Mikhail Cheremnykh

Mikhail Cheremnykh

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Mikhail Cheremnykh was born in Tomsk on 18th October, 1890. He graduated in 1916 from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. A supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution he became a supplier of communist propaganda.

A newspaper cartoon of Lenin in November 1918 was turned by Viktor Deni into the first poster based on the Bolshevik leader, Comrade Lenin cleans the Earth from Scum (November, 1920). Victoria Bonnell, the author of Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (1999) points out: "Deni poster depicts Lenin standing on the globe, sweeping with a large broom. He towers over his enemies (tsar, priest and capitalist) who are pictured as small satirical figures leaping to escape the broom."

One of the founders of the Socialist Realist art movement he produced posters in support of Joseph Stalin such as Peasant Women, Go Into The Collective Farms! (1930), Congratulations (1930) and That the Knife Might Fall From This Claw (1938). He was awarded the State Prize of the USSR in 1942,

Mikhail Cheremnykh died in Moscow on 7th August, 1962.

Mikhail Cheremnykh. People's Artist of the Russian Federation. Active member of the USSR Academy of Fine Arts, USSR State Prize laureate, was also awarded "The Badge of Honor" and other medals. In 1916 he graduated from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Founder of Soviet satirical graphical art and poster design... From 1922 onwards contributed to many satirical magazines; also active as a painter in oils, graphic artist, stage designer, and book illustrator.

The year 1920 witnessed some important shifts in the style of visual propaganda... In this atmosphere of rapid change in political art, Viktor Deni designed the first significant political poster featuring Lenin. Issued in November, 1920, Comrade Lenin Cleanes the Earth of Scum, presented a more elaborate version of Mikhail Cheremnykh's November 1918 newspaper drawing. The Deni poster depicts Lenin standing on the globe, sweeping with a large broom. He towers over his enemies (tsar, priest and capitalist) who are pictured as small satirical figures leaping to escape the broom.

The Bolsheviks equipped and mobilized agitational propaganda trains during the Civil War, sending them to all parts of Russia to inform the population about the ongoing struggles in defence of the revolution and to help organise lectures, meetings and discussions on the meaning of the new workers' state.

The first train named after Lenin, went into service on August 13, 1918. Others soon followed, bearing titles such as "October Revolution", "Red East", "Soviet Caucasus" and "Red Cossack". The carriages were famously decorated with paintings, graphic or satirical, on subjects that reflected the names of the trains and the places where they were headed.

For the masses, propaganda had to be simple, categoric, direct. Within a short time all forms of printing - books, newspapers, pamphlets, and posters - were in the hands of the State Publicity Corporation, which controlled not only the publishing operations but the printing machinery and paper supply. It was endowed with a censorship department which examined all book manuscripts, film scripts, drawings, music, and even maps. On November 12, 1920, the Main Political Education Committee of the Republic was set up, branches of which were attached to the political division of every region, district, town and village.

Bloody Sunday (Answer Commentary)

1905 Russian Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Russia and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

The Life and Death of Rasputin (Answer Commentary)

The Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II (Answer Commentary)

The Provisional Government (Answer Commentary)

The Kornilov Revolt (Answer Commentary)

The Bolsheviks (Answer Commentary)

The Bolshevik Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Classroom Activities by Subject


The Third or Communist International (typically abbreviated as Comintern) was founded in Moscow in March 1919 amidst proclamations of the end of the world capitalist order and the coming triumph of the revolutionary proletariat. That optimism was still evident at the Second Congress in July-August 1920 when G. E. Zinoviev, president of the Comintern’s Executive Committee, presented twenty-one “conditions” for membership and participation in the Comintern. These conditions, patterned on the Bolsheviks’ own practices of “democratic centralism” and unwavering hostility towards socialist parties affiliated with the all-but moribund Second International, were overwhelmingly approved by the delegates.

Left: World Revolution Marching in Three Columns (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: The Song of the International (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

However, by the time the Third Congress met in June-July 1921, the revolutionary tide in Europe had receded and the Bolsheviks had embarked upon their New Economic Policy. The Congress approved theses concerning the methods of work among working women and the establishment of a Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern), perhaps tacit acknowledgment that the road to revolution would be more protracted than initially anticipated. In December, the Executive Committee issued theses calling for a “united front” of the proletariat that permitted limited cooperation with other socialist parties and trade unions but warned against capitulation to “Centrist and semi-Centrist ideology.”

To Russian Workers in America (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Comintern held four more congresses, the last of which, in 1935, adopted the Popular Front strategy of coalition-building with all “progressive forces” against fascism. Once a beacon to Communists throughout the world, the Comintern succumbed to its subordination to the dictates of the Soviet Communist Party and its determination of Soviet state interests, periodic purges of other Communist parties, mutual denunciation and arrest in 1937, and disbandment in 1943.

Confiscating Church Gold

Left: The Church Gold (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: The Spider of Hunger is Strangling the Peasants of Russia (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Ever since the new Patriarch Tikhon had anathematized the Bolsheviks in 1918, church-state relations had been touchy. The period of NEP, which otherwise saw a moderation of state policies, sharpened state attacks on the church. Cheka pressure on the clergy increased, and Lenin and his colleagues devised a three-prong plan to undermine church authority. The plan included attempts to split the church from within, leading to the creation of the Living Church by new-thinking young clergy assaults on the religion of national minorities, particularly Muslim and a scheme to confiscate the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church.

Left: Jeweled headgear confiscated from Russian Orthodox clergy, Moscow (1921) / From Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader, by Felix Corley
Right: The Church Gold (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The latter goal inspired a brutally cynical scheme hatched by the Bolsheviks in connection with the appalling famine of 1921-1922. The need to buy grain abroad compelled authorities to collect and impound all the gold and foreign currency. Lenin proposed turning this against the church, demanding that the church surrender the rich collection of gems and precious metals represented by its ceremonial implements, and blaming the church for the starvation when it did not. Surely the Bolsheviks carried far more blame than the church, yet the campaign was effective, tarring the church as an irrational organization caring little for its flock, and allowing the authorities to launch a full-scale attack on church property. On February 23, 1922 the VTsIK issued a decree ordering the church to turn over objects containing jewels and other valuables that could be exchanged for hard currency with which to make purchases of food abroad. Faced with accusations of insensitivity towards the sufferings of famine victims, some Orthodox clergy complied with the decree but others, including the Patriarch Tikhon resisted. The ransacking of churches and trials and executions of priests followed, notwithstanding demonstrations against such measures. By July of 1922 the state had confiscated vast stores of precious items from the church.

Left: Death Approaches (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Citizens! You need to give food, Citizens! / Hoover Political Poster Database

The campaign for the church gold radicalized church-state relations in a way that could not be undone for twenty years, forcing even moderates to choose sides. Metropolitan Veniamin of Petrograd initially championed using church valuables to aid the starving population, but under a strict church control. Once inclined towards reconciling with the state, the confiscation of property and creation of the Living Church drove him to opposition. He was arrested in May 1922 and executed in August after 1991, he was among the first Soviet-era hierarchs canonized.

