]

Fortunately for our playwright, Glavit’s approval usually constitutes approval from Gosizdat as well. However, Gosizdat still controls the resources needed for printing and can halt printing based on the availability of resources (paper, ink, etc). Apparently, politically suspect authors and texts are more subject to “scarcity.”[32] If Gosizdat does not intervene, the playwright can finally apply for the use of a mimeograph or press from The Society of Dramatists and Composers.[33] Remember, all this has been done in an attempt to make enough copies to distribute the script to literary departments. This application, however, can be denied by the Writer’s Union, to which the Society was subordinated after 1934, thus making union membership necessary to legally publish within the USSR. The Writer’s Union, the official sponsor of Socialist Realism can thus also control publication by denying or revoking memberships. If all requirements are met, copies are made and distributed to literary departments.

It is generally through a literary department that the playwright will receive payment for his play. However, alternate sources of funding were available. Often, some well-connected person would arrange subsidies through the Housing Administration or the State Bank for a favored playwright. Stalin, for instance, arranged for an open bank account for playwright Alexi Tolstoy after being particularly taken by Tolstoy’s play, Peter I.[34]

Our playwright can also draw income by publishing and selling his play in bookstores. To do so, after obtaining approval from Gosizdat (after 1917) and Glavit (after 1922), and if the playwright is in good standing with the Writer’s Union (after 1934), the playwright may apply for the approval of yet another agency, the Bureau of the Press. The Bureau, created in 1917 as a sub-department within Agitprop (Department of Agitation and Propaganda – which itself operated within the Politburo), had appointed managers to all publishing houses since 1921. The Bureau’s representatives can edit, demand revisions, or deny publication of texts.[35]

If the playwright wishes his play to be produced by a Theater, there are still more agencies and revisions to go through. This dramatic portion of the censorship process begins with the literary department who will pay the playwright only upon approving his text. Most literary departments remained quite liberal. The playwright probably knows the following anecdote concerning the Moscow Art Theater: Mikhail Bulgakov, recognized as one of the early Soviet era’s most talented writers and as one of its most vociferous dissidents, was continually reprimanded for “politically deficient” plays, after which all his plays were banned. Incredibly frustrated, he wrote a letter to Stalin asking to either be exiled or shot so he could escape the enforcement system.[36] Most contemporary onlookers thought Stalin would choose to shoot, but instead he seems to have been greatly amused by the note. Stalin ordered Bulgakov be given a job in the Moscow Art Theater and that one play, The Days of the Turbans, be returned to the repertory there (but not anywhere else). He even called Bulgakov personally to inform him of this.[37] Stanislavsky appointed Bulgakov to the literary department, where he remained until dying a natural death in 1938. Nothing he wrote there, however, would ever pass Glavit.[38]

The playwright, knowing that literary departments usually approve plays based on their dramatic rather than polemic qualities, sends his play to the various literary departments.[39] He knows that many “politically deficient” playwrights are able to survive despite being consistently banned due to payments from these relatively liberal departments. However, this play is far from being performed onstage. If approved by a literary department, the playwright reads his play to the Theater’s Art Council. On this council sit directors, designers, actors, and musicians,[40] led by the Theater’s manager, who controls all funding, and its art director, who chairs the meeting.

Art Councils had been required in all state-owned Theaters since 1920 but many had established such councils years before as a way of democratizing the artistic process. In 1920, the Art Councils were subordinated to the Theatrical Department of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, which had since appointed Theater managers to all state-owned Theaters.[41] However, with Vsevolod Meyerhold, a devout avant-gardist, as the department’s first head, most of the first appointments had been exceptionally liberal party members.[42] Furthermore, most of these original managers were weak and easily controlled by the famous artists who worked for them. For example, Juri Jelagin, a Vakhtangov musician, refers to his Theater’s first manager as a short, fat woman lacking in intelligence and civility. Jelagin will only use her last name, Vaneyeva, and indicates that although she was manager, the Art Council of the Vakhtangov Theater was really run by the famous people who worked there: the poet Pavel Antokolski; the famous actor Boris Shchukin; etc. [43]

