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.
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.