Cover of the pamphlet “Che cos’è il realismo socialista”, Italian translation  (Rome, 1966).

Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm? [On Socialist Realism]

Author: Abram Terts, pseudonym of Andrei Donatovich Siniavskii

Years of writing: 1956

Year of first publication: 1959

Journal: “Esprit”, 2, 1959

Place of publication: Paris

Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm? (On Socialist Realism) is the most famous pamphlet written by Abram Terts – a pseudonym for Andrei Siniavskii (1925-1997) – which delivers a scathing critique of Soviet state aesthetics, namely socialist realism (sotsialisticheskii realizm, sometimes abbreviated to sotsrealizm).
Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm? was published for the first time in 1959 in French by the Parisian journal “Esprit” (No. 2), under the title Le réalisme socialiste, without mentioning the author’s name. The same year, on the basis of the French text, a Russian translation was made by E. Neledinskii, published in the tamizdat journal “Mosty” (No. 2, 1959) under the title Sotsrealizm i “Tsel'” (Socialist Realism and the “Purpose”) again without the name of the author (cf. Gibian 1962: 571). As had happened with the French translation, the tamizdat journal published in Munich introduced the pamphlet with a small paragraph explaining that the article had been written by a Soviet author who, for obvious reasons, had preferred not to sign it (cf. Anonymous 1959: 269). Also in 1959, the Polish translation by Jozef Lobodowski was published in the editorial series of the tamizdat magazine of Polish emigration “Kultura” and in Italy, the essay was published with the title Che cos’è il realismo socialista? (What is the Socialist Realism?) in Silone and Chiaromonte’s cultural journal “Tempo presente“, attributed to “An Anonymous Soviet Citizen”. The Italian translation was attributed to a certain Venanzio Smith, probably a pseudonym, whose initials led to various hypotheses of decryption (cf. Guagnelli 2012: 99). The first English translation was made by George Dennis and came out with the title On Socialist Realism, first anonymously in the magazine “Dissent” in 1960, and then in a volume for Pantheon Books publishing house in New York (1961) with the name Abram Terts on the cover as Siniavskii was still keen to conceal his real identity, aware of the dangers this could have incurred. In fact, a few years later, in 1965, following the success of the work in the West and also in the Soviet Union thanks to its circulation in samizdat, the KGB arrested Siniavskii on charges of publishing works abroad, having discovered that the author was behind the name Terts. His trial together with the writer Iulii Daniėl’ – also accused of anti-Soviet propaganda for having published his works in the West under the pseudonym Nikolai Arzhak – caused a wave of indignation and protest not only abroad, but also in the USSR (cf. Clementi 2007: 58-60; Kazak 1996: 422; Kolonsky 2003: 4-5; Theimer Nepomnyashchy 1998: 746).
1965 was a significant year for the consolidation and growth of dissent: on 5th December, a political demonstration was organised in support of the indicted and in defence of human rights, for the first time since the Revolution. One of the leading figures in the demonstration was the mathematician Aleksander Esenin-Vol’pin – son of the poet Sergei Esenin – who demanded an open trial for the defendants in accordance with the terms of the Soviet Constitution (cf. Clementi 2007: 51-54). The proposal was supported by leading Soviet human rights activists, including Iurii Galanskov, Vladimir Bukovskii, Leonid Gubanov and Iuliia Vishnevskaia – and led to the dissemination via the samizdat of a document written by Esenin-Vol’pin himself entitled Grazhdanskoe obrashchenie (Civil Appeal) in which he urged the Russian population to defend their civil rights by demanding respect for the Soviet Constitution, which provided for the holding of regular open trials.
Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realism? was printed in the USSR for the first time in 1966 in the samizdat magazine “Feniks-66” edited by Iu. Galanskov, just a few months after Siniavskii and Daniėl’ were sentenced to hard labour on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda (cf. Clementi 2007: 72-73). In the same year, an Italian translation was published – by an anonymous translator – with Siniavskii’s name on the cover instead of his pseudonym: the volume was published in the series “I quaderni dell’Unione italiana per il progresso della cultura”.
In 1967, the first tamizdat publication in Russian of the original manuscript (the earlier publication in “Mosty” was a translation from the French) was published by the Mezhdunarodnoe sotrudnichestvo obshchestvo publishing house in New York in the miscellaneous volume Fantasticheskii mir Abrama Tertsa (The Fantastic World of Abram Terts). In 1988, a new issue in tamizdat was published by the Sintaksis publishing house in Paris (in a series edited by Mariia Rozanova, Siniavskii’s wife and co-editor with her husband of the tamizdat magazine of the same name). The following year in the USSR, the pamphlet was published for the first time in official publications, first in the journal “Literaturnoe obozrenie” (No. 8) and then in a volume entitled Tsena metafory, ili prestuplenie i nakazanie Siniavskogo i Daniėlia (The Price of Metaphor, or the Crime and Punishment of Siniavskii and Daniėl), published by the Moscow publishing house Kniga. This change in policy was part of the liberalisation of the press and gradual re-establishment of freedom of speech thanks to reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachëv in the second half of the 1980s, marked by glasnost’ (transparency) and aimed at perestroika (reconstruction) of the economic, political and social order of the country.  Soviet readers had waited 32 years before seeing Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm on the shelves of Russian bookshops.

Ilaria Sicari
[June 30th, 2021]

Translation by Marta Capossela

Editions in Russian


  • Anonymous, Le réalisme socialiste, “Esprit”, 2nd (February, 1959): 335-367.
  • Anonymous, Co to jest realizm socjalistyczny, Institut Literaci, Paris 1959, [trans. J. Lobodowski].
  • Anonymous, Che cos’è il realismo socialista, “Tempo presente”, IV.9-10 (September-October): 715-736.
  • Anonymous, On Socialist Realism, “Dissent” (Winter 1960): 39-66 [trans. by G. Dennis],, online (last accessed: 30/06/2021).
  • Sinjavskij A., Che cos’è il realismo socialista?, UIPC, Roma 1966,, online (last accessed: 30/06/2021).
  • Terz A., On Socialist Realism, Pantheon Books, New York 1961 [trans. by G. Dennis, introd. by Czeslaw Milosz].


  • De Boer S., Driessen E. et al. (eds.), Biographical Dictionary of Dissidents in the Soviet Union: 1956-1975, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague-Boston-London 1982: 523.
  • Gibian G., Abram Tertz, On Socialist Realism [review], “Slavic Review”, 21, 3, (September 1962):  71-572.
  • Ginzburg A., Belaia kniga po delu A. Siniavskogo i Iu. Daniėlia, Possev-Verlag, Frankfurt-na-Maine 1967 [italian version: A. Ghinsburg, Libro bianco sul caso Daniel’- Sinjavskij, Jaka Book, Milano 1967].
  • Guagnelli S., Tempo presente. Una rivista italiana cripto Tamizdat, “eSamizdat”, IX (2012): 87-104.
  • Kazak V., Leksikon russkoi literatury XX veka, RIK Kul’tura, Moskva 1996: 422-423.
  • Kolonosky W., Literary Insinuations: Sorting Out Sinyavsky’s Irreverence, Lexington books, Lanham 2003: 55-66.
  • Theimer Nepomnyashchy C., Andrei Donatovich Siniavskii, in N. Cornwell (ed.), Reference Guide to Russian Literature, Routledge, London-New York 1998: 745-747.
  • Theimer Nepomnyashchy C., Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (1925-1997), “The Slavic and East European Journal”, 42.3 (Autumn 1998): 367-371.

To cite this article:
Ilaria Sicari, On Socialist Realism (A. Terts), in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0