In Aleksandr Deineka’s painting Textile Workers (1927), three barefoot young women in simple shifts work in a light-filled blue-gray space, the rows of bobbins rendered as floating lozenges along the walls. The girl in the foreground, a skinny teenager, pulls a thread from a bobbin that seems to hang in the air. She faces us, but is unaware of our presence: we have the advantage, as if looking through a two-way mirror. On the right side of the canvas, another woman walks pensively into white nothingness. Deineka, one of the Soviet Union’s most successful artists, said the painting was intended to celebrate the rhythms of the factory, but today it looks more like a glimpse into an alternate universe: the early Soviet project, with its vertiginous hopes for a new world.
At the exhibit “Deineka/Samokhvalov,” on view this winter at St. Petersburg’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall, Textile Workers hung in a dim room, the painting lit so that it seemed to glow from within. The factory workers looked like ghosts from a future that never happened. But as presented at the Manege, the painting also evoked something intensely contemporary: a cell phone screen, luminous with color, solitary, easy to like. The dim lighting wasn’t helpful if you wanted to scrutinize Deineka’s technique, but it made the painting look great on Instagram. Welcome to a new Russian aesthetic: socialist realism curated for social media.
The exhibition, a centerpiece of the eighth St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum, was imagined as a soccer match between two major Soviet painters from rival cities: Deineka, who lived in Moscow, and his Leningrad contemporary Aleksandr Samokhvalov, who is far less famous but more than held his own. The pale neoclassical façade of the Manege—which was the tsar’s riding hall and then the garage of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs—was adorned with colored banners announcing the competition: Deineka (number 99, for his birth year of 1899) vs. Samokhvalov (born 1894 and thus number 94), Moscow vs. Leningrad. Arriving at the exhibition, you entered a stand of bleachers from which you could watch clips of Soviet athletes in slow motion, with atmospheric music piped in throughout the gallery. At the end of the show you emerged onto half an AstroTurf soccer field, complete with a Deineka sculpture of soccer players. The elderly female attendants familiar from every Russian museum no longer wore their customary fringed floral scarves and fuzzy sweaters; instead, they were dressed in Deineka or Samokhvalov soccer jerseys and American sneakers. It was gimmicky but cute, and it successfully conveyed the idea that the exhibition wasn’t a dry academic exercise but a popular event. Nearly a century on, socialist realism can finally be fun.
Both Deineka and Samokhvalov were precocious, politically committed, self-made artists: in other words, perfect poster boys for the Soviet art industry that emerged after the revolution. Deineka was born in Kursk, the son of a railway worker, while Samokhvalov was the child of a small-time tradesman in the town of Bezhetsk, in Tver Oblast. In 1908, at the tender age of fourteen, Samokhvalov was expelled from school for revolutionary activities. In 1914 he moved to St. Petersburg. After the revolution he studied under the painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who was known for his use of “spherical perspective”—a painter’s version of a fish-eye lens—and for his interest in Renaissance and old Russian frescoes, an enthusiasm that he passed on to his gifted pupil.
Deineka turned eighteen in 1917, coming of age with the revolution. A year later he was in charge of Kursk’s department of fine arts. Mobilized into the Red Army in 1919, he made designs for propaganda posters and “agit-trains,” the propaganda vehicles that rolled through the country spreading the Soviet word. In 1921 he moved to Moscow, where he enrolled in the Higher Arts and Technical Studios, which was established in 1920 by Lenin’s decree and would soon become a hotbed of the Soviet avant-garde.
