The term is confusingly used to translate two Russian language titles: Народный артист СССР (fem. Народная артистка СССР), awarded in performing arts and Народный художник СССР, granted in some visual arts.
Each Soviet Republic, as well as the Autonomous Republics (ASSRs), had a similar award held previously by virtually every receiver of the higher title of People's Artist of the USSR.
Sofia Rotaru, for example, was named Merited Artist of the Ukrainian SSR in 1973, People's Artist of the Ukrainian SSR in 1976, People's Artist of the Moldavian SSR in 1983, an attained cumulation of People's Artist titles, and finally People's Artist of the USSR in 1988, the first female pop-singer to be honored with this award and the only one with three People's Artists.
As this title was granted by the government, honorees were afforded certain privileges and would often receive commissions from the Minister of Culture. Accordingly, artists and authors who expressed criticism of the Communist Party were seldom granted such recognition, if not outright censored.
The title bestowed for exceptional achievements in performing arts in the former USSR. Its recipients include many of the most-acclaimed composers, dancers, singers, film and theatre directors and actors of every republic. In all, there was 1010 recipients of the award.
The title was introduced in 1936, replacing an earlier title of "People's Artist of the Republic". The first recipient of the title was the actress Maria Yermolova. The first female singer who was ever awarded the title became Sofia Rotaru in 1986. The last persons to be honoured with the title were Oleg Yankovsky and Alla Pugacheva, just hours before the Union's demise.
Originally, the title was bestowed on theatre actors, ballet dancers, and opera singers only. Gradually, it came to be bestowed upon film actors (e.g., Lyubov Orlova), composers (e.g., Arno BabajanianDmitri Shostakovich) violinist (e.g.,Anahit Tsitsikian,David Oistrakh), pop singers (e.g., Leonid Utyosov), comedians (e.g., Arkady Raikin), and even clowns (e.g., Oleg Popov).
Normally, a person was named the People's Artist of the USSR after 40 years of age. Exceptions were made for dancers, e.g., Nadezhda Pavlova, a ballet artist, received the title at the age of 28, and Malika Kalantarova, a famous Bukharian Jewish folk dancer from Tajikistan, received the title at the age of 34. 
As of 2009, the earliest living recipient is Turkmen opera singer Maya Kuliyeva (1955).
The title Народный художник СССР (People's Painter of the USSR) was awarded for exceptional achievements in certain visual arts: painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography. The lesser title of Заслуженный художник СССР (Meritorious Painter of the USSR) was also awarded for achievement in these fields.