stalin poster of the week 87: *SPECIAL EDITION: 80TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MOSCOW CANAL* gleb kun, vasilii elkin, and konstantin sobolevskii, greetings to great stalin. the moscow-volga canal is open!, 1937
1937 saw the opening of the Moscow-Volga Canal, which connected the Moscow and Volga rivers and thus gave Moscow access to five seas (the White Sea, Baltic Sea, Caspian Sea, Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea), as well as supplying the water needs of about half the population of Moscow. In 1938, the February issue of USSR in Construction featured a 40-page spread on the construction of the canal.
The 1937 poster, ‘Greetings to Great Stalin. The Moscow-Volga Canal is Open!, by Gleb Kun, Vasilii Nikolaevich Elkin and Konstantin Sobolevskii, announces the opening of the canal for business and features a sleek, elegant graphic design in a striking colour scheme of red, white, black and blue , in which the canal is portrayed as the hub of modern transport.
Aeroplanes, trains, cars, buses and motorcycles feature alongside the canal which provides a waterway for transport of passengers and goods, as well as for recreational activities such as sailing, and strolling along the banks.
While the aircraft, train, and working boats are depicted in subtle greys and whites, passenger vehicles stand out in strong, bold colours, and the eye is particularly drawn to the tiny figure in red on the yacht – the red of her costume picking up the solid band of red on the flag, and the text box at the base of the poster.
Thus, although the poster illustrates the advantages to the State of the industrial and technological achievement, the image draws particular attention to consumer benefits, and promises opportunities for more joyous and abundant life.
In fact, to have access to an automobile or yacht was out of the reach of all but the very top echelon of Stalin’s magnates.
The construction achievement of the canal, which was built by slave labour from the gulags, is laid at the feet of Stalin, both through reference to him in the text, and through the use of his sketched image, which adorns the red flag that comprises almost half the image of the poster.
Stalin’s image on the flag not only hovers god-like above the scene, looking protectively down over the ant-like human activity below, but actually obscures much of the scene.
Unidentified artist, The Civil War 1918-1920, 1938
Despite ongoing claims to the contrary, Stalin was actually quite active in both the October Revolution and the Civil War.
Speaking of the early days of power after the October Revolution, Fiodor Alliluyev noted in his unpublished memoirs:*
Comrade Stalin was genuinely known only to a small circle of people who had come across him … in the political underground or had succeeded … in distinguishing real work and real devotion from chatter, noise (and) meaningless babble.
Polish Bolshevik Stanislaw Pestkovsky noted:**
Lenin could not get along without Stalin for a single day … Our Smolny office was under Lenin’s wing. In the course of the day, he’d call Stalin an endless number of times and would appear in our office and lead him away.
During the Civil War, Lenin despatched Stalin to Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad) in mid-1918, initially to take charge of food supplies. This key strategic city looked likely to fall to White forces.
Stalin took military control in July and, with his status raised to commissar, killed off a group of Trotskii’s ex-tsarist specialists, and played a significant part in the victory of the Red Army in that city.
Beginning in 1938, with the purges drawing to a close and war brewing in Europe, several posters highlight Stalin’s achievements in the Civil War.
The poster titled ‘The Civil War 1918–1920’ (poster no. 6 in the series) features a black-and-white photographic portrait of the young Stalin gazing out at the viewer in military-style jacket.
The poster also shows copies of a telegram from Stalin dated 19 July 1918 and the transcript of a recorded phonecall discussing the food situation on 24 July 1918.
The telegram and dates are significant, as propaganda in the late 1930s made much of Stalin’s successful intervention in the Civil War at Tsaritsyn and the telegram provides factual proof of the trust placed in Stalin by Lenin.
Stalin is depicted as central to the Civil War leadership, as a close and trusted comrade of Lenin, and as associated with the military effort, while Lenin is carrying out construction tasks.
In one of the poster’s vignettes, Stalin is shown rallying the first cavalry. In others, Lenin carries a large log during a subbotnik (day of voluntary public labour). Mikhail Kalinin agitates amongst the crowd. Trotskii, who had been instrumental in the red victory in the Civil War, is nowhere to be seen in the poster and had been both demonised and written out of revolutionary history.
* Fyodor Alliluyev, quoted in Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, p. 367.
