Prof. Bohdan Cherkes

Magical socialist realism?

What if socialist realism is not over?

Publication: 31 March 2023

NO. 38 2020



Professor Bohdan Cherkes interviewed by Łukasz Galusek

Despite the proclaimed references to “democratic” antiquity, to the rules of Greek architecture, socialist realism liked imperial forms, the style of the tsars transformed into proletarian classics, as we used to say. The new architecture had to be above all comprehensible to a man who came from the countryside to the city, who started working on a construction site or in a factory.

Łukasz Galusek: What is socialist realism about?

Bohdan Cherkes: “The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia”, this “bible of communism”, unequivocally states that it is a creative method that gives an aesthetic expression to the socialistically conscious concept of the world and man, a method specific to the times of struggle – or “fight”, as the phrase went at the time – to establish a socialist society. Living in accordance with the ideals of socialism – as was emphasised in the entry – defines the content, structure, and artistic means of the “new” art. The encyclopaedists also stressed the role these artworks played in promoting socialist ideas in the Soviet Union and beyond.

The term itself appeared for the first time on 23 May 1932 in the “Literaturnaya Gazeta”…

One scholar researching the architecture of that time, Dmitry Khmelnitsky, says unequivocally that proclaiming the “new” method in art was Stalin’s idea and had one goal – to liquidate the existing creative organisations and to subordinate all artistic activity to the leader and party. Specifically, the publication in “Literaturnaya Gazeta” was aimed at the members of RAPP, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers established in the early 1920s, who had been openly and aggressively destroying the literary avant-garde, trying to stage a kind of cultural revolution and reduce writing to yet another form of class struggle. In his memoirs, Ivan Gronsky – who was the first to use the new term – recalled a conversation with Stalin at the beginning of May 1932, when he proposed that the “dialectical-Marxist creative method” promoted by the writers associated in RAPP should be opposed to “communist realism”. However, the Soviet leader was not convinced. Stalin believed that before communism was achieved, socialism should first be built. So he went for “socialist realism”.

Which, it seems, did not end with Stalin’s death in 1953.

And this is the most interesting part. Nikita Khrushchev, who took over after him, opposed the cult of his predecessor, but did not question socialist realism as a method. “The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia”, with its third edition published as late as the eighties, tells us exactly when and how socialist realism came into being, but does not mention whether it ever ended. Khrushchev tried to repair the Soviet empire, one of the problems of which was the housing situation, with the infamous komunalkas, communal flats. His postulate to use industrial methods, improve quality, and at the same time reduce construction costs opened the way to the so-called socmodernism, that is modern construction based on the Western model, in technologically justified forms. The Khrushchev tenements, which were more economical, began to be built on a mass scale. Stalin’s classicism was simply too expensive. Then Leonid Brezhnev’s rule came and socialist modernity was monumentalised again. The facilities built for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games are its culmination. And although in the eighties the empire was already heading for the inevitable collapse, in my opinion we can speak about the architecture of socialist realism until the very end of the Soviet Union, until 1991. And for me the so-called socmodernism is only a stage of socialist realism initiated in the thirties.

Let’s talk about the method. What was attractive about socialist realism in architecture?

In the international competition for the Palace of Councils, announced in 1931, all modern projects were rejected outright. Soviet society wanted an academic classicism in the vein of 18th-century St Petersburg. Despite the proclaimed references to “democratic” antiquity, to the rules of Greek architecture, socialist realism liked imperial forms, the style of the tsars transformed into proletarian classics, as we used to say. The new architecture had to be above all comprehensible to a man who came from the countryside to the city, who started working on a construction site or in a factory. Other than form, the problem with constructivism was the quality of the buildings, workmanship, adapting the forms to the climate and the functions to real needs. To this day, for example, Moscow has trouble maintaining the icons of constructivism intact, such as the Melnikov House or the Narkomfin residential unit designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis.

While socialist realism was very durable.

I do not hesitate to say that almost like in Vitruvius, functionality and beauty went along with durability in socialist realism. It is enough to mention the works of Ivan (Jan) Żołtowski, incidentally a Pinsk-born Pole, educated at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, who in 1900–1920 made the first Russian translation of Andrea Palladio’s “The Four Books on Architecture”, published in Moscow in 1936, i.e. after the proclamation of socialist realism. As an architect, Żołtowski had come of age still before the revolution, he was an excellent draughtsman, and he valued the Renaissance and Classicism. When I came to Vincenza and saw Palladio’s Loggia del Capitaniato, I realised that it was the 1932–1934 house on Mokhovaya Street designed by Żołtowski, only on a smaller scale, without a proper setting… In this house so admired by the Muscovites, and maliciously called “a nail in the coffin of Constructivism” by architects, I see – without the slightest irony – the “cornerstone” of socialist realism in architecture. But the controversy does not stop even today. The already mentioned Dmitry Khmelnitsky, the author of Żołtowski’s monograph, criticises the building because of its proximity to the Kremlin. Originally it was meant for the American embassy, but it was so crammed with wiretaps that the Americans gave it up, so it was adapted for a residential building for the employees of Mossoviet, the Moscow City Council. Stalin was delighted with this architecture. Żołtowski won his great liking and favour.

In retrospect, who would you name as the most outstanding creators of socialist realism?

