A Study of Soviet Propaganda

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A Study of Soviet Propaganda
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  I.IS NEW ART GOOD FOR A NEW SOCIETY? The history of visual propaganda in Russia is as rich and comprehensive an example of social engineering as there is in the history of man. Although many graphic designers today are familiar with both Soviet propaganda and Constructivist designers like Rodchencko and Lissitsky, a common miscon-ception is that these avant-garde artists were the driving force behind Soviet propaganda. They were not. It is certainly true these artists believed art existed to serve the proletariat (work-ing class). They were convinced they could help bring about a more just society by creating art that spoke for the masses.  Yet, they believed the Bolshevik’s bold attempt at creating a new human order deserved nothing less than revolutionary art, and so their designs often forsook tradition in favor of ex-perimentation. Although they believed a new visual language  was on the verge of reshaping all societies, their creative inu-ences were modern movements like Cubism and Futurism rather than traditional Russian art. Likewise, many of their most innovative creations were developed not for the Russian masses but for their fellow artists in Paris and Berlin. The Contructivists encouraged an intellectual dialogue regarding the artistic potentials of the new Soviet philosophy. They engaged in publication design, stage design, architec-tural design and advertising design as vehicles for commercial and social agitation. As designers of dynamic Soviet exhibi-tion stands for foreign conferences, they were also successful emissaries for Bolshevism. But after Lenin’s death in 1924, a more strident and oppressive form of Communism emerged and the new leadership, with Stalin at the helm, considered modern art anathema to the goals of Soviet Russia. Even Russian artists like Kandinsky and Chagall, who had contrib-uted their talents to the cause in the early years, were derided by the new government for the level of abstraction in their  work. Suprematist Kasimir Malevich was perhaps the least inuenced by the new socialist paradigm in his art. In fact, he believed art needed to maintain a distance from all things po-litical. He believed that basic form and color were to be used to express true feeling, “seeking no practical values, no ideas, no promised land.” The above artists were members of an international move-ment that continues to inuence artists today. But it is exactly because they smashed the accepted norms of traditional Russian visual communication that their appeal to the masses  was limited. Intellectual elitism can rarely co-exist with a  worker’s rebellion, and the Bolshevik revolution required art-ists who were willing to speak in the vernacular of the masses. Bolshevik, after all, means majority. Therefore, the major contributors to the most ubiquitous Soviet propaganda—the propaganda used to such startling effect in shaping public dialogue—were individuals who had been involved in Rus-sian political art and iconic religious painting long before the revolution. These artists were trained in the more conservative modes of Russian art and design. They understood the meth-ods of traditional Russian storytelling in its visual manifesta-tions. Soviet propaganda was so successful simply because it “The principal issue facing the Bolsheviks in 1917 was not merely the seizure of power but the seizure of meaning.”  —Victoria E. Bonnell CASE STUDY ONE VISUAL PROPAGANDA IN SOVIET RUSSIA  by Scott Boylston 1  co-opted the color schemes, illustrative styles, formats, and iconography familiar to the general public. They began with a visual language everyone trusted as their starting point, and they simply plugged entirely new meanings into that old,  widely accepted set of symbols. II.TSARIST RUSSIA   A wide range of social ills accompanied the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution. Large segments of the working class migrated to cities where factory jobs  were abundant, but in the absence of governmental regula-tions they were exploited and subjected to the squalor of urban slums. The ninteenth century was plagued with mas-sive strikes and street protests that threatened to unstabilize the quickly modernizing nations. While monarchies slowly acquiesed to more democratic forms of governmental rule, however, the notion of socialism was still consider danger-ously radical. Like Europe’s ruling dynasties, Nicholas II’s Tsarist regime was domestically resented for its exploitation of the working class. Along with the capitalists who controlled the industrial complex, the Russian Orthodox Church was implicated in this exploitation. The Church and the Tsarist re-gime indulged in extravagant lifestyles and amboyant public processions even as the working class grew more destitute, and as the divide between rich and poor grew public unrest intensied. Through the turn of the century workers’ demon-strations and strikes were viciously suppressed by government forces which only served to agitate the masses further. One result of this turmoil was an increase in the cir-culation of satirical magazines that published uninching critiques