History of the Soviet Union, 1934-1936: Stalin’s Men to the Writers’ Congress

Stalin on building of Moscow-Volga canal. It was constructed from 1932 to 1937 by Gulag prisoners. / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 09.24.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University

All Stalin’s Men


Left: To Comrade Stalin on His 50th Birthday (1928) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Mikoyan, Stalin, Molotov (1935) / Wikimedia Commons

“Our Politbiuro of the Central Committee is the organ of operational leadership for all branches of socialist construction,” noted Lazar Kaganovich in his report to the Seventeenth Party Congress in February 1934. It was this, but it was also more than this. Established as a permanent body in 1919, the Politbiuro stood at the apex of the Soviet political system. Formally elected by and responsible to the Central Committee, it deliberated on and resolved questions of both major and minor importance and frequently was the source of laws and decrees that appeared under the names of other bodies such as the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, the Council of People’s Commissars, and the Council of Labor and Defense. The inner workings of the Politbiuro and in particular its relationship to Stalin’s unchallenged leadership have long been obscured by its secretiveness and the inaccessibility of its records. Much though has been learned in recent years as archival research has begun to lift the veil of secrecy.


Left: On the Tribune (1937) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Stalin and Voroshilov (1935) / Wikimedia Commons

Initially composed of five full and three candidate members, the Politbiuro grew to seven full and four candidate members by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924. By 1927 after Trotsky’s removal, it contained nine full and eight candidate members. Both the Sixteenth Party Congress in July 1930 and the Seventeenth Congress in 1934 elected Politbiuros of ten full and five candidate members. These numbers declined to nine and two respectively after the Eighteenth Congress in 1939. Four individuals were full Politbiuro members throughout the years 1927 through 1941: Lazar Kaganovich, Mikhail Kalinin, Viacheslav Molotov, and, of course, Iosif Stalin. Kaganovich and Molotov presided over meetings of the Politbiuro in Stalin’s absence. From 1930 to 1936 the Politbiuro met on average forty-six times a year with a marked decline in the frequency of meetings after 1932. Protocols of its meetings indicate that an average of approximately three thousand items appeared on its agendas every year during the 1930s. On April 14, 1937 the Politbiuro on Stalin’s initiative resolved to form two five-man standing commissions, one to prepare and “in case of especial urgency” to resolve questions of a secret character including foreign policy, and the other to deal with economic issues. Stalin, Molotov, and Kaganovich served on both commissions which functioned as inner circles that replaced the full Politbiuro during the next few tumultuous years. It is likely that after the removal from the Politbiuro of Ezhov and Chubar the two commissions merged, with Klement Voroshilov and Anastas Mikoian comprising the other two members.


Left: Stalin, Kaganovich, and Ordzhinonikize (1936) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Banners on Red Square (1937) / Wikimedia Commons

It long has been argued that even after the consolidation of Stalin’s power at the beginning of the 1930s there existed two factions within the Politbiuro: a moderate faction and a radical faction. Frequently, Sergei Kirov is cited as the leader of the moderates, and his assassination in December 1934 is understood to have been engineered by Stalin with the support of the radicals. Still later, “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze is supposed to have tried to exercise a moderating influence particularly with respect to industrial policy and the purges. It now seems more likely, however, that while disagreements occurred frequently among members, no firm factions existed. Some who were relatively “moderate” on certain issues were “radical” on others, and this includes Stalin. What is even more clear is that no issue of any importance was decided by the Politbiuro without Stalin’s participation, and certainly not against his will.



Left: Birobidzhan Lottery Ticket (1929) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Decision of the Central Executive Committee (1933) / From Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, by Robert Weinberg

Elevated in May 1934 to the status of Jewish Autonomous Region (oblast), Birobidzhan, situated in Siberia on the border with China, was the Soviet answer to the question of a Jewish homeland. Earlier attempts to settle the Soviet Jews on dedicated land in the Ukraine, and later in Crimea, had yielded partial success, most of all in turning “unproductive” Jews into productive tillers of land. The new understanding of nationality that arose in the 1930s sought more distinct tokens of identity. A 1932 law mandated the notorious “entry no. 5” in all internal passports, identifying the single nationality of all citizens. In many ways progressive, the new policy encouraged territorial expression for national identities. Minorities had the right to their own culture, their own music, their own dances, and their own governing autonomy, all within the framework of Soviet citizenship. The “Jewish question” was complicated only slightly by the choice of a region where Jews had never lived, and a language that few wished to speak any more.