The 1920s brought heated debates about the kind of art (and literature, music, theater, and dance) that best embodied Soviet values. The avant-garde had blossomed in the years before the revolution, in the work of Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Natalya Goncharova, Marc Chagall, and many others. Some of these artists emigrated after the revolution, but many remained, fighting for the idea that a new society demanded new artistic forms. At first it seemed that the avant-garde, with its iconoclastic disdain for everything it deemed bourgeois and old-fashioned, might win out. But not everyone agreed that the avant-garde was capable of capturing the attention of the masses and conveying socialist messages across the USSR. The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia rejected all forms of modernism, calling for a return to the realist pictorial style of the nineteenth-century Russian classics. Both Deineka and Samokhvalov fell somewhere in the middle (though closer to the avant-garde), seeking to combine modernist techniques—cubism, off-kilter composition, flattened perspective, collage- and montage-like effects—with explicitly socialist content, while preserving some of the old methods, such as easel painting.1 In an era of acute artistic factionalism, the two drifted among different groups even as their careers gained momentum.
The Central Committee dissolved all independent artistic groups in 1932, replacing them with official trade unions. Socialist realism, a slippery genre purporting to depict the Soviet world “in its revolutionary development”—as it ought to be rather than as it actually was—became the official genre of the USSR. The “socialist” part mattered more than the “realism.” A work passed muster if it was deemed an adequate expression of Soviet values, however they were being defined at a particular moment—and the definitions changed frequently. The more prestigious or well connected the artist, the more he or she was likely to get away with. “Formalism,” which was understood as a preference for form over political content, became a term of abuse, liable to be lobbed at even remotely abstract works. Movements like Constructivism were sidelined or eliminated. But modernist techniques remained visible in official Soviet art, notably in the work of Deineka and Samokhvalov, figurative painters deeply marked by avant-garde movements.
The careers of both artists peaked in the late 1920s and the 1930s. To be an official artist under Stalin meant many constraints and the constant risk of denunciation, banishment, or worse. But it also meant many benefits, such as special access to housing and medical care, government commissions, paid research trips within the Soviet Union, and even travel abroad. A central state commissioning agency made contracts with artists, dispensing a monthly stipend in exchange for a certain number of works over a set period; the subject matter was not specified. The state placed the artists’ works in museums and institutions. As long as you weren’t pegged as a class enemy, and provided you had strong nerves, you could live well as an official Soviet artist.
Deineka was particularly successful; he was granted many prestigious commissions and allowed the extraordinary privilege of traveling around the world—even to the United States in 1934, for a well-received traveling exhibition called “The Art of Soviet Russia.” The art historian Christina Kiaer, the leading English-language expert on Deineka, argues that the show succeeded in the US because, for both strategic and contingent reasons, selections skewed toward work that was less overtly political than run-of-the-mill socialist realism. American critics expressed their pleasant surprise that the Soviet works they saw were not simple propaganda. Singling out Deineka for special praise, The New York Times’s art critic wrote, “We cannot but conclude that the work…represents the spirit of a people released; of a people free, at length, to warm itself at the hearth of human peace and comradeship and simple, spontaneous happiness.” Fortune magazine exclaimed, “in no man more than Deyneka does the Russian painter’s kinship with the American appear.”
The show’s figurative leanings went over well in a country where the art of the period was more figurative and less abstract than that in Western Europe. The subject matter was agreeably familiar: one visitor reportedly remarked approvingly that a painting of railroad yards “might have been painted by a unit of the Engineers’ Club of Baltimore.” Vanity Fair commissioned Deineka to travel to Lake Placid, where he drew a ski-jump scene that became a cover for the magazine.2 (The cover and Lake Placid sketches were shown at the Manege.)
Deineka was praised in Western Europe as well. While his work was not nearly ideological enough for some of his more zealous colleagues at home, Europeans understood and admired his muted modernism and relatively subtle political content. In 1934 Matisse called Deineka “the most talented” and “the most advanced” of all the young Soviet artists. His work was shown around Europe and sold for precious foreign currency. Rivals soon accused him again of formalism—including in The Defense of Petrograd (1928), which had already become a Soviet classic—but he managed to shake off the attacks. He dodged the purges that took down many of his fellow artists and even his first wife, the artist Pavla Freiburg, who died soon after her arrest.
