Robert Hughes. Icons of Stalinism. (Soviet Socialist realism, Institute for Contemporary Art, New York, New York) Time, 1994

Russia has an inverse-survival law of political totems: the more images of a leader there were, the fewer there will be. Since 1989, cities from the Danube to the Urals have heard the liberating thud of bronze Lenins being pulled from their pedestals. But the biggest migration of images into oblivion began in 1956, three years after the Maximum Leader's death, when Nikita Khrushchev made a speech denouncing Joseph Stalin.

Throughout his rule, Stalin had sponsored a form of state art officially known as Socialist Realism. Geared to a naive, not to say brutish, mass public barely literate in artistic matters, Soviet Socialist Realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience -- though Capitalist Realism, the never-never land of desire created by American advertising, runs it a close second.

As a young man Stalin had been snubbed by the Russian intellectual elite. His revenge was to grind their faces in the ice of miracle, mystery and authority, to make culture into a form of ventriloquism from on high. Socialist Realism was a religious art celebrating the transcendent power of communist ideology, the impending heaven of world socialism and the godlike benignity of its father, Lenin's successor, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, the man of steel. And like the traditional icons of Christ and the saints it replaced, the stuff was omnipresent. No square or schoolroom in Russia lacked its image of Stalin pointing to the future.

The truly astonishing thing was how quickly, after Khrushchev's speech, it all disappeared. The statues were unpedestaled; the thousands of pictures vanished into cellars; Stalin's auto-monument, his embalmed body, which lay in state beside Lenin's in the tomb under the Kremlin wall, was deaccessioned, hoicked out and cremated, and its ashes were scattered.

Thus by one of those ironies in which totalitarian culture abounds, Socialist Realism was censored out of view just as its sponsor had once buried Modernism -- the art of the earlier Russian Constructivists. There must now be millions of Russians who have never seen one of these once mandatory icons of the dreaded father. The stuff was never popular in America either. Hence the interest of the current show at the Institute for Contemporary Art in the P.S. 1 Museum in New York City. Titled "Stalin's Choice: Soviet Socialist Realism, 1932-1956," it consists of around 100 paintings and sculptures exhumed from various Russian museums. Appended to it is a group of works and installations by contemporary Russian artists -- Komar and Melamid, Ilya Kabakov and others -- that reflect on the Socialist Realist legacy with more irony than bitterness: this was the formative art of their childhood, and they had little else.

With the help of the Russian Ministry of Culture, curators Joseph Bakshtein, Kathrin Becker, Zdenka Gabalova and Alanna Heiss have done a remarkable job on a very tight budget. A sampling of Socialist Realism was included in a broader Russian exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977, but otherwise nothing like this show has been seen in America before. The very notion of an American museum asking for Stalinist paintings seems so weird that any interest in them is bound to seem morbid. To look at, say, Vasili Svarog's ebullient 1939 painting of Stalin and the jolly butchers of the Politburo frolicking with smiling children in Gorky Park is like hearing a particularly ghastly fairy tale told from the point of view of the ogre.

Every painting in the show is kitsch by high-Modernist standards. And it is not easy to don the expectations of the original audience. The paintings presuppose a knowledge of Russian society, and above all a saturation with its period propaganda, that few in the West can claim. Why did it matter for political purposes that the writer Maxim Gorky should be depicted taking lessons on the rifle range from Marshal Voroshilov, the commissar of war? It mattered because Gorky, though a literary favorite and a devoted friend of Lenin's, was opposed to shooting, and this bothered Stalin.

It is worthwhile to remember that such art -- which, mutatis mutandis, has also been the formal state style of Hitler, Mao Zedong and not a few minor figures including Saddam Hussein -- has meant more to more people in the past 60 years than all the sanctified Modernist styles, from Fauvism to Pop, rolled together. Like Modernism's, its roots lay in the 19th century. If Modernism grew from Manet, Monet and Cezanne, Socialist Realism emerged from their conservative opposition -- the academic and narrative work that was the institutional art of Europe a century ago. In Russia the hugely popular landscapes and genre scenes of the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers, led by Ilya Repin (1844-1930), were promoted as a mirror of the Russian soul by the most nationalistic of all 19th century Czars, Alexander III. Socialist Realism, violently nationalist in its rhetoric, inherited this aura.

What strikes a modern non-Russian viewer most is Socialist Realism's unabashed fantasy. Realism in Stalinist terms did not mean painting things as they were or even as they might be: the inevitability of Socialist progress erased that conditional "might," along with the gap between present and future. That which will be already is, under the world-sustaining gaze of Comrade Stalin. Ideology ascribed to Stalin the actual role of God, the creation of reality itself.

Socialist victory ends the class struggle and wipes out the old "capitalist" contradiction between beauty and truth. We in 1994 may get a hoot from Ekaterina Zernova's 1937 painting of collective farmers greeting a tank in a country lane with bouquets, or Aleksandr Deineka's solemn image of Lenin (who was childless) on a country spin in an open car with seven children, thus signifying his fatherhood of Russia. Why do we laugh? Because we do not grasp how, in the words of Towards a Theory of Art by an apparatchik named G. Nedoshivin, once "the basis in reality of this contradiction between poetry and truth is itself destroyed, then the truth of the social order itself appears deeply poetic . . . This is realized in socialist society."

But once one does grasp this inspiring process, everything falls into place. One sees how Socialist Realism transcends history, with Stalin (who in 1917 was the editor of Pravda but had no role in planning the October Revolution) being painted into the very heart of the first Bolshevik conclaves cheek by jowl with Lenin. One sees Stalin protecting the motherland from the Kremlin ramparts, towering over generals or members of the Politburo who in biological life were considerably taller than he. There he is conducting the defense of Stalingrad (though in fact he prudently avoided going anywhere near a battle), encouraging collective farmers and listening to Maxim Gorky read.

But most of all he is busy being himself: God. Fyodor Shurpin's Morning of Our Motherland, 1946-48, is a portrait of Stalin in the literal form of the Pantocrator, contemplating a new world he has brought into being. He wears a white coat of radiant purity and is bathed in the light of an early spring morning. Behind him stretch the green pastures of a transfigured Russia, Poussin (as it were) with tractors and electricity pylons, and shy plumes of smoke rising to greet the socialist dawn from far-off factories. As Dante wrote, in God's will is our peace. No future Chernobyls here.