This all changed in 1935, however, when the newly formed Committee on Arts, an extension of the all-powerful Politburo, inherited the ability to appoint managers from the now defunct Commissariat of Enlightenment[44] and also began appointing art directors. Thus, both Art Council leaders were now representatives of the Committee on Arts. Furthermore, this new Art Council leadership can appoint “public representatives” to the council, further inflating its ranks with hard-line communists. The Art Council can, like Glavit, add or remove lines or demand general changes to scenes or characters. Based on these notes, given after the playwright’s reading, the script is again revised and resubmitted to the Council for approval, additional notes, or denial.

If the Art Council denies production, that Theater cannot produce the play but other Theaters may still consider it. If the Art Council approves the play, it must now be submitted to Glavrepertkom. Established in 1923 as part of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, Glavrepertkom, like Glavit, was made largely independent after 1929. The purpose of both these agencies was to “ideologically orient” drama, in concert with Cheka. No play could be added to a Theater’s repertory or begin rehearsals without approval from Glavrepertkom. Yet again, the play is submitted, annotated, and revised, then either approved, annotated, or denied.[45]

Glavrepertkom, however, differed from Glavit in one very important aspect: while Glavit benefited from the power of a government monopoly almost immediately, the government did not achieve such a monopoly over Theaters until 1936. Many independent Theaters, using their fame and prestige, managed to either influence the agency or ignore it altogether.[46] But for nationalized Theaters, Glavrepertkom was an absolute authority. Vladimir Nemirovitch-Danchenko, a prestigious director at Russia’s most prestigious Theater, The Moscow Art, complained of the agency as early as 1923: “it bans a play when it considers it counter-revolutionary, or when it isn’t Soviet enough, or when there’s a tsar (as in The Snow Maiden)… or when the past is beautiful or there’s a church or whatever.”[47] The Moscow Art was one of the first to fall under state ownership. The quote shows that Glavrepertkom operated under much the same principles as Glavit: “class orientation” (revolutionary, Soviet) and “historical accuracy” (the past was oppressive by Marxian standards, not beautiful). Also, “counter-revolutionary” was a term often applied to texts considered “non-realist” and Soviet policies included the promulgation of Marxist history and the elimination of all churches.[48]

As nationalization spread, so did Glavrepertkom’s influence. In 1923, the year the agency was founded, the state owned 33 percent of all Theaters. By 1926, this number grew to 63. Nationalization was completed in 1936.[49] If Glavrepertkom approves the play, rehearsals may begin. However, the play has not yet been licensed for public presentation. Licensing was required of all productions after 1930 but, again, was not fully enforced until 1936.[50] To become licensed, the playwright will attend the final dress rehearsal with a consortium consisting of the production’s director and designers, as well as representatives from the Glavrepertkom, Agitprop, the Committee on Arts and, occasionally, the Politburo itself.[51] Following the rehearsal, all consortium members discuss the merits of the play. If the government delegation approves the production, they may still demand changes to the text or its interpretation (acting, music, design, etc.).[52] If they deny licensing, however, all copies of the script would be confiscated, performances canceled, and discussion of the play made effectively illegal. Furthermore, the Theater may be reprimanded, the playwright arrested, and the previous censors fired or arrested.[53] But, if the delegation approves, the play may finally receive public performance (although the various agencies may still cancel performances if controversy ensues).

