USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Conclusion to the Long Russian Revolution

We leave Soviet Russia now as it surges forward in thee basic areas under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. First, it is collectivizing its agricultural sector in its brutal way. Second, it is beginning a process of heavy industrialization that will place the country back into the category of first-rate military powers. Third, Soviet Russia is developing into a massive totalitarian state, the likes of which is new to world history, but which, along with Nazi Germany, has set the model for state terror ever since. Part of this totalitarian move was the uprooting of the last vestiges of revolutionary culture, including avant-garde movements in the arts. Artists who had thoroughly embraced the revolutionary culture in the 1920s with dreams of openness and the creation of a new society were, by the mid-1930s, seen as politically dangerous. Their work was suppressed in favor of Stalin's preferred "socialist realism." The painting "Running Man" by Kasimir Malevich is a good example of why the avant-garde ran afoul of Stalin, despite Malevich's move back toward "realism" and away from his avant-garde minimalism and abstraction. Though Malevich returns to realism in "Running Man" as a consequence of arrest and pressure by the Stalinist authorities, there is nothing heroic in the painting. The figure is not clearly identifiable as a social or political archetype. The meaning of the piece is opaque and certainly cannot be easily identified with any of Stalin's policies or ideas. In other works, the painting is not propaganda, thus defying Stalin's attempt to bring the entire cultural apparatus into the service of the state. Rather, the painting opens itself up to interpretation and invites critical possibilities, which is precisely the types of expression that Stalin found dangerous.

In sum, we have come full circle this this story of revolution. The Russian Revolution began in February 1917 as a popular movement to overthrow an authoritarian monarch. It came to an end in the late 1920s or early 1930s with the concentration of power around a totalitarian dictator. What happens in Soviet Russia, as we will see, deeply influenced the rest of the world. The Soviet Union, some 20% of the world’s inhabitable landmass, spanned two continents and bordered Europe and China, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Pacific Ocean, the Black and Baltic Seas. When there is a political earthquake in Russia, it is felt throughout the world.  

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