Death of a Poet

Blok on His Death Bed, by Iurii Annenkov (1921) / Inter-Language Literary Associates, New York

On August 7, 1921 in the city of St. Petersburg (since 1914, Petrograd), the great poet Aleksandr Blok died from a combination of maladies that might have included syphilis, but surely included exhaustion and ennui. His funeral attracted crowds of mourners, for whom his passing meant the death of a tradition. Blok had welcomed the revolutions of 1917 as outpourings of popular will, and believed that his duty as an intellectual was to give expression to the inchoate feelings of the people. For two decades prior, he had provided words for the longings and anxieties of the intelligentsia. The naive idealism of Verses on the Beautiful Lady (1904) the playful mockery of Balaganchik (1906) the ominous prophecies of the Retribution cycle (1910-1921), all led to Blok’s two famous 1918 poems on the revolution, Scythians , which saw revolution as a cleansing wave of barbarism and The Twelve , in which revolutionary chaos gives birth to a messianic leader.

Anna Akhmatova, by Natan Altman (1914) / Wikimedia Commons

Son of a professor and jurist, with both parents harboring artistic interests son-in-law of the great chemist Mendeleev friend of Andrei Belyi (author of Petersburg , the first great modernist novel), Blok inspired a generation to understand the world through artistic expression. When he died, so too died St. Petersburg, once the imperial capital, now a second city slipping into decades of intentional neglect. Magisterial avenues such as Nevskii Prospect now bore revolutionary names its spacious apartments and broad sidewalks were clogged with parvenu newcomers its plaster cracked and chipping. As Blok faded visibly from life, his city faded too, along with the elegant traditions of its elites. His most worthy successors were perhaps the great poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, whose verse rejected Blok’s filmy mysticism for a grounded world of things, yet whose lives upheld his example of honor and courage.

Poet Aleksandr Blok, Photograph by Mikhail Nappelbaum (1921) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

The generational shift promised by the October Revolution finally happened in 1921, as older poets left the scene and new ones arrived. Konstantin Balmont, inspiration for two generations of Symbolist poets, emigrated to France. Marina Tsvetaeva published a collection of poetry, Versty , and received word that her long-lost husband was alive in Berlin. That coming May she left Russia for almost twenty years of artistic accomplishment and personal misery in Paris. Nikolai Gumilev, once husband of Anna Akhmatova, and the organizational leader of the Acmeist movement, was shot for alleged counter-revolutionary activities. These poets were spiritually and politically alien to the Bolsheviks yet old leftists too fled revolutionary Russia. Maksim Gorky, friend of Lenin and future progenitor of socialist realism, left Russia for a decade of residence in Europe and Evgenii Zamiatin wrote his prophetic essay “I’m Afraid,” warning against the alliance of literature and the state. Signs for the future were mixed. October 1920 witnessed the modest birth of VAPP (The All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), which in the late 1920s would foment the Cultural Revolution but in December the radical proletariat cultural organization Proletkult was shut down. The dreaded Cheka was finishing its life in 1921 but early 1922 gave birth to the OGPU, the new and more structured state security police that could, in time, more efficiently intervene in literary life.

Left: Aleksandr Blok, by Konstantin Somov (1907) / From The Age of Revolution: Russian Literature & Culture of the 20th Century, by Gregory Freidin
Right: Evgenii Zamiatin, by Boris Kustodiev (1923) / From The Age of Revolution: Russian Literature & Culture of the 20th Century, by Gregory Freidin

Soviet literature was coming into being in 1921. Dmitrii Furmanov, a Red Army commissar during the Civil War, published Red Landing Force , and in two years published his classic novel Chapaev . The Serapion Brotherhood was formed that year, sheltering talented writers who were not fully aligned with the Bolsheviks: these including the great humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko, Aleksei Tolstoi, Marietta Shaginian, Leonid Leonov. They joined “Fellow Travelers” (poputchiki: Trotsky’s term for non-socialists willing to engage Soviet reality) such as Iurii Olesha, Vsevolod Ivanov and Isaak Babel, found print in a new thick journal Red Virgin Soil (Krasnaia nov’), founded with Lenin’s approval by the old Bolshevik Aleksandr Voronskii and devoted to the best prose and poetry, and imposing no political tests beyond a general sympathy for the Revolution.

Electrification Campaign

Electrification of the Entire Country, by Gustav Klucis (1920) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

On February 7, 1920, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets announced the formation of a State Electrification Commission (GOELRO) under the chairmanship of the Bolshevik electrical engineer, Gleb Krzhizhanovskii. The task of the commission was to devise a general plan for electrifying the country via the construction of a network of regional power stations. Ten months later, GOELRO presented its plan, a document of more than five hundred pages, to the Eighth Congress of Soviets in Moscow.

Left: Lenin and Volkhvostroi, by Shass-Kobolev (1925) / Moscow: Sovetskii Khudozhnik
Right: The Soviet and Electrification (1921) / Wikimedia Commons

The plan, forecasting demand to 1930, represented the first attempt to establish “one single plan of the state economy,” and thus may be seen as a precursor of the Five-Year Plans under Stalin. For Lenin, who devoted a substantial portion of his report on the work of the Council of People’s Commissars to GOELRO’s plan, electrification constituted “the second program of our Party.” It was critical to transforming Russia from a “small-peasant basis into a large-scale industrial basis,” and quite literally would bring “enlightenment” to the masses. Thus, as he intoned, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” This slogan was repeated often thereafter and eventually appeared on a huge sign on the banks of the Moscow River opposite the Kremlin.

Left: Il’ich’s Little Lamp, Photo by Arkadii Shaikhet (1925) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Volkhvostroi, Photo by S. Ivanov (1926) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

GOELRO’s plan, put into operation by the Main Electrotechnical Administration (Glavelektro) within the Supreme Council of the National Economy, was infused by a utopian vision of a technologically advanced society, brimming with productivity and beaming with brightness. “We must snatch away God’s thunderbolts,” wrote Vladimir Maiakovskii in Mystery-Bouffe (1920-21). “Take ’em/We can use all those volts/for electrification.”

Famine of 1921-1922

Left: Comrades! Citizens! The 9th Congress of Soviets Calls All to the Battle with Hunger…Donate Money!, by Mikhail Cheremnykh (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: From America to the Starving of Russia (1922) / Wikimedia Commons

Food shortages were a critical source of social unrest and political instability during the first year of Soviet power. Through the course of the civil war, efforts by the Soviet government to acquire sufficient foodstuffs to support the Red Army and the urban population assumed massive proportions. Food detachments sent out from the cities were a regular feature of the “food dictatorship” that was imposed on the peasantry. Even after the civil war wound down, requisitioning of grain and other food supplies provoked violent confrontations between Soviet authorities and peasant producers. One consequence of these encounters was the reduction of sown area which left little margin for crop failures. The situation was “ripe” for famine. The New Economic Policy, which permitted peasants to sell their surpluses after meeting tax obligations, was a bold attempt on the part of the state to break the cycle of violence that characterized its relations with the peasantry. But no sooner was it introduced in the spring of 1921 then the entire Volga basin was hit by a devastating crop failure, actually the second in as many years.

