Thaw-Era Portrayals of Mental Illness: Realist or Socialist?
In a Tortoiseshell: In this excerpt, author Leora Eisenberg concisely introduces and connects three disparate topics. In addition to providing the necessary background for a nonspecialist reader, she also artfully orients her reader to the arguments she will later make in her close-reading and analysis sections.
Excerpt / Leora Eisenberg
There seems to be no academic conversation on mental illness in Soviet socialist realist film, particularly with regard to the Thaw. With that in mind, I have used the scholarly discourse on socialist realism, particularly the definitional work of scholar Katerina Clark, mental health in the Soviet Union as described by Mark Field and Jason Aronson, and a 1969 NIH report as a lens with which to analyze Beware of the Automobile and Cranes Are Flying. Hopefully, this analytical work will spark a scholarly conversation on the intersection of socialist realism, film, and mental health.
According to scholar Katerina Clark, the function of socialist realism “was to serve the ideological position and policies of the Bolshevik Party” (Clark 421). This meant that the genre had to “provide legitimizing myths for the state” and create “an emblematic figure whose biography was to function as a model for readers to emulate” (Clark 422). The decisions made at the All-Union Writers’ Conference reached the Union of Soviet Writers as well as the Artists’ Union of the USSR, meaning that the “ideological goals” of Soviet socialist realist literature applied to Soviet socialist realist cinema as well. Clark posits that “the socialist realist [work] is a kind of Bildungsroman with the Bildung, or formation of character, having more to do with public values than individual development” (426). The genre concerns itself primarily with the inculcation of socialist values in the masses who consumed it. The films in this paper, however, complicate that notion; they concern themselves with the “individual development” of a character with mental illness instead of with public values (Clark 426). Mental illness is portrayed as part of an individual’s story (which did not function as a model tale of a dedicated socialist in either case) and a frame for their interaction with the Soviet labor collective rather than a cinematic tool in building “the great and glorious future” (Clark 426).
Socialist realism was most strongly observed during Stalin’s lifetime, but after his death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev ushered in the Thaw, a period of liberalization in art, culture, and policy to such an extent that the USSR “emerging out of the Thaw was quite different from the one that entered it. Many people differed greatly in 1966 from what they had been in 1946 — in the… books they read, conversations they held… music, songs and dances they enjoyed” (Kozlov and Gilburd 484). The period is named after Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw, a book famous for being the first to loosen socialist realist literary guidelines. Other authors and filmmakers followed suit, which gave rise to films like Cranes Are Flying and Beware of the Automobile. Where previous films glorified war and collective farms, the former showed the realities of battle and the latter, the neuroses of everyday life. They were not anti-Soviet; on the contrary, these films were State-sanctioned, meaning that they had to meet the criteria for socialist realism that allowed for their production during the Thaw.
Treatment of mental illness, just like socialist realism, was “made to fit, like all other organized activities in Soviet Russia, within the overall plans the regime elaborate[d] in the pursuit of its own ends of national power and self-sufficiency” (“Institutional Framework” 307). Like socialist realism, mental health care played a role in the regime’s plans, which the two scholars later list as “industrialization” and “the collectivization of agriculture,” two activities which require working in the “collective.” These goals are no different than those of socialist realism. Treatment of mental illness returned the individual to their work; the literary genre inspired them to do it.
The Soviet Union’s attitude toward each individual was that she was useful to the State as long as she could contribute to it through labor; the goal of mental health treatment was to return the individual to their function within the collective. When discussing patient care, Aronson and Field write that “medical (and psychiatric) treatment alone [were] not conceived as sufficient to restore the individual to a place of usefulness in society” (“Mental Health Programming” 921). If the duty of each citizen was to work, and he could not work, he was not being useful and could not benefit the work collective. There was no commitment to helping the worker reach his/her full potential, as in the American approach to psychology. Harold Berman substantiates the point when he says, “The purpose [of treatment of mental illness] is not to promote the welfare of the individual… but to maintain his social productivity” (315). Aronson and Field make this particularly telling when speaking to a Soviet psychiatrist in “Mental Health Programming in the Soviet Union”: “In the Soviet Union, the goal of psychotherapy is for the individual to work within his collective” (917).
If the goal of both socialist realism and mental health treatment was to advance the State’s goals, they both had to uphold the same, official Party line that was necessary to ensure their success. This meant that mental illness had to be portrayed in cinema just as it was diagnosed in hospitals: as an individual’s inability to “work within his collective” (“Mental Health Programming” 917). Rather than preaching socialist values and focusing on mentally ill characters’ lack of productivity within the “collective,” Cranes Are Flying and Beware of the Automobile focus on characters’ development, which does not serve as a “model” for future socialists, and on their mental illness as it relates to the collective. Although all the films are socialist realist, they show flawed human beings who still work in and contribute to Soviet society, in spite of (and perhaps even thanks to) their struggles. This complication in Soviet film has not yet been discussed, and will hopefully shed some light on how the socialist realist norms of mental illness were complicated during the Thaw.