** Bolshevik Stanislaw Pestkovsky quoted in Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, pp. 367-8
Anatoli Alekseevich Kazantsev, 1917-1944. Forward, to definitive defeat of the enemy!, 1944
Anatoli Kazantsev’s 1944 poster reprises the theme of drawing a parallel between Lenin leading the people to victory in the revolution and civil war, with Stalin leading them to victory in the Great Patriotic War.
The top half of the poster, under the caption 1917, shows the ghostly head of Lenin in the sky, surrounded by images of revolution and civil war, the conspicuous use of the cavalry dating the battle. Lenin’s portion of the poster is bathed in golden light – a mythic and sacred era.
The bottom part of the poster is in the documentary shades of black-and-white, and is captioned 1944. This part of the poster too depicts a battle, but the battle is in the present, the year 1944, and helmeted soldiers surge forward with rifles, supported by tanks.
Spanning both sections of the poster is the black-and-white figure of Stalin in his Marshal’s uniform. Stalin is the bridge between the past and the present. From earlier cult-related propaganda, and the Soviet education drive, the population would be well aware that Stalin was a key figure in the revolution and the ensuing civil war victory, and also that he was the creator of the Red Cavalry.
The text of the poster urges the population ‘Forward, to the definitive defeat of the enemy!’ Stalin is not only the ‘Lenin of today’, but is also the figure of continuity, with a long history of successfully steering the people through crisis to victory.
It is significant that in this poster the text refers only to ‘the enemy’ rather than the ‘German enemy/occupiers/invaders’. In being less specific, the caption refers equally to both the past and the future.
Kazantsev, who died in 1984, mainly produced posters during the war period. He was otherwise well known as an easel and monumentalist painter and was a professor at the Vera Mukhina Arts Academy.
Viktor Koretskii, Our banner is the banner of victory!, 1943
In June 1945, just weeks after the Soviet victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) on 9 May, Stalin was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and, against his protestations, the military rank of generalissimus.
Simon Sebag Montefiore notes that Stalin’s reply to the proposal by Marshall Ivan Koniev that he be made generalissimus was: ‘Comrade Stalin doesn’t need it … Comrade Stalin has the authority without it. Some title you’ve thought up! Chiang Kai-Shek’s a Generalissimo. Franco’s a Generalissimo — fine company I find myself in!’*
Despite Stalin’s apparent modesty, Vyacheslav Molotov claims that he changed after victory in the war: ‘He became conceited, not a good feature in a statesman.’**
Victory in the war was celebrated exuberantly in posters, and Stalin was acclaimed for his role in this triumph. In some posters this was done with some subtlety.
Viktor Koretskii’s 1945 poster ‘Our banner is the banner of victory!’ celebrates the victory of the united Soviet people — the soldier, the munitions factory worker and the agricultural worker — although all appear to be ethnically Russian in this case.
Although both military and civilian personnel contributed to this victory, it is the soldier’s head that is wreathed by a victory laurel, and it is he who wields the protective banner, wearing decorations of the Order of the Great Patriotic War and the Order of Glory.
Stalin and Lenin appear as small profile portraits in bas-relief on the banner that has protected the Soviet people. They too are framed by the victory laurel.
*Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: the court of the Red Tsar. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003, pp. 504-5.
** F. Chuev, Molotov remembers: inside Kremlin politics — conversations with Felix Chuev, Albert Resis (ed.), Chicago, Terra Publishing Center as Sto sorok besed s Molotovym, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1993, p. 73.
Viktor Deni and Nikolai Dolgorukov, The enemy’s fate is predetermined: we have crushed them before and we will crush them again, 1938
Viktor Deni and Nikolai Dolgorukov’s ‘The enemy’s fate is predetermined: we have crushed them before and we will crush them again’ of 1938 depicts the relaxed and friendly pair of Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov, civil and military leader respectively, chatting under a portrait of Lenin, who is in characteristic collar and tie.
The three figures form a ‘holy trinity’ that watches over and protects the Soviet Union, and the text of the poster, invoking fate and predestiny, lends a sacral aura to the notion of righteous victory.
Beneath the trinity is a map of Europe in which Russia’s enemies flee as a series of red flags springs up around Europe. These enemies include Aleksandr Kolchak who, in the Civil War formed an anti-Communist government in Siberia, Lieutenant General Anton Denikin who was a prominent White leader during the Civil War, Nikolai Yudenich, also a White leader, Cossack military leader Pavlo Skoropadskii, Cossack Lieutenant General Piotr Krasnov, Cossack Lieutenant General Aleksandr Dutov, the Poles, the Germans, the Japanese intervention and the Mensheviks.