Left: Soldiers Unloading Rail Cars, by Alekseevich Vladimirov (1922) / Brown University Digital Repository
Right: From America to the Starving of Russia (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The resulting famine affected at least twenty million people, one and a quarter million of whom trekked from the stricken region to other parts of the country. In July 1921, the Soviet government gave authority to local authorities to exempt from the tax-in-kind peasants suffering from crop failures. The famine forced the Bolsheviks to re-establish ties with capitalist nations in the west, from which food aid poured in. It appointed an All-Russian Committee to Aid the Hungry, consisting of prominent intellectuals including Maksim Gorky. Gorky’s appeal for foreign assistance bore fruit in the agreement concluded between the Soviet government and the American Relief Administration directed by Herbert Hoover. Over the next two years, the ARA supplied food and medical assistance to a reported ten million people. Nevertheless, an estimated five million people died as a result of the famine, succumbing to outbreaks of cholera and typhus that proved fatal owing to weakened resistance.

Homeless Children

Left: Homeless boy with a cigarette butt (1920) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Right: Peasant child begging (1920) / From Faces of a Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, by Dmitrii Baltermants

The term “ besprizornye ,” literally translated as the “unattended” or “neglected” but generally understood to mean homeless children, refers to a mass phenomenon occasioned by war, revolution and civil war. How large a phenomenon it was remains unclear, for accurate data on many social phenomena were themselves one of the casualties of the early years of Soviet power, and countless abandoned children managed to elude attempts to count them precisely. It has been estimated that by 1921 there were some 4.5 million besprizornye throughout Soviet Russia. The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, which claimed responsibility for rehabilitating street children, set their number in 1922 at five million for the Russian Republic alone. Other sources give higher estimates of seven to 7.5 million by the end of the famine which swept many of the central Russian provinces in 1921-22.

Left: Forsake by Everyone, We Have Perished (1920s) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Friends of Children in the Struggle against Homlessness (1926) / Russian Antiquity

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of besprizornye were from working-class or peasant families. Many such families disintegrated under the cumulative impact of combat, flight, hunger and disease. Children found themselves homeless either because of the incapacitation or death of their parents, or because they were discarded by parents incapable of supporting them. Whereas there existed a tradition of relatives or neighbors taking in and adopting abandoned children, the general decline in living standards militated against them being able to do so. The homeless children could appear pathetic and helpless, as undoubtedly many of them were. Abandoned children formed gangs, roamed the streets and alleys in search of sustenance or pleasure, engaged in pilferage, prostitution, and gambling, created their own argot, rode the rails, and pursued other classic pastimes of the criminal underworld. They were, thus, both victims and victimizers, the preyed upon and predators, to be both pitied and feared.

Left: Census of Homeless Children (1926) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Right: Two homeless boys holding each other (1922) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

What did the Soviet state do about the proliferation of besprizornye ? Initially, responsibility for handling abandoned children was shared by the Commissariat of Health (Narkomzdrav), the Commissariat of Social Security, and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros). Throughout the civil war, a myriad of commissions, departments and sub-departments of these commissariats functioned to provide food, medical assistance, housing, education and vocational training. Assistance was also provided by the American Red Cross and other foreign or international famine-relief agencies. By the early 1920s, Narkompros had developed three stages of institutions, those responsible for removing children from the street those observing and evaluating them and those dedicated to rehabilitation. The most common site for rehabilitation was the children’s home ( detdom ). The Russian republic contained over six thousand in 1921-22, some 2,800 by 1925 and less than two thousand by 1928. The number of children housed in the Russian republic was 125,000 in 1919, 400,000 in 1920, and 540,000 in 1921 and 1922, after which it declined, reaching 129,000 by the end of the decade. Facilities were often makeshift, supplies were short, and, especially at the height of the famine, mortality was extremely high.

Left: 6,000,000 Children Not Served By Schools, by Rudolf Frents (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Homeless children sleeping (1922) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

Labor communes, some administered by Narkompros and others by the OGPU, comprised another institution that sought to rehabilitate besprizornye . Best known of all of them was the OGPU’s Dzerzhinskii Labor Commune, established near Kharkov in 1927 and directed by Anton Makarenko. Makarenko’s imposition of strict discipline and regimentation was criticized by many but was also celebrated in the 1931 film, Road to Life . Towards the end of the 1920s it was assumed that the number of besprizornye would continue to dwindle and that soon there would not be a single abandoned child in the Soviet Union. Indeed, by 1931 when Road to Life premiered, it was accompanied by statements that the problem was largely if not entirely historical. Yet, thanks to collectivization and dekulakization, a new cycle of destitution, famine, disease and child abandonment occurred. This time, however, the state was far less willing to publicize the existence of children roaming the countryside and the towns. It also dealt more harshly with them, de-emphasizing their victimization and rehabilitation and resorting to incarceration.

Kronstadt Uprising

Red soldiers enter Kronstadt (1921) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

The naval base of Kronstadt lies on Kotlin Island near the head of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great captured the island from the Swedes in 1703 and built it into a naval fortress to protect his new capital. The concentration of heavy armory and sailors on the small island made it a bulwark against foreign invasion, but also a tinderbox in times of internal unrest. During the stormy years 1905-1906 several mutinies broke out on Kronstadt. The sailors were important allies to the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution (1917), when the Kronstadt Soviet opposed the provisional government, declared a “Kronstadt Republic,” and took part in the July 1917 mutiny. The famous cruiser Aurora , which had bombarded the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917 with its famous shot heard round the world , belonged to the Baltic Fleet based in Kronstadt.

Kronstadt (1921) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

It was a rude shock to the Bolsheviks when the red sailors of Kronstadt went into open rebellion in March 1921. The sailors saw themselves as loyal to the Soviet cause, if not to the Communist rulers. That bitter winter saw Kronstadt, like most other cities in Russia, hungry and discontented. Anger at material deprivations was compounded by the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building, which seemed to violate the spirit of the revolution that the sailors had helped win. Popular unrest finally grew into strikes, which led to riots, lockouts, arrests. Finally on February 26, local Communist authorities declared martial law. A pattern of sharp protest and response escalated rapidly from here to a state of mutiny.