Our playwright, then, has finally seen his play performed. In the process, he and his play have been scrutinized by more than a dozen agencies and he has rewritten the text at least three or four times. However, this is still the not whole story. There were still other agencies claiming dominion over the playwright, as well as other agencies that could censor the director, the actors, the set designers, etc. Also, beyond censorship, many other agencies positively encouraged playwrights to conform to Socialist Realist expectations. Official rewards such as the Stalin Prizes, established in 1939 (and renamed the Lenin Prizes during the Khrushchev thaw of 1956), “represented a handsome sum of money, not to mention an improvement in social status.”[54] The title of “People’s Artist,” established ca. 1920, also gave an improvement in social status. People’s Artists were more likely to be named to government posts and thus receive extra salary (and still more prestige). “Improved social status” also meant access to better shops, restaurants, and apartments, relaxed passage through censorship, and more lavish productions of one’s plays.[55]

Dissidents were also subject to unofficial enforcement procedures. Artists could be disenfranchised (stripped of their citizenship), making them ineligible for steady employment, union membership, and/or publication rights.[56] If a well-connected individual came to dislike a playwright, that individual could “pull strings” to threaten the playwright with eviction, disenfranchisement, deportation, and even death if the playwright did not change his writing style. Party sponsored dramatic critics could alter a playwright’s social status by either harsh or favorable reviews. A harsh review often meant decreased access to goods, more stringent censorship, and even hardships for the playwright’s family.[57]

The apparatus for “ideologically orienting” playwriting was more extensive, capricious, and enigmatic than described above. Take, for example, the case of Alexandr Kirshon, author of The Big Day, a play depicting a brave Soviet army defeating a Fascist invasion in just two days. One of the first playwrights to join the Communist party, Kirshon remained a fervent communist all his life, as did most of his family. However, when his cousin, Marshal Yagoda, then head of the Cheka (then known as NKVD) was purged in 1936, the new head arrested Yagoda’s entire family. For the “crime” of being Yagoda’s cousin, Kirshon died in a concentration camp, and his play was pulled from production at the prestigious Vakhtangov Theater.[58] Again, the system and all its processes would take a book to fully detail.

This history also admittedly does not account for all name changes, bureaucratic restructuring, and power shifts affecting the enforcement system. For example, Glavrepertkom was replaced with the Ministry of Culture in 1953. However, the Ministry performed much the same process using the same criteria, though it tended to be more liberal than its predecessor.[59]


Taking this historical and historiographical analysis into account, the enforcement system for Socialist Realism can be effectively summed in the following three-point description:

  1. As the sole repository of economic resources, the government could decide what to print and what to stage because it controlled the resources for printing and staging.
  2. Through an enigmatic, labyrinthine system that held the ultimate power of economic success and/or survival over the artist, the artist was both discouraged from acting contrary to the system’s wishes and encouraged (or forced) to comply.
  3. As a general rule, enforcement encouraged (or forcibly created) plays with “appropriate” class-orientation, realism,[60] historical presentation, and adherence to the current goals and policies of the Communist Party and its leadership.

The system, in its shifting intricacy, was inherently enigmatic and was maintained as such to produce fear in those subject to it. This fear was made possible, however, largely by the government’s economic hegemony over those resources necessary for playwrights to be economically viable: Theaters and presses. That censorship was enforced through economic means is quite ironic; removing the means of production from the hands of the bourgeoisie was supposed to free the artist, not censor him. Perhaps even this irony was all the more helpful to the system of fear, however, as it only adds to enigmatic nature of the system. With the authority derived from economic ownership and fear, Socialist Realism, as defined in Chapter I, was effectively enforced. Furthermore, as Chapter III will show, Socialist Realism was effectively implemented into, and further developed by, a representative body of plays.



[1] Sokolova, 145-6

[2] 147

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid. The Soviet cut concentrated on political conflict. e.g. the “To be or not to be” monologue was rewritten as a dialogue between Horatio and Hamlet in which Hamlet tries to decide whether or not to become king.

[5] Gordon, et al.

[6] Smeliansky, 1. Smeliansky’s book is entitled The Russian Theater After Stalin

[7] There was no agency known as “central censorship” and Soviet censorship was anything but centralized.

[8] Dukes, 264.

[9] Ibid, 311.

[10] Smeliansky does not name any specific date.

