The purpose of socialist realism was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting, as admirable, the life, work, and recreation of the proletariat. In other words, to educate the normal worker in the goals and meaning of Communism. In practice, socialist realism demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art. In effect, Soviet socialist realism often functioned as little more than a means to censor artistic self-expression, sacrificing the individual for the good of the state.
The period after the Russian Revolution and before the creation of the Union of Soviet Writers has often been praised for its spirit of tolerance. In art, constructivism flourished. In poetry, the non-traditional and the avante-garde were often praised. Socialist realism changed all this. Painting subjects were limited to glorifications of communist ideals or communist leaders, especially Stalin himself.
The 'realism' part is important. Soviet art at this time depicted the Russian worker as he truly was, carrying his tools. In a sense, the movement mirrors the course of American and Western art, where the everyday human being became the subject of the novel, the play (Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman), poetry, and art (Andy Warhol comes to mind). The proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; hence, his life was worthy subject for study. This was an important shift away from the aristocratic art produced under the Russian tsars of previous centuries.
Maxim Gorky's novel, Mother, is usually held to be the first novel of socialist realism. Gorky was also a major factor in the school's rapid rise, and his pamphlet, On Socialist Realism, essentially lays out the needs of Soviet art. Other important works of literature include Fyodor Gladkov's Cement (1925) and Mikhail Sholokhov's two volume epic, And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to Sea (1940).
However, as result of the rigid precepts of this school of art, many artists and authors found their works censored, ignored, or rejected. Mikhail Bulgakov, for instance, was forced to write his masterwork, The Master and Margarita, in secret, despite earlier success such as White Guard. Sergey Prokofiev found himself essentially unable to compose music during this period.
Socialist realism as an official school of art dominated Soviet art until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The doctrines of Socialist realism were most strongly enforced in the period immediately following World War II, and were only relaxed, somewhat, after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953.