The mutiny was centered on two battleships with revolutionary pedigrees, the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol , which were frozen in the ice of Kronstadt harbor. A delegation headed by Stepan Petrichenko, chief clerk of the Petropavlovsk , drafted a set of fifteen demands which it presented to the Kronstadt Soviet on February 28. They included such traditional democratic rights as freedom of assembly and speech egalitarian measures such as equal rations for all working people and an end to the Bolshevik monopoly on power. The sailors also demanded an end to the strict economic controls of war communism. The Kronstadt Soviet, run by loyal Bolsheviks, called a public meeting for 1 March in response to the insurgent demands. It was attended by over 16,000 people, including Mikhail Kalinin, who was shouted off the platform when he tried to speak. The assembly adopted the resolutions unanimously, and elected a Revolutionary Committee chaired by Petrichenko. When Pavel Vasiliev (chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet) and Nikolai Kuzmin (Political Commissar of the Baltic Fleet) threatened the committee with retribution the next day, they were arrested and imprisoned. Squads of sailors established control over Kronstadt, under the slogan All power to the Soviets, and not the parties.

Attack over the ice (1921) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

The discontent had grown into full rebellion. When Kalinin reported back to Lenin and Zinoviev, their response was to isolate the island, order a press blackout, and organize special shipments of clothing, shoes, and meat into Petrograd. In an ultimatum issued on March 5, they branded the insurgents as puppets of the White Army. Lev Trotsky was sent to Petrograd to organize the armed response. He assembled as many loyal troops as he could under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevskii, and on March 7 began the bombardment of the island by the great guns of Petrograd. Over the next ten days three bloody assaults were launched against the fortress. Troops marching across the ice were slaughtered, but they gradually depleted the strength and supplies of the rebels. Though the government forces lost hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded, they numbered about 45,000 troops by March 16, when the final assault was launched. Clad in white snow capes, and bolstered by hundreds of volunteer delegates from the Tenth Party Congress then proceeding in Moscow, the troops attacked by night from three directions and forced their way into the city. Vicious fighting ensued throughout the city, and by March 18, the revolt was crushed. Many rebels escaped across the ice into Finland many were killed in the fighting, and many who survived were executed or sent to prison camps.

The Kronstadt Card is Trumped!, by Vladimir Kozlinskii / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

The short-lived uprising had a deep if ambivalent impact on Soviet rule. While it was still in progress, the government announced the abolition of grain requisitions, replacing them with a tax in kind. It is widely assumed that the rebellion inspired Lenin and the regime to announce the New Economic Policy, which answered some of the Kronstadt demands. Liberalization of the economy was not matched by liberalization in the political sphere. The Tenth Congress saw the Workers’ Opposition condemned and ordered to disperse in a move that many consider a harbinger of Stalin’s dictatorship. Russian anarchists and their Western allies, such as the American Alexander Berkman, correctly saw the party reaction as a decisive moment in their history, though they were not fully justified in considering the rebellion part of their own tradition.

Militarization of Labor

Left: Our Soldiers Will Protect Our Workers, by V.U.K. (1918-1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Make a Suggestion! (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The success achieved by the Red Army on the military front during the civil war and the continued disintegration of the economy stimulated interest in applying the military model to the organization of labor, and catapulted Lev Trotsky, as Commissar of War, to the forefront of those advocating its implementation. The militarization of labor involved two main processes: converting military units into labor armies, and “mobilizing” industrial workers to carry out particular tasks under quasi-military supervision.

Left: I Am a Union Member, by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1925) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman
Right: Entente-Chaos in the Bourgeois West (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database

In January 1920 Trotsky took steps to convert the Third Army, located in the Urals, into the First Labor Army. The labor army, under the direction of a Revolutionary Council composed of representatives of various commissariats, was assigned duties in mining coal, cutting timber, loading and unloading freight, and clearing road and rail lines. Subsequently, labor armies were set up in other parts of the country including Ukraine where Stalin served as chairman of the republic’s Council. Simultaneously, more than twenty mobilizations of workers were conducted, some fixing workers to particular “militarized” enterprises, and others ordering their transfer to areas of labor deficit. The mobilizations covered a variety of occupations ranging from mining, metal processing and shipbuilding, to the woolens and fishing industries and even “tailors and shoemakers who worked in Great Britain and the United States.” The entire operation was placed under a Main Committee for Compulsory Labor (Glavkomtrud) which was chaired by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, head of the Cheka.

Left: The Ship Repair Front (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Strengthen the Trade Unions!, by Vladimir Maiakovskii (1921) / Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft fur Bildende Kunst Berlin

These and other forms of compulsory labor, including the enlistment of the trade unions in administering punitive measures against “labor deserters,” were endorsed by the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920. However, when Trotsky cited the need to “shake up” the unions themselves (along the lines of what already had been done to the union of railroad workers), it provoked outrage among party activists and especially from the Workers’ Opposition. The issue roiled until the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 when Trotsky’s proposal for “statification” of the trade unions was soundly defeated. Nevertheless, while rejected in principle, the subordination of the trade unions to the state was achieved in practice via tight party control of the unions’ All-Russian Central Council.

The Muslim East

Left: Man with two veiled women / Anahita Gallery
Right: Children’s orchestra, photo by Georgii Zel’ma (1924) / Anahita Gallery

The term Central Asia encompasses the five former Soviet and now independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang (also known as Eastern Turkestan), and Afghanistan. Beginning with the acceptance of Russian overlordship by the khan of the lesser Kazakh horde in 1730, Russian subjugation of most of Central Asia was complete by 1876, with the khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara surviving as Russian protectorates. The vast stretches of steppe, mountains and desert were administered as two Governor-Generalships, one covering most of the Kazakh and Kirghiz territories to the north and east of the Aral Sea, and the other, the Governorship of Turkestan, containing lands to the south. Among the most significant effects of Russian rule prior to the 1917 Revolution were extensive colonization in the Kazakh steppe by ethnic Slavs, and the introduction of cotton as a major cash crop in the Fergana Valley of Turkestan. Small indigenous elites, influenced by developments in the Ottoman empire as well as among fellow Turkic-speaking Tatars and Azerbaijanis within the Russian Empire, initiated reformist movements around the ideals of pan-Islam and pan-Turkism. Jadidism, a secular movement advocating educational and social reform, also emerged among the more radically inclined intelligentsia.

Left: Kirghiz Yurt with reed screen / Anahita Gallery
Right: Folk story teller, photo by Georgii Zel’ma (1924) / Anahita Gallery

World War I not only disrupted commercial relations with the rest of the empire leading to dire food shortages in much of Turkestan, but also precipitated a major rebellion among Kazakhs who rose in 1916 against the abolition of their exemption from military service. With the overthrow of tsarism, political power in Central Asia briefly passed into the hands of religious conservatives, but after the October Revolution the Tashkent Soviet, dominated by Russian railroad workers and rank-and-file soldiers, claimed authority in the region. The Soviet government for its part appealed to “Muslims of Russia and the East” to throw in their lot with the revolution, promising them the inviolability of their faith and customs and national self-determination. Ex-Jadidist reformers-turned-Bolsheviks sought and for a time won support from the party’s Central Committee as the authentic voice of the indigenous toiling masses. However, their intention to set up a unified state of all Turkic peoples was thwarted by Moscow which instead established an autonomous Turkestan republic within the RSFSR and, after their conquest in 1920, two loosely affiliated “people’s republics” — Bukhara and Khorezm. In September 1920, a Congress of the Toiling Peoples of the East, which met in Baku and was attended by such leading Bolshevik and Comintern officials as Grigorii Zinoviev and Karl Radek (as well as the American Communist John Reed), endorsed the call among Muslim delegates for a jihad against the European colonialist and imperialist powers.

