S. Podobedov, Comrade I.V. Stalin at the front in the Civil War, 1939
S. Podobedov’s 1939 poster ‘Comrade I.V. Stalin at the Front in the Civil War’ was published just as Europe entered the Second World War and the USSR was trying desperately to delay its own (inevitable) involvement in the conflict.
The poster image consists of a vast map of Soviet territories with the locations at which Stalin served in the Civil War (1918-1921) marked with a red star. Stalin was being promoted as a notable Bolshevik leader who was key to victory in this earlier conflict.
The use of a map with lines, labels, dates and a key makes this content appear as documentary evidence that Stalin was heavily involved in the Bolshevik military victory in the Civil War.
The bottom of the poster contains a quotation from Kliment Voroshilov, Marshall of the Soviet Union, that confirms the centrality of Stalin to the Bolshevik cause, whilst also offering a plausible explanation for Stalin’s apparent low profile during the Civil War years — Stalin was entrusted with the most terrible, dangerous missions and would suddenly appear in the direst circumstances to ensure victory for the Red Army:
In the period of 1918–1920 Stalin was probably the only person the Central Committee sent from one battlefront to another, choosing the most dangerous, the most terrible places of a revolution. Where it had been relatively peaceful and prosperous, where we had success — there Stalin was not visible. But where, for a number of reasons the Red Army was broken, where the counter-revolutionary forces were becoming successful and threatened the very existence of the Soviet regime, where confusion and panic could at any moment turn into helplessness and catastrophe — there Stalin appeared. He did not sleep nights, he organised, the leadership was lying in his steady hands, he broke the enemy and was ruthless — creating a turning point, a healing environment.
The golden cameo portrait of Stalin suggests a medallion or coin, with Stalin’s head reminiscent of the heads of monarchs or caesars on coins and of sacred figures in icons.
The map is framed in sacred colours associated with the icon — red and gold — and illustrates the mythic and sacred history of the Bolshevik Party.
Voroshilov’s statement allows Stalin to preserve his modesty and also contains many of the elements of the developing Stalin myth — a sense of almost magical omnipresence and the ability to appear out of nowhere whenever needed; the leader who doesn’t sleep at night; and the strong but caring leader who is ruthless with his enemies.
The map is stamped on the top right corner with a picture of the Order of the Red Banner, signifying Stalin’s courage.
Stalin and the Party leadership may well have envisaged themselves as warriors in the battle for socialism, not only using battle metaphors from the time of the Revolution throughout the life of the regime, but also referring to themselves and each other in quasi-military terms.
In conversation with Lavrentii Beria, Stalin referred to the Bolsheviks as ‘a sort of military-religious order’,* and, in a 1921 draft article, ‘On the political strategy and tactic of the Russian communists’, he wrote of: ‘The communist party as a kind of order of swordbearers** within the Soviet state, directing the organs of the latter and inspiring its activity.’***
When Feliks Dzerzhinskii, head of the Cheka, died in July 1926, Stalin referred to him as ‘a devout knight of the proletariat’.****
In fact, Stalin himself came to be endowed with the qualities of the bogatyr, the mythical Russian knight–hero, along with the other Old Bolskeviks in the top Party leadership, and this term was also applied to ‘everyday heroes’ like the Stakhanovites.
Battle metaphors saturated Bolshevik vocabulary, beginning with the central Marxist concept of ‘class war’. In propaganda, each campaign involved a ‘struggle’ and a ‘front’ (e.g. the ‘construction front’), and art and cultural production in general were viewed as ‘a weapon’. ‘Enemies’ were potentially everywhere.
*Simon Montefiore, Stalin, p. 88.
**Orden mechenostsev. The ‘order of swordbearers’ (the Schwertbrtider) was an order of crusading monks founded in 1202 by Albert, bishop of Livonia, in which the brothers took the three-fold monk’s vow of poverty, chastity, and ‘to deny themselves to have a will of their own’
***Iosif Stalin, Sochineniia, 5, p. 71 in ‘Stalin’s organic theory of the Party’, Russian Review, 52:1, 1993, pp. 43–57, p. 45.
****Simon Montefiore, Stalin, p. 88.
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.