The use of propaganda posters in validating Soviet rule and cultivating Stalin’s image during the period of 1933-39

Author: Julia Richards

Sub-editor: Elina Pugacheva

CW: Death and violence

The Soviet fascination with propaganda posters between the period of 1933-1939 was instrumental in legitimising the regime, thus playing a major role in the creation of Stalin’s robust image. The 1933 poster entitled Rise higher the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin (Figure 1), as well as many others, conjured a Soviet ‘myth’ through the idealisation of the founding fathers, contributing to Stalin’s image as a fatherly leader. Propaganda posters were utilised because they appealed to a largely illiterate population, cementing Marxist ideology through depictions of a Soviet utopia via the visual repetition of motifs, themes and icons. Ultimately, through a centralised apparatus of the Central Executive Committee, known as the Section on Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop) and the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (Glavlit), Stalin was able to implement his ideology en masse, and thus disseminate a Soviet legend. I will examine the association between culture and power during this era, suggesting that the Soviet propaganda machine evolved during times of dissidence, particularly during the Great Famine (1932-1933), The Second Revolution from Above (1937-1938) and the Great Terror (1937-1938), thus enabling to Stalin to validate himself as General Secretary. Ultimately, these propaganda posters were essential to the Soviet regime as they enabled Stalin to inspire, influence and indoctrinate the proletariat.  

The Rise higher the banner poster was effective in illuminating a Communist legacy, establishing Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin as the founding fathers of the Soviet Union, through the use of themes, symbols and ideology. First published in 1933 by the Latvian photographer Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938), this poster highlights the notion of a communist ‘family’, epitomised by the founding fathers of the revolution: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Art historian Anita Pisch determines the poster to be significant in its portrayal of the four figures who are situated against each other as God-like figures of the Soviet regime (from the audience’s perspective). Whereas Lenin is represented looking towards Stalin, who is the only figure gazing directly towards the audience. None of them are looking back, suggesting that their focus is towards the future, implying that Stalin will be the individual to lead the Soviet Union to a socialist utopia. The motif of a communist ‘family’ is present throughout many posters of the era, as evidenced through Figures 2 and 3, which likewise present this notion of ‘rising the banner’. This metaphor has an ulterior meaning, the banner referring to the promotion of the communist ideology, and thus implicitly spreading an ideological message to the population. Therefore, it can be implied that through these motifs, images and metaphors, propaganda posters were successful in disseminating communist ideology whilst also establishing a legacy for Stalin and his predecessors.

The Soviet propaganda machine was strategic in its distribution of this poster, circulating it during stages of popularity loss, epitomised by the Great Famine, the Second Revolution from Above and the Great Purge, thereby endorsing the ‘personality cult’ of Stalin. The notion of a ‘personality cult’ is characterised by the mass distribution of images of a leader in an idealised manner, conjuring a following similar to a religion. This is noteworthy because this poster had a vast distribution and was therefore seen by thousands throughout the Soviet Union, essentially creating a state-wide cult of Stalin. Anita Pisch asserts the profound influence of this poster, acknowledging that 50,000 copies were published in 1933, followed by another 30,000 that same year, 250,000 editions in 1936, and in 1937 it was manufactured in twenty Soviet languages. The 1933 edition is striking, because it was published shortly after the First Revolution from Above (1928-1932), in the midst of collectivisation which sparked major discontent and violence throughout Russia. According to historian Mark Edele, this period resulted in the eradication of the Kulaks as a class (the Soviet name given to wealthy peasants), causing an estimated 1.7 million people to be deported to Siberia. This in conjunction with the devastating Great Famine of 1932 and 1933, would suggest that the rural population were disgruntled with Stalin’s leadership. Therefore, propaganda was employed to re-imagine Stalin as a benevolent, strong and domineering leader in juxtaposition with the reality of a ruthless tyrant.  In this instance, this 1933 edition was effective in depicting Stalin as the leader of the new Soviet Era, thus establishing a cult of personality.

Similarly, the 1936 edition is significant because it coincides with the publication of Stalin’s 1936 Constitution, which established The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as ‘a socialist state of workers and peasants.’ The constitution was a fundamental moment in Stalin’s leadership because it promised a welfare state epitomised by workers’ rights, welfare entitlements and maternity leave, before it was disrupted by the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). Therefore, in this context, the poster reinforces the idea that Stalin is looking towards the future, building a new society that encompasses all the people presented within the foreground of Klutsis’ illustration: the Proletariat (Figure 1). However, in the framework of the 1937 edition, The Great Purge plays a fundamental role in its interpretation. The Great Purge refers to Stalin’s attempt in eliminating his opponents through mass executions, generating a climate of fear. Historians have estimated that approximately 1.3 million individuals were targeted between 1937-1938, resulting in the executions of approximately 700,000 people. Thus, posters were profoundly effective in establishing Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ during times of dissidence towards the regime. 

