Unknown artist, Chronicle of the arrests, exiles and escapes of Comrade Stalin, 1938
This curious poster documents in fine detail Stalin’s arrests, exiles and escapes from exile between 1902 and 1917. Published in 1938 on cheap paper, there are few publishing details printed on the poster, and it is unclear exactly where, and how widely, this poster was published.
The poster features a black-and-white portrait of Stalin in three-quarter view. In 1938, Stalin was 60 years old, although officially, his 60th birthday was celebrated in 1939. He shows a few grey hairs on his head and in his moustache, and a few lines around the eyes.
Stalin looks to the viewer’s left – the left signifies the past. Thus, Stalin is a seasoned Old Bolshevik, looking back over his past glories. The text details, in documentary fashion, all of the major events in Stalin’s revolutionary career, demonstrating that Stalin was a vital and integral part of the 1917 Revolution and the long series of events leading up to it.
Arrests by the tsarist authorities, exiles and escapes were rites of passage for the members of the revolutionary underground, and this poster presents Stalin’s revolutionary credentials. The visual similarities to newsprint are not accidental. The viewer is being offered this information as documentary proof.
The year 1938 was significant because the intense purges or ‘Great Terror‘ were in full swing in that year. Following the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934, the Party leadership claimed to have uncovered a massive conspiracy to assassinate the Party leadership and undermine socialist progress.
Their investigations were far-reaching and their own leadership in the Central Committee was purged, the armed forces were purged, the Party was purged, and then approximately 20 million ordinary Russians were sent to the gulag.
Stalin’s exemplary revolutionary credentials and self-sacrificial exploits placed him in stark contrast to the traitors and enemies of the people who were placed on trial, denounced, and often either exiled or executed. Party leaders and other major figures were tried publicly in show trials in which many of them signed confessions which were patently absurd.
One of the primary effects of the purges of the late 1930s was to strengthen the identification of citizens with Stalin, and to increase hostility towards enemies.
Stalin scholar Roy Medvedev* quotes ‘V.K.’, an Old Bolshevik, to illustrate the point that, although many did not believe in the guilt of all those accused during the show trials, some still supported the Terror on principle:
Of course I never imagined that Bukharin and Trotsky were Gestapo agents or that they wanted to kill Lenin; moreover, it was clear to me Stalin never believed it either. But I considered the trials of 1937–38 to be a far-sighted political tactic, and thought that Stalin had done the right thing in resolving to discredit all forms of opposition once and for all in such grim fashion. … Most “ordinary people” could not even see the difference between Left and Right … Therefore all deviationists, all types of sceptics had to be portrayed as scoundrels so repulsive that others would recoil in horror; they would become total outcasts, hated and cursed by the people … In prison I became an even more obstinate Stalinist than before …
*On Stalin and Stalinism, Ellen de Kadt (trans.), Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 107–08.
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.