School Then and Now (1928) / From Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, by Robert Weinberg

Founded in 1928, twenty years before the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel, Soviet Birobidzhan faced many of the issues that Israel would later confront. Not all of them yielded wise choices. The secular language of Yiddish, rather than the religious language Hebrew became official, satisfying neither religious folk, nor the non-religious, most of whom chose the path of assimilation through Russian. A Jewish homeland on land with no Jewish history, no identity, and none of the historical draw that Israel would soon exert, practically guaranteed a minimal migration; the Jewish population of Birobidzhan in fact never reached more than 14,000 people, nor surpassed more than one-fifth of the regional population. Still there were glimmers of a national culture, including a Yiddish-language newspaper Birobidzhaner shtern (the Birobidzhan Star), and a Yiddish theater. David Bergelson’s novel Birobidzhaner, published 1939, depicts the hardy pioneers who drain the swamps and transform the harsh taiga wilderness into socialist territory. A 1936 film, Seekers of Happiness, chronicled the migration of a family of Polish Jews to Birobidzhan’s Red Field kolkhoz, implicitly scolding Jewish who refused to change with history.


Left: Settler with Newspaper (1935) / From Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, by Robert Weinberg
Right: Travel document (1939) / From Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, by Robert Weinberg

The decision to incorporate Birobidzhan had emanated from the Kremlin, yet it should not be dismissed as a Stalinist fantasy or conspiracy, without noting its appeal to some Jews. Yiddish was still a living language in 1928, as opposed to the dead language Hebrew; and secular life was the stronger draw for most Jews. Life in a place that welcomed Jews, contrasted to an increasingly anti-semitic Europe, or a Palestine populated by hostile Arabs and run by British imperialists, seemed attractive. Finally, life as farmers held a tremendous, if ironic appeal to many Jews, who had been confined to city life for centuries, and who felt that the right to plow the land would give Jews as a full a national existence as the peoples around them. Israeli kibbutzes would one day give them that, but the bleak and barren land of Birobidzhan did not. Still, the romance of a new homeland was compelling, and in the suffering needed to make the land arable, Soviet Jewish citizens found a heroic myth analogous to those of Magnitogorsk and nearby Komsomolsk-na-Amur. The myth, however, did not survive the late 1930s, when the same purges that swept much of Soviet society struck at the heart of Birobidzhan as well.

The Kirov Affair

S.M. Kirov, by Isaak Brodskii (1926) / Moscow: Krasnia gazeta

Sergei Kirov, First Secretary of the Leningrad party organization since 1926 and Politbiuro member from 1930, was assassinated in the Smolnyi Institute, the headquarters of the Leningrad party obkom, on December 1, 1934. The assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, was a frustrated party apparatchik who had gained entry to Kirov’s third-floor office and shot him on the spot. He was immediately apprehended, interrogated under the personal supervision of Stalin, and executed. Within days of the assassination, Stalin announced that Nikolaev had been put up to the job by Zinovievites — that is, supporters of Grigorii Zinoviev who had been ousted as Leningrad party boss in 1926 and was in disgrace — as well as, incongruously, remnants of White Guardists and other “socially alien” elements. Arrests of Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and many of their associates followed as did summary executions of alleged White conspirators. Zinoviev and Kamenev were convicted of “moral complicity” in the crime and sentenced to prison. Eighteen months later, in July 1936, they and fourteen others stood as the accused in an elaborately staged “show trial.”

Kirov Reviews a Physical Culture Parade, by Aleksandr Samokhvalov (1935) / From Totalitarian Art, by Otto Werckmeister

Assumptions that Stalin had staged Kirov’s assassination to eliminate someone whose popularity in the party was eclipsing his own and/or to have a pretext to launch a wave of terror within the party to assert his own dictatorial power long circulated among dissident party members and in the »migr» community. They were recycled by western historians in search of an explanation for the bloodbath that overwhelmed the party during 1936-38. Yet, at least two official investigations in the 1960s and a Politbiuro Commission appointed in 1989 failed to establish Stalin’s complicity or that of the NKVD in Kirov’s murder. The assassination did churn up an atmosphere of heightened vigilance and political tension at all levels of the party. However, the link between it and what is known as the Great Terror seems more circumstantial than direct.