Author Commentary / Leora Eisenberg
Perhaps the most difficult part about writing this piece was tying together four seemingly unrelated things: socialist realism, Soviet film, Soviet mental healthcare, and the Thaw. It’s not intuitive to put them together, and even though I, as a student of Soviet history, might understand the connections between them, I can’t expect the same of my readers, meaning that I had to define my terms extremely clearly.
The foremost scholar of socialist realism is Katerina Clarke, whose work I happened to be quite familiar with. Her work more or less defined the term, and gave me a strong reference point throughout the entire essay. To define the Thaw, I did use a few expert citations, but for the most part I described the time period using my prior knowledge. Within discussion of the time period, I could easily transition into era-specific Soviet film. Last but not least, I included an overview of Soviet mental healthcare, the hardest piece to relate to the other three. Once I had laid the definitional groundwork, however, it was relatively easy: the work done by Aronson and Field, among the best works on the subject, provided me with enough material to prove that the goals of socialist realism and mental healthcare were one and the same, allowing me to later effectively show that some Thaw-era films strayed from the norms I derived through Clarke’s, Aronson’s, and Field’s work.
On a somewhat different note, it’s worth mentioning how much fun this paper was to write. As a lover of Soviet film, I had the opportunity to look at it from a wholly new perspective in this paper, all while tying it back to something I had examined in class (socialist realism). Defining my terms was obviously beneficial to my reader, but it also tested my knowledge of what I had been studying for so long, as if to see if I could make a broader claim about it.
Editor Commentary / Ian Iverson
Leora creates a daunting task for herself at the outset of this paper. Writing for a non-specialist audience, she must reconcile three disparate topics while still leaving herself plenty of space for the close-reading and analysis which will form the heart of her argument.
It was after reading the first paragraph of this excerpt (the second paragraph in her paper), that I knew she would succeed. In three short sentences, Leora concisely outlines everything we need to know moving forward. First, she reveals her motive by identifying a gap in the scholarship. In the Writing Program, we refer to this maneuver as “dropping out.” Leora is focusing on an issue on the margins of two existing scholarly conversations and employing elements of both to break new intellectual ground. Next, we get an outline of the sources she will be discussing, both primary and secondary. It is always helpful to know what we will be analyzing up front. Her third sentence outlines the goal of the paper, her thesis. One almost misses the argument at first glance, because Leora employs such diplomatic language. But this subtly lends to the power of her statement: this subfield (“the intersection of socialist realism, film, and mental health”) exists and is worth engaging. You may disagree, but you will have to contend with all of what follows to prove her wrong.
Moving into the heart of her orienting section, Leora selects powerful quotes from a leading scholar of socialist realism to explain to a general audience what this movement hoped to accomplish. Immediately tying the broader artistic movement to the specific medium of film, Leora then clarifies how incorporating a discussion of mental illness complicates the existing conversation. This detail enhances the background information that we just received by directly injecting it into her broader argument. Next, Leora introduces The Thaw and its significance within the world of Soviet art and culture. Returning our attention to the films mentioned in the first paragraph, she details how these works, and others like them, broke new artistic ground while remaining within the confines of Soviet ideology.
In a powerful transition to her next topic, Leora draws a parallel between socialist realism and Soviet perceptions of mental illness. Once again, in three short sentences, Leora effortlessly connects two topics which appeared discrete, if not dissimilar, at the paper’s outset. Framing her discussion within the existing literature on Soviet approaches to mental healthcare, Leora primes her reader for her final orienting paragraph. Having reconciled socialist realism, The Thaw, and Soviet conceptions of mental illness to one another, she employs this passage to detail why these particular films proved so innovative. Intrigued, we enter her paper’s close-reading and analytical sections eager for the evidence that will support these provocative claims.
Aronson, J., & Field, M. G. (1964). Mental Health Programming in the Soviet Union. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 34(5), 913-924.
Clark, K. (2012). Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature. In From Symbolism to Socialist Realism (pp. 419-432). Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press.
Field, M. G., & Aronson, J. (1964). The Institutional Framework Of Soviet Psychiatry. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease,138(4), 305-322.
Kozlov, Denis, & Gilburd, Eleanory. (2013). The Thaw as an Event in Russian History. In The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture During the 950s (pp. 18-81). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Rollins, Nancy. (1972). Child Psychiatry in the Soviet Union: Preliminary Observations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Zhdanov, Andrei. (1934). Soviet Literature — The Richest in Ideas. Speech presented at All-Union Writers’ Congress, Moscow.