During the Second World War, the Soviet Union found itself struggling to survive the German invasion. At this time, the ideals of communism came second to the victory against the Germans and the survival of the country. The “Big Deal” was an era of Soviet history that occurred after the conclusion of the Second World War. Its purpose was to reexamine what communism meant in post war Soviet society as well as to quell the nations anxiety about an unknown future.
One work released during this period was titled The Story of a Real Man (published in 1947). This novel, which was later adapted into a film, exemplified all the familiar themes of socialist realism. This was possibly done in an attempt to provide the general populace with familiar themes that would ultimately reemphasize the communist ideals that were so prevalent in the Soviet Union prior to the war.
The story follows a brave fighter pilot that is injured after being shot down. Upon crash landing, he is badly injured and unable to walk. In order to get to safety, he is forced to crawl many miles but receives help from Russian civilians along the way. He eventually does make his way back to Russian forces, but he ends up losing his leg. The pilot ends up recovering and manages to continue to serve in the war. What makes this story so fascinating is that it’s based off of true events. As a result, many children in the Soviet Union became infatuated by the book’s character and story. Many compare the popularity of this particular work to the Jack London series.
The combination of an amazing war story along with a plot containing themes of socialist realism (displayed through the pilot’s perseverance and determination to press on and keep fighting) resulted in a work that also reinforced key communist themes. It was through uplifting and exciting war stories such as The Story of a Real Man that the Soviet government was able to reemphasize the communist ideals that were predominant prior to the start of the war.
The Siege of Leningrad is considered to be the longest and bloodiest siege in modern day history. The siege lasted a total of 872 days and is commonly referred to as the “900-day siege”. All in all, over one million people died as a result of the siege.
The capture of Leningrad was considered to be one of the strategic goals of the Germans during Operation Barbarossa. Hitler wanted to take Leningrad due to its political and strategic importance. The city held the name of the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin while also attributing to 11% of all Soviet industrial output. The city acted as a base for the Russian Baltic fleet as well. Initially Operation Barbarossa was a tremendous success. The Germans had conquered the Baltic states and reached Novgorod in only a few short months. Leningrad was quickly surrounded and cut off from the outside world.
Hunger quickly set in. Many people had to resort to eating horses, dogs, and even household items such as wallpaper in order to survive. Instances of cannibalism were also rumored to have occurred. When the winter came some supplies were able to be trucked into the city over the frozen Lake Ladoga. The supplies that were sent over this lake played such an essential role to the survival of the city that the supply route was ultimately nicknamed the “road of life”.
With a population of over 2.5 million just prior to Operation Barbarossa, over one third of the population would end up dying from the siege. To put these numbers into perspective, the total U.S. and British deaths in the entire war are less than the deaths that occurred during the siege of Leningrad. This particular siege along with the Battle of Stalingrad are considered to be pivotal moments both in WWII and in Russian history.
Conversation with a Neighbor:
Conversation with a Neighbor was written in 1941 during the Siege of Leningrad. The poem is about two women sitting down and talking about the peace that they long for so dearly. They talk about the struggle that they have endured over the past six months of the siege as well as the rationing of food that is taking place. They mention the frequent bombings and air attacks that occur by the Germans. These women paint a picture of death being everywhere and a present part of life. They dream of the day that the siege ends, and that they can celebrate their survival. Unfortunately for the women, the siege lasts several more years.
It is poems like this that shows the resilience of the Soviet people. Even when the women question if they can survive this siege, hope stays alive that one day peace will break out and their lives will return to normal. Despite this poem being written in the beginning of the siege, the women talk of grand monuments being erected to commemorate their struggle. It is truly incredible that the city of Leningrad was able to survive.
Images: Google Images
Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Conversation with a Neighbor
If Tomorrow Brings War was a song written by Vasily Lebedev-Kumach and the Pokrass brothers in 1938. The song accompanied a film by the same name. Both the song and the film are about the adventures of soldiers in a Soviet armor unit during a future war with what would become known as the Axis powers.
The song tells of a glorious campaign that the Russians embark on against the fascists. The soldiers sing about victory against the enemy in the land, sea, and air. They mention how cities from the farthest corners of the country will rise up to defeat the enemy in combat. The soldiers go on to say that they don’t want war, but that they are prepared to fight one if need be. The song ends by implying that Stalin will be the one that leads them to victory.
