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  • Was There a “Great Retreat” from Soviet Socialism?Stalinist Culture Reconsidered
  • David L. Hoffmann (bio)

In 1934, the offensive broke down and a period began for which the term "The Great Retreat" seems to fit best. This term will be used throughout this work, though it is personal to this writer and could not be found in any official source.

—Nicholas Timasheff, The Great Retreat (1946)

Nicholas Timasheff's The Great Retreat: The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia1 is a classic in the field of Soviet history. Over half a century after the book was published, it continues to be read and discussed. More important, it continues to inform scholars' periodization of Soviet history and their conceptualization of Stalinism. According to Timasheff, Soviet leaders in 1934 recognized that socialist ideas had not taken hold among the population. Faced with the rising threat of Nazi Germany, they decided to retreat from socialism and to restore traditional institutions and culture to gain the population's support. They thus abandoned their goal of world revolution and resorted to patriotic appeals; they buttressed the family and schools as key institutions in Soviet society; they replaced iconoclastic avant-garde culture with Russian classics; and they discarded leather jackets and revolutionary asceticism in favor of tailored suits and material rewards.2 Timasheff understood these cultural swings to be an indication that Soviet leaders had abandoned socialist ideology and retreated to traditional values—a retreat he [End Page 651] welcomed as a return to Russia's natural course of development and an end to the destructive utopian experimentation of the Communists.3

The Great Retreat was a pioneering work that identified and analyzed major developments in Soviet official culture, and we should acknowledge Timasheff's enormous accomplishment in writing this book. Whether we wish to continue using his paradigm, however, is a different matter.4 Timasheff's argument that cultural changes of the mid-1930s reflected a conscious abandonment of socialism by Soviet leaders is problematic. At no time did the Stalinist leadership declare or effect a retreat from socialism. Far from being a return to the prerevolutionary past, Stalinism remained, for both party leaders and the Soviet population, a system dedicated to socialist ideology and progress toward communism.5 Indeed, the opening of the party archives has revealed that in private as well as in public, Stalin and his fellow leaders resolutely adhered to their version of socialism and its categories. Never did they contemplate a retreat from socialist ideology or a dismantling of the Soviet system. The fundamental elements of Soviet socialism—the planned economy, state ownership of the means of production, and the Party's vanguard role in leading the country toward communism—were all maintained or even strengthened under Stalinism.

Moreover, to characterize Stalinism as a retreat from socialism and a return to prerevolutionary ways ignores the Stalinist leadership's continuing commitment to social transformation and the creation of the New Soviet Person. In addition to its policies of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization, the Stalinist government sought to instill socialist values in [End Page 652] all members of society and to transform human nature itself. This attempt at human transformation contrasts sharply with the social conservatism of the tsarist autocracy.6 It instead represents a particular socialist version of the more general Enlightenment impulse to remake and improve society. Soviet leaders did incorporate traditional institutions and appeals into official culture, but as this article seeks to demonstrate, they did so for distinctly modern purposes.

The evolution of Stalinist culture in the mid-1930s was precipitated not by an abandonment of socialism but by its purported realization. At the 17th Party Congress in 1934, party leaders declared that socialism had been built. According to them, the First Five-Year Plan and the collectivization drive had created an entirely socialist economy and had eliminated the exploiting classes and the remnants of capitalism. The achievement of socialism permitted the use of traditional institutions and culture to support and further the new order. The family, previously suspected of perpetuating bourgeois beliefs, could now be trusted to promote socialism among children. Monumentalist art and architecture, formerly instruments of the old order, now helped legitimate the...


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