Stalin’s Russia was the prototype of the modern totalitarian state. Every aspect of societal life was subject to its demands, and that included arts and culture. People were censored, arrested, tortured, jailed and executed for what they wrote or said or thought. Observable truth was sacrificed at the altar of political truth. As Stalin’s state prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, once remarked: ‘We have our own reality.’
Today, the threats to artistic freedom are not mainly driven by top-down oppression. And writers are not being disappeared. But there is nonetheless a growing cultural conformism, in which artists or writers who fail to promote woke values are shamed and sidelined. This is bad for freedom and for culture, as Stalinist Russia shows – for there we have an object lesson in the damage done to culture when it is subordinated to the promotion of ideology.