This tune is a perfect example of the mass culture that was prevalent during the pre-war period. Even in the 1930’s, many in the Soviet Union foresaw that a war with expansionist Germany in Central Europe and Imperial Japan in the occupied border territory of Manchuria was increasingly likely. A pre-war footing ultimately changes the type of culture that a country would experience. This was also true for the Western nations as well. At this point in time the Soviets were trying to create a sense of patriotism within the populace as well as to instill the image that they would undoubtedly win in any war that they got involved with.
The film itself is also indicative of a country in a pre-war state. However, the film also foreshadows the relative unpreparedness for war that the Russian’s experienced soon after entering WWII in June of 1941. The characters constantly praise a man named Voroshilov who is incredibly ignorant of modern military technology and tactics. It is this sentiment that ultimately hinders the Soviet military in the coming war.
Swell the Harvest was a song written in 1930 by a state employed poet. The song is about farmers trading in their old farm equipment that their grandfathers used for new, more modern farm equipment that is far more efficient at planting crops.
It was common for peasant farmers to sing short songs whenever they farmed, so the government hoped that songs like Swell the Harvest would catch on and become popular. This was an advertisement campaign of sorts with the hope being that these types of songs would ultimately convince farmers to buy the more technologically advanced and more productive machines so that they could produce more food.
This song was written directly in the middle of the first 5-year plan. At this point, there was a lot of pressure to participate in and to adhere to the ideals of the Cultural Revolution. It was through artistic messaging such as this short song that the Soviet government was trying to change the country’s “backwardness”.
The Soviet government had such an interest in modernizing the countries relatively primitive farms that along with songs, they also made films about farming. One such movie came out in 1939 and was called Трактористы (Tractor Drivers). This film was a comedy/romance about a girl on a collective farm in Ukraine.
“When war and famine produced bands of homeless children during the Civil War, some Bolsheviks saw even this as a blessing in disguise, since the state could give the children a true collectivist upbringing (in orphanages) and they would not be exposed to the bourgeois influence of the old family” (Fitzpatrick 85).
This quote directly answers the question of “what is revolutionary culture?”. To the Bolsheviks, revolutionary culture is simply the undoing of the status quo . During the early days of Bolshevik rule, the traditional family with patriarchal rule was seen as a bourgeois concept. Therefore, traditional familial structures should be broken down and replaced with a new Marxist social system.
Some within the Bolsheviks proposed a system of collectivist upbringing where children would be placed into orphanages and raised. Doing this would accomplish the Bolshevik goal of dismantling the traditional family and ultimately, in their eyes, help in dismantling the oppressive patriarchy. This proposal was not popular among the masses and therefore was not implemented universally. However, if such a drastic proposal had ever been implemented, it would have fundamentally influenced every aspect within Russian society. Ultimately, this was the primary goal of the Bolsheviks.
Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) is one of the most famous Russian war artists. He is notorious for his graphic nature which ultimately lead many of his paintings to never being printed or exhibited. He had active service with the Russian army sporadically throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s. He also traveled extensively both independently and with the Russian military throughout Central Asia and the Ottoman Empire. His travels in these areas of the world inspired many of his paintings.
They are Triumphant — 1872
This painting depicts Russian soldiers heads being put onto pikes in the Uzbek city of Bukhara. The Emir of Bukhara and the nobles of the city watch the ongoing process. This painting was very controversial when it was first released due to the unsavory depiction of Russian soldiers.
The Road of the War Prisoners — 1879
This painting depicts an event during the Russo-Turkish War where prisoners that were taken captive ultimately froze to death overnight. Vereshchagin fought and was badly wounded in the Russo-Turkish war. It is likely that he referenced his personal experiences to create this painting.
These paintings, and in particular this artist, really spoke to me because in my view, they revealed certain truths about warfare. Vereshchagin was not a propaganda artist that painted pro Russian works of art. His artwork pertains a degree of realism not only in the literal image itself, but also in the theme that the work is trying to reveal.
He sends important messages to the viewer:
They are Triumphant — 1872: The more powerful and well equipped military’s don’t always win.
The Road of the War Prisoners — 1879: Many times in war soldiers die accidentally (i.e. do to exposure). They don’t always die gallantly like in many popular war paintings.
In my mind, these points of view make his works very original and interesting to look at.