The Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Following the October revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks took over the country and planned to build a new civilization. Different visions for the ideal communist society were proposed based on the collective masses. Among these debates, new questions and discussions emerged regarding the proletarian culture. The people debated whether it was okay to build the new culture on the bourgeoisie culture and modify it, or should a new culture be born representing the workers’ culture?

An Order of Lenin medal which was the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union.
The cultural revolution affected many areas including religion and ethnic groups. (Image: Lisa-Lisa/Shutterstock)

New Cultural Movements are Introduced in Soviet Russia

In Marxist theory, culture was not discussed in detail and was only considered a structure built on an economic foundation. It was supposed to reflect the new social and political system. However, after Lenin announced the New Economic Policy in 1921, it raised concerns for communist activists. It was a form of strategic compromise, and they were worried that the bourgeois experts would influence the economy and government.

A group of Bolsheviks who were worried about the ideology going astray gathered in a movement called Proletkult to create a pure proletarian culture. Alexander Bogdanov, one of the leaders of Proletkult, believed that culture played a pivotal role in the victory of the proletariat. To unleash the creative forces of masses, the Proletkult organization founded workshops, clubs, studios, theaters, and over 23 journals throughout the country. It grew tremendously and attracted half a million members by 1920.

A portrait of the Bolshevik philosopher, Alexander Bogdanov.
Alexander Bogdanov, one of the leaders of the Proletkult movement. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

They demanded more funding from the state while staying autonomous. Irritated by their demands, Vladimir Lenin ordered their subordination to the government. In his view, sticking to the European classics was enough as long as political power was guaranteed. Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army, refused to accept the existence of proletarian culture.

Learn more about Marxism after Marx.

Extensive Cultural Reforms in Soviet Russia

As a result of these debates and factions, cultural reforms were introduced. The reforms ranged from replacing the Russian calendar with the Western one to changes in Russian spelling, nationalization of schools, and the introduction of new literacy programs.

Revolution continued to affect the status of women, giving them legally equal rights with men. The women’s department, the Zhenotdel, was founded in the party to address women’s issues. As a result, divorce and abortion became routine and common. But the party leadership and the Soviet state was dominated by men.

Revolution in family life manifested in collective kitchens, daycare, and nationalized housing.  In urban areas, multiple families lived in subdivided housing, called communal apartments, with shared kitchens and toilets.

In a plan introduced by Lenin to give Russia a new look, all tsarist monuments were removed, and new statues were erected. These statues included figures of heroes like Spartacus, Thomas More, Chernyshevsky, and naturally, Marx and Engels. Accessible and straightforward poetry was used on posters to address the masses. Propaganda trains traveled around the country, showing movies to spread the Bolshevik’s propaganda during the Civil War.

A poster from 1918 urging women in Soviet Russia to work in cooperatives.
The cultural revolution gave women equal rights with men. (Image: Ignaty Nivinsky/Public domain)

In contrast to earlier Russification efforts under the tsar, the new Russia was marked with the support of minority nationalism, emphasizing different ethnicities within the country.  To win the hearts of non-Russians, the Soviet leaders announced the state would promote ethnic languages and cultures.

A young, ambitious Joseph Stalin was chosen as the People’s Commissar for Nationalities because he was a non-Russian. He was from Georgia, and his ethnicity made him a perfect candidate to sympathize with the minority ethnic groups.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Religious Revolution in Soviet Russia

Religion was regarded by the Marxist theory as superstitious and irrational. So, the communists particularly despised religion. They legally separated the church and the state. Although freedom of religion was promoted, in reality, things were different.

A League of Militant Atheists was founded that agitated against religion. Even the buried bodies of Russian Orthodox saints were exhumed and disrespected for the aura of reverence around them. Traditional beliefs were ridiculed, and churches were taken over and turned into museums of atheism.

In March 1922, when the country was affected by famine, Lenin ordered the churches to give up their ceremonial objects for the relief programs. They took these objects by force, knowing these objects were essential to the rituals.

A new religion was also introduced by communist thinkers: Socialism. Humankind was the new god. Maxim Gorky, the celebrated writer, also wrote books that combined Marx and Christianity. Lenin did not approve of these religious-building efforts since he firmly believed that religion would fade away over time.

Learn more about revolutionary Russias.

Common Questions About The Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia

Q: What was the New Economic Policy?

The New Economic Policy, or NEP, was a program introduced by Vladimir Lenin. It was a kind of strategic retreat that raised concerns among Bolsheviks regarding the fate of their movement.

Q: What did Karl Marx believe about religion?

In Marxist theory, religion is viewed as irrational and superstitious. The communist civilization also aimed at the destruction of religions, including Christianity.

Q: What is a communal apartment?

Communal apartments were shared among different families in Soviet Russia’s rural areas. They had shared bathrooms and kitchens.

Q: What was Proletkult?

Proletkult was a cultural movement formed by a group of Bolsheviks who were worried about the Bolshevik movement going astray. They aimed to produce a pure proletarian culture.

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