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Socialist Realist Science: Constructing Knowledge about Rural Life in the Soviet Union, 1943-1958


Agriculture was one of the most vexing problems confronting the Soviet state at the end of the war. In 1943, as the Red Army began liberating Nazi occupied territories, and the state had to collectivize the local population anew, social scientists were called upon to study and address the economic and social problems plaguing the collective farm system. After a decade of dormancy, soviet economists, ethnographers, and statisticians regained their legitimacy by reconstructing their disciplines as distinctly socialist and endeavoring to provide the state with much-needed information in order to better govern its kolkhoz population. Critical issues of the kolkhoz economy, social structure and cultural practices had been neglected for nearly two decades. The postwar soviet state lacked knowledge about the impact of its pricing, taxation and procurement policies on the kolkhoz household.

Producing this knowledge was not an easy task. A socialist social science had to square the progressive narrative of socialist realism with a realist depiction of social reality. While the latter was necessary to help the state govern, the former rendered the science socialist. The development of a socialist social science allowed soviet scholars to become highly influential participants in state building. Serving as administrative and policy advisers to the soviet state, social scientists conducted scientific observation, experimentation, cost-benefit analysis, and statistical surveys which shaped social and economic reform in the post-Stalin period. The postwar years saw the soviet state's first attempt to extend its biopolitical practices into the village through categorization, measurement, and rationalization.

Utilizing unexamined archival and published sources the work charts this reconstruction through an exploration of three themes. First, it explores social scientists' professional identity and ethos to show that they constructed a science that combined a critical analysis of social problems with political activism. Second, it interrogates the influence of socialist realist aesthetics on scholarly vision to determine how social scientists negotiated rural reality with the idealized vision of socialist modernization. Lastly, it examines the concepts, taxonomic and ordering systems, and their modes of representation in the emergence of a socialist epistemology of scientific engagement.

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