The distribution of this poster (Figure 1) was state-controlled which was thereby effective in governing the perception of Soviet society and Stalin’s image. Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick argues that propaganda in the form of movies, books and propaganda posters had a profound association with culture and power, which were all in turn controlled by the state. This implies that through the Agitprop and censorship through the Glavlit, Stalin could create a utopian socialist façade as depicted within Figure 4, in which Stalin is depicted holding a healthy baby, who appears to be well fed and happy. However, this was far from the case, as life under Stalin was inferior in comparison to the quality of life which people had enjoyed under Tsar Nicholas II. For instance, Stalin’s state was far more totalitarian as there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of association and no other political party to challenge Stalin’s decisions. This is evident through the Rise Higher the Banner poster, as the Proletariat beneath him are depicted as healthy, happy and thriving, when in reality food was in short supply, living circumstances were terrible and people were being deported to the Gulag (forced labor camps in the Soviet Union) in their thousands. Therefore, it is clear that Stalin employed censorship of posters in order to fabricate a false reality, in order to desensitise people to the reality of their circumstances.

Propaganda posters were essential in generating an image for Stalin that would be recognised on a local and international level, legitimising the Soviet Union as a strong regime in the midst of a brewing Great Patriotic War. Historian Kuiyi Shen asserts propaganda posters are effective in their aims because they appeal to the masses through its visual militancy, generating political movements and culture. This is evident in Figure 3 because it employs various themes, motifs and images to disseminate Stalin’s Marxist ideology, a great tactic considering by 1937, fifty per cent still remained illiterate and therefore posters were a good way of appealing to the population en masse. One significant motif that permeates Soviet propaganda posters is the colour red as evidenced by the red background within Figure 3, as it represents the colour of communism, revolution and blood. This was a colour borrowed from the Tricolour of the French Revolution, which the Soviets employed to represent the struggle against oppression. It is clear that while the posters are a good visual representation of Marxist policy, they can also be beneficial in voicing the communist narrative through art. For instance, in Figure 1, each quarter reflects a different era. We have the foundations of the revolution, the intelligentsia reading The Communist Manifesto, followed by the first instances of revolution, to the October Revolution and then the present. Suggesting that all of these figures are intertwined with the history of the new Soviet establishment and are as a result mythologised. Therefore, in this aspect propaganda posters were profoundly effective in conveying Marxist ideology to the masses.  Finally, the use of propaganda posters within the Soviet regime was significant because censorship meant that Stalin had no political opposition to his ideology, thus making them an effective method for indoctrinating the population. The primary institution tasked with the censorship of art was the Glavlit, in which sources such as this poster would be examined for pre-publication and evaluated post-publication. The majority of these posters would have been commissioned for political purposes, ultimately to distribute an ideological message without being challenged by any other poster. For instance, the caption held a profound influence on the message of the poster as exemplified through Figure 1 and the other posters mentioned beforehand. In Figure 3 for instance, the caption reads ‘Long live the great party of Lenin-Stalin- Leader and organiser of the victorious building of socialism’, explicitly detailing the aims of Stalin’s communist party. This meant that Stalin could inculcate Soviet society without being challenged by any other sort of propaganda, thus having the utmost influence on culture and power.

It is clear that the use of Soviet propaganda posters was profoundly influential during this era, enabling Stalin to create a mythologised image of his regime. These posters were effective because they appealed to the whole population as a visual representation of communist ideology, effectively brainwashing people towards a Soviet idealism and distracting them from the reality of his brutal rule. They were also instrumental in contributing to Stalin’s dictatorial image in the midst of any dissidence towards his rule. It is evident that propaganda posters were instrumental to the Soviet regime during the years of 1933-1939 and were profoundly effective in achieving Stalin’s aims.

Image credit

Gustav Klutsis, Long live the working and peasant Red Army- a faithful guard of the Soviet borders!, 1935, courtesy of Maria Lafont in Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection, 2007.

List of Figures

Fig. 1. Klutsis, Gustav. Long live the working and peasant Red Army- a faithful guard of the Soviet borders! In Lafont, Maria. Soviet Posters. The Sergo Grigorian Collection, 70. Munich: Prestel, 2007.

Fig. 2. Klutsis, Gustav. Rise higher the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, 1933, Moscow. In Lafont Maria. Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection. Munich: Prestel, 2007.

Fig. 3: Denisov, Nikolai and Nina Vatolina. Long live the great invincible banner of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin!. Moscow, Leningrad, 1940. In Pisch, Anita. The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929–1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications. Australia: ANU Press, 2016.

Fig. 4: Stenberg, L. Long live the great party of Lenin-Stalin- Leader and organiser of the victorious building of socialism. 1937. In Pisch, Anita. The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929–1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications. Australia: ANU Press, 2016.

Fig. 5. Toidze, Irakili. Stalin’s kindness illuminates the future of our children. Moscow, 1947. In Pisch, Anita. The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929–1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications. Australia: ANU Press, 2016.

Bibliography

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Klutsis, Gustav. Rise higher the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, Gustav Klutsis, 1933, Moscow.In Lafont Maria. Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection. Munich: Prestel, 2007, 40-81.

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Toidze, Irakili. Stalin’s kindness illuminates the future of our children. Moscow, 1947. In Pisch, Anita. The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929–1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications. Australia: ANU Press, 2016.

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