Left: Turkmen horsewomen, photo by Georgii Zel’ma (1924) / Anahita Gallery
Center: City Square and Lenin, photo by Maks Penson (1925) / Anahita Gallery
Right: Girl playing instrument, photo by Samuil Dudin (1914) / Anahita Gallery

Pacification of Soviet Central Asia was an extended affair. Ranged against Soviet power and the presence of Russians in Central Asia were numerous armed bands that were known collectively as Basmachi (“bandits”). The Red Army’s efforts to subdue the Basmachi were complicated in November 1921 by the defection of Enver Pasha, an erstwhile Young Turk who proclaimed himself commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of Islam. In March 1922, he was joined by the Bukhara Commissar of War, Ali Riza. The insurgents succeeded in capturing Dushanbe, the chief city in eastern Bukhara, but in July 1922 were thrown back by the Red Army. The death of Enver himself during a battle with a Red Army patrol in August effectively marked the end of civil war in Central Asia, although Basmachi guerrilla activity continued in the mountainous and desert regions for many years to come.

The New Economic Policy

Left: Worker, Look at These Two Decrees! / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Fuel is the Foundation of the Republic, by Mikhail Cheremnyhk (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced by Lenin at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, represented a major departure from the party’s previous approach to running the country. During the civil war, the Soviet state had assumed responsibility for acquiring and redistributing grain and other foodstuffs from the countryside, administering both small- and large-scale industry, and a myriad of other economic activities. Subsequently dubbed (by Lenin) “War Communism,” this approach actually was extended in the course of 1920, even after the defeat of the last of the Whites. Many have claimed that War Communism reflected a “great leap forward” mentality among the Bolsheviks, but desperation to overcome shortages of all kinds, and particularly food, seems a more likely motive. In any case, in the context of continuing urban depopulation, strikes by disgruntled workers, peasant unrest, and open rebellion among the soldiers and sailors stationed on Kronstadt Island, Lenin resolved to reverse direction.

NEP-Period Marketplace (1921) / Marxists Internet Archive

The linchpin of NEP was the introduction of a tax-in-kind, set at levels considerably below those of previous requisition quotas, which permitted peasants to dispose of their food surpluses on the open market. This concession to market forces soon led to the denationalization of small-scale industry and services the establishment of trusts for supplying, financing, and marketing the products of large-scale industry the stabilization of the currency and other measures, including the granting of concessions to foreign investors, all of which were designed to reestablish the link (smychka) between town and country. Referring to NEP as a retreat of the state to the “commanding heights of the economy” (large-scale industry, banking, foreign commerce), Lenin insisted that it had to be pursued “seriously and for a long time.”

Left: Hauling Duty is Replaced by a Hauling Tax, by Mikhail Cheremnhyk (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Financial Report for 1921 (1921), by Mikhail Cheremnhyk / Hoover Political Poster Database

Under NEP the Soviet economy revived. By 1926-27, most economic indices were at or near pre-war levels. But recovery via market forces was accompanied by the re-emergence of a “capitalist” class in both the countryside (the kulaks) and the towns (NEPmen), persistent unemployment among workers (some of whom referred to NEP as the “new exploitation of the proletariat”), and anxieties within the party about bourgeois degeneracy and the loss of revolutionary dynamism. The triumph of Stalin over his political rivals, the adoption of the First Five-Year Plan for industrialization, and the decision to launch a “Socialist Offensive” against the kulaks effectively marked the abandonment of NEP by 1929.

The Antonov Rebellion

Meeting of the Village Poor Committee (1920), by Aleksandr Moravov / Leningrad: Avora

As White resistance in southern Russia petered out during the summer and fall of 1920, the temporarily triumphant Bolsheviks were faced by their most dreaded enemy, a revolt of the peasantry, unspoken junior partner in the “union of laboring classes.” Previously fearful that Communist defeat would mean the loss of recently gained land, peasants turned on the Bolsheviks in 1920, inflamed by the arrest of village priests and closing of churches. Their resentment burst into flames in the fall when requisition detachments arrived to confiscate the meager harvest, and by spring 1921 peasants were in full insurrection. Revolt flared in the black-earth districts, the Northern Caucasus, the Volga region, all fertile grain producers. The largest seems to have been in western Siberia, but the most extensively documented outburst of peasant resistance took place in the province of Tambov.

Most peasant revolts began in unorganized resistance to requisition detachments. Villagers would gather the traditional assembly (skhod) and condemn state quotas, and then target local communists with violence with arms seized from local authorities. Once the detachments were driven away, the strategy was to isolate the village from the outside world, which was possible in the chaos of 1920-1921. The Tambov rebellions seems to have lacked leadership or program at its inception, but by the spring of 1921, a leader had appeared in the person of Aleksandr Stepanovich Antonov (1885-1922), whose murky past might have included leftist political activity and some military experience. Under his leadership, peasant resistance became more coordinated, attacks assumed some military organization, and an armed body of approximately 20,000 was gathered.

Identifying the program or identity of a peasant revolt can be difficult, and reasons for dissatisfaction were many. Imbalances in power between city and country and an intolerable tax burden the incompetence and venality of local Bolsheviks exhaustion after many years of war: all could have inspired popular fury at the appearance of requisition detachments. Antonov offered little in the way of a positive program. Rumors of socialist revolutionary leanings, the appearance of the program of a Peasants’ Union, and the vague “green” anarchism of other peasant revolts, such as that led by Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine, could all be found, but little organization took place. Antonov’s forces easily degenerated into unfocused violence and banditry. The central government dispatched well-trained troops to the province in the spring, led first by Feliks Dzerzhinskii and the Cheka, and later by Tukhachevskii, fresh from crushing the Kronshtadt rebellion. Hampered by a lack of forest to hide it, the movement was crushed by May. Peasants suspected of having joined Antonov were arrested or shot. The revolt was not a wasted effort. Lenin and the state leadership drew a clear message from it and other popular unrest, and in the NEP reforms soon announced, many sources of the peasant discontent were eliminated.

ROSTA Windows Close

Red Armyman! Take the Last Straw from the Bourgeiosie! (1919) / From The Bolshevik Poster, by Stephen White

ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, came under new management in 1921, and promptly closed its windows. Established in September 1918 by the VTsIK from the old Petrograd Telegraph Agency, ROSTA carried the dual charge of gathering the news and propagating the party line to Russian citizens. Upon its founding in 1918 its first task was to find journalists willing to combine the two duties. When old Bolshevik and Proletkult leader Platon Kerzhentsev took charge in spring 1919, he radicalized the staff, demanding partisan reporting and forthright propaganda from his reporters.

