"An art understandable by the masses" (Lenin)
After the Revolution that brought them to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks lost no time in turning their attention to questions of art and culture. The People's Commissariat for Enlightenment (Narkompros) was instituted the day after the October 25th 1917 coup. Its chief was Anatoli Lunacharsky, a career revolutionary with a special interest in art and aesthetics which he had addressed in a number of writings. Lunacharsky was to prove instrumental in generating the doctrine of Socialist Realism, the aesthetic programme that would characterise artistic expression in the Soviet Union for half a century.
As civil war raged between Reds and Whites (1918-21) , Lunacharsky appealed to artists to come to the assistance of the new government. His call was heeded chiefly by members of the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde, including the artists Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, Vasily Kandinsky, the poet Mayakovsky and the critic Nikolai Punin. The three years of the Civil War were largely dominated by an exchange of radical ideas among these "left" artists, who imagined the new Soviet art making a clean break from the past. Even at this stage, however, in polemics realist artists identified their method with philosophical materialism.
Lunacharsky's own thinking, some of which was republished during these early years of the Revolution, derived from the now almost forgotten philosophy of Empirio-Criticism, encapsulated in the writing of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. Inspired by Mach and Avenarius and the current bio-mechanical model of humanity, Lunacharsky devised an aesthetic that imagined art working directly on the viewer by means of a biological affect. Bright colours, strong rhythms, the image of a healthy body or a smile: all these he viewed as essentially life-enhancing, as providing a "direct positive affect". Into this mix he added his own socialist ideals: active art should help build a better world. He characterised the art of the future as "realistic idealism" which would transform society and bring about the perfected New Person.
The Bolshevik leader, Lenin, abominated Empirio-Criticism. His views on art were pragmatic: he called for "an art understandable by the masses" instead of the excessive formalism of Futurist abstraction. He identified film as the beacon art form and launched a large-scale recruitment campaign to bring together "reliable anti-Futurists".
But despite Lenin's attempts to bring art directly under the control of the Party, the relatively peaceful and tolerant climate generated by the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was launched in 1921, allowed Lunacharsky to oversee a programme of cultural pluralism and practical support for a whole range of different artistic groups. Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin , the two leaders with the most pronounced interest in art, also declared themselves in favour of artistic variety and called for tolerance towards the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia, including the avant-garde. Yet Lunacharsky, Trotsky and Bukharin all articulated a vision in which the new art of the Soviet state would be in some sense realistic.