“Deineka/Samokhvalov” made it clear that both artists did their share of straightforward propaganda, though they did it with style. Deineka’s most famous poster, Work, Build, and Don’t Whine (1933), which depicts a woman twisting as she prepares to throw a discus, shows his preoccupation with the body in motion. Samokhvalov painted a beautiful bronze hammer and sickle atop a bronze CCCP (the Cyrillic letters for “USSR”) on a blood-red background, as well as an elaborately detailed visual representation of Marxist theory, with cartoons illustrating each stage of socialism, from hunter-gatherers worshipping stone idols to Vladimir Tatlin’s spiraling, never-constructed Monument to the Third International. Samokhvalov built his career on portraits of workers, often women who looked like Viking goddesses of industrialization. His famous series Builders of the Metro (1934), based on his observation of the construction of the Moscow metro system, shows hugely strong, determined women doing things like drilling into rock, exerting the full force of their bountifully muscular frames. But much of Deineka and Samokhvalov’s work is too fantastical to feel didactic.
In 1935 Stalin declared that “life has become better, comrades, life has become more joyous” since the first stage of industrialization and collectivization had been completed. In keeping with this newly decreed mood, Samokhvalov’s Soviet Physical Culture (1935) depicts a candy-colored Valhalla for Soviet athletes and aviators. A girl waves from atop a huge ball adorned with the letters CCCP; a nearly naked man holds up a bikini-clad woman who seems to be imitating the toy-like planes above her as a woman pilot rushes forward to cheer her on. Faint white parachutes float through the sky, as if aviators are being dropped like confetti over the celebrants. It’s a blissful, childlike, and utterly unreal vision, especially considering that it was painted in the midst of famine and mass arrests.
The version of Soviet Physical Culture on view at the Manege was a sketch for a panel in the USSR’s pavilion at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. Samokhvalov’s panel won a Grand Prix, and his painting Girl in a Soccer Jersey, depicting a Soviet Madonna in black-and-white stripes, won a gold medal. (At the Manege, the painting, probably his most famous, was surrounded by smaller studies for the canvas, creating a vaguely Warholian effect; the spotlights gave the display the air of a secular altar.) Deineka’s panel for the Soviet pavilion depicted shock workers—heroes of labor who succeeded in greatly exceeding their production targets—marching happily forward. The Soviet pavilion faced the German one, which had been designed by Albert Speer, and the Soviets were happy to emerge with more prizes and medals than their German rivals.3 The exhibition was a triumph, a successful display of Soviet cultural achievements in the international arena.
Even before Stalin’s pronouncement about the increase in jubilation, critics had praised Deineka for his joyful renderings of the “new person.” Today his new Soviet people don’t look particularly happy. Instead, they have an intriguingly enigmatic quality. They’re slightly wooden, rough-hewn, and their eyes are a little blank, as if they have not yet been fully animated by their creator. The viewer is spared the ruddy, routinized cheer of the lower echelons of socialist realist painting. As Kiaer argues, Deineka shows people who are midway through a process of becoming a new kind of socialist being.
He has a similarly idiosyncratic approach to Soviet collectives: his Collective Farm Worker on a Bicycle (1935) shows a woman cycling alone through a green, idyllic landscape. There’s no work and no collective, only a happy ride on a bicycle, a rare luxury during that period. Socialist realist portraits of impossible abundance and harmony, grinning workers feasting on the fruits of the land, were cruelly at odds with real life in the Soviet 1930s. Deineka’s cycling fantasy is not much more realistic, but it is vastly less bombastic and less prescriptive. One woman’s reverie on the empty road, in the empty landscape, stands for the unanswered question of what socialism and collectivization will bring—and perhaps what it will mean for individual identity and consciousness.4 This openness and ambiguity, in contrast with the monotonous confidence of lesser works of socialist realism, is what makes Deineka’s work feel alive today, long after the Soviet experiment has met its bitter end.
