Terror Trials

During the Russian Revolution, we saw glorious images of proletariat heroes. We saw shining workers and sophisticated art designed to evoke pride in Russia’s backbone: the laborers. The transition to a Communist society did not happen smoothly, or without purging the people who were considered class-traitors and bourgeoisie by the new regime. Looking at the artists and their works during this period of terror can give us insight into the experiences of those who lived these events.

Artists were no exception to these purges. Many artists saw their end during this period, so naturally fear amongst artists skyrocketed. Many people would try to secure their safety by denouncing other artists. This would be done in hopes of appearing loyal to the regime so they could hopefully, dodge execution (Source). The rewards for creating works that aide the Soviet message were plentiful. An example of this can be seen in the case of Aleksandar Gerasimov. Because of his 1938 work, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, he was well liked amongst Soviet leaders. Gerasimov was even able to become wealthy from his other works like, “The Industry of Socialism”, which were rewarded monetarily (Source). By appealing to the intended imagery of the Soviets Gerasimov was able to attain a level of status in return.

Other artists like Demyan Bedny also used the Soviet’s desire to maintain their public image for their safety and sustainability as artists. While Bedny experienced the majority of his popularity in the Revolutionary Era, he continued to create poems that lend justification to the purges (Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, 301). Throughout his poem, We Dealt The Enemy a Cruel Counterblow, Bedny uses grotesque imagery to describe the people being purged, serving as a contrast to his positive description of a good Soviet. He uses language like, “Shame to the mothers that gave birth to these dogs of unprecedented foulness”, to dehumanize the people who have fallen to the Purge. In contrast, he uses language like, “Heading with Stalin toward our radiant destiny”, to envoke feelings of purity and saintliness amongst proud Soviets (Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, 302).  

Demyan Bedny, “We Dealt The Enemy a Cruel Counterblow”. In Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, edited by James von Geldern and Richard Stites, 301-302.


10 thoughts on “Terror Trials

    1. I think many artists believed in what they were writing and the benefits of Socialism, but there was no doubt fear that existed preventing artists from having full agency in what they chose to write.


  1. This is a super intriguing post because so much of the poetry at this time is incredibly controversial now. Were these messages intentional or were they made out of necessity? Is there an underlying meaning to their words? And further, how did these poet’s art reflect or contrast their personal lives? With the state dominating the production of literary works, it is interesting to peer into the lives of the artists to see how they compare. Evtushenko is a fascinating poet that I highly recommend looking into if you enjoy this topic!


  2. Great post! I feel like the line you mentioned that describes shaming even the mothers of those sent to the gulags brings up an interesting side of how the purges worked. By making people feel ashamed about knowing or having been friends with someone who was imprisoned, the government was able to prevent significant public conversation on the atrocities. The points Cameron mentioned in her comment are also definitely important questions to ask when we look at art from this time!


  3. I agree with Emma and Cameron that your post, especially the discussion of Bednyi’s “pro-purge” poems raises a tough issue, namely, what to do with cultural expression that glorifies and promotes terror and repression? How much of the truth about the purges did people (including Bednyi) know? From Akhmatova we understand that for the people waiting outside the prison for news of loved ones it was obvious something terrible and unjust had happened. But what about people who weren’t directly affected? And how would a dynamic like this map on to a different context? (For example classic Hollywood portrayals of Native Americans in Cowboy movies? Or “Gone with the Wind?)


  4. I think its a sad moment in any culture when artists become purged, since I would say that their works should reflect how the people feel. And then on the other hand, its surprising how poets could support something like the ‘Terror Trials,’ kind of sad actually. Interesting post overall 🙂


    1. Thank you for your feedback! I think in many ways the artists did agree with what they were saying, but I also believe there was likely some fear preventing artists from offering dissent on aspects of the culture/regime they disagreed with.


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