|You Only Live Twice:
the Strange Afterlife of Socialist Realist Sculpture
Matter and History (Bucharest, 2011)
The Socialist-Realist Counter-Monument: An Impossible Aesthetic?
The potential of statues to transform into symbols of political opposition has always presented itself as a convincing reason for new regimes to target the monuments of the old order, in that with the breaking of their reciprocal relationship with the political system, monuments take on a potentially critical position with regard to the present. The new authorities that came to power in the wake of the Soviet liberation and conquest of Eastern Europe took immediate steps against those monuments that promoted an opposing political agenda. In Hungary for example, the priority was to destroy, remove or modify the numerous memorials to the ‘lost territories’ that starkly contradicted the message of socialist internationalism, such as the Sacred Flagstaff, which was destroyed on Soviet orders to make way for the first Soviet war memorial, inaugurated on May Day 1945. Next in line were the symbols of a conservative social order, typically statues of aristocratic or bourgeois politicians, the destruction of which was often orchestrated as acts of spontaneous working class revenge, with the political threat residing in their ability to keep alive the memory of a plural political system.
Iconoclasm was also a feature of the situation after 1989, although at the time liberally-minded politicians pointed out the reasonableness of their approach, in which parliamentary committees decided the fate of individual monuments, with the most rational solution found in the building of statue parks on the outskirts of cities. The effect however was more or less the same as following any other regime change in history, as throughout Eastern Europe relatively little mercy was spared for the ideological monuments of the socialist era. First to go were monuments to Soviet leaders, primarily Lenin, followed by local socialist historical figures, and to a lesser extent, socialist realist statues of the new utopia. Soviet war memorials proved to be an exception, as their preservation was guaranteed by international agreements, although measures were taken to soften or neutralise their presence in public space, from intrusive modifications such as the removal of red stars, offensive inscriptions and even statues of Soviet soldiers from monuments, to rituals of purification and rebranding.
This essay aims to locate socialist realist public sculpture within the ideological and material framework of Stalinist Eastern Europe and examine how these monuments functioned at the time, their importance to the ideological system of socialist utopianism, and the peculiar radicalism of this totalizing artistic experiment without borders, which coexists uneasily with its ostensible aesthetic conservatism. The task is complicated by the overlay of moralistic disapproval towards socialist realist sculpture, a tendency to merge and confuse the distinct genre of socialist realism with the ideologically watered-down and stylistically hybrid versions of official art that followed in its wake, and a lack of reliable information about the monuments of the era, which were often moved, modified or otherwise marginalised during the course of de-Stalinisation. Another focus is on the life of socialist realist monuments after the collapse of the Stalinist political programme that followed the death of Stalin in 1953, and the subsequent relaxation of the artistic and social controls necessary for the survival of socialist realism as an all encompassing model for cultural production. In the background lies a concern to discover why it is that contemporary artists have been drawn to socialist realist monuments in recent years and to investigate the sense in which these sculptural dinosaurs may still carry within long-dormant critical potentialities.
In their heyday in the early 1950s, socialist realist public monuments were the most prestigious branch of artistic activity in the countries of Eastern Europe, and had a clearly conceived role in public space as symbols of Soviet domination, advertisements for the coming socialist utopia, and as prime examples of the new forms of socialist artistic production. During the short period from the liberation in 1944/5 to the official turn away from Stalinist excesses in 1956, the public squares of East European capitals were rapidly populated with monuments to Soviet liberators, sculptures of the New Man and Woman, and enormous statues of Stalin. The process of de-Stalinisation, which proceeded according to different tempos across the various countries of the Eastern Bloc, led to the cancellation or scaling down of grandiose Stalinist urban projects, as well as the abandonment of the artistic doctrine of socialist realism.
The Soviet War Memorial in Sofia is a dramatic case in point and represents a high point of socialist realism in sculpture, combining commemorative functions with a celebration of the utopian vision of Stalinism. Built in 1953, the memorial was conceived at the height of the Stalinist attempt to remake Eastern Europe in the image of the Soviet Union and can be read as a historical documentation of the utopian vision of the Stalin era. The monument was commissioned from a large collective of twenty-one professional sculptors, making its construction the defining moment for Bulgarian monumental sculpture in the early 1950s. The central figure of the monument depicts a Soviet soldier leading a Bulgarian worker, his wife and small child into the future. While the Russian has the machine gun and somewhat patronizingly takes the Bulgarian worker under his wing, this is a much milder form of symbolic subjugation than that found in the Treptow Memorial. The smiling family group gazes into a glowing future with beatific smiles, high on the prescription drugs of socialist construction, stepping forwards to suggest the idea of material progress and the future-in-the-present.
