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.
Many Stalinist propaganda posters depict huge red banners that fill the sky and hover protectively over the crowds below them. The text on the posters specifically invokes the banner as a protective and inspirational object, whether protecting the troops going into battle, inspiring citizens to further sacrifice in the name of the victory of communism, or even protecting and legitimating the leadership.
A 1950 poster by Vladislav Pravdin features two red banners that dominate the sky. The largest of the two, which occupies almost all of the top half of the poster, is intensely red and decorated with gold braid — it ripples as if in a gentle breeze.
It is emblazoned with the head and shoulders of Lenin in fleshy tones, associating Lenin with eternal life, as in the icon, and also acknowledging his sacrifice for the sake of the people – Lenin survived an assassination attempt in 1918 and, despite dying of natural causes, was still viewed as a martyr to the cause by many.
Lenin looks out to the viewer’s left, his eyes focused on a distant vision of the past. Beneath him, the figure of Stalin dominates the foreground, his head jutting up into the red field created by the banner, with Lenin hovering over his right shoulder like a protective ‘good angel’.
Stalin’s gaze mimics that of Lenin and he partakes of the implication of eternal life already bestowed upon Lenin.
Behind Stalin, and also underneath Lenin’s banner, are the figures of the Soviet leadership although it is interesting to note that this was not the membership of the Politburo at the time.
Behind the first banner is a second large banner that hovers over the anonymous faces of ‘the masses’, carrying text which reads: ‘Under the banner of Lenin, under the leadership of Stalin — forward to the victory of communism!’, making literal the well-worn slogan.
We can read Pravdin’s poster as an icon, replacing Russian Orthodox iconography with Soviet iconography. The apotheosised Lenin floats in the upper part of the poster, contained within an implicit aureole.
His red banner spreads over the Party leaders, guiding and protecting them as they lead the people forward to victory.
Stalin, the largest figure in the poster and, therefore, the most important, is the chief saint, while the other leaders flanking him fill the ranks of the minor saints.
The common people follow behind Stalin and are also guided and protected by a Lenin banner.
Like the icon, the poster is a primarily visual medium which relies on the impact of the image to deliver its message. By visually referencing the characteristics of the Russian Orthodox icon, the posters encouraged the viewer to respond in a spiritual manner to the form and content of the poster, and to draw parallels, both conscious and unconscious, between the central figure in the posters and the key spiritual figures of the Orthodox faith.
This was facilitated by Russian traditions of leadership in which the tsar held both secular and spiritual powers and was viewed as the sacred protector of the people.
Anita Pisch‘s new book, The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929 – 1953, is now available for free download through ANU Press open access, or to purchase in hard copy for $83. This lavishly illustrated book, featuring reproductions of over 130 posters, examines the way in which Stalin’s image in posters, symbolising the Bolshevik Party, the USSR state, and Bolshevik values and ideology, was used to create legitimacy for the Bolshevik government, to mobilise the population to make great sacrifices in order to industrialise and collectivise rapidly, and later to win the war, and to foster the development of a new type of Soviet person in a new utopian world.