of the faltering regime. With a literacy rate hovering around 30% in the rural regions and 50% within the cities, it  was the direct impact of the graphic illustrations featured in these magazines that the embattled government feared most. In fact, one of the more critical magazines was allowed to con-tinue publishing thier written attacks as long as they agreed to stop publishing illustrations. In response to the 1905 rebel-lion, the Tsar’s October manifesto severely curtailed freedom of the press, censoring all critical magazines for several years, but they inevitably reemerged with more ferocity than before. The regime maintained power throughout a tumultu-ous decade of fomenting rebellion and the rst World War, but by the end of that war life in Russia had irrevocably changed. The Bolshevik’s claim that World War I had been an imperialist-driven massacre that needlessly sacriced the lives of the working class found an audience, and their slogan “Peace, Land, Bread” garnered wide support. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks succeeded in a long planned revolution (the Bolshevik Party was formed in 1903). A vicious civil war ensued that pitted the newly established Red Army against the counter-revolutionaries of the old regime, who were referred to as “whites” for their loyalty to the Tsar.   Nineteenth-century Russian society was a highly visual culture, with the stern dogma of the Russian Orthodox Church playing a heavy hand in the control of visual repre-sentation. With literacy at such a low rate, the church relied heavily on paintings to “educate” the masses. Religious iconic painting was especially ubiquitous, and the manipulation of visual cues was an effective means of simpling communica-tion while elucidating narrative threads. Color was a particu-larly powerful communicator. It could signify specic human traits or denote biblical personalities. Red, for example, represented the blood of martyrs and the re of faith; the Rus-sian word for ‘red’ ( krasnyi  ) itself incorporates a characteristic duality, meaning both ‘red’ and ‘beautiful.’ (Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster, page 5). The illustrated broadsheet, or lubok  , was another traditional method of communicating to the Russian public. These poster-sized announcements  were bold and dramatically colored to attract attention. Like religious iconic painting, the lubki   made use of symbols and colors to convey the essence of their message. Their structure  was similar to that of comic strips, presenting a sequence of images accompanied by small passages of text to clarify their content. Along with vibrant images, humor was often used to broaden their appeal. III.SOVIET VISUAL PROPAGANDA  Long before the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia they had developed a keen sense of what would be required to effective-ly lead their new society. They understood the need to create a cohesive and stirring message to unify the masses behind them. Many architects, actors, sculptors, artists and writers  were inspired to create art that served the proletariat. But two artists in particular were integral in the development of the propaganda that would extol the virtues of the new Russian paradigm. Alexander Apsit (1880-1944), the most prominent poster designer in the early Soviet years, was trained as an icon painter. Although the son of a blacksmith, he travelled widely as a youth in pursuit of his art. After traveling to Greece and illustrating for an orthodox monastery, he returned to his native St. Petersburg, then moved to Moscow where he began working for the newly formed Bolshevik government. Dimitrii (D.S.) Moor (1883-1946) was trained as a satirical artist. Like many Russians, he was fascinated with religious iconographic painting. Yet, as an atheist he was inspired in a different manner than most. While others were transxed  with religious fervor, Moor was drawn to the artwork itself; its color, its powerful use of archetypal forms and gures, and its composition. Moor was also inuenced by Olaf Gulbransson, a prolic political cartoonist who frequently contributed to 2  the German magazine Simpliccissimus  . Along with his posters promoting the Bolshevik cause, Moor contributed to satirical magazines that spoke out against the hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Early Soviet propaganda relied on what Eric Hobsbawm denes as invented tradition  . The objective behind this pe-culiar phrase is to disseminate a set of ethical and behavioral norms—supposedly passed down from a previously under appreciated segment of society—which is declared as the epitome of social equinamity. These invented traditions were forced upon the Russian populace in such ubiquitous doses that they were soon acknowledged as the cultural standard. The acceptance of these traditions legitimized the new leaders  who had initially professed the dignity of these norms. Such blatant attempts at indoctrination were at the core of Soviet philosophy. The invented traditions of the Soviet worker-hero were easy to extol in metropolitan areas where monuments were constructed and labor marches were common, but the Bol-sheviks needed a spectacle to impress and indoctrinate the peasants living beyond the major urban