Nina Vatolina and Nikolai Denisov, Long live Soviet Pilots - proud falcons of our Motherland!, 1938
In the late 1930s, the Soviet leadership watched with increasing alarm the machinations of Nazi Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.
It was becoming clear that war in Europe was imminent, and it was Stalin’s aim to stay out of the war for as long as possible, as the forces of the Soviet Union were unprepared for battle.
With the multitude of successes on the world stage in aviation, Soviet propaganda could focus on this arena of achievement and employ it as a deterrent to Germany to engage the USSR in war.
Produced in 1938, ‘Long live the Soviet pilots — the proud falcons of our motherland!’ by Nikolai Denisov and Nina Vatolina, emphasises this military might by showing a sky full of aircraft engaged in an airshow.
The display is watched by Stalin (in military-style tunic but as yet no uniform of rank) and Marshal of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov (in marshal’s uniform). With their golden, upturned faces, and white uniforms, the two men are the centre of light in the poster.
Stalin salutes the pilots in a gesture that is both a mark of respect and a form of benediction, wishing them long life and protection from the very real dangers of their calling.
Despite the defence of the nation being Voroshilov’s portfolio, it is Stalin’s image that predominates. It was perhaps particularly important for propaganda to play up the might of Soviet aviation with war imminent as, in reality, the Soviet Airforce was ill equipped for military battle.
Substantial effort had been focused on the ‘higher, faster, longer’ principle in aviation, which had led to the attainment of so many world records; however, these were not the sorts of aircraft needed to engage successfully in battle, as the war would come to demonstrate.
Vladislav Pravdin, To the new achievements of soviet aviation!, 1950
The 1950 poster, ‘To the new successes of Soviet aviation’ by Vladislav Grigorevich Pravdin, shows a paternal Stalin in his Marshal’s uniform, rewarding a Pioneer youth with a view of an airshow from his balcony.
Stalin and the boy are joined by two young men in military uniform, and a pilot, and the sky is full of aeroplanes and parachutes, providing a blaze of festive colour.
The youth holds a model aeroplane, a typical Soviet toy for boys, indicating his desire to grow up to be an aviator. He is supported in this aim by the protective, encouraging arm of Stalin, who indicates with his left hand that the sky is the limit for this boy’s future.
The youth is clean-cut, reverential, yet composed, determined, and not intimidated by Stalin – the sorts of qualities needed in the new Soviet man.
Just as Stalin had been portrayed in media and propaganda as a father to record-breaking pilot Valerii Chkalov, his special paternal attention to this deserving youth will ensure that he follows the correct line for success in the future.
Women are absent from the foreground of the poster, although may be assumed to be present among the indistinct spectators to the show. After the Great Patriotic War, women were encouraged to focus on motherhood and the domestic sphere, rather than become involved in dangerous exploits that might take them away from their families.
Well-known poster artist Vladislav Pravdin (Rykhlov) was a graduate of the Moscow Technical School for Polygraphy and of the Moscow Art Institute. Many of Pravdin’s posters of the 1940s were produced in collaboration with his fellow student, and later fellow member of the Military Artists Studio, Nikolai Denisov.
Viktor Koretskii, Great Stalin is the banner of friendship of the peoples of the USSR!, 1950
Viktor Koretskii’s 1950 ‘Great Stalin is the banner of friendship of the peoples of the USSR!’ promotes Stalin as a unifier and saviour of the people. The people pay floral tribute to Stalin, and the poster merges the archetypes of Warrior, Father, and Saviour.
Stalin is elevated on a podium which separates him from the common people, with a multitude of flowers forming a physical barrier between them. He gazes down on the people with paternal affection.
There are two sources of light in the picture, Stalin himself and the flat white background, however, it is Stalin’s light that illuminates the faces of the subject peoples.
In the background there are sixteen flags, representing the sixteen republics of the federation. In September 1939, the number of republics in the Soviet Union increased from eleven to sixteen – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzistan, Moldavia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
The Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) had been incorporated into the USSR under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, then occupied by the Germans in June 1941, before being ‘liberated’ by the Soviets in 1944.
The people in the poster are of various ethnicities, many in their national costumes, and they deluge Stalin with flowers, most notably roses. Their faces are filled with joy at the chance to meet their benefactor.
