If you can't sleep at night, tourturing continuosly yourself asking: Why Why Why did the Soviet Photographic Avant-garde decline?!? Here there is a possible answer...

Why did Soviet Photographic Avant-garde decline?

To analyse the Soviet avant-garde and its eventual decline requires, first at all, defining what avant-garde is.
Avant-garde, in art, is a general term coming from military terminology, indicating the line of soldiers who march ahead in battle. These soldiers are, then, the first to get precious information, the first to see the land ahead, with its possible useful paths, the first to see imminent dangers, and so on. They are, of course, in the riskiest position and are usually the first to die. Keeping this picture in mind, we could try to define the characteristics of avant-garde artist, and, generally, we could divide between three types of avant-garde.
The first, the original one, comes from the writings of Saint-Simon (1760-1825) that first conceived the artist as a social visionary, allied in an elite triumvirate with the scientists and industrialists. The role of the artist was to envision the future of society, while scientists and then industrialists should put these ideas in practice. This kind of avant-garde is called Heroic, because it's seen as exercising over society a positive power, helping it to develop. The artist is then a kind of hero or missionary.
In the middle of 19th century, however, many artists started to refuse this role, preferring isolate themselves from society and social life, as to defend the art from a possible corruption by the public.
The principal concerning of this avant-garde was around formal experiments and is called Purist.
The third, and more important avant-garde, is called Radical. It lasts from 1909 (with the publication of Futurist Manifesto by F. T. Marinetti) since, say, 1972 when Guy Deboard dissolved the Situationalist International.
The key points of this Avant-guard are a revival of social-political ambitions (as the Heroic a.g.) but in a new spin. The avant-garde artist should blend art in everyday life, should go behind art, risking for art/life as in a true war, fighting all the old culture courageously, aggressively, fearless, welcoming all that is new, as ideas, as artistic styles, as media, as machines. This artist should, of course, be ideologically and politically engaged in the building of the new society.
These characteristics of the Radical avant-garde artist are almost the same both for political-right oriented (e.g. Italian futurists) and political-left (e.g. Germany and Russian artists).
In Soviet Union the Radical avant-garde flourished especially in the second decade of XX century. Actually there is even a Purist avant-garde, born in the last year of tsar (1916) continuing until 1917 and then declining until disappearing when Stalin take power, but is in the radical a.g. that we find the most important works of art and debates about art.
All of them strongly political engaged, projected in the construction of the new communist society, these artists were, as the Purists, formals experimenters, but not because they saw in the form the only important characteristic of a work of art, instead because they saw in new artistic styles a way to break with the old ideas and rules, finding new paths of thinking (fig. 1,2,3).
The new media were copiously preferred, especially Cinema and Photography, for various reasons: the old media (e.g. painting) in fact were easily associated with the old order, instead the new media were associated with the machine age and the progress. Also,the new media were reproducible, as a kind of industrial production and everyone could use or work with them.
A special emphasis was given to the “montage” as a new way to create hidden meanings. The Eisenstein's book "General Theory of the montage" became a kind of "bible", explaining the use of montage not only in the cinema, but even in other arts as photography (with photo-montage, or even with compositions of contrasting elements in the same frame), painting, graphic art and literature (as in Mayakovsky's poetry).
The fruits of this fervent cultural period are works of art of immense value, still today to be admired in their originality and visual-emotive strength.
With the raise of Stalin to power things went to change. Generally, the total dictatorship of Stalin brought a decline in the Russian avant-garde, but to examine the exact reason is not easy.
The relations between art and power, in fact, have always been complicated. On one hand the Power has usually used arts to enforce itself, with self-representations as much good as possible to be exhibited both internally and abroad. The art is also a perfect tool to teach, inform and inculcate the power's value system. On the other hand the artists, even when truly devoted to own State, Power, or anything else that hires them, need a good component of freedom to create a truly work of art. Under Stalin even the smallest portion of freedom disappeared.
Stalin, in fact, took aggressively under personal direct control the Arts, as he did with all other fields of Soviet Union, trying to answer a question old as the October Revolution and still without answer: What the new culture of the Soviet State should be and which one should be the official art. The final answer will come relatively late, in 1934, with the doctrine of Socialist Realism officially announced in the First All Union Congress of Soviet Writers. Two years before, Stalin had decreed in a resolution that all artistic groups should be disbanded and the artists should come together in a single union. As was normal for a totalitarian rule (see, for example Hitler in Germany) a realistic, populist style was preferred to a non-objective one, hardly understood by the mass.