Left: Remember Red Barracks Day (1920), by Vladimir Maiakovskii / Leningrad: Avora
Right: ROSTA Red Window No. 132, by Vladimir Maiakovskii / Leningrad: Avora

ROSTA management sought help in untraditional places. The older press corps was hostile to the Bolsheviks a new generation had yet to be trained. Though many of the Bolsheviks themselves were highly skilled journalists, they were busy governing. There was also a new audience for the press, much of it illiterate. Thus the proposal of avant-garde artists and writers to work for the agency was gladly accepted. From 1919 to 1921, ROSTA and its affiliates in Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, and other smaller cities, turned out hundreds of the so-called ROSTA Windows, the fruits of the collaboration. Master poets, led by Vladimir Maiakovskii, and painters such as Mikhail Cheremnykh and Ivan Maliutin, took the headlines of the day and turned them into comic-book posters, based on the style of the traditional lubok (wood-cut) print. The primitive style of the art and verse harnessed by highly skilled artists made for powerful propaganda displayed throughout Russian cities.

Left: Story of the Bun and of the Peasant Woman, by Mikhail Cheremnykh (1920) / From The Bolshevik Poster, by Stephen White
Right: Pick Up a Rifle! (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

ROSTA was a dream for avant-gardists who felt that they best expressed the spirit of the Revolution, and who wanted to break down the boundaries between art and life. They had an audience of milliions, and a style that could reach even the most illiterate. The atmosphere of the Civil War, in which good and evil were clearly delineated, and in which the Bolshevik message was as simple as possible, fit the artists’ needs. When Nikolai Smirnov, former editor of the railway journal GUDOK, took over in 1921, he faced a new post-war reality. The simple black-white judgments of the Civil War, and an audience for whom literacy was ever more important, inspired him to close the Windows and invest those funds in print journalism.

Tenth Party Congress

The Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) convened in Moscow on March 8, 1921 one week after the outbreak of the rebellion of soldiers and sailors at the naval base at Kronstadt. The rebellion and the strikes of workers in Petrograd that touched it off represented a major challenge to the legitimacy if not survival of Communist party rule, driving home to the eleven hundred assembled delegates the urgency of revising the party’s policies. Before the Congress concluded on March 16, some three hundred of them had joined the effort to suppress the rebellion, ten of whom lost their lives in the process.

The resolutions adopted by the Congress were to have far-reaching consequences for both the Party and Soviet society. In preparation for the Congress, Lenin had written: “The lesson of Kronstadt: in politics — the closing of the ranks (+ discipline) within the party … in economics — to satisfy as far as possible the middle peasantry.” As far as “economics” was concerned, Lenin’s report on “The Substitution of a Tax in Kind for the Surplus Grain Appropriation System” formed the basis for a resolution that essentially recognized peasants’ right to engage in unrestricted trade and thereby paved the way of the New Economic Policy. As for discipline within the party, a resolution “On Party Unity” banning factions and another “On the Anarchist and Syndicalist Deviation in the Party,” directed explicitly against the Workers’ Opposition (the most trenchant of factional groups) were approved on the last day of the Congress. Later in the 1920s, the ban of factions would become a weapon in the hands of Stalin against his rivals for party leadership.

The Congress also debated three competing resolutions on the role of the trade unions in the Soviet state. While the overwhelming majority of delegates rejected Trotsky’s scheme for transforming the unions into state organs, the resolution sponsored by the Workers’ Opposition and calling for the placing of unions in charge of “the entire economic administration” also received scant support. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the majority of delegates found Lenin’s resolution characterizing the trade unions as a “school of communism” “just right.”

Trade Pacts with the West

Make Way for Our Peasants’ Grain (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Faced with an economy in ruins and a discontented population, the Bolsheviks opted for pragmatism in their foreign relations. Lenin, though still skeptical about western motives, knew that the new economic policy would collapse without foreign trade and credits. He needed capitalist goods and industrial technology to rebuild, and capitalist money to trade. Formulating his own policy objectives, and using Narkomindel pragmatists such as Georgii Chicherin, Maksim Litvinov, Leonid Krasin, Khristian Rakovskii, Lenin steered Soviet Russia back into Europe.

Economic Exploitation of Russia by England, America and Japan (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The western nations, led by England and the United States, remained indignant about certain issues, such as the outstanding wartime debts and the lack of compensation for nationalized properties. Nobody could fail to notice that the Comintern was still fomenting world revolution. Yet capitalists were eager to expand their markets in post-war Europe, and Russia offered tremendous opportunities. Although the United States eventually did not sign a trade agreement and did not offer diplomatic recognition, the British government under David Lloyd George did.

Entente – Under the Mask of Peace (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Recently isolated from the brotherhood of nations, Soviet Russia reestablished valuable foreign ties in 1921. Although each individual country was wary of Soviet motives, Soviet negotiators played off their fears with some cunning. They managed to sign treaties with Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia, achieving some international recognition. They allayed fears in those countries by promising not to foment revolution. This strengthened their hand in dealings with European powers, with whom they signed bilateral agreements throughout 1921. Their greatest triumph occurred in April 1922, during the international Genoa Conference. It was the goal of Lloyd George to return Russia to the “concert of powers,” and then reward them with credits and loans. However Soviet representatives opposed the stiff conditions attached, which included repayment of all debts and fearful of a united Western front, they aligned themselves with Germany. In a private meeting the small Italian town of Rapallo, Soviet and German representatives signed a treaty renouncing all financial claims, securing mutual trade relations, and securing German aid to Russia. The treaty allowed both countries to reassert their international independence, and to begin rebuilding their power. Russia secured help in rebuilding its economy, and Germany received Soviet help in rebuilding its military. The treaty served them well until Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.


Peoples of the East, Unite! (1920) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

Formerly a part of the tsarist empire, the mountainous isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas that Russians call Transcaucasia proved resistant to the spread of Soviet power until 1920. The only exception was the Baku Commune, set up in April 1918 by local Bolsheviks. It survived for four months before succumbing to Azerbaijani nationalists backed by Ottoman Turkish troops. From 1918 until 1920, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia existed as independent states. Whereas the Menshevik government in Georgia enjoyed widespread popular support, the nationalist government in Azerbaijan relied on Ottoman Turkish and then British military protection, while the fragile Armenian nationalist (Dashnak) government looked to the Entente powers for protection, primarily against the claims of Turkey.

