Nina Vatolina, Thank you dear Stalin for our happy childhood!, 1939
The theme of a happy childhood was a major trope in Soviet propaganda posters of the Stalin era, beginning in 1936. Many posters were produced on the theme of a happy childhood and, in some of them, Stalin appeared as the father of all children of all territories of the USSR.
In Nina Vatolina’s 1939 version of ‘Thank You Dear Stalin for our Happy Childhood,’ the children are from various nationalities within the Soviet Union, although Russian children still predominate in their Pioneer scarves.
Whereas in earlier posters on this theme Stalin and the children occupied the same space in the picture plane and interacted in an affectionate manner, in this poster the children are totally separated from Stalin. He is geographically isolated from them – nominally, away at the Kremlin, but in fact floating above them in the sky, looking down on them like an omnipotent god.
This god-like quality is reinforced by the difference in scale in the two halves of the poster – Stalin’s head is that of a titan and it dominates the heavens.
There is no sky, only light (as in an icon) and the sacred spire of the Kremlin, topped by its red star, stands like the steeple of a church bathed in fairytale light. The Spassky tower is the earthly home of the benign deity and, in the poster, forms a link between the realms of the heavens (inhabited by Stalin) and earth (inhabited by the children).
The children bring offerings, but these lush bunches of flowers will not actually reach Stalin and remain purely symbolic. While the children salute and gaze with reverential awe.
Stalin looks down on them as a symbolic father, offering protection and benefaction from afar. Stalin radiates white light, which not only illuminates the Kremlin tower, but also the faces of the children across the various lands and territories of the union.
It is here that Stalin’s transformation from man to myth commences.
Dmitrii Grinets, Thanks to the Party, Thanks to Dear Stalin for a Happy, Joyful Childhood, 1937
In the 1937 poster ‘Thanks to the Party, Thanks to Dear Stalin for our Happy, Joyful Childhood’ by Dmitrii Grinets in the Ukrainian language, Stalin adopts a fatherly pose with three children.
The portrait format of the poster emphasises the intimacy and physical closeness of the scene. By depicting such a scene with Stalin standing in as the father for non-related children, the suggestion is made that he is the father of all children of all nationalities of the USSR, intimately concerned with the prospects and fate of each child in his care.
Stalin holds the smallest child against his chest, while his focus is keenly on the elder boy who plays the violin for him. The youngest boy shows ambition to join the armed forces, wearing military garb and clutching a toy aeroplane in his right arm. The older boy wears a Pioneer scarf and will be a successful musician.
It is only the young girl, wearing traditional headdress, who is given no costume or prop to indicate her future vocation. Perhaps her gratitude and devotion are a sufficient contribution.
The caption of the poster, occupying the bottom third of the picture plane, reinforces this notion of gratitude, and is uncommon for its time in that it emphasises the thanks owed to the Party, as well as to Stalin.
The word ridnomu (and its Russian equivalent rodnomu) does not translate precisely in English. Used as a term of endearment, the word also connotes a kin or familial relationship with the person to whom it is applied.
K.V. Zotov, We’re growing up under Lenin and Stalin’s banner!, 1934
In the early years of Stalin’s rule, he often appeared as an overseer of socialist development and progress, his image appearing in a corner of a poster about factory work, or alongside graphic depictions of Soviet progress.
In the case of ‘We’re growing up under Lenin and Stalin’s banner!’ of 1934 by K.V. Zotov, Stalin and Lenin oversee the upbringing of Soviet toddlers. Lenin, in the left corner, is the sacred and revered inspiration for this important work, while Stalin on the right is the interpreter of Lenin’s words, the one who translates Lenin’s doctrine into action.
Between Lenin and Stalin is an indistinct graphic that mimics the statistical posters popular at that time in which the great feats of socialist progress are outlined in documentary fashion.
Beneath the graphic, toddlers play in a nursery with toy trucks, building blocks and construction sets, pre-empting their future careers as builders of the socialist state.
Interestingly, the children are all male. The only female in the poster is the childcare worker who looks over the children with devoted attention, her red scarf tied behind her neck – the symbol of the female Soviet worker.
In the foreground, three young boys of varied ethnicities beam out at the viewer. One wears a small Lenin badge on his jumper, and another holds an alphabet block with A for ‘Aviatsiya’ – Aviation – a desirable career path and one in which the Soviets were to set over 60 world records in the next few years.