Kirov’s position was assumed by Andrei Zhdanov, a loyal follower of Stalin. One byproduct of Kirov’s assassination were the reports by the NKVD on popular attitudes. As analyzed by historians who recently gained access to them, they indicate that many people attributed the act to dark forces (in some versions, the Jews), looked forward to Stalin sharing the same fate, and were more concerned about the return of food shortages than the political fallout. Nevertheless, within the party, Kirov enjoyed martyr status, and his name was affixed to cities, streets, and such venerable institutions as the former Marinskii Ballet in Leningrad. The Kirov affair illustrates the power of rumor and legend in a society where reliable information was hard to come by.

The Moscow Metro


Left: Detail from Kiev Station, Moscow / From Moscow Metro, by Artemii Lebedev
Center: First drilling operation to build the Moscow Metro (1930), photo by Arkadii Shaikhet / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Badge for the construction of the Moscow Metro (1936) / Russian Antiquity

A modern city should have a modern transport system; and as the most modern of Soviet cities, Moscow received most modern conceivable system of transport in the year 1934. Under the direction of new Moscow Municipal Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev, a trolley system was built first. Although Stalin feared that the trolleys would all tip over, he was eventually convinced that the non-polluting electric motors would be the most efficient first project. Upon completion, city leaders turned their attention to the metro, a project whose magnitude they did not fully understand.


Left: We Have a Metro!, by Viktor Deni (1935) / From Moscow Metro, by Artemii Lebredev
Center: All Moscow is Building the Metro, By Gustav Klucis (1934) / From Moscow Metro, by Artemii Lebredev
Right: Certificate for the construction of the Moscow Metro (1936) / Russian Antiquity

The publicity campaign that accompanied construction from 1932 guaranteed that the Soviet state would devote its full resources to the project. The reputations of several leading politicians were at stake, including Kaganovich and the younger Khrushchev. The directors took their initial models from German subway constructors, who dug with an open-pit method that ensured speed, but limited subway lines to already operating transportation routes, and wreaked havoc by closing off larges sections of the city. Eventually excavations developed during construction of the London subway system were adopted, calling for deep underground construction. Initial investments in equipment were massive, but Stalin approved them. Construction no longer disrupted city life, and routes could cut all over the city, going under any existing structure. The elevators originally planned could not move foot traffic to the deep stations rapidly enough, and the new escalator technology was approved. These decisions would prove extremely wise, as subway stations served as effective bomb shelters during the coming war; and the subway system has continued to expand easily until the present, allowing the city to grow.


Left: Moving People Quickly and Cheaply, by Nikolai Dolgorukov (1931) / From Moscow Metro, by Artemii Lebredev
Center: Moscow during Metro construction, photo by Mark Markov-Grinberg (1932) / Soiuz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii
Right: Construction of the Moscow Subway, photo by Alexsandr Ustinov (1935) / From The Utopian Dream: Photography in Soviet Russia, The Gallery, New York

The subway system served as a showpiece for Stalin’s government, and rightly so. Managers dispatched by the party dealt with overwhelming obstacles, including the complexities of tunneling for miles under the earth, and a massive shortage of skilled labor. Yet the first line of the subway opening in 1935, and has continued to operate since as the finest system in the world. Initially named the L. M. Kaganovich Metropolitan System (outraging Khrushchev, who felt that he had done all the work), and later renamed for Lenin when Khrushchev purged Kaganovich in 1957, it demonstrated how effectively the socialist state could mobilize itself for great projects. Stations in central Moscow are like palaces, walls clad in precious stone, decorated by mosaics and grandiose sculptures. Tourists came from across the Soviet Union, even the world, to see its wonders; Muscovites used the subway to move about their great city. In time of war it saved them from German bombs; in finer times, it served young people as a place to meet and fall in love. Although none of these things were mentioned in the original plans, they did great credit to the party that built the subway.

Pavlik Morozov

Statue of Pavilk Morozov Park / From Cyber-USSR, by Hugo Cunningham

If your father or mother had committed a serious crime, would you report it to the authorities? This was the question that the story of Pavlik Morozov posed to Soviet youth. In 1932, Pavlik Morozov, a fourteen-year old peasant lad was murdered allegedly in revenge for having denounced his father as a kulak who had hoarded grain. His murder resulted in a show trial in the Morozovs’ village, Gerasimovka, in Sverdlovsk oblast. Pavlik was lauded as a Soviet hero — by, among others, Maksim Gorky at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 — and adopted by the Pioneers as their patron saint. Statues of the boy were erected in Soviet towns, his name was invoked at meetings and in oaths, and the story of his martyrdom was told in inspirational children’s books.