Comrade Muslims! (1919), by Dmitri Moor / From The Bolshevik Poster by Stephen White

The withdrawal of this protection in the aftermath of the Versailles settlement and the winding down of the Russian civil war left these states vulnerable to invasion. In the case of Azerbaijan, the government could count on neither the peasantry which exhibited only a weak nationalist consciousness nor the multi-ethnic population of Baku which was not unsympathetic to the Bolsheviks. In April 1920, the Red Army, meeting little resistance, marched into Baku and an Azerbaijan Soviet government was organized under the guidance of the Caucasian Bureau (Kavbiuro) of the Russian Communist Party. The Armenian government, faced with invasion by the Turkish army, reluctantly concluded an agreement with Soviet Russia in December 1920 that led to the effective division of historic Armenian lands between Turkey and a Soviet Republic of Armenia. In February 1921, after the Red Army left Armenia for Georgia, the Dashnaks seized the capital, Erevan, but in April they were driven into the mountains and across the border into Persia by returning units of the Red Army. After the occupation of Armenia, the Kavbiuro under Sergo Ordzhonikidze turned its attention to Georgia. However, Lenin, mindful of the Georgian Mensheviks’ popularity and fearful of adverse international reaction, turned down several requests from Ordzhonikidze to launch an invasion. Only after the outbreak of a Communist-led uprising, did he relent and on February 14, 1921 he authorized the invasion.

The Caucusus, photo by Iu. P. Eremin (1920) / Photodome

Even then, Lenin insisted on “special concessions towards Georgian intellectuals and petty traders” and a “compromise” with elements of the Georgian Mensheviks. Ordzonikidze’s failure to abide by these strictures over the next two years led to a complete rupture between the Kavbiuro and the Georgian Communists and a showdown between Lenin and Stalin over the latter’s support for Ordzonikidze’s ruthlessness. In March 1922, the three nominally independent Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were amalgamated into a Transcaucasian Federation. They became fully fledged union republics in 1936.

Workers’ Opposition

Kollonatia in Stockholm (1938) / Marxists Internet Archive

Formed in the winter of 1920-21, the Workers’ Opposition formed a faction within the All-Russian Communist Party to try to halt the perceived drift towards bureaucratism in both Soviet institutions and the party itself, and to promote a syndicalist agenda of trade union control of the economy. Along with the Democratic Centralists, the Workers’ Opposition represented the most serious threat to party unity since the October Revolution and was indicative of considerable working-class disenchantment with the party leadership and its policies. The leading figures in the Workers’ Opposition were Aleksandr Shliapnikov, chair of the central committee of the Metalworkers’ Union, and Aleksandra Kollontai, the most prominent Bolshevik feminist.

Left: Bureaucrats, by A.M. Kavenskii (1921) / “Fighting Pencil Group”, Red Tape from the Red Square
Right: A Terrible Place, by K. Eliseev (1925) / Moscow: Isd-vo Pravda

The Workers’ Opposition became embroiled in the trade union controversy that broke out in preparation for the party’s Tenth Congress. Most fully articulated by Kollontai, it advocated a congress of producers to be elected by the trade unions and responsible for management of industry and control over the entire economy. Condemning the increasing reliance on “bourgeois specialists,” Kollontai wrote that “only workers can generate … new methods of organizing labor as well as running industry.” As for the party, the Workers’ Opposition called for the expulsion of all non-proletarian elements and for future eligibility for membership to be contingent on the performance of manual labor for “a certain period of time.”

Kollontai with Klara Zetkin (1921) / Marxists Internet Archive

At the Tenth Congress, the Workers’ Opposition’s position on trade unions received only 18 of over 400 votes cast by delegates. The party apparatus’ manipulation of delegate selection at the provincial level undoubtedly contributed to the Opposition’s poor showing. Weary of the divisions within the party ranks, Lenin pushed through resolutions on “party unity” and against “the anarcho-syndicalist deviation” that effectively banned the Workers’ Opposition and other party factions. A purge of the leadership of the Metalworkers’ Union followed soon thereafter. Complaints against the party’s repression of dissent within its ranks such as a “Declaration of the Twenty-Two” addressed to the Comintern and an appeal of the “Workers’ Truth” group continued into 1922. Ironically, Trotsky was to lodge similar complaints, but only after these groups that he had opposed ceased to exist.

The Soviet Connection: Art and Revolution

What the Communist regime, headed by Vladimir Lenin, inherited was a vast sprawling nation, nearly completely landlocked, weakened by a negligent monarchy, torn apart by the Great War and a revolutionary struggle. Having laid waste to centuries of autocratic rule, the people, led by a band of exiled intellectuals, who had come home to lead them, inherited their Slavic patch of the earth and gazed across the razed plain that had to be reconstructed from destruction. By 1918, artists and peasant alike had the opportunity—rare in history—to build a brave new world, one in which there would be economic and social equality. But there was a catch.

The population of Russia was uneducated and illiterate. The proletarian masses and the huddled peasants knew they were downtrodden and, even after the new government came into power, outside of Moscow and Leningrad, there were millions who had no idea that the Czar had been assassinated. Starting with that basic fact—the sheer ignorance of a blighted citizenry—and proceed with the hope and the resolve to help the people of Russia to rise from their knees and actualize themselves under the banner of communism then the question turned back upon Lenin’s seminal manifesto of Bolshevik philosophy: “What is to be Done?”

The answer to the post-war challenge was contained within the 1902 document—the newly released Russians, the Soviets, would be re-educated. The Bolsheviks considered propaganda to be political education work, which involved agit-prop that would teach the people socialism. Propaganda or the education of an entire population was both visual and verbal, and visual culture was the realm of the artists, who marshaled their considerable talents and skills and gave themselves over the government. Art was dead. The artist was dead. In the place of such bourgeoisie concepts, the engineer emerged full of projects and pictures and objects, all aimed towards propaganda.

By the end of the Great War, an otherwise neutral word, “propaganda,” meaning persuasion or a spreading of a certain message, had morphed from a doctrinaire teaching of a received truth, such as that from a religious organization, or, on a lower level, the semiotics of selling a product, to a campaign to teach the audience to hate. During the War, vast and sophisticated machineries, based in the governments of the contending powers, cranked out posters, articles in newspapers, books, primitive films, even postcards, shaped stories and crafted messages with one goal in mind: to stir up the feelings and emotions of the people to hate the other side.

In England, a nation without a universal draft, the messages were ones of shaming fit young men into serving in the military. In France, the content was simple, the Germans were barbarians. In Germany, the story was that the British Empire surrounded the world like a giant octopus. However, when the exiled leaders of the Russian Revolution returned to their homeland, joining those who had stayed behind to fight directly against the Czar, a sophisticated avant-garde had been honed through years. It was this pre-existing group of enthusiastic artists, dedicated to revolution and to change, that could be immediately summoned to work for the cause.

Aided by intellectuals and abetted by artists, all of whom came from the small middle class, the fight for the hearts and minds of the lower classes began. The earliest posters were plastered onto the windows of the Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, located in cities from Moscow to Petrograd to Odessa and points beyond. ROSTA had its own Moscow based art department until 1921 and its posters were the joint products of an artist, Mikhail Cheremnykh and a journalist Vladimir Mayakovsky, who directed a project that eventually employed local teams beyond Moscow. Although this endeavor existed for only two years, over two million posters were distributed. The founders of the program were sophisticated and very advanced in their artistic tastes, but the audience was working class and largely illiterate.