The monument is set in a parade ground bordered by large bronze wreaths and was designed to provide an appropriate ceremonial setting for public rituals. On one end stand two very striking sculptural groups that portray intense and emotional scenes of fraternisation between Soviet soldiers and Bulgarians at the moment of liberation. The extraordinary scenes stand as a reminder of the otherness of the closed world of the early 1950s and are so completely at odds with present day values that despite all the realism, the monument verges on the surreal. In this ideologically-constructed dream world of Stalinist socialist realism a life-size bronze Russian officer accepts a bouquet of flowers from a worker carrying a flag, they stare into each others’ eyes as they prepare to embrace. Meanwhile a Russian sits on a motorbike as a woman helps a small child climb onto his shoulder, he's also staring into the eyes of a moustached peasant, while another peasant woman is offering him some fruit. Next to them, another pretty girl plays with a button on a huge Russian soldier’s great coat as he looks on affectionately. The sculptor Ivan Funev succeeded in filling the statues with a degree of optimism and pathos that may be discomforting to observe today, but perfectly met the stringent requirements of socialist realism.
The erection of socialist monuments in Eastern Europe involved a complex process with implications both for the functioning of the art world and for the politics of public space. The first stage, as has been mentioned, was the removal of existing monuments that clashed ideologically with the socialist system, such as those devoted to rightwing national heroes or to nationalist political goals. Alternatives to removing the offending monuments included modifying them to neutralise their message and commissioning new versions of the monument that depicted historical figures and events in line with the Marxist historical narrative of class struggle. Budapest in this way found itself with a brand new Kossuth Monument in 1952, erected on the site of the old one that was deemed too negative for a socialist country. While the bourgeois politicians on the demolished 1927 version stared down miserably, expressing the ultimate failure of the rebellion, the peasants and workers that figure on the new monument are armed and ready for decisive action, while Kossuth himself points forward into the middle distance, anticipating the gestural language of Lenin. Although this archetypal socialist realist monument is in a central location by the Hungarian Parliament, it has been sidelined by a new eternal flame memorial to 1956, is partly shrouded by trees and bushes, and does not feature in the modern ritual calendar.
Monuments were an essential and well-thought out element in the Stalinist transformation of public space and were a striking presence in East European cities that had simultaneously been denuded of the visual distractions provided by capitalist shop fronts and advertising placards, and in which expressions of alternative ideological messages within national cultures had been neutralised. They were conceived to be both educational, in the sense of conveying information about an alternative Marxist view of history that differed radically from conventional nationalist accounts, and as focuses for ritual behaviour that cemented the Stalinist social contract, from the taking of wedding photos in front of Soviet memorials, to the mass parades on significant anniversaries from May Day to Stalin’s birthday. Their role as public political fetishes could play both ways, with Budapest’s Stalin Statue famously becoming the first target for anti-communist rebels, when it was toppled by the revolutionary crowd on the evening of 23 October 1956.
It took an enormous coordinated effort to achieve and maintain socialist realism in sculpture and as soon as one or more of the conditions was removed, then the united aesthetic front broke down, signalling the rapid return of national sculptural traditions, a revival of modernist-inspired formal experimentation, and an abandonment of the single-minded, utopian content of socialist realism for a new wave of official monuments that were more ambiguous, metaphorical and abstract in their handling of socialist themes. Socialist Realism was only completely imposed for a short period: in East Germany for example, despite the party's best efforts, only one national exhibition held in March 1953 succeed in presenting a unified socialist-realist face, while in Bulgaria, despite the better overall conditions for the adoption of socialist realism, the only national exhibition with which Stalinist art critics were completely satisfied was the General Exhibition of 1952. Although it was short lived, the Stalinist experiment did completely transform the arena of public sculpture in Eastern Europe, creating monuments that were more ‘monumental’ in their intentions than ever before, which struck a discordant note in the post-totalitarian era.
From De-Stalinisation to Post-Communism
Despite some superficial similarities, the statues of Lenin erected in Eastern Europe belong to a different era to those of the Stalin cult, such as the anti-heroic, ground-level Budapest Lenin that took up its position a discreet distance from the plinth of the downed Stalin statue in 1965, after a tortuous commissioning process that lasted more than a decade. There was a rash of Lenin’s erected around the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1970, including the famous 19m red granite version in Berlin by Russian sculptor Nikolai Tomski, which showed Lenin emerging from the pedestal, shrouded by a huge, fairly abstract flag. Sofia gained a huge Soviet-designed Lenin statue in 1971, while the most important Polish Lenin was erected in the industrial new town of Nowa Huta in 1973, another huge semi-abstract granite Lenin figure along the lines of those erected in Sofia and Berlin. While the earlier East European Lenin’s of the Khrushchev era were to some degree a reaction to and compensation for the dismantling of the Stalin cult, the later East European Lenin statues belonged to the doomed attempt by the Brezhnev-era gerontocracy to revive public ritual and galvanise public support for the communist system as it entered its period of terminal decline.
