From utopia to nightmare

Culture destruction & thought reform by Stalin and Mao

The Russian Revolution at first offered a utopian vision of a new world and a new man. Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and the avant-guard artists were given free reins in the new society. But in a country with widespread illiteracy, the arts, cinema, radio and posters were ideal means to spread the party's message. Could they be left to those who were “decadent, supportive of the idealistic philosophy hostile to Marxism”?

Socialist realism and the end of utopia

At the same time Nazi Germany burned avant-garde paintings for being 'degenerate', made by Jews and Bolsheviks, communist Russia destroyed avant-garde paintings for being 'bourgeois' or 'formalist'. In both countries, the great pleasures of art, literature, music and cinema were replaced by propaganda, a means to direct how people think.

There wasn't anymore a refuge to escape, if only for a moment, the pains of the real world, the pressure of life. No room for the wandering mind, no space for the music of daydream. Only a call to work harder and faster for the creation of the utopian proletarian society. Images of happy workers rolling up their sleeves, listening with attention to the instructions of Stalin and Lenin, pointing towards the future.

Minds filled with slogans, aiming for a unified and obedient proletariat, with no possibility of evasion.

Individuality was dissolved into the immense proletarian mass. And if reality wasn't as wonderful as promised, propaganda was there to 'engineer the human soul' and make people believe in sunny tomorrows.

The reader discovers in this chapter the extent of destruction and how those who did not fit the definition of Socialist Realism might end up saying “Oh most certainly, death is easier than this. I begin to incriminate myself in the hope I will go quickly to the scaffold”.

After Stalin's death Khrushchev denounced the propaganda excesses who “transformed him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behaviour”.

Destroy the old world! Mao's Cultural Revolution

In a bid to eradicate the opposition, and imitating the use of “engineers of the soul” by Stalin, Mao would unleash “the great proletarian cultural revolution, a great revolution that touches people to their very souls”.

In any society, it would be unthinkable to see the younger generation dominate the older one, even less in one with a two thousand year old tradition of filial piety and ancestor worship.

But the youth became a new kind of army, the Red Guards, and told to “energetically destroy all the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habit of the exploiting classes”.

They were sent to “Destroy the old world! Establish the new world!, Smash, burn, fry and scorch” and chanted “we are the destroyers of the old world”.

There was no escape from Mao's face, printed 2 billion times. From his thoughts, with the order of “a copy of the Quotations from Chairman Mao in the hands of everyone, each must carry it with him, constantly study it, and do everything in accord with it”. Finding a refuge in silence was also impossible, as loudspeakers continually preached Mao's Thought at full volume.

Life was transformed, even “telling jokes, uttering profanities, and doing vulgar things” was strictly forbidden.

The Cultural Revolution lasted 10 years, until Mao's death in 1976. In 1981 the party stated “the 'cultural revolution' was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People's Republic. It was initiated and led by Comrade Mao Zedong”.

The extent of the destruction that occurred during the Cultural Revolution is described in this chapter.


This is a preview of the chapter about “thought reform”, propaganda and the destruction of heritage and memory at the time of Stalin and Mao, from Lost Treasures.