Study of Pavlik Morozov, by A.A. Gorpenko (1960) / Gallery ABART

According to Iurii Druzhnikov, a Soviet writer who investigated the legend of Pavlik Morozov in the 1970s, almost everything about it was factually inaccurate. Pavlik’s father was not a kulak but the chairman of a remote rural soviet. Pavlik accused him not of having hoarded grain, but rather of having attested that a recently arrived kulak deportee was a poor peasant from Gerasimovka. Pavlik may have been motivated to denounce his father not out a(n extreme) desire to uphold Soviet law, but because Grigorii Morozov had abandoned Pavlik’s mother to move in with a younger woman. The bodies of Pavlik and his younger brother were found in a forest a few months after the arrest of their father. Whether their relatives had murdered them remains unclear. Finally, Pavlik was not and had never been a Pioneer.

Despite official encouragement, children’s denunciations of their relatives was not a frequent occurrence in the 1930s, although several instances were reported in the press. Informing on one’s neighbors, workmates, and bosses was far more common. The main motives appear to have been envy, the desire to acquire additional living space, revenge for a personal slight, and outrage at perceived abuses of power or other injustices.

Physical Culture

Physical culture, the hygiene and discipline of the bodies of socialist citizens, was an object of paramount concern to Soviet authorities. Although it was indisputable that socialist physical culture would be different from the capitalist variety, there was a continuous debate about its nature that began in 1920 and received its final solution only in 1934. Pre-revolutionary sports clubs had been accessible only to the privileged social classes, and had carried ideologies alien to the Bolsheviks. The Sokols, or Hawks, had promoted Slavic national identities, while the YMCA pursued the ideal of muscular Christianity. Both were closed down by the Bolsheviks. In their place, the Soviet state promoted organizations that encouraged physical hygiene while eschewing the unhealthy competition that embodied the spirit of capitalism. Calisthenics, eurythmics, workplace exercise, track and field were alloted much of the meager state funding.

The role of the state in the regimentation of the body was a striking feature of the 1930s. That generation was healthier than any other before, and their healthy bodies stood as a metaphor for their healthy minds, unsullied by the psychoses and depravities that plagued their western peers. Physical culture, the disciplining and training of the socialist body, home to the socialist mind, was the popular movement of the decade. No longer was individual accomplishment deemed unsocialist. Just as the workplace produced hero workers such as Aleksei Stakhanov, a growing network of elite sports clubs trained outstanding athletes who brought glory to the socialist homeland. Their anthem, The Sportsman’s March (from the 1935 movie Goalkeeper), sang of their vitality and uncomplicated joy. This healthy generation valued its collective bonds. Togetherness and discipline did not mark for them a lack of individuality, but signaled a healthy sense of self based in community. Every year young physical-culturalists from all over the Soviet Union would march through Red Square on May Day and salute their leaders, saluting themselves as they did and declaring their allegiance.

Although the totalitarian tilt of Soviet society was evident in physical culture, other developments that took place under the same slogan undermined the grim social discipline. Spectator sports boomed in the mid-1930s, focused above all on the competitive international sport of soccer. Teams sponsored by factories and state organizations commanded the throbbing hearts of mostly male fans, who watched their heroes from the seats of large new stadiums, and whose wild antics suggested anything but disciplined socialist bodies. Fan favorites included Dinamo, sponsored by the NKVD, Lokomotiv, sponsored by the Ministry of Transportation, Torpedo (AMO automobile factory), Central Army Sports Club, and the beloved Spartak Club, sponsored by the meat packers and forever fighting the uphill battle against hated and better-funded Dinamo. Led by the magnificent Starostin brothers (Nikolai, Andrei, Petr and Aleksandr), they won the USSR Cup (introduced in 1936) twice before the war. Eventually the success of the Starostins ran afoul of Dinamo’s main fan, NKVD chief Lavrentii Beria, who had them sent to the labor camps on trumped-up charges in 1942.

