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.
N. Petrov and Konstantin Ivanov, Glory to great Stalin, the architect of Communism!, 1952
This poster by N. Petrov and Konstantin Ivanov was published in 1952 and carries the same slogan as the 1951 poster by Boris Belopol’skii on the same theme.
Unlike the earlier poster, which was in full colour and employed a graphic portrait of Stalin in front of a huge hydroelectric station, this 1952 poster uses black-and-white photography as a means of documentary evidence of the progress of Soviet society.
Stalin is superimposed in front of a view of Moscow and is looking up the Volga River. The city appears to be bustling with pedestrians, cars and river traffic, and is bathed in a white light which also shines on Stalin from above.
Stalin looks out of the picture, this time to the viewer’s left, which is usually associated with the past, and suggests that Stalin is surveying what has already been achieved.
The poster plays on the two levels of meaning of the architect symbol. Stalin is literally shown as responsible for the planning and rebuilding of Moscow, which commenced in 1935, but he is also responsible for planning and building the new communist society.
As Robert Tucker notes:
Moscow was seen as a symbol for the whole federation, her transformation a metaphor for the moral and political transformation of the whole of Soviet society.
Katerina Clark points out that, although only parts of Moscow were rebuilt, Moscow was usually represented as being totally rebuilt, and photographs of models were often presented to the public (as in the case of the Palace of Soviets) as if the new buildings already existed.**
Moscow was also represented — in Stalin’s ‘Greetings on her 800th anniversary’ in 1947, for example — as a sort of symbolic saviour of the West, having liberated the West from the Tartar yoke, repulsed the Polish–Lithuanian invasion in the Time of Troubles, repelled Napoleon in 1812, and won the Great Patriotic War against the fascists.
*Robert C. Tucker, ‘Stalin and the Uses of Psychology,’ World Politics, Vol.8, No.4, 1956, pp. 455-83, p. 461.
**Katerina Clark, ‘Eisenstein’s Two Projects for a Film about Moscow,’ The Modern Language Review, Vol. 101, No. 1, Jan., 2006, pp. 184-200, p. 186.
Veniamin Pinchuk, The spirit of the great Lenin and his invincible banner inspire us now in the patriotic war… (I. Stalin), 1943
The guiding and protecting spirit of Lenin is invoked in a 1943 poster by renowned sculptor and portraitist Veniamin Pinchuk, which visually references the 1942 poster by Vladimir Serov discussed last week. The differences between the two posters are minor but significant.
An image of Stalin from the chest up is placed before a chalky red banner. His right arm is outstretched and his hand palm down in a gesture of benediction. Over his right shoulder is the ghostly head of Lenin.
In these details, the 1943 Pinchuk poster closely resembles the top half of the 1942 Serov poster. However, in the 1943 poster, the entire bottom section of the poster – that unconventional section that shows the brutal slaying of the German enemy – has been removed.
In addition, there are subtle differences in the portraits of Lenin and Stalin used by Pinchuk. The Lenin of the Serov poster looks out to the left at eye level, his face serious, but composed. In the Pinchuk poster, Lenin’s narrowed eyes and head are tilted up, and his mouth set with a grim, almost angry look.
And while Stalin is wearing the same clothes in both posters, and making the same gesture with his right arm, in the 1943 poster he turns to face the viewer, looking directly out of the poster and into the viewer’s eyes.
Both posters show Stalin from the chest up, however in the 1942 poster his lower body has been dissolved in a bank of battle smoke, while in the 1943 poster Stalin’s body is solid to the edge of the image.
This Stalin is not floating in the sky like a disembodied spirit, but has been brought back to ground to lead his troops to victory. By 1943, there were already some small signs that the USSR's fortunes in war were turning around after the disasters of 1942.
On 2 February 1943, the Germans troops at Stalingrad surrendered. Although the war was far from won, there was finally some good news to spread to the populace and, in 1943, Stalin’s image began to be cautiously associated with victory.
Vladimir Serov, Under the banner of Lenin – forward to victory!, 1942
A 1942 poster by Vladimir Aleksandrovich Serov shows the spirit of Lenin from beyond the grave guiding the spirit of Stalin, both overlooking the battlefield during the disastrous early days of the Great Patriotic War.
Almost the entire top half of the poster is filled by a huge red banner infused with the ghostly head of Lenin looking calmly into the distance. Lenin’s sacred head emits a white light that illuminates the right arm and face of Stalin below him.
Stalin also does not look at the action below, but straight ahead and far out of the picture plane. He is grim and determined. His right arm is raised and outstretched, but his fingers are spread and his palm turned down, a gesture of blessing and benediction over the field of action below him.
Just as Stalin blesses his troops and their actions, Lenin sits on Stalin’s right shoulder to bless and guide him.
The bottom half of the poster depicts the battlefield in closeup. In the immediate foreground is a trench with barbed wire, and a German soldier being bayoneted by a Russian. The German has lost his gun and sprawls helpless on the ground, a dead comrade arched over barbed wire next to him.
The Russian with the bayonet steps over the body of another dead German soldier and, next to him, a comrade prepares to throw a grenade, while a poised bayonet gleams in the hands of a soldier behind him. A tank rumbles through in the background.
The red text is simple and direct:
Under the banner of Lenin, forward, to victory!
The imagery in this poster is unusual in that it is not often that Stalin appears in a poster with enemies (whether internal or external to the regime), and one of the few instances in which he is seen alongside any kind of brutality.
The war was cruel and the Soviet people suffered harshly under German occupation. In Volume 5 of his memoirs, Men, Years – Life, Ilia Ehrenburg recalls 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 to Ehrenburg:
All of the propaganda of the preceding decades which had 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 this confrontation as an opportunity to reach out to the working classes of other less fortunate nations.
However, atrocities committed on Russian soil, a series of punishing defeats, and a propaganda campaign featuring 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.
*Ilya Ehrenburg. Men, Years – Life, Transl. by Tatiana Shebunina and Yvonne Kapp, London, MacGibbon and Kee, p. 26.
** Ilya Ehrenburg. Men, Years – Life, Transl. by Tatiana Shebunina and Yvonne Kapp, London, MacGibbon and Kee, pp. 27-8.
F. Litvinov, Raise the banner of Lenin-Stalin – the banner of our great victory!, 1949
This poster by F. Litvinov was published by the Crimean publishing house, Krymizdat, in 1949, four years after the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War).
At this stage, the Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. It was only in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, that the Crimean oblast was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR.
The poster grants credit for the war victory to the protective banner of Lenin and Stalin, who form the hyphenated identity of Lenin-Stalin, with Stalin now portrayed as a joint leader of the 1917 October Revolution.
A young man in civilian clothing, wearing the Order of the Patriotic War medal (awarded to all soldiers in the Soviet Armed Forces, security troops and partisans who participated in the Great Patriotic War) waves a huge banner that ripples like the winds of inspiration through the sky over a crowd of people stretching back to the horizon.
The young man, in greyscale except for his military decorations, is symbolic of the Soviet people as a whole, also in greyscale. The text of the poster reads
Raise the banner of Lenin-Stalin – the banner of our great victory!
Merged into the fabric of the banner are the profile heads of Lenin and Stalin, Lenin in shirt and tie, Stalin with military collar. Both are illuminated by a divine white light and all three figures in the poster look out to the viewer’s left.
The focus of this poster is firmly on the glorious military past.
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