areas. For this they engaged in agitation propaganda (agit-prop), and as one out-let for this method of indoctrination they implemented trains and at bottom riverboats decorated with huge paintings that featured energetic slogans. These trains and boats often accommodated a printing press for the publication of news-papers and pamphlets, small theater rooms for propaganda movies, live radio broadcasts, and gifts to soldiers wounded in the revolution and the ensuing civil war. From 1918 to 1920, these “mobile posters” reached an estimated 28 million Rus-sians, bringing the news of the revolution’s successes to the more isolated country villages. Borrowing from the methods of the Russian Orthodox Church, Bolshevik posters relied on allegorical and symbolic imagery. The exalted personalities were no longer those of saints, however, but common laborers. The objective was to create a set of icons that could speak as powerfully and as universally as past religious icons. Ironically, much of the Bolsheviks’ success in indoctrinating the populace can be attributed to this appropriation of one of their enemies’ visual lexicons. So many people trusted in the revolution because it  was advertised in a language they felt comfortable with—the language the Church had itself used to mollify the people. The massive onslaught of Bolshevik posters—hung and past-ed on every conceivable surface—resulted in one of the most successful branding campaigns in history. The Bolsheviks understood what it would take to “sell” their cultural product. Unlike contemporary corporations, however, they were selling exactly what they advertised; a new way of life; a new culture. Apsit’s poster “Year of the Proletarian Dictatorship, Octo-ber 1917 - October 1918” celebrated the rst year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and this poster is considered by many as the rst major statement of soviet iconography. The poster led to the predominance of art that depicted blacksmiths as the quintessential worker-hero in much of the propaganda that followed. Blacksmiths, of course, were found everywhere and they were needed for almost everything. They  worked in cities and in the country, as ne craftsmen and as brawny industrial workers. And to further their appeal, their mythic abilities were professed in both Slavic folklore and ancient Greek and Roman mythology. In response to an open invitation to artists, the hammer and sickle icon was implemented as early as 1918. Other symbols included the rising sun, the locomotive, the strong forearm, and assorted mythological personalities of classi-cal srcins. Prometheus, for example, came to represent the proletariat—bound to the rock of capitalism while being attacked by the eagle of imperialism. A male gure heroically breaking free of his chains was also a common theme, much in line with Karl Marx’s proclamation that “workers had nothing to lose but their chains.” Other notable propaganda designers of the early Soviet era included Viktor Deni, Nikolai Kochergin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Mikhail Cheremnykh. Deni excelled in the art of caricature, and the detail in his work lent itself to smaller formats like magazines, although his posters were also quite powerful. His work was more satirical in nature, and his biting sense of humor drove much of his most popular  work. While capitalists were often portrayed as snake-like monsters in the pre-revolution era, it was Deni’s use of fat, cigar-chomping, tuxedo-wearing slobs that helped solidify this twentieth century icon. Kochergin was a poster designer in the same manner as D. S. Moor, in that he applied color in bold and dynamic swaths, reaching for a level of abstraction within his forms that would energize the compositional spaces. During the civil war, Kochergin performed as a key member of a travel-ing agitational team. Posters were designed and printed aboard the train in response to current events. These posters  were often military in focus, urging the populace to join the cause. Mayakovsky and Cheremnykh both specialized in “Rosta  Windows” which were modeled after the traditional lubok (illustrated broadsheet). A hybrid of newspaper and poster, these posters made use of a sequential set of illustrations cap-tioned by short sections of text. Occasionally they included only two frames (a before/after commentary), but they more often presented a series of frames that told specic stories of corruption, greed, or revenge carried out by the common people against their former oppressors. Rosta stood for the organization that produced these public posters, the Russian Telegraph Agency, and most of these posters were designed 3  between 1919 and 1921. Much like contemporary cartoons, they were colorful, and illustrated in a playful manner. Hang-ing from shop windows, they also brought much needed color into the otherwise drab streets of post-revolution Moscow. Along with his design work, Mayakovsky was an accom-plished poet, and he frequently collaborated with Con-structivists Alexander Rodchenko and Lazar El Lissitsky. He teamed with Rodchencko as a partner of Reklam-Konstruktor   (Ad-Constructor), which could be considered the very rst modern advertising team, in that Mayakovsky wrote the ad-vertising copy while Rodchenko designed the advertisements. Such a venture may at rst seem an unlikely endeavor for a newly declared anti-capitalist country, but most of the work  was done for state-run businesses, especially Mosselprom  , or Moscow Food Stores, under the aegis of the New Economic Plan (NEP). His most acclaimed collaboration with Lissitsky  was “For the Voice” an indexed book of poems. Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930. As mentioned earlier, the Constructivists were not the driving force behind Soviet propaganda due to their avant-garde leanings. However, they contributed greatly to state-sponsored international exhibitions, which were designed to enlighten the world to Communism’s success. While the Constructivists were very inuential within the foreign design community, their political beliefs also found fertile soil. Since one of Bolshevism’s primary goals was to spread Communism across the globe, the avant-garde artists were greatly appreci-ated emissaries for a number of years after the Civil War. As one example, the dynamic international magazine USSR in Construction  , with design guidance from Lissitsky and Rod-chenko, was published in German, French, Spanish, English and Russian in an attempt to glorify the Soviet Union’s bold initiatives in the eyes of the rest of the world. Like many of their exhibition designs, this magazine made dramatic use of photomontage. The Stenberg Brothers in the mean time spent their efforts designing stage sets and movie posters. Cinema was seen by the Soviets as an ideal propaganda tool. The Stenberg Broth-ers, along with designing posters for standard cinema fare, de-signed posters for some of these propaganda lms which were poorly done and thus unpopular. Despite the drab subject matter and techniques of these lms, the posters themselves  were astonishing in their dynamic and playful designs. Rather than use photomontage, the Stenberg Brothers painstakingly illustrated their posters, using images from the lms only as a starting point. V.SOVIET ICONS Victoria Bonnell, in her book “Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin” describes four icons used by the Soviet regime in their propaganda: worker-hero,  women, leaders, and enemies. A fth could easily be added, especially in times of war: that of the Red Army soldier.  While illustration and painting were often used by the popular Soviet propaganda artists, the avant-garde design-ers opposed such traditional methods and instead believed photomontage—as a modern mechanical tool—was more appropriate in communicating modern ideas. By the 1930s photomontage had become ubiquitous, most often used to portray icons of socialist ideals rather than those of its enemies. The enemies of socialism were often depicted in gro-tesque caricatures that were best acheived by means of more traditional mediums. Propaganda in the Soviet Union took another turn imme-diately after World War II. Just as the Bolsheviks appropriated the visual language of their enemies by using religious iconog-raphy, post-war propaganda appropriated the highly rened stylizations of Nazi Germany, their most reviled enemy. The physical ideals aunted in the hyper-stylized National Social-ist (Nazi) realism became the model for much of the Soviet propaganda thereafter. THE WORKER HEROThe worker-hero was the earliest widely utilized symbol of Soviet propaganda. Although peasants were often depicted in many forms, between 1919 and 1929 blacksmiths reigned as the quintesential worker-hero. The Bolsheviks encouraged literacy as a method of self-empowerment, and so a standing blacksmith—one that was actively thinking—was as heroic as any in physical action. By 1929, Joseph Stalin was succeeding in his quest for a more strident form of Communism, one that forced industrialization and collectivization upon the people of Russia. As Stalin’s inuence coalesced, the notion of idleness (even if the idleness was the result of contempla-tion) was no longer acceptable. At this point the blacksmith virtually disappeared from Soviet propaganda. Within the framework of a more mechanized culture, it had suddenly be-come more than unacceptable, it became a bourgeois cliche, and at a time of mass deportations, murders and arrests, and the bourgeois label was one that often lead to serious trouble.  When the blacksmith nally did return to the Soviet panthe-on several years later, he was always portrayed in motion in an effort to exhort the public to be more productive. Through-out the 1930’s the new focus was on the strength of the masses rather than the strength of the individual. Rather than the heroic worker, the ordinary worker was now gloried in his day-to-day toil, and often shown as a member of a group. 