The Monumental Beauty of Soviet Art

This is a cross-post by James Snell

Soviet architecture and ‘socialist realism’ more generally have a poor reputation. These movements and their products are disdained by many, and deprecated in artistic terms. But each, despite their associations with totalitarianism and mass murder, can instead be seen as testament to the power of beauty, even in its monumental form. And all of this can be true despite the designs and intentions of the less than pleasant people who held political power in the Soviet Union.

In the course of my own visit to Moscow (which was all too brief), the chief attraction was Soviet history, and this was manifested through the architecture and art which has been left behind. More than the tower blocks and the tenements, that is the true legacy of the state; art demonstrates what a society’s highest ambitions were, how it viewed itself (in idealised terms), and where it saw itself in history. There can be no finer way of viewing the soul of a country – and especially a country which was at heart a political idea made real, as the USSR was intended to be.

There I saw an aerospace museum which was built to resemble a rocket taking off, the Museum of Cosmonautics, which crystallised an element of self-perception: the Soviet Union wanted to lead the world in technology, to lead the word into a new era of scientific advancement – and it commemorate these fine intentions in titanic style. This architecture could be vast and imposing – it could be inhuman and impersonal in its scope and scale – but it is not. Amid the turbulent sea of metal which represented Earth’s atmosphere, the sky itself, a slender silvery shape – one which represented humanity’s spirit of and hope for advancement – surmounts the place. It is not impersonal; it is deeply personal, and deeply human.

The vast statues, monuments to long dead workers, which retain a real vitality regardless of their original intentions, also conform to this trend. Though the Stakhanovite message they embody may be as false as the burnished metal muscles of long-forgotten farmers and factory girls, the world they depict – and the sheer human effort they embody – cannot be worthless; they cannot be worth nothing.

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