However, even after this announcement, it was not totally clear how the discipline of Socialist Realism should be applied to the different arts. In painting and sculpture the ultra-realist members of AkhRR (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia), still working in a pre-revolutionary style, were preferred (fig. 4), but in photography, where the objectivity is a characteristic of the media itself, was hard to define a precise style to follow, and photographers as Rodchenko and Lissitzky could, generally, keep to work in the same way they did in the previous years.
Rodchenko, particularly, as most representative member of the avant-garde photography, was since 1928 a target of critics, starting with a letter of an anonymous photograph published on the review Sovetskoe foto, accusing him of plagiarism of Western avant-garde photographers, and (after the same review refused to print Rodchenko's reply) continuing on the review Nouyi lef in a series of open letters between Rodchenko and Boris Kushner, that can be seen as the eternal struggle between the artist giving primary importance to the form on the contents and vice-versa. That was only one of the many accuses of "formalism" that was given to Rodchenko, an accuse now becoming truly dangerous due the Stalinian's purges. How this new climate influenced his work is difficult to know. How much he knew about the purges? If it's impossible that he didn't know at all, with so many colleagues disappearing in the void, could be likely he didn't understand how huge the degree of purges was spreading across the country and how much himself (as all the avant-garde artists) was in jeopardy. It's even not improbable that he saw the purges as a necessary evil for the well being of the country. In this sense is significant to see his first work for the propaganda magazine URSS in Construction, whose principal task was to promote a positive image of the URSS abroad. The magazine, of course under the strict control of the party, was published monthly in four different languages other than Russian and each issue was dedicated to a particular goal the URSS had reached. That issue was on the construction of the White Sea Canal (fig. 5,6).
The ambivalent point was that for the construction were used prisoners under forced labour. There was obviously something of immoral in this, regardless the fact that it was an important work for the society, and we know today that thousands of workers died there for the inhumane conditions in which they were subjected. How did Rodchenko saw this situation? Readings some his interviews and debates of the following years looks like he had a sincerely positive impression of what he had observed at the building site. He emphasized especially the fact that these people were hopeless before starting working but now they had a new hope, thanks to their useful role by helping the community. It seems almost as if for Rodchenko the prisoners were happy, enthusiastic and excited as in a school trip.
We can find this kind of unconscious blindness not only in him, but also in many avant-guard Russian artists of that period, at least those still alive and free, and is this devote blindness that can be pointed out as a key of the avant-garde decline. In fact, if is impossible to define exactly what is a work of art, being this definition always fluctuating in the realm of the Aesthetic philosophy, we can at least define what art is not: it is not propaganda. All the works of the avant-garde photographers of those years are works of propaganda (fig.7), a propaganda for the party and for Stalin, always more necessary for keeping strong the unity of the country in front of the political changing in Europe, especially the irresistible raising of the Nazionalsocialism in Germany, openly aggressive, anti-communist and anti-Soviet.
These works that can be seen especially in the URSS in Construction magazine, are not bad at all, actually they are sometimes very good, see some Lissitzky's photomontages for example (fig. 8,9), but this is due to the high technical level of these artists and their long experience, not to artistic inspiration. And if their works missed what we can define art, they started to miss also what can be defined avant-garde artist. In fact the a.g. artist is the artist projected towards the new, scorning the old. But the October Revolution is now very far behind and the Stalin dictatorship can hardly not be defined reactionary. In this sense we can see a parallel with the right-wind colleagues Italian futurists. They, in fact, had seen in the Fascism the party that had to put into practice their idea of new, ending up, maybe without awareness, to supporting a party embodying in some sense all the worst of the bourgeois values that they scorned. The a.g. Russian artists made the same awareness shift, becoming the spokesmen of a society that in theory and on the pages of the wonderful Stalin's Constitution was a paradise of freedom and human rights, but in reality was one of the most totalitarian dictatorship of the history.

Creative Commons License   Giovanni De Caro
(Essay for Westminster University, London, Dec. 2001)
Some cues for this essay come (other than from lessons notes) from the books:
The struggle for utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy : 1917-1946 By Victor Margolin
Art and Power: Europe Under the Dictators 1930-45 by E.J. Hobsbawm, David Elliott, Dawn Ades, Tim Benton, Iain Boyd Whyte

Suprematist Painting,
K.Malevich, 1916

Mayakovsky photgraphed by
Rodchenko, 1924

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,
E.Lissitzky, 1919

V. Lenin,
I.I.Brodski, 1924

Cover of URSS in Construction, Rodchenko, 1933

White Sea Canal, URSS in Construction,
Rodchenko, 1933

Good Luck to the Red Army,
G.Kluzis, 1935

Cover URSS in Construction, E.Lissitzky, 1932

Opening savings accounts contribute to the Socialist Futur,
URSS in Costruction, E. Lissitzky, 1932