When you look at the painting above, what do you feel? Does the joyous expression on the boy’s face elicit a sense of hope? Or, do you notice the fatigue displayed by the mother, despite her happiness in response to the good news? Aleksandr Laktionov’s “A Letter from the Front,” which depicts a soldier bringing news to a Soviet family that their son is still alive, expertly portrays both of these emotions, and thus the complexity of the Soviet reaction to their victory in World War II.
“A Letter from the Front” was initially unpopular with the upper echelons of Soviet artists. They felt that the ragged condition of the porch and the mother did a disservice to socialist realism. However, perhaps for this same reason, the public embraced the work. Its subject matter was simultaneously optimistic and realistic, two things in short supply after the war.
Despite their relief that the war was won, its destruction of their population and their country left Soviet citizens worn down and depleted. In return for their sacrifices of living conditions and loved ones during the war, Soviets expected new privileges and luxuries from their government. Both the USSR’s postwar economic state and the nature of the government’s power, however, prevented this from becoming reality. A reconciliation between the public’s desires and the government’s reality, referred to by Vera Dunham as “The Big Deal,” was difficult to maneuver. Laktionov’s future paintings, much like the one above, amply demonstrate the complexities of this reconciliation.
Much like “A Letter from the Front,” Laktionov’s next acclaimed painting, “New Apartment,” employed a warm and bright color scheme. It retained the same sense of optimism as well, but it removed the grounded, realistic layer that made “A Letter from the Front” so touching and complex. Although more photorealistic than “A Letter,” this painting depicts an experience that was hardly universal. As one Soviet critic put it: “what boy, upon entering a new apartment, immediately picks up Comrade Stalin’s portrait as if it were an icon and shows it to his mother?”
However, despite its inauthenticity, this work highlights several crucial aspects of the “Big Deal.” This new apartment, in contrast to the ragged home depicted in “A Letter from the Front,” is lavishly decorated with knick-knacks and lush colors. Certainly, this was the expectation of many Soviet citizens. A higher standard of living, replete with some of the luxuries they’d had to sacrifice as Soviet socialism gained its bearings, seemed like a small reward for the losses (of freedom and of loved ones) they’d suffered during the purges and the war. In reality, few families would have received their own apartment, and most wouldn’t have had access to the great number of novelty items depicted. Instead, many families were moved into communal apartments. Access to trinkets and luxuries was made dependent on job performance. Whereas the public may have been hoping for a shift toward democratization in politics, the state chose shift away from the revolutionary values of egalitarianism towards creating a kind of socialist “middle class.”
Another postwar painting by Laktionov, “In the Summer,” centers around the theme of youth. The vibrant colors combined with the lighthearted play in both the background and the foreground of the piece work in harmony to create a sense of exuberance and promise. This combination of nostalgia and hope evokes similar emotions to those of “A Letter from the Front.” However, this piece also bears the implication of a pattern that, beginning with the “Big Deal,” would persist through to the collapse of the Soviet Union. By focusing heavily on children, this painting brings to light the idea that, even if things weren’t perfect at the moment, a Soviet citizen could count on life being better for the next generation. This was a sentiment commonly promoted by the state: although you don’t have access to all the luxuries, in a decade or two, Soviet socialism will be fixed and your kids will be able to access them. However, the failure to deliver on these promises of luxuries (and in some cases, basic necessities), would come back to haunt all of Stalin’s successors in later years.
Overall, Aleksandr Laktionov’s works, in addition to their stylistic richness, provide valuable insight into the expectations of the Soviet people in the postwar years. Although he was constrained by the political climate, his ability to tap into and portray complex emotions allowed his art to resonate with the masses, even when it was rejected by societal elites.
This post was commended as a Red Star post by the Soviet Culture editorial team.