[11] Brockett, Century, 193.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Brockett also mentions the importance of other government offices and other unions. The All-Union Conference of State Directors, held in 1939, was intended to do for directing what the First Congress had done for playwriting. The Central Direction of Theaters was founded in 1936 to provide “a single agency authority over all troupes (approximately nine hundred).” These agencies could indirectly influence which plays would be produced and are worth mentioning although they are outside the immediate focus of this study: playwriting.

[14] Table compiled from information from Smeliansky, Dukes, Solovyova, and Jelagin.

[15] Jelagin, 55-8.

[16] Brockett, 196

[17] Solovyova, 326.

[18] Smeliansky, 3.

[19] Brockett, 196.

[20] Most playwrights were male. Therefore, the masculine pronoun will suffice to describe “the average playwright.”

[21] Most of the 500 Soviet Theaters’ literary departments dated to the nineteenth century, established to evaluate, write, or rewrite scripts.

[22] In 1920, a committee called Glapolitprosvet (Committee for Political Enlightenment) was formed within Gosizdat to evaluate which works would be eligible for continued publication and distribution in the USSR, making it that country’s first censorship organ. Glapolitprosvet had jurisdiction only over previously written works, however, and is thus not of direct importance to plays produced after its incorporation. Among those playwrights censored by the committee were Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Other censored authors included Plato, Nietzsche, and Kropotkin, a famous Russian anarchist. See MAAT Online Database of History. May 2003. Italy. <>

[23] Gorchakov, 266-7

[24] This organization’s name changed often throughout history: GPU, OGPU, NKVD, and, of course, KGB.

[25] Gorchakov, 267. This portion of the text his heavily indebted to Gorchakov’s great history of Glavit.

[26] Seldes, George. 1995. The George Seldes Reader. (London: Barricade Books) 220.

[27] Gorchakov, 266-71

[28] Ibid

[29] As described at the end of Chapter I, see page 20 of this study.

[30] Gorchakov, 267

[31] Ibid

[32] Seldes, 232

[33] Later known as the Society for the Protection of Author’s Rights

[34] Jelagin, 97, 113.

[35] Gorchakov, 269; see also MAAT Online Database of History, < /russia-1917.htm>

[36] Jelagin, 102.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] See Jelagin, 127. Gorchakov, however, informs us that there were significant exceptions to this. Nevertheless, the literary departments were bureaucratically aligned with no entity but their respective Theaters.

[40] Jelagin, 37, 39.

[41] Theoretically, it could appoint managers to all Theaters, but its authority was, for all practical purposes, relegated to state-owned Theaters.

[42] Pesochinsky, Nikolai. 1998. “Meyerhold and the “Marxist Critique.” Theater, Vol. 28, Issue 2: 35-6.

[43] Jelagin, 35, 78.

[44] Whose demise ca. 1929-1932 is described on pages 30-1 of this chapter.

[45] Solovyova, 326; Gorchakov, 270.

[46] Jelagin, 79-80; Solovyova, 329.

[47] Nemerovitch-Danchenko, 277-8.

[48] Again, we can see in Nemirovitch-Danchenko’s quote a description of Soviet censorship ideals described at the end of Chapter I. See page 20 of this study.

[49] Brockett, History, 479-80.

[50] Brockett, Century, 193; Jelagin, 105.

[51] Jelagin, 105; Gorchakov, 270.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Gorchakov, 270-1

[54] Solovyova, 353.

[55] Jelagin, 103, 125, 136.

[56] Jelagin, 15.

[57] Jelagin, 104, 125.

[58] Jelagin, 102.

[59] See table on pages 28-9 of this chapter.

[60] Class orientation, as seen in Chapter I, included not only showing the working class as heroes, but also presenting the story within realistic strictures. Lenin was quoted in that chapter as implying that realism was like the simple black bread of the peasantry and was thus something the general populace could understand.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has managed the SRAS Family of Sites, a grouping of publications that cover geopolitics, history, business, economy, pop culture, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He lived in Moscow, Russia from 2003-2022. He also assists in program development and leads SRAS' scholarship programs.

Program attended: All Programs

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