Artistic Oppression: The Zhdanov Doctrine

The Allied powers had just won the Second World War in 1945. The USSR was nearing the height of its existence. The West saw the spread of its ideology as a threat, while the Soviet Union knew that its struggle against the West was a matter of survival. Propaganda and paranoia were rampant, as were political tensions in multiple regions of the world. We know the story of brutal proxy wars, threats of nuclear weapons, and a race for better technology and space to outcompete the enemy that was soon to erupt at the height of the Cold War. But working behind the scenes of this large-scale conflict in the Soviet Union was a cultural and political shift that would mess with domestic authors and drastically heighten the tensions of the Cold War: the Zhdanov Doctrine.

Passed in 1946 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Zhdanov Doctrine worked on multiple fronts. It was a response to the Truman Doctrine, which established that the United States would come to the aid of any country under the threat of the spread of communist ideology. Andrej Zhdanov, the creator of the doctrine, argued that the United States sought to extend imperialism while erasing true democracy. However, the Soviet Union would stand for democratic ideals using the Zhdanov Doctrine to establish its position. To further the difference between the imperialistic United States and the Soviet Union, Zhdanov used his doctrine to allow the government greater control over the media and art produced in the Soviet Union, condemning any art deemed unfit for the Soviet Union. Through his doctrine, Zhdanov divided all art into two camps: imperialistic and democratic. 

The Zhdanov Doctrine was quick to take effect under Stalin’s leadership. The government banned any art containing Western influence, cosmopolitanism, or values outside Soviet ideals, and their artists were forced out of prestigious associations. Notable Russian composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Sergei Prokofiev, and literary figures including Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko, were all censored by the implementation of the doctrine. Many works of the various artists were banned from being performed, and interrogations by Soviet authorities left them feeling anxious and terrified about what their future could hold. 

Moreover, by cementing the division between Soviet and Western politics, culture, and art, the Zhdanov Doctrine created a rift between the Western and Eastern blocs, heightening tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Cultural exchange during this period also halted, stifling Soviet art as artists created to keep themselves afloat and could not access Western styles and trends. The effect was a period of stylistic uniformity in Soviet art and media where there could have been communication, exchange, and rapid development.

Ultimately, the Zhdanov Doctrine, though little talked about, served as a precursor to the Cold War, essentially giving the final push to rising tensions between the United States in the form of artistic oppression. In light of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Zhdanov Doctrine now serves as a marker of regret for all the art that could have been.

Works Cited

The Zhdanov Doctrine and the Cominform – The Cold War (1945–1989) – CVCE Website, Accessed 01 Feb. 2024.

Burton-Hill, Clemency. “Shostakovich: The Composer Who Was Almost Purged.” BBC News, BBC, 24 Feb. 2022, Accessed 01 Feb. 2024.

“Andrey Aleksandrovich Zhdanov.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., Accessed 01 Feb. 2024.