Boris Efimov, The captain of the Soviet Union leads us from victory to victory, 1933
This 1933 poster by highly decorated satirist and caricaturist Boris Efimov depicts Stalin as a maritime captain steering the ship of the USSR. In his greatcoat and plain workman’s cap, a hearty and broad-shouldered Stalin grasps the helm with two large firm hands, his vigilant gaze out over his left shoulder keeping watch against enemies and potential threats.
The Soviet flag flaps in the breeze and behind him is the midsection of a huge ship with its red star emblem. The caption states, ‘The captain of the Soviet Union leads us from victory to victory!’, advising the viewer that not only is Stalin keeping the Soviet Union safe from harm, but he is also steering a journey of multiple victories.
In fact, the entire journey consists of a journey from one port of victory to another – from socialism, which was officially achieved in 1934, to communism, which would be achieved under Stalin in the future. It is implicit that, without Stalin, the ship would sink.
The helmsman image has a long history of association with skilled leadership and was a common motif in Byzantine, Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature and philosophy.
The helmsman symbol is part of a larger field of metaphors in which the ship represents the state, navigation represents knowledge, skill and care, and the journey becomes an odyssey.
Michel Foucault notes that the navigation metaphor implies three types of knowledge possessed by the skilled helmsman associated with medicine, political government and self-government.*
The helmsman image carries within it multiple implications. The helmsman:
This poster must have been considered an important propaganda tool because it was issued in an edition of 200,000 in 1933, before such big editions became commonplace.
* Michel Foucault, Frédéric Gros, François Ewald & Alessandro Fontana, The hermeneutics of the subject: lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982, New York, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005, pp. 248–49
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.