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Andrei Zhdanov
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Andrei Zhdanov

Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov (Андре́й Алекса́ндрович Жда́нов) (February 26 [February 14, Old Style], 1896 - August 31, 1948) was a Soviet politician and an ally of Joseph Stalin.

Zhdanov joined the Bolsheviks in 1915 and rose through the party ranks, becoming the party leader in Leningrad after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934. He was a strong supporter of socialist realism in art and has been blamed for stifling the art of the period with the rigid political requirements he imposed, particularly during the late 1940s.

In 1947, he organized the Cominform, designed to coordinate the communist parties of Europe. He died in 1948, apparently of natural causes, although in early 1953 it was alleged that he had been a victim of the "Doctors' plot".

Until the late 1950s, his strict ideological code, known as Zhdanovism, defined the limits of acceptable cultural production in the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Zhdanov transcended the self-serving aims of ordinary totalitarian censorship—he apparently intended to forge a new philosophy of art-making for the entire world. His method reduced the the whole domain of culture to a straightforward, scientific chart, where a given symbol corresponded to a simple moral value. Roland Barthes summed up the core doctrine of Zhdanovism this way: "Wine is objectively good…[the artist] deals with the goodness of wine, not with the wine itself." Today, Zhdanov is most famous for his petty bullying of the likes of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Eisenstein, but lesser-known artists, lacking public support, had far worse to fear from his agents.

After Stalin's death in 1953, artists were no longer quite at the mercy of the Zhdanovists, and the most severe controls were loosened. The result was a creative explosion in Soviet art--abstract and formal work, forbidden under the old rules, now provided a welcome refuge from official criticism (a work that the censors couldn't understand was safer from reprisals, and no longer suspect in and of itself). Even a decade later, after Khrushchev’s more liberal policies were replaced by a return to heavier scrutiny, those artists who had made their names during the "Thaw" remained protected by their international reputations. A curious double standard existed for those who could exhibit their work and win fame in Western Europe.