Apart from Żołtowski, I would certainly name Alexey Shchusev, the author of the famous Lenin’s Mausoleum and the infamous Lubyanka, whom I value for the Marx–Engels–Lenin–Stalin Institute in Tbilisi, which was created between 1934 and 1936 and combined classical monumentalism with a wonderful detail inspired by Georgian art. I would also name Boris Iofan, although his Palace of Councils – intended as the highest building in the world – never came into being. I would definitely mention Leo Rudnev, the designer of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science and Moscow’s Lomonosov University building, and for me, above all, the author of the 1936 building of Supreme Council of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic in Baku. This is oriental socialist realism, the quality of which is best evidenced by the fact that it remains the seat of the Azerbaijani government even today. I would also add Ivan Fomin with the 1936 building of the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in Kyiv, originally intended for the KGB. This Kyiv building also remains the seat of the government. From my own Ukrainian backyard I would also add the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) building in Kyiv designed by Volodymyr Zabolotny, erected between 1936 and 1939 and originally intended for the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. And the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine – currently the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – by Iosif Langbard, born in Belsk, present-day Bielsk Podlaski, and known primarily for his great Minsk creations: the Government Square with the seat of the Supreme Council of the Belarusian SSR, the State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and the building of the Academy of Sciences of the Belarusian SSR.

Socialist classicism works well as government architecture!

We have been talking about the luminaries, but what happened to those unable to come to grips with the new “creative method”?

They emigrated, sometimes internally.

Again, let me use an example close to me: Witold Minkiewicz, an outstanding architect, professor, and even rector of the Lviv Polytechnic. At the Modern Lviv exhibition in the ICC Gallery, his excellent Mechanical Laboratory built for our Polytechnic between 1923 and 1937 was shown. Made of reinforced concrete, a modern thing, because Minkiewicz admired contemporary French and German architecture; he quoted Le Corbusier in the lecture inaugurating the academic year 1928. In 1941 he was invited to Moscow to learn about the achievements of socialist realist architecture. I know that he was a guest at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, where people tried to convince him that socialist realism was the most progressive design method. To no avail. On 3 January 1945 he was arrested. I found his case in the Lviv NKVD archives. On the fateful day of 3rd January the professor’s apartment was searched. I was struck by the detailed description in his file of what was in the apartment: how many chairs, what kind of sofa, what kind of furniture, that he had a blue pencil… During the interrogation Minkiewicz was accused of being critical of the local architecture after his return from Moscow. They also interrogated Professor Jan Bagieński, trying to get a confirmation that Minkiewicz had spoken critically about socialist architecture. When he denied it, Minkiewicz was accused of silence, of not promoting socialist architecture among the people of Lviv. He was also charged with continuing to teach in Polish and that his course in architecture was based on the pre-war “Polish” curriculum. Despite the lack of hard evidence, he and several other professors were sent to the Krasnodon mine in today’s Luhansk region. He was 65 years old! In September 1945 he returned, but in June the following year he left Lviv in the last group of repatriated professors. He first went to Kraków, and finally to Gdańsk. In Poland, let me remind you, he led the renewal of the Wawel Castle and headed the Department of Monumental Architecture at the Gdańsk University of Technology, but this is a different story. Much has been said about the fate of his generation, afflicted by totalitarianism and the effects of the Yalta order, and I was struck by the fact that Minkiewicz’s misery had actually been started by his lack of enthusiasm for socialist realism!

The professor’s wife, Zofia Albinowska, decided not to leave; she remained in Lviv. It took me a long time to get any information about her. Daughter of a Polish general, she was a painter educated in Vienna and Paris, a sought-after portraitist, the president of the Association of Polish Artists. I found out that in the fifties and sixties she was quite popular in the Lviv circle of artists, she exhibited her works from time to time, she even signed up for the Association of Ukrainian Artists. But she painted only interiors and flowers. This was, it seems, her expression of disagreement with the decreed “creative method”, her inner emigration. She died in 1972, ten years after the death of her husband, whom she never saw again after his departure from Lviv. The fate of both spouses is the reverse side of the medal on which the merits of socialist realism doyens were engraved. I was struck by the surprising coincidence of the detailed description of the Minkiewicz family’s apartment made by a KGB officer with the post-war interior paintings by Albinowska – the interiors were empty after her husband’s departure, but at the same time intact, as if nothing had changed, as before… as in Akhmatova’s poem beginning with the words: “Just as before: in the canteen windows / Beats the fine blizzard snow.” Akhmatova was so cruelly afflicted by the loss of her loved ones and by the Bolshevik anathema.

Are we already able to look at socialist realism without emotion?

We can appreciate it for its quality – designs selected in contests, prepared on a grand scale and comprehensively, as a Gesamtkunstwerk, as a total, not to say totalitarian work of art, but designed reliably, solidly made, with great craftsmanship and clever engineering. This is to be appreciated especially nowadays, in the era of developers for whom only the square-metre-to-cost ratio counts. In contrast to the tightness of our “apartments”, to the jammed “arteries” of our cities.

We may regret that many good works have been devastated, but we won’t change our nature. Iconoclasm is one of the forms of breaking up with the past. Forgetting, erasing helps to deal with the past.

I would not like to be considered an advocate of socialist realism. But I look at it and find paradoxes.

On the one hand, I discover with what pride some of Moscow’s skyscrapers built already in our 21st century invoke the famous Seven Sisters – Stalinist skyscrapers, which in the fifties made Moscow the true capital of the red empire. On the other hand, on Russian and Ukrainian websites dedicated to socialist realism I find paintings by… Zofia Albinowska.

Isn’t it a sign that this story has not come to an end yet?


Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń.

About authors

Bohdan Cherkes

Professor, architect and researcher of architectural history. Since 1995 he has been a professor and dean of the Architecture Department of the Lviv Polytechnic, and since 2001 the director of the Architecture Department of the Lviv Polytechnic. His research interests include issues such as identity in architecture and city planning, urban models and urban planning, city history and theory. He is the author of over one hundred scientific publications. Recent monographs: “Identität, Architektur und Rekonstruktion der Stadt” (Berlin 2014) and “Lviv: city, architecture, modernism” (edited together with Andrzej Szczerski, Wrocław 2017).


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