The new Kremlin leadership's campaign for greater social and economic discipline has been extended to the field of culture with a clear warning to artists, musicians and writers to keep in mind "the ideological and educational role of Soviet art."
Whenever the authorities seek to burnish their ideological armor and reassert political control, it is invariably the arts that first feel the impact. Such a moment appears to be at hand as the Communist Party is preparing for a major Central Committee meeting on ideology in May or early June.
The warning was delivered by Culture Minister Pyotr Demichev, an alternate member of the Politburo, in a speech to the country's top cultural officials. The speech was reported by the journal Sovietskaya Cultura Saturday.
Demichev called for combating western influences in Soviet life, attacked laxity in music and literary criticism and complained about what he claimed to be an unusually large number of plays of authors from western countries that are being shown on Moscow stages.
The minister's remarks followed another warning in the Literaturnaya Gazeta earlier in the week that standards had become too lax at a theater in Minsk.
Ironically, the authorities have shut down three plays recently, all by Soviet or Russian authors. The play "Boris Godunov," by the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin, was ordered closed presumably because it was staged as a bold avant garde experiment.
The other two plays that annoyed cultural watchdogs were by Soviet authors--Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide" and Viktor Rozov's "Nest of the Wood Grouse."
The Kremlin authorities are especially sensitive to artistic innovations that challenge, however subtly, the party's claim on monopoly of wisdom. As a result, the official attitude to the arts is an indicator of the dominant political atmosphere as well as a guide to future policy.
Demichev in his speech made it clear that plays and books should focus on depicting the realities of the worker's life. This life should be filled with endeavor and a tenacious struggle for the triumph of justice and good with the heroes always having the concerns of their country at heart.
The minister of culture expressed particular concern about "western fashions," which he said "still have influence here, especially in the field of pop music." Control over numerous musical groups was too weak, he said.
"We cannot overlook the fact that there is a vast gap between the lofty achievements of Soviet professional musical art and the general level of the mass music culture," he said. "They say young people like all this, but tastes are not ready-made at birth. Tastes must be formed."
He also complained about orchestral music and opera programs for an alleged lack of adequate Soviet content. He said that more than 2,000 operas have been written by Soviet composers since the 1917 revolution but only a few of them remain in company repertoires.
As for Soviet drama, Demichev described as "an exceedingly important party document" a Central Committee decree issued earlier in the week and calling for a return to Socialist Realism, which is supposed to propagandize the socialist way of life by putting across the party line and instilling the proper attitudes toward life and work.
"The main problem of the moment is that of the scientific technical revolution, but where are the plays about this?" he asked. He said "our dramatists are still living" in the 1950s.
Demichev's complaint about too many western plays in Moscow is somewhat puzzling. At the moment, foreign plays include one by Henrik Ibsen, one by French dramatist Jean Anouilh, two plays by William Shakespeare, two by Moliere and four by Tennessee Williams.
Demichev's speech does not necessarily mean that the new leadership is demanding a wholesale return to the rigid limitations of Socialist Realism as it was understood in the dictator Joseph Stalin's days. But it is seen as part of a broader effort to reassert ideological orthodoxy at a time when the Soviets feel their ideology is facing unprecedented challenges by a hostile U.S. administration.