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.