New publication - Angelina Lucento, The NKVD and the Political Origins of Socialist Realism: The Persecution of the Boichukisty in Ukraine

Ekaterina Heath's picture

New publication - Angelina LucentoThe NKVD and the Political Origins of Socialist Realism: The Persecution of the Boichukisty in Ukraine, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History


On 17 December 1936, a People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) committee led by the specialist Solomon Goĺdman (fig. 1) interrogated the recently arrested painter Mykhailo Boichuk (fig. 2) in a Kyiv prison cell. It seems likely that Boichuk’s captors had beaten or otherwise tortured him just before Goĺdman’s interrogation to force the artist into confessing to having been a Ukrainian nationalist. After all, until the moment of his arrest, Boichuk had been the leader of the most influential school of Ukrainian monumental artists known as the Boichukisty (fig. 3), and the NKVD was especially interested in the Ukrainian character of the group’s projects. They asked Boichuk, “As part of your practical work, what did you do?”1 The “detrimental old Ukrainian art, ancient painting, and the achievements of the bourgeois formal schools,” he replied. “I sent youth down that pathway of specialist training, tearing them consciously away from the pathway to Socialist Realism, and in so doing, tore them away from their participation in the building of socialism.”2 

Despite the content of his “confession,” Boichuk did not in fact promote bourgeois nationalism or work to undermine the building of socialism. In fact, Goĺdman’s officers probably prefabricated this particular deposition statement, for as Lynne Viola has shown, the NKVD in Soviet Ukraine generally aimed to carry out quick and simple interrogations “with an eye to establishing the ‘criminal connections’ of those arrested.”3 Nevertheless, Boichuk’s case file, like the files of his students, contains several pages of interrogation protocols about his views on national self-expression and Socialist Realism, testifying to a lengthy and sophisticated exchange on the topic before his eventual conviction and execution in 1937.4 Despite its falsifications and fabrications, the semantic content of the discourse between the Boichukisty and their captors offers significant insight into the relationship between the secret police and the development of Socialist Realism in early Soviet Ukraine.

While art and cultural historians have long debated the relationship between visual art and the Soviet state, to date no scholar has studied the connection between the secret police and the development of Socialist Realism [End Page 458]


in the visual arts.5 This omission is especially interesting given that the central and regional unions of visual artists adopted Socialist Realism as their official style during the Great Terror. Instead, scholars have focused on party directives and specific internal debates among members of the artists’ unions and other regulating institutions. Igoŕ Golomstock, for example, based the sections about Soviet visual art and Socialist Realism in Totalitarnoe iskusstvo (Totalitarian Art) on an assessment of articles from the Soviet press, published party declarations, and formal comparisons of the heroes of Soviet Socialist Realist art to the superhuman and idealized figures that proliferate in works by Nazi artists and propagandists of Italian Fascism. From this Golomstock concluded that Socialist Realism became the dominant style because the Bolshevik government representatives regulating the visual arts began to deny commissions, materials, and exhibition space to those who failed to conform to Socialist Realism’s prescribed forms.6 [End Page 460]

Based on analyses of archival documents, however, scholars such as Christina Kiaer and Susan Reid have since shown that the central party bureaucracy was not solely responsible for the development and implementation of Socialist Realism in the visual arts. Kiaer demonstrates specifically that the diverse group of Soviet artists that constituted the membership of the Moscow Regional...