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.
Despite the fact that charismatic leadership hinges on binary codings of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and on salvation narratives in which the leader identifies enemies and saves the populace from them, Stalin was rarely depicted in posters with the enemy or alongside any kind of brutality, even during the Second World War.
This 1930 poster by Viktor Deni, ‘With the banner of Lenin we won in the battles for the October Revolution …’ is one of Stalin’s rare appearances with enemies. In these early days of his leadership, not quite a decade on from the end of the Civil War, Stalin saw the USSR as still being engaged in class war. In fact, he saw class war as intensifying, and this provided one of the major justifications for the Great Terror from 1936 to 1938 in which whole classes of people were exiled or executed.
Enemies of the people included Trotskyists, the Right, the Left, Mensheviks, spies, traitors, kulaks (wealthy peasants), priests, drunkards, bureaucrats, shirkers, saboteurs, capitalists, White Guardists and skeptics about the first Five-Year Plan.
We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. During the investigation, do not look for evidence that the accused acted in deed or word against Soviet power. The first questions that you ought to put are: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What is his education or profession? And it is these questions that ought to determine the fate of the accused.*
Deni’s 1930 poster features small caricatures of a priest, a capitalist, an ‘oblomov’**, and a Menshevik, lined up down the left side of the poster. They gesture angrily at Stalin, who faces them off from the right with an unperturbed gaze, and the machinery of Soviet industrialisation and construction bolstering him.
* Martin Latsis quoted in Klaus-Georg Riegel, ‘Marxism–Leninism as a political religion’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 2005, 6:1, p. 106.
** The terms ‘oblomov’ and ‘oblomovism’ derive from Ivan Goncharov’s popular novel, Oblomov (1859). The central character, Oblomov, is indecisive and apathetic, and takes the first 50 pages of the novel to get from his bed to his chair. ‘Oblomovshchina’ (oblomovism) refers to a condition of fatalistic apathy and sloth. Chonghoon Lee notes that the condition was a central concern of Soviet psychiatric and neurological research and was viewed as a ‘national disease’ which was denounced in the drive for industrialisation and the search for heroes of labour (See ‘Visual Stalinism from the perspective of heroisation: posters, paintings and illustrations in the 1930s’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 8:3–4, 2007, pp. 503–21, p. 503).