The Manege exhibition was organized by theme: sports and work, war and peace, heroes and children. But these were only a few of the possible thematic permutations. One could, for example, have paired sports and war. Take Samokhvalov’s Militarized Komsomol (1931–1933), which shows earnest boys and girls practicing with their rifles, their sharp-planed faces shining in warm sunlight. One girl wears a black-and-white-striped soccer jersey with a bubblegum-pink skirt. They look like they’re having fun; war is still a game.
Sometimes the juxtaposition was the product of historical contingency rather than artistic intention. In Deineka’s The Shower. After the Fight, the viewer is just behind the shapely back of a naked man who’s watching six of his cheery, equally shapely comrades taking showers. The painting was based on a photo of boxers (Deineka was an avid boxer and gym rat), but by the time it was exhibited in 1943, the word “fight” had come to signify something much more serious. Deineka had often depicted athletes defying gravity, leaping from ski jumps or hurling themselves toward the finish line. Now he made paintings like Fallen Ace (1943), which showed a pilot plunging headfirst from the sky. It shows the same lack of concern about mechanics evident in many of Deineka’s sports paintings. The pilot’s torso seems to have swiveled 180 degrees at the waist, but he appears oddly relaxed: his arm is bent behind his head as if he’s napping on a couch. His body looks as if it has been superimposed on the bleak, bombed-out landscape, like a collage. Transcendent athleticism had been replaced by the incomprehensibility of violent death.
The purges and professional attacks of the late 1930s had taken a toll on Deineka’s reputation, though he’d avoided arrest or blacklisting. The war allowed him to regain his former status. He remained in Moscow, sketched troops in action, drew military propaganda posters, and produced the large-scale The Defense of Sevastopol (1942) in record time. It became his most famous painting, though it is far from his best. (The canvas wasn’t included in “Deineka/Samokhvalov”; when I visited it in the nearby Russian Museum, it was surrounded by schoolchildren.) He went to Berlin in 1945 and made paintings of the ruins that are notable for their eerie absence of people, particularly striking for an artist so preoccupied with the human body. But the renewed conservatism of the postwar years brought Deineka under attack for formalism yet again, and he had to rely on teaching jobs to support himself. He had a happy last hurrah during Khrushchev’s Thaw, when his work became a memento of Soviet dreams of the happy “new man,” functioning as a state-sanctioned, safer alternative to European art. A 1956 Picasso exhibition in Moscow had been so successful that authorities feared that Western modern art was winning the hearts of Soviet citizens. When Deineka was granted a large Soviet exhibition the following year, his modernism was widely praised, apparently as part of a coordinated effort to reappropriate the label. When Deineka died in 1969, his reputation was secure. Samokhvalov spent the war years as a set designer for a theater troupe that performed at the front; he was decorated after the war, and remained in the state’s good graces until his death in 1971.
On the last days of “Deineka/Samokhvalov” in January, lines stretched around the block. Nearly thirty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, official Soviet painting holds a fresh interest, especially for viewers who were too young to experience it the first time around. You can still find Soviet dissenters who express a visceral loathing for art that they perceive as the effluvia of totalitarianism—but their ranks shrink every year, and they aren’t on Instagram.
Meanwhile, there’s an ever-growing number of social media accounts devoted to Soviet culture, notably Soviet Visuals, which posts images of art, ephemera, and everyday life. The account began as the hobby of Varvara Bortsova, a young Russian ex-ballerina, but it soon became so popular that she made it a full-time job. Soviet Visuals is motivated by curiosity about the distant days of the Soviet Union, how it looked and sounded and tasted. The project has become an easily accessible archive of the Soviet everyday that reminds us that, despite the hardships and injustices Soviet citizens endured, they also laughed, ate ice cream, liked dressing up and dancing, and generally led varied and complex lives. The project is a much needed antidote to lingering cold war clichés that make the USSR sound like nothing more than one big Gulag. Soviet Visual’s gift shop, which sells T-shirts, pillows, and other merchandise bearing Soviet designs, capitalizes on the perverse thrill of transforming Soviet culture into consumerist kitsch.