Stalin, as the interpreter of Lenin’s teachings, is quoted beneath his own image:
“Let’s bring up a new generation; hard-working, healthy and cheerful and capable of elevating the power of the Soviet country to the height it deserves.”
In this early stage of Stalinist propaganda, Stalin is not portrayed as a fatherly figure and does not engage with the children. He is the conscientious leader with the master plan for bringing Lenin’s dream to fruition.
Within two years, Stalin’s image in propaganda was to undergo a dramatic transformation as a symbolic persona was created for him that incorporated key mythic universal archetypes and saw him depicted as the father of the nation.
Unidentified artist, we won. Under the name of Stalin we will win!, 1941
It was relatively uncommon for Stalin to be depicted in propaganda posters with any form of enemy, and even more uncommon for him to be pictured alongside any kind of brutality.
The Great Patriotic War (Second World War) was cruel and the Soviet people suffered harshly under German occupation. The propaganda of the preceding decades, which emphasised the unity of the working classes around the world and their shared goals and interests, had been largely successful, and some of the Russian soldiers saw the war as an opportunity to reach out to the working classes of other less fortunate nations.
Well-known Russian writer Ilia Ehrenburg* recalled that the Russian people did not initially have any hatred for the German soldiers:
‘The men defending Smolensk or Briansk repeated what they had heard first at school and later at political meetings, or read in the newspapers: in Germany the working class was strong, it was a leading industrial country; true, the fascists, supported by the Ruhr magnates and the social-traitors, had seized power, but the German people were in opposition and were carrying on the struggle. “Naturally,” the Red Army men said, “the officers are fascists, and of course there must be misguided men among the rank and file, but millions of soldiers advance only because otherwise they’d be shot”.’
Ehrenburg recalls feeling enraged when gunners on the front line refused to shell a highway when commanded to do so. One of the gunners explained:
‘“We can’t just shell the road and then retreat. We must let the Germans approach and try to explain to them it’s time for them to come to their senses and rise against Hitler, and that we’ll help them to do it”. The others feelingly supported him. A young and intelligent looking artillery man said: “Who are we shooting? Workers and peasants. They think we’re against them, we don’t leave them any choice”.’
Terrible atrocities committed by German troops on Russian soil, a series of punishing defeats, and a concerted propaganda campaign with highly emotive images that highlighted the risk to women and children under German occupation, turned this pacifist attitude on its head, and troops were encouraged to fight savagely in order to win the war.
Many of the posters of the time (in which Stalin’s image does not appear) focus on fear, brutality and German atrocities, as well as depicting the enemy as subhuman or vermin.
In these most desperate years of the war, a few posters contained both an image of Stalin and an image of the hated enemy.
A simple war poster of 1941 by an unidentified artist, published in Leningrad in an edition of 25,000, is dominated by a large diagonal banner on which Stalin’s profile appears only in white outline silhouette.
Beneath Stalin’s head, the words ‘Under the name of Stalin we won. Under the name of Stalin we will win!’ separate his faint image from the battle scene below. This caption refers to Stalin’s earlier victory at Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) in the Civil War in order to legitimate his leadership and rally the troops in the current conflict.
The crude graphic shows two aircraft above a Soviet tank that is crushing the enemy beneath it. The enemy is depicted in cartoon fashion as a skull in a helmet with long sharp-clawed paws protruding from the sleeves of its Nazi uniform — in both the Civil War and the Great Patriotic War, the enemy was often depicted with animal characteristics so as to highlight either the danger posed by the enemy, or its vermin-like, subhuman qualities. Alternately, the enemy could also be depicted in cartoon-fashion as cowardly and ridiculous.
*Men, years — life, vol. 5, The war: 1941–45, Tatiana Shebunina & Yvonne Kapp (trans.), London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1964, pp. 26-28.
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.
SPotW61 Babitskii 1944
SPotW62 Pen Varlen 1942
SPotW63 Bayuskin 1942
SPotW64 Belopol'skii 1950
SPotW65 Belopol'skii 1952
SPotW66 Dlugach 1933
SPotW67 Zhitomirskii 1942
SPotW68 Toidze 1949
SPotW69 Mikhailov 1937
SPotW70 Cheprakov 1939
SPotW76 Toidze 1943
SPotW77 Futerfas 1936
SPotW78 Mukhin 1945
SPotW79 Golub' 1948
SPotW80 Karpovskii 1948