Popular Film Industry

Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows (1934) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

More proficient in producing films that parroted official values than at bringing mass audiences into the theater, the Soviet film industry shifted its agenda as it underwent organizational changes in the early 1930s. The industry was now coordinated by a new organization, Soiuzkino, responsible for the financing and production for films; and its new chairman, Boris Shumiatskii, took a much more aggressive role in shaping the aesthetics of Soviet film. His goal, dictated by the government, was to make the film industry self-financing. Tired of aesthetically ambitious films that confused the average Soviet viewer, Shumiatskii demanded films that were “accessible,” enjoyable and entertaining. Although political fidelity was still a must, it soon became clear that politics would yield to fun as the primary mission. Shumiatskii dethroned the avant-garde kings of the cinema, foremost among them Sergei Eisenstein. Complicated layers of bureaucracy controlled the creation of film scenarios, and commissioned the films based on them. While Eisenstein and others found themselves stymied by the bureaucracy, other directors who could satisfy popular tastes found that the new system encouraged their work. 1934 was the year of the first smash hits with the Soviet audience. Two in particular are noteworthy: Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows, directed by Grigorii Aleksandrov, and the Vasiliev Brothers’ Chapaev.

The Starlet Orlova, by I.V. Gerasimovich (1934) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

Once Eisenstein’s assistant director, who had traveled to Hollywood with the master in 1930-1932, Aleksandrov saw how the movie musical, using the new medium of the talking movie, could win a mass audience. He set to creating the Soviet musical, and selected as his lead man Leonid Utesov, one of the most popular singers of the 1920s and beyond, whose repertoire included the slangy songs of his native Odessa, and a strong admixture of jazz. In the movie, Utesov plays a simple shepherd from the Crimean village of Abrau, whose singing talent is discovered by vacationing Muscovites. He is whisked away to the capital, and soon finds himself leading a jazz band whose antics do not impede their quick route to the top of the music business. Anybody, it seemed, could be a star in Soviet Russia.


Left: Advertisement for Chapaev, by A.P. Bel’skii (1935) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
Center: Circus, by B.A. Zelenskii (1935) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
Right: Chapaev in Battle, by Trofimov (1935) / Russian Sunbirds

Although the political message of the movie was muted by the wonderful music, the other great hit of 1934 found its hero in one the Revolution’s great stories. Chapaev was real-life hero, a simple soldier who rose to command in the Civil War. His life and death were glorified in a 1923 novel by Dmitrii Furmanov, who had served as commissar in his division. The film, based on the novel, told the story of how Chapaev, brave and charismatic but politically untutored, came to understand the Bolshevik cause he instinctively supported. Under the respectable guidance of his commissar, he taught his undisciplined troops the values of order, subordination, and the primacy of the cause over the individual. But it was the rough-cut personality of Chapaev, full of grand gestures and petty foibles, that was the main draw of the movie.

Seventeenth Party Congress

Sketch for Stalin’s Speech at the 16th Party Congress, by Aleksandr Gerasimov (1930) / From Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators, 1930-1945, by Dawn Ades et. al.

Unity and acclamation for the wise decisions of comrade Stalin were on full display at the Seventeenth Party Congress which met in the Great Hall of the Kremlin from January 26 to February 10, 1934. This was the first such gathering since 1930, and in the intervening three-and-a-half years the country had been buffeted by the storms of collectivization, force-paced industrialization, upheaval in the professions, a purge of the party’s own ranks, and the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany. Nevertheless, there was much for the nearly two thousand delegates to celebrate during this “Congress of Victors.” The preceding year’s harvest, always an important indicator of economic prospects, had been plentiful. Thanks to the steadfastness of the party, enormous progress had been made on the industrial front including the completion of several key construction projects. The more extreme advocates of proletarianization of the arts and professions had been curbed, and former Oppositionists within the party had acknowledged their sins and, at the congress, heaped praise on Stalin.

Stalin at the 18th Party Congress, by Aleksandr Gerasimov (1939) / From Soviet Socialist Realist Painting, 1930-1960s, by Matthew Cullerne

Yet, all was not necessarily as it seemed. Some historians have claimed that several regional party secretaries, unhappy with the extent of the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, met privately to discuss his replacement as General Secretary. The most likely substitute was Sergei Kirov, the First Secretary of the Leningrad party organization. Whether Kirov knew of this cabal and if so, how he reacted, remain in the realm of speculation. No less tantalizing but still lacking hard evidence are reports that Stalin received many fewer of the delegates’ votes than did Kirov for the new Central Committee.


Left: G.K. Ordzhonikidze, by Isaak Brodskii (1927) / Moscow: Krasnaia gazeta
Right: V.V. Kuibyshev, Chairman of the VSNKh, by Isaak Brodskii (1927) / Moscow: Krasnaia gazeta

Whatever the case, the Congress of Victors turned out to be a congress of victims. Over the next four years, 1108 of the 1966 delegates were arrested and either disappeared into the gulag or were executed. The Seventeenth Congress, then, was the last at which those with pre-revolutionary and civil war experience in the party predominated.