Stalin makes eye contact only with a professional Russian male. Males from other nationalities gaze up at him with reverence (and deference), and most of the women present are in profile, in shadow, or partially obscured, as if of secondary importance.
Naum Karpovskii, Long live the Komsomol generation! Stalin., 1948.
At a time at which Stalin was being lauded and celebrated as the saviour of the USSR, this 1948 poster by Naum Karpovskii depicts a flesh-and-blood Stalin as a man of the people. In ‘Long live the Komsomol generation’ Stalin is surrounded by smiling people, pressed right up against him, some of them even higher than him in the picture plane.
The landscape format of the poster suggests an equality of the people depicted, rather than a hierarchy, and in this poster it is only the huge stone head of Lenin that sits above all others.
Rather than the flattened, airbrushed appearance of Stalin’s face as seen in posters such as that by Denisov and Pravdin of the same year, Stalin’s face shows as many dimples, lines and shadows as those of the people around him.
The publication of the poster coincides with the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Komsomol. Komsomol membership was open to those aged between 14 and 28 years of age, although higher functionaries could be older and, apart from providing an educational arena for the instillation of Bolshevik values, Komsomol members were often mobilised as mobile work brigades to make up for shortfalls or complete special tasks.
The simple text of the poster is a quote from Stalin’s speech to the Leninist Young Communist League on the day of the tenth anniversary of the Komsomol, printed in Pravda on 28th October, 1928.*
In this poster Stalin combines the warrior and father archetype. On the one hand, he inspires young people to join the Soviet Armed Forces, but is also encouraging of those in industry and agriculture, the continuing battlefront. Industrial work such as mining appears to be the domain of men, while women work in agriculture, or look pretty and present flowers.
However, in 1948 Soviet propaganda was already emphasising the need for young people to gain technical and scientific skills, and to work smarter rather than harder. Thus, this poster can also be read as a celebration of the past, with Stalin, first among equals, surrounded by the characters who built the Soviet Union.
* IV Stalin. ‘Leninist Young Communist League: Welcome to the day of the tenth anniversary of the Komsomol,’ Pravda № 252, October 28, 1928 accessed at http://www.marxists.org/russkij/stalin/t11/t11_24.htm.
Petr Golub’, Stalin raised us to be loyal to the people!, 1948
The 1944 version of the Soviet national anthem includes the lines ‘And Stalin raised us to be loyal to the people / Inspired us to work and to deeds’, formalising Stalin’s patriarchy as a matter of state.
The first line is quoted directly in a 1948 postwar poster by Petr Golub’. The lyrics of the anthem were, of course, well known and instantly recognisable to the Soviet people, and the two lines preceding this one glorify Lenin, ‘Through storms the sun of freedom shone on us / And great Lenin lit up our path’. However, Lenin is nowhere to be seen in this poster, either in text or image.
‘Stalin raised us to be loyal to the people!’ combines the Father and Warrior archetypes in one pastel image. The poster caption makes clear the dual nature of Stalin’s role for the sailors — as the Generalissimus of the Armed Forces, he is their military leader and as the man who raised them, he is their symbolic father.
Under the protective canopy of the Soviet Navy flag, Stalin inspects the troops and addresses a young sailor who has been pulled out of line.
Stalin and the sailor stand eye-to-eye, the sailor holding the leader’s gaze. They look remarkably alike in terms of facial features, almost as if they could be related.
Unusually, Stalin is shown as the same height as the young man, although the peak of his cap makes his overall height slightly greater.
The sailor’s cap shows that he is attached to the cruiser named ‘Molotov’ (after Vyacheslav Molotov). The project 26bis Kirov-class cruiser of the Soviet Navy served during World War II and into the Cold War, supporting Soviet troops during the Siege of Sevastopol (1941-2), the Kerch-Feodosiya Operation (1941) and the amphibious landings at Novorossiysk in 1943.
The flag that flies overhead is the Soviet Navy ensign flag. It is white with a sky blue strip across the base, and big red star in hoist and red sickle and hammer in fly. It is seen in reverse in this depiction.
This ensign was adopted by the decision of the Central Executive Committee and Council of People’s Commissioners on 27 May 1935. It was first hoisted on naval ships on 1 July 1935.
Dr Anita Pisch
Anita’s new, fully illustrated book, The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929 -1953, published by ANU Press, is available for free download here, and can also be purchased in hard copy from ANU Press.