Along with the removal of certain socialist realist statues in the wake of the death of Stalin, perhaps even more significant was the ideological blurring of public space that stood in contrast with the dogmatic clarity of the Stalinist era, with its homogenous architectural forms and systematic sculptural programme. It suited the political needs of the post-Stalinist political elite to build monuments to national rather than socialist heroes, and to replace the direct promises of the Stalinist utopia with more abstract notions of liberation and inner revolution. This reflected post-Stalinist economic policies that put more stress on satisfying the material needs of the population, of achieving a form of socialism in the present, which came in the 1970s to be known as ‘real existing socialism’, rather than advocating the deferral and constant sacrifice required to build the utopian state of communism. While the concrete reality of East European socialism became more tangible, the ideal of communism moved steadily beyond the imaginable horizon.
The monuments that were erected in the wake of de-Stalinisation in Eastern Europe reflected this new mood: out went the smiling peasants and workers, gleeful Soviet soldiers and welcoming parties, and in came glum and rebellious worker portraits and purely decorative public sculpture for new housing estates, with little or no political content. The literalistic utopia of the socialist realist imaginary, which offered a concrete promise of the socialist future through which the sacrifices and Stakhanovite efforts of the present were justified, was dropped from the repertoire of socialist monumental art by the late 1950s. Where figures of workers or peasants were commissioned they typically expressed the ‘inner conflict’ of the socialist hero of the Thaw era. The peasant theme frequently reverted to the national type of the 1930s, and lacked the bold revolutionary attributes of the socialist realist incarnation, while the heroic metal worker had by the mid-60s been boiled down by sculptors into an abstract metaphor for technological progress and a generic idea of revolution.
In this sense, the utopian politics embodied by putting up a statue of a reading worker or a female welder in a new housing estate for shock-workers clashed with the more limited goals of the post-Stalinist socialist system, which was condemned by ultra-leftists and neo-Marxists in the 1960s as a reactionary form of ‘state-capitalism’ run by a ‘red bourgeoisie’. From this perspective, the science fiction-inspired utopias of the era of socialist consumerism represented a retreat from the ideals of total transformation of the Stalin era, and the beginning of the end for the socialist experiment. Socialist Realist sculptures might also be said to possess counter-monumental characteristics within the context of post-communist public space, such as in propagating a more activist view of the role of the masses, or for challenging the return of conservative gender roles and celebrating the practice of armed uprisings against imperialist domination, notions that are unwelcome within the carefully-managed public sphere of the neo-liberal capitalist order.
The 1956 memorial, with its red-wedge symbolism, is close in sculptural language to the monuments of the post-Stalinist period and exhibits the late-socialist tendency to combine abstract forms with simplistic political metaphors, with in this case an undifferentiated rusty mass coming together to form a shiny aluminium blade. Unlike the crystal clear message conveyed by the sculptural carvings on the base of the original Stalin Monument, the goal towards which the metallic mass is moving is unclear, except for a vague reference to early-twentieth century futurist aesthetics of revolution. The ready-rusted 56 Memorial harmonises with the post-socialist transformation of ‘Marching Square’, in which the former Trades Union Congress building, considered one of the most successful examples of socialist architecture when it was built in 1949, received a post-modern makeover that preserved the shell of the structure, but emptied it of meaning and turned into a bank. Dezso Bokros Birman’s Iron Worker statue from 1948, which stood outside, was perhaps too direct a reminder of the building’s socialist origins and has been removed to Budapest’s Terror House museum, while an ‘industrial relief’ from 1949 still graces the side of the disused Congress Hall at the rear, pointing up the irony of this particular act of privatisation.
The Return of the Monument
The socialist realist public sculptures of the Stalinist era were designed to function within a very particular political context and were sidelined during de-Stalinisation and pushed to the margins with the fall of communism in 1989. Subsequently and perhaps surprisingly given their history, there have been signs of their return to a more active role within contemporary monumental culture. In common with many Soviet war memorials in Eastern Europe, Treptow Memorial in Berlin was protected by international agreement and emerged in the 1990s as a focus for low-key grassroots memorialisation of East German socialism. More recently, the authorities put a halt to the progressive deterioration of the site and opted to re-establish Treptow as an important memorial site during the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2005. The central statue of the Warrior-Liberator was removed and taken to an island in the north of Germany in 2003 to be restored, returning after this process of symbolic purification to function again as a war memorial, with the ideological trappings of Stalinism and the original intentions and context of the monument either forgotten or ignored.