Socialist Realism

Auto Race, by Petr Vil’iams (1930) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik

Socialist realism was declared the reigning method of Soviet literature at The First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in August, 1934. The movement was enunciated by Maksim Gorky as a continuation of the Russian realist tradition best represented by Lev Tolstoi, infused with the ideology and optimism of socialism. It had roots in some pre-revolutionary intellectual circles, and was at least as appropriate as any other artistic method to express the vision of a socialist society. Socialist realism was unique only in that it was the sole official method of the state. Soviet critics would have denied that this was new. Other ruling classes – the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie – had enforced official aesthetics through sponsorship and taste. Of course the proletariat would do the same.

Baku Oil Rigs, by Aleksandr Kuprin (1931) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik

Socialist realism was best characterized by the watch words accessibility (dostupnost’), the spirit of the people (narodnost’), and the spirit of the party (partiinost’). The most authoritative if vaguest formulation of the method was Joseph Stalin’s, who was cited (somewhat inaccurately) to affirm that socialist realism was ‘socialist in content, national in form.’ Writers were wise not to use fancy language, artists and composers not to be too refined in their techniques. The subjects and heroes of these works were usually uncomplicated, reliable, their politics predictable (if not always the core of the tale). Such works could be entertaining, as was Yuri Krymov’s Tanker Derbent (1938), an adventure tale that hinged on an undisciplined crew brought together by their Communist captain.

Komar and Melamid: The Origin of Socialist Realism (1982) / Anti-Soviet Art

Proclaimed as a unitary method, socialist realism took many different forms depending on the time, the artistic medium and the national culture in which it was created. Fashionable at the time of the method’s declaration were production novels, including the fine Time Forward! of Valentin Kataev (1932), about young workers’ attempts to build a huge steel plant in record time. Painters produced works celebrating the industrial achievements of the first and seconds Five-Year Plans. Music was a more difficult medium to work in, since there is nothing inherently realistic in musical composition. The prescribed method underwent frequent changes as it followed the party line. At all times the going description was proclaimed to be permanent, rooted in Marxism-Leninism, and official. Writers, even loyal and servile writers, had great difficulties following the line. History is riddled with examples of canonic writers such as Fedor Gladkov, author of the classic Cement (1924), and Aleksandr Fadeev, chairman of the Writers’ Union and author of such classics as The Rout (1927) and The Young Guard (1945) being forced to rewrite their work to conform to the standards. At its worst, socialist realism was turgid and cliché-ridden. Its heroes were chaste, patriotic, loyal; it featured the leaders of party and state, foremost Joseph Stalin. Such was the overwhelming pattern in the years after the Second World War, when Andrei Zhdanov reigned as party chief of ideology and culture.

Soviet Champagne


Left: Estuary of Abrau-Diurso / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Caves of Novyi Svet / Archaeological Institute of America
Right: Poster of woman with champagne (1952) / Wikimedia Commons

Judging by the shelves of food stores in Moscow and other Soviet cities, 1934 was a good year for the hungry and thirsty. Only a few years after the terrible famine that gripped Ukraine and southern Russia in the wake of collectivization, and only a few years before the terror and war scare sent society into a tailspin, citizens experienced a period of relative comfort and well-being. Consumer goods absent from the shelves for years reappeared; and food stuffs undreamed of returned. Perhaps most unanticipated in the proletarian paradise was the appearance of champagne, once the drink of aristocrats and later of NEPmen.


Left: Wine Cellars of Prince Golitsyn (1910) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Russian Champagne (1914) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Confectionary (Minsk, Belorussia) (1936) / From Everyday Life in Russia, by Bertha Malnick

