Unidentified artist, 50 years, 1929
This 1929 poster of Stalin, published by the Red Cross in Stalingrad, is one of the earliest Soviet propaganda posters featuring an image of Stalin and dates to the early days of Stalin’s consolidation of power after the turmoil of the power struggle after Lenin’s death in 1924.
A large bust of Stalin is sketched in red, the symbolic colour of Bolshevism, revolution, blood sacrifice and martyrdom, and of the Russian Orthodox icon. This red is picked up throughout the poster, on the red star on the engine of the train, on the wheels and carriages of trains and tractors, and on the chimneys of industrial buildings busily belching out smoke.
Stalin emerges from scenes of rapid industrialisation, construction, and burgeoning transport networks. The words on the sides of the trains are bread (хлеб), and coal (уголь), the two main thrusts of Bolshevik ambition – feeding the people and modernising the nation.
For a nation that had been left behind by the rest of Europe, these visible signs of modernisation and industrialisation were scenes of great beauty, and proof that Stalin was the correct man to be leading the nation. The Bolsheviks saw overcoming and subduing nature as a key priority in bringing the USSR rapidly into the new world of the 20th century.
The personality cult of Stalin is often seen as beginning in earnest with Stalin’s 50th birthday celebrations on 21 December 1929. This date is interesting because neither the date nor the year correspond with Stalin’s real birthdate, which was 18 December 1878.
Stalin, for reasons of his own, chose to falsify his birthday, although all of his early records, such as those from his seminary days, clearly show the 1878 date.
By 1929 Stalin had a much firmer grip on the reins of power than in 1928. Perhaps 50th birthday celebrations and the cultic phenomena surrounding them were simply more politically expedient in 1929 than the previous year.
Such creative and expedient use of biographical data came to be a prominent feature of the Stalin era, although it should also be noted that many monarchs today have their birthdays publicly celebrated on a different date to their actual date of birth.
The bottom section of the poster is filled with a brief biographical outline of the major events in Stalin’s Bolshevik biography, from his birth, through his years in the revolutionary underground, to the revolution itself, and beyond to his assumption of the leadership. Bolshevik biographies came to serve the same function as the lives of the saints in the church – they were exemplary and didactic.
Adherence to historical fact was less important than higher moral truths and the lessons to be drawn from a life correctly lived. In the quest for legitimacy for a government that had neither inherited the throne, nor been elected democratically, it was also important to educate the public about the Bolshevik leadership – particularly the new leader, Stalin.
By emphasising Stalin’s Bolshevik credentials, the poster appeals to a sort of ideological legitimacy and is an early step towards developing a cult around the leader, who would partake of the charismatic legitimacy that had been invested in Lenin.
The poster was published by the Russian Red Cross in an era when many Soviet entities were involved in publishing their own posters, and before poster production became centralised and heavily controlled. The text on either side of the poster promotes the Red Cross: “They alone, of all of the toiling masses, stand outside their ranks” and asks the public to strengthen the military-health fund.
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.