On the more serious side, there is burgeoning interest in official Soviet culture among younger academics, both Russian and foreign. By engaging seriously with socialist realism and related genres rather than dismissing them as propaganda, these scholars have produced some of the most interesting recent work in Soviet studies. New examination of nondissident culture sheds light on the elaborate process of negotiation that characterized Soviet artistic life, giving us a far more complex understanding of the period and reviving the reputations of some artists who, like Deineka and Samokhvalov, managed to produce valuable work while successfully navigating the shoals of Soviet doctrine.
Official Soviet painting has also drawn the attention of collectors and museums. The devoutly Russian Orthodox banking billionaire Aleksei Ananiev collected about six thousand works of socialist realism, even founding a museum in Moscow, the Institute of Russian Realist Art, to house them. (Ananiev fled Russia in 2017, accused of embezzlement; the artworks were subsequently “arrested” and the museum closed.) Sotheby’s showed pieces from Ananiev’s collection in a 2013 exhibition on sports in Soviet art, which included work by Deineka. Three years earlier, it had sold a socialist realist painting for a record $1.5 million. During Russian Art Week in 2017 at London auction houses, Deineka was the undisputed star: both MacDougall’s and Sotheby’s were offering his works for about £3 million. MacDougall’s managed to sell its pastel-tinted study for a panel at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, while Sotheby’s grimmer Coal Miner, a piece of a larger painting, didn’t find a buyer. Deineka, who spent his entire career working within the Soviet system of government commissions, stipends, and censorship, has entered the free market at last.
I visited “Deineka/Samokhvalov” at the winter solstice, when the sky was still midnight blue at 10 AM and strings of lights sparkled like icicles above the Neva River. St. Petersburg is a museum city, begging for a period drama to be filmed among its meringue palaces and curving canals, in the gilded fin-de-siècle shops and cafés of Nevsky Prospekt. In recent years, a new kind of period piece has popped up on its streets, as elsewhere in the former USSR: restaurants and cafés that evoke an idealized memory of a Soviet apartment or cafeteria. The Soviet epoch has become the object of cozy, amused nostalgia. To some extent, an Instagrammable exhibition of Deineka and Samokhvalov is a higher-brow expression of this tendency.
Is there something more sinister at play? In a perceptive review of “Deineka/Samokhvalov” on the Russian website Colta, the art historian Nadia Plungian remarked that government representatives and their rich and powerful guests had been invited to the opening of the exhibition, but art historians and critics had not. This, she wrote, prompted some observers to wonder whether Soviet art had again become a “gift wrap” for current government ideology, even if it has little in common with that of the Soviets.5 This approach would be consistent with the cultural tactics of the Russian government under Putin: create a reassuring sense of continuity by embracing the Soviet Union’s greatest cultural and historical hits, claiming the power and accomplishments of the Soviet Union (and also the Russian Empire) while papering over blatant ideological contradictions. But the work of Deineka and Samokhvalov, having already transcended socialist realist pablum, is strange and strong enough to survive a new generation of politicians.
For a detailed account of Deineka’s career, see Christina Kiaer, “Aleksandr Deineka: A One-Man Biography of Soviet Art,” in Aleksandr Deineka, (1899–1969): An Avant-Garde for the Proletariat (Fundación Juan March, 2011). ↩
Quotes and information on the exhibit are from Christina Kiaer, “Modern Soviet Art Meets America, 1935,” in Totalitarian Art and Modernity, edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jacob Wamberg (Aarhus University Press, 2010). ↩
See Christina Kiaer’s analysis of this painting in “Was Socialist Realism Forced Labour? The Case of Aleksandr Deineka in the 1930s,” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (2005). ↩