Russian champagne was a fairly recent invention, one still exotic when Revolution swept the country in 1917. Two names are intimately connected with its birth. Prince Lev Golitsyn, once wine-master to the tsar, was founder of the magnificent New World wine estate on the Crimean coast before his death in 1915. This would be the site of Soviet champagne making efforts. Anton Mikhailovich Frolov-Bagreev, an aristocrat and chemist, was hired by the estate of Abrau-Diurso in 1905 to introduce the latest scientific methods into champagne production. Although his participation in the revolution of 1905 led to Siberian exile, Frolov-Bagreev’s expertise proved so important for the fatherland that he was back in Crimea by 1906. His renown as a martyr of tsarism overrode his aristocratic birth for the Soviets, and he was returned to Abrau-Diurso in 1919 to become the chief oeneologist. He spent the next fifteen years restoring Russian champagne to its previous (short-lived) glory. This entirely commendable goal endeared him to Soviet authorities, all the more so when in 1934 he developed a production system that allowed for fermentation of the champagne in reservoirs, rather than in bottles as before. This allowed for mass production, making champagne a drink for the masses. From an initial level of 300,000 bottles per year, production rose to 12,000,000 by 1942, the depths of the war. Anastas Mikoian, People’s Commissar of the Food Industry, helped Frolov attain his dream of popularizing the drink after the war. For several years, champagne was even sold on tap in food stores next to the fruit juices!

Writers’ Congress

A.A. Zhdanov (1934) / From Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress, by H.G. Scott

The First Congress of Soviet Writers convened on August 8, 1934, presided over by the once prodigal son and now loyal Soviet writer, Maksim Gorky. The stars of Soviet literature were in attendance, sharing the ornate hall with lesser literary lights. Thousands of letters from workers, collective farmers, students, Young Pioneers and intellectuals poured into the congress with congratulations and advice. Delegations representing millions of readers appeared at the congress, sharing their passions, ideas, and creative aspirations. Writers elected to the presidium chaired by Gorky included Konstantin Fedin, Vsevolod Ivanov, Leonid Leonov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Fedor Panferov, Alexander Serafimovich, Aleksei Tolstoi, Aleksandr Fadeev, and Demian Bednyi. Boris Pasternak, who chaired one of the sessions of the Congress, was elected to the Union Board along with Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pilniak, Mikhail Privshin, and Il’ia Ehrenburg. Isaak Babel and Iurii Olesha were on the Auditing Commission.

A.M. Gorkii (1934) / From Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress, by H.G. Scott

These names represented the best and most independent writers in Russia, one of many encouraging signs at the congress. After years of consigning literature to the rule of party hacks and no-talent “worker-writers,” the Soviet state, it seemed, had returned the great tradition of Russian letters to the professionals. The Union of Soviet Writers, sponsor of the event, was formed by the Party Central Committee on 23rd April, 1932. All other literary organizations were dissolved, foremost the hated All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. As Gorky told delegates: “The Party and the Government are taking away from us the right to order one another what to do, offering us in return the right to teach one another. To teach, meaning to share with one another our experience.” The Union regularized the business of literature, providing a good and dependable living for its members. A writer who submitted to its authority would enjoy a variety of privileges. It parceled assignments to journalists, controlled which house published which books, and doled out foreign delicacies, high-end clothing, and even the highly-sought country homes (dachas) that were creative havens. To be a non-member meant not to be published. By the time of the congress, control of printing, distribution, publishing, radio, film and theater had been firmly centralized, with the Party Central Committee having absolute power of veto. The Writers’ Union served as model for other cultural unions (Cinematographic Workers, Actors, Artists) that were soon established.

Gorky Reading to Stalin, by Viktor Nikolaevich Govorov (1934) / Political Art Gallery

Although historians recognize the congress to be a terrible moment for Soviet culture, signs were at best ambiguous to delegates and observers. Gorky described the “new Soviet man” that literature should portray: “A new type of man is springing up in the Soviet Union. He possesses a faith in the organizing power of reason. … He is conscious of being the builder of a new world, and although his conditions of life are still arduous, he knows that it is his aim and the purpose of his rational will to create different conditions and he has no grounds for pessimism.” Fedin said, “We have found a broad theme that is common to all socialist literatures: the contemporary theme, the theme of the reality around us.” Leonov said that he and his colleagues had the good fortune to live in “the most heroic period of world history.” Yet other voices were heard as well. Viktor Shklovskii, the great Formalist critic who would soon be silenced, noted that if Dostoevskii had attended the Congress, the delegates would naturally have condemned him as a traitor. Babel noted slyly he had “invented a new genre, the genre of silence.” Most chilling of all was the speech of Stalin’s representative at the congress, Andrei Zhdanov, who would preside over Soviet culture for the next fourteen years. Zhdanov emphasized that socialist realism was the official style of Soviet culture, and that the goal of all art was “to depict reality in its revolutionary development.” All artists, he decreed, were to be “engineers of the human soul.”