4  THE SOVIET WOMAN Allegorical images of Mother Russia were frequently used in Tsarist Russia, especially during World War I, and so they represented the old, banished system to the Bolsheviks. After the revolution and during the civil war, women were rarely seen in propaganda. Their rst appearances were often al-legorical, but no longer as a personication of imperial unity. For example, some early posters depicted women holding metal to the anvil in preparation for the blacksmith’s mighty blow. Since it was understood that women simply did not do this type of work, these images reected a symbolic union of the sexes in their shared effort for the greater good. Woman gradually played a more prominent role, and during the 1930’s they were nally given the full attention of many posters. The Baba  , or old peasant lady, a gure that was often derided by the more urban-centric Bolsheviks, was replaced by the young, vibrant agricultural woman. Women personi-ed all that was pure in collective farming in these images. Only when Stalin was well established in his dictatorship did the notion of reviving a symbolic female with the stature of Mother Rusia seem acceptable again. In particular, during the buildup to World War II, images of a unifying and benevo-lent “mother” became popular after such a long absence. The early 1930’s were a difcult period in rural Russia. Forced collectivization of farms and livestock was a major component of the First Five Year Plan. This was also a time of attacks on the church and clergy as a part of a sweeping government campaign against organized religion. There were riots, and stiff resistance against these measures which Stalin’s regime violently suppressed. Woman were often the more vocal dissenters. Part of the reason for this was the woman’s traditional role as livestock guardians, and they could not see “surrendering” their own animals to the collective. They were also the more ardently religious, and more apt to fall prey to rumors of permissive sex within these new collectives. The government response to this female inspired rebellion  was remarkable in its effectiveness. Rather than resort to bru-tality against woman—a major tool against male dissent—the government approached the problem in a dualistic fashion.  While propagating a derisive dialog regarding the women’s reaction as some sort of feminine hysteria, the visual compo-nent of the propaganda gloried the young, vibrant woman as a willing participant in the forced collectivization. The term Bab’i Bunty   (female rebellion) was disparingingly used, much in the manner a man today might nudge a friend and  jokingly refer to “a girl thing.” De-fanging the women’s seri-ous concerns further, the posters of the day showed women beseeching comrades to join in the collectivization, which had the effect of alienating those who resisted as if they were not normal. These two methods of discrediting concern about the massive reconstruction of the social structure of Russia were backed by the government’s willingness to terrorize those who  would not respond. The use of such idealized and collectively minded woman in the visual propaganda was part of what was called tipazh  , or espousing positive stereotyping for specic segments of the population. Each demographic, dened by age and occupa-tion, was portrayed in an idealistic fashion as a way to coerce those groups of individuals into behaving in a predetermined fashion. As a signicant break from the invented traditions of years earlier, this was an attempt to dene behavior, not as seen through any historical perspective as much as through a future ideal—an ideal, of course, that would serve the needs of the state. The idea was to create a new culture, a new set of human beings; the homo sovieticus  , homogenized in cloth-ing, emotions, behavior and hairstyle. Like bees in a hive; ants in a colony. This mythologizing was a part of a more scientically oriented propaganda, where intensive research was done as to how best reach different parts of the population. After studies of peasant “focus groups” for example, revealed a prefer-ence for muted colors (and the color blue) as opposed to the starker blacks and reds of earlier times, many subsequent posters reected that color preference. Poster production also became more centralized, and more tightly controlled. Government ofcials would often criticize posters that didn’t t the accepted norms as counterrevolutionary or bourgeois. This intimidation ironically reected the oppressive nature of the Tsarist regime the Soviets had rebelled so ardently against for its refusal to allow public postings that were not clearly pro-tsar or pro-church.POLITICAL LEADERS (VOZH’D)  One of Lenin’s rst objectives after the 1917 revolution  was the construction of monumental propaganda, but he  was insistent in not honoring any living Bolshevik leaders. Instead, he memorialized deceased individuals—political or otherwise—who had stood up for the ideals of socialism. This often led to monuments of individuals unknown to the popu-lace. Although Lenin was especially resistant to likenesses of himself, it did not take long for magazine and Rosta Window illustrators to generate cartoons that showed him performing heroic acts. There were busts made of him, and for his 50th birthday, a group of artists was invited to create work that featured his likeness. In yet another example of co-opting the iconography of the old regime, the rst poster images of Lenin—which set the standard for many images to come—depicted him stand-ing with one arm extended. Although his raised hand was sometimes clearly pointing forward, it was most often open in a fashion reminiscent of religious images of benediction. Lenin, who had suffered a series of strokes in 1922, died in 5
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