Stalin poster of the week is a weekly excursion into the fascinating world of propaganda posters of Iosif Stalin, leader of the USSR from 1929 until his death in 1953.
Here, Anita Pisch will showcase some of the most interesting Stalin posters, based on extensive research in the archives of the Russian State Library, and analyse what makes these images such successful propaganda.
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.
Although Stalin often appeared as a solitary leader figure in posters, he also frequently appeared with Lenin, and sometimes also with the great pantheon of communist thinkers, Marx, Engels and Lenin. Posters in which Stalin appears with the other great thinkers promote Stalin as a man of learning, a revolutionary thinker, a worthy teacher and a great leader, demonstrating his excellent ideological lineage.
Stalin’s place in the canon is demonstrated unambiguously in a well-known poster by Gustav Klutsis as early as 1933 — ‘Raise higher the banners of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin!’ The image is dominated by the heads of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, each on their own red banner.
The heads of Marx and Engels are turned to the viewer’s right. They do not engage the viewer, looking perhaps to the future (the right is associated with the future, the left with the past) and their own visionary predictions, but most definitely in the direction of the heads of Lenin and Stalin — the heroes of the past looking to the future, which is occurring in the present in 1933.
Lenin and Stalin are both almost full-face to the viewer, however, Lenin’s eyes are swivelled to the viewer’s right. Lenin, too, looks to Stalin for the leadership of the present day. The baton has been passed from Marx and Engels, to Lenin, who now passes it on to Stalin.
Stalin is neither focused on a mythical past, nor on a visionary future, but gazes out at the viewer from a firmly entrenched position in the present.
The crowd scenes surrounding each of the giant banners further illustrate this point. Marx and Engels are surrounded by fighters from the French and German revolutions of 1789 and 1848 respectively, wielding swords and muskets, fighting on foot and horseback. The numbers of soldiers engaged in the battle are relatively few.
Under Lenin’s banner, the October revolutionaries storm the Winter Palace in October 1917, while above, the crowds rush in to join the fight.
Stalin’s banner reveals something new. He is flanked by dense crowds of workers — some, like the woman in the foreground, beaming happily; others looking determined, steadfast and attentive; all carrying tools rather than weapons.
Gone is the classical architecture that surrounds Marx and Engels, replaced around the figure of Stalin by scenes of Soviet construction, which include the wall of the Dnieper Dam — Soviet construction constituting the new ‘battlefront’.
Stalin’s ‘revolution’ began around 1928 with forced collectivisation, the revocation of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the Shakhty Trial, and the introduction of the five-year plans. Although Stalin’s revolution did not result from the violent overthrow of the existing order, the nature of his reforms was such that they provided a revolutionary break with the past and, from this perspective, Stalin can be viewed as the fourth great revolutionary thinker in the process of evolution that was leading to the communist utopia.
Klutsis’s poster unequivocally sets Stalin alongside the other great revolutionaries and pillars of socialist thought while, at the same time, emphasising his relevance to the current time.
Variations on this formula would recur often throughout the years of Stalin’s rule, with several posters visually referencing this one. Indeed, this poster was so successful that it was released in a first edition of 50,000, a second edition of 30,000, a 1936 edition of 250,000 and, in 1937, it was produced in more than 20 languages of the Soviet republics.
Later posters in this subgenre of Stalin posters feature the phrase ‘banner of Marx–Engels–Lenin– Stalin’ in the caption. In this light, Klutsis’s poster of 1933 appears at first to be something of an anomaly. The differences between this and later posters are subtle, but important.
Klutsis’s caption refers to the ‘banners of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin’ and the visual imagery places each of the great thinkers on his own banner. In later posters, where Stalin’s name is appended to those of the other three, it is in hyphenated form, and the visual image shows all four heads emblazoned on a single banner. In these latter cases it is one protective banner which is invoked, and the four merge into a unifying force that symbolises the Party, the state and communism.