The forgotten monuments of the socialist era have the potential to become in retrospect memorials to that era, allowing access to its otherness, preserving a more complex memory of that past than is allowed for in contemporary social discourse about communism in Eastern Europe. It is conceivable for example, that a site such as the Buzludzha monument high in the mountains of Bulgaria, could be reactivated as a site of memory for socialism. This folly of late Socialist futuristic pathos was opened on the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Bulgarian socialist movement in 1981, took 7 years to build, was full of mosaics depicting significant moments in the history of the party and was crowned with two stars made of Russian rubies. In the years following 1989 it has been neglected, looted and mostly forgotten, with the exception of digital photos posted on the web by astounded travellers. A recent graffiti sprayed in red over the entrance reads ‘Forget Your Past’, indicating the latent potential of this remote ‘place of memory’ as a site of remembrance and alternative to the strategic amnesia of the post-communist period.
Another peculiar phenomenon is the return of socialist realism in unlikely contexts, such as the borrowing of socialist realist aesthetics for new national monuments, which has included monumental sculptors in the West taking inspiration from the newly available models of East European socialist era monuments. An illustrative case is that of the Armed Forces Memorial in the UK, which draws on the symbolic repertoire of Soviet war memorials, while introducing some distinctive new elements to the genre. The monument, which was completed in 2007, remembers British military personnel who have been killed in and out of conflict since the end of World War II, and consists of both an architectural and a sculptural element. One of the two sculptural groups depicts a wounded soldier carried on a stretcher by his comrades, watched by a grieving wife and child. The other shows the body of a fallen soldier taken into the arms of his comrades, while another figure points through a gap in the wall symbolising the gates of paradise.
The pathos, dramatic arrangement and 1950s-style attire of the figures, the realistic sculpting of military equipment, such as a bronze ammunition box, the inclusion of a woman soldier in one of the groups, as well as the choice of a literalistic form of allegory, are all features that are reminiscent of the Soviet war memorials in Sofia, Berlin and Bratislava. In this case though the characteristic gaze into a socialist future has been replaced by the expectation of heavenly paradise, while the socialist realist dictum of showing the future in the present gets an unnerving twist: although at the time of inauguration 15,000 names of the fallen since 1945 had been carved into the wall, space has deliberately been left for the names of a further 15,000 soldiers that are expected to die in future as yet unknown conflicts. What is remarkable when comparing recent monuments that echo the aesthetics of socialist realism with the originals from the 1950s is the absence of the socialist utopian dimension, the stark otherness of which cannot be found in the formalism of nationalist monuments that refer to a vague spirituality or the worship of the nation, but not to the dream of social transformation.
Socialist Realist monuments went from being the most dominant feature of public space in Eastern Europe to first relative and then complete obscurity: increasingly irrelevant in the post-Stalinist era of red consumerism and socialist modernism, these white elephants of socialism were destined to be discarded, quarantined and forgotten in the rush of transition. Encountered today on the margins of the commercialised non-space of a globalised Eastern Europe, through the rediscoveries of contemporary artists seeking clues to the region’s disputed past, or in the research of art historians who have shed the Cold War prejudice against socialist realism, these public sculptures, which are unique in their sameness, and intrinsically marked by the alterity of the totalitarian era in which they were conceived, have recently enjoyed a quiet renaissance. Socialist Realist public sculptures may be rediscovered by artists, but also by anyone who happens upon them, most often on the margins of public space, or with a newly marginalised status within public space. These statues have either been spatial dislocated, or dislocated from the system of meanings in which they were designed to function, like symbolist art that no one knows the symbolism of any longer. The remnants of socialist realist monumental culture pose no present danger, but carry the seeds of another vision of society that opens up critical perspectives on the post-communist world of economic transition.
As Dario Gamboni observes, the practice of erecting monuments on the sites occupied by their predecessors is ‘a very old practice that has to do with the recycling, neutralisation and embezzlement of symbolic resources.’ See, Dario Gamboni, The destruction of art: iconoclasm and vandalism since the French Revolution (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 61.
On the ‘intellectualising’ approach of the Budapest Statue Park see, Hedvig Turai, ‘Past Unmastered: Hot and Cold Memory in Hungary,’ Third Text, special issue on Socialist Eastern Europe, no.96 (January 2009).
The transformation of Budapest’s Liberation Statue into a Statue of Liberty is a particularly dramatic example. See, Géza Boros, ‘The metamorphosis of Liberty: the monument to Hungarian liberation,’ in Figuration/Abstraction: Strategies for Public Sculpture in Europe 1945-1968 (London: Ashgate, 2004).
For the growing artistic differentiation in East European countries see, Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Mapping the Legacy of the Political Changes of 1956 in East European Art,’ Third Text special issue on Europe the Fifties Legacy, no.79 (March 2006), 211-221.
See, Reuben Fowkes, ‘The Role of Monumental Sculpture in the Construction of Socialist Space in Stalinist Hungary,’ in Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, edited David Crowley and Susan Reid (Oxford: Berg, 2002).