In 1956 Khrushchev brought the “thaw” to the Soviet Union. The thaw was a policy of de-Stalinization which relaxed censorship and released millions of prisoners from the Gulag labor camps. In the following year Khrushchev asserted the importance of art remaining in line with the Soviet realist style in his article, “For a Close Tie between Literature and Art and the Life of the People.” Although Khrushchev’s style of punishment was not as brutal as Stalin’s, his approach to art was very similar:
“The main line of development is that literature and the arts must always be inseparably linked with the people’s life, must truthfully portray the wealth and variety of our socialist reality and vividly and convincingly show the Soviet people’s great work of transformation, the nobility of their aims and aspirations and their lofty moral qualities.”
Like Stalin, Khrushchev took issue with artists that portrayed Soviet life in an unflattering light. In the article, Khrushchev tried to distance himself from Stalin’s brutality while still maintaining control over artistic expression:
“The party has resolutely condemned the errors that were committed in all spheres of life, including ideological work, during the period of the cult of the individual, and it is consistently rectifying them. However, at the same time the party vigorously opposes those who try to make use of these past errors to resist the guidance of literature and the arts by the Party and the state …”
A few years later in 1962, Khrushchev took his critiques a step further when he openly mocked artists at an art exhibit at the Moscow Manege. At the exhibit, Khrushchev complained about the appearance of the paintings, insisting that they looked as if they were painted by donkeys. Khrushchev was also very disturbed by the fact that the state paid for these paintings. When addressing the painter Zheltovskii, Khrushchev, rather cruelly, said:
“You’re a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your pants and set you down in a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a pederast or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go on, then; we’ll take you free as far as the border. Live out there in the ‘free world.’ Study in the school of capitalism, and then you’ll know what’s what. But we aren’t going to spend a kopeck on this dog shit. We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you’ve paid back the money the state has spent on you. The people and government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit. They say you like to associate with foreigners. A lot of them are our enemies, don’t forget.”
At the exhibit, Khrushchev also famously got into a heated debate with the sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny. Unlike the other artists at the exhibit, Neizvestny defended himself and the others against Khrushchev’s cruel remarks, asserting that Khrushchev knew nothing about art. Neizvestny may have earned Khrushchev’s respect, but that did not protect him from punishment. Neizvestny lost his status as and artist, and was forced to leave the Soviet Union to continue his work. Ironically, when Khrushchev died in 1971, his family asked Neizvestny to create the monument for his grave. Neizvestny sculpted Khrushchev’s smiling head in bronze within black and white stone to symbolize the contradictory elements of Khrushchev’s personality, and leadership.
While Khrushchev sought to set himself apart from the brutality of the Stalin regime, he still suppressed artistic expression.
Iurii Krivonosov: Contemplative Khrushchev (1963). Retrieved from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.
Ernst Neizvestnyi: Gravestone for Nikita Khrushchev (1971). Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.
Geldern, James von. “Khrushchev on the Arts.” Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.
Khrushchev, Nikita (August, 1957). “For a Close Tie between Literature and Art and the Life of the People.” Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.
Nikita Khrushchev, Conversation at Manege Exhibit. December 1, 1962. Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.
Grimes, William. (2016, August 17). Ernst Neizvestny, a Russian Sculptor Who Clashed With Krushchev, Dies at 91. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/arts/international/ernst-neizvestny-a-russian-sculptor-who-clashed-with-khrushchev-dies-at-91.html