Music of the Soviet Union varied in many genres and epochs. The majority of it was considered to be part of the Russian culture, but other national cultures from the Republics of the Soviet Union made significant contributions as well. The Soviet state supported musical institutions, but also carried out content censorship.
The year 1932 marked a new cultural movement of Soviet nationalism, characterized by “reaction, isolation, and chauvinism.” The party pursued its agenda through the newly founded Union of Soviet Composers, a division of the Ministry of Culture. Musicians who hoped to gain the financial support of the Communist Party were obligated to join the USC. Composers were expected to present new works to the organization to be approved before publication. The USC stated that this process aimed to guide young musicians to successful careers. Thus, through the USC, the Communist Party was able to control the direction of new music.
Stalin applied the notion of socialist realism to classical music. Maxim Gorky had first introduced socialist realism in a literary context in the early 20th century. Socialist realism demanded that all mediums of art convey the struggles and triumphs of the proletariat. It was an inherently Soviet movement: a reflection of Soviet life and society. Composers were expected to abandon Western progressivism in favor of simple, traditional Russian and Soviet melodies. Additionally, music served as a powerful propaganda agent, as it glorified Stalin and the Soviet regime. Stalin’s greatness became a theme of countless Soviet songs. Communist ideals and promotion of the party were thus the foundations of this cultural movement.
Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s opera, Tikhii Don, composed in 1935 became the model for socialist realism in music. Upon seeing the opera, Stalin himself praised the work, as it featured themes of patriotism while utilizing simple, revolutionary melodies. Composers were writing for a proletarian audience; Dzerzhinsky’s Tikhii Don met this expectation. On the other hand, Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, first performed in 1934, resulted in disaster for the prodigious composer. Although Shostakovich’s work was initially critically well received, Stalin and the Communist Party found the opera’s themes of a “pre-socialist, petty-bourgeois, Russian mentality” entirely inappropriate. Pravda, a state-sponsored newspaper, harshly criticized Shostakovich’s opera. Thus, these two operas provided composers with an indication of the direction the Communist Party planned to lead Soviet music. Soviet music should have been music the common workingman could understand and take pride in. This marked a stark change in party policy from the expressive freedoms of the early Soviet years.