To reach this audience, which needed to be informed of the latest news, the ROSTA artists appropriated the look of a lubok or traditional Russian folk art print was deployed. Avant-garde artists, such as Ivan Maliutin, were recruited to communicate with a public that had a horizon of expectations limited by a low level of literacy and a visual acuity trained by Russian icons. The Russian people could read images fluently and the simple narrative style of the ROSTA posters—rather like cartoon drawings—could be easily followed. The Bolsheviks needed to convince the people of the righteousness of their philosophy, one of empowering the working class, de-legitimating the ruling class, and establishing a centrally controlled economy valorizing the laborers.

ROSTA text was kept at a minimum and the weight of the message rested upon simple but graphically effective images. These posters told stories, sent messages, taught lessons with images that would have been at home in a child’s picture book. The colors were bright and arbitrary, applied by assistants who would work from a basic linoleum block, allowing the strong colors to run outside the lines. The result was an image that was friendly and persuasive, sophisticated and amateurish at the same time, with the folkish charm selling strong political messages.

ROSTA was shut down abruptly in 1921 and its windows were closed so to speak, and the large brilliant posters disappeared. But the way in which the agency was run would be typical of propaganda efforts: workers would be radicalized or co-opted to the cause and there could be no deviation from the party line. The concise and consistent message would dominate and it was the task of the artist to become an engineer in the service of the permanent revolution.

Following the civil war and the consolidation of power, the Communists then set out to transform and unity the vast Russian territories to knit them under the Soviet rule and way of life. The railroads, the one accomplishment of the Czarist regime became avenues of education as the new government reached out to the masses. Long agitprop trains, painted on the exterior with colorful designs that captured the eye and informed the mind traveled everywhere, pausing at towns and small cities. The populations would gather around to receive information, written, verbal and visual, on topics from best practices in health and the values of Communism. The workers, the peasants and the downtrodden learned that they were now heroes, enlisted in the great revolution of the Russian people, now powerful and in charge of their own lives.

The visuals of these agitprop trains were closer to ROSTA posters than to the avant-garde posters of the cities, where the audience was more sophisticated. In the 1920s, there was still no set aesthetic for the Revolution and the avant-garde artists moved into the vacuum and gave their lives to Communism. But the story of the Russian Avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia is nothing short of tragic. The artists, mostly from Moscow and Petrograd, had been left leaning politically before the Revolution and most enthusiastically joined the new government with high hopes and good intentions. They willingly gave up the pretensions of “avant-garde” and happily become workers, engineers and cultural producers, in the cause of the workers and in the name of the Bolshevik creeds. For a few short years, these artists flourished and were appreciated, supported by the young government, but a revolution is never stopped, it is only paused from time to time.

By time it reached its natural end—the evolution of a strong totalitarian leader—Stalin—avant-garde art and artists were purged and silenced. Russian Avant-garde graphic design and its fate was a case study of the trajectory from aspiration to suppression. Containing the stylistic seeds of their own destruction, the avant-garde posters designed by the Russian Avant-garde artists were everything the ROSTA posters were not. Rooted in Suprematism and Cubism and Futurism, rather than in folk art, borrowing the tactics of photomontage rather than simple block printing, these posters were complex, not simple, and often constructed on the strong diagonal, giving the images a feeling of dynamism and a sense of change and progress, they were more artistic than communicative, with an alienating aesthetic that put off the masses at which they were aimed.

The artists did not help their cause by debating among themselves about which avant-garde style would be appropriate for the masses. Given that Futurism, for example, was Italian rather than home grown, the use of pre-war styles seems out of step with the main goal of the artists, which was to create a new visual universe, full of new objects, in which a new language would appear and communicate the meaning of the brave new world. The new language would be that of the proletariat. But despite the obvious complications, the artists proceeded along their own path to what historians John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich described as “the leftist artists and writers snarled relationship to power and language as the media of political control.”

Indeed, as the writers continued, “the avant-garde artist can be seen as the politician’s rival who usually loses the battle to the more powerful opponent.” It is possible to make the argument that the Russian avant-garde ended for all intents and purposes with the end of the Great War, and, after that, the artists carried their memories and their styles from non-revolutionary bourgeois contexts forward with them into a revolution for which this language was profoundly unsuited. Yet out of this ultimately unsuccessful relationship came some of the most striking designs of the twentieth century.

Poster Plakat A Collection of Posters from the Soviet Union and its Satellite Nations

Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh is considered a master of Soviet satirical graphics. Born in Siberia, he relocated to Moscow in 1911 to study painting where he subsequently enrolled in MUZhViZ (Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture). By 1919 he established the ROSTA studio (Russian Telegraph Agency) in Moscow and served as its artistic director until 1922, when he co-founded the satirical magazine Krokodil[Crocodile].

Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh is considered a master of Soviet satirical graphics. Born in Siberia, he relocated to Moscow in 1911 to study painting where he subsequently enrolled in MUZhViZ (Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture). By 1919 he established the ROSTA studio (Russian Telegraph Agency) in Moscow and served as its artistic director until 1922, when he co-founded the satirical magazine Krokodil[Crocodile]. From 1939 to 1941 he worked as a book illustrator and as a set designer for the Leningrad Academic Maly Opera Theater and in Minsk at the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic State Theater of Opera and Ballet. When the Second World War erupted in 1941, he organized the Moscow TASS studio (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) designing its first poster and contributing to forty more works throughout its history. In 1942 he was awarded the Stalin Prize and in 1952, he was bestowed the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Cheremnykh exhibited his work at the following venues: “1st Exhibition of Graphics for the 10th Anniversary of the October Revolution” (1927-28) ROSTA Windows (1929), “Socialist Construction in Soviet Art" (1930-31), "The Poster in Service of The Five-Year Plan” (1932), and at other venues in Soviet Union and internationally. His works are held in museum collections in Russia, among them— State Tretyakov Gallery, State Literary Museum, Pushkin Museum and, in Chicago, Illinois at The Art Institute of Chicago.

From poster to icon

The &ldquoWindows of the War: Soviet TASS posters at home and abroad, 1941-1945&rdquo exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago drew phenomenal international attention to Soviet anti-war posters. Art historian Konstantin Akinsha was one of the guest curators of the exhibit and a contributor to the catalogue. In an interview, he sheds light on how the posters were found and why they are so significant today.

The catalogue is available as a comprehensive reflection on the TASS poster art, and curators and researchers hope to create an independent website devoted to the wartime posters.

How were these TASS posters discovered?

Read more:

Some time ago a big roll of Soviet propaganda posters was found between two fake walls during renovations at the Art Institute of Chicago. No one knew who put them there, when and what for. The posters were all restored. The question arose what to do with them, so Peter Zegers, Rothman Family Research Curator, Department of Prints & Drawings, came up with an idea of a poster exhibition. He also put a lot of effort into making it happen I would say it was mostly his work. We began the research, and as a result of our travels across America we found out that many institutions in the United stated have such posters, because in Soviet times there was a very wide distribution abroad, existed even by subscription. The only problem was, those posters mostly were printed on newsprint fibers, which were very thin, so after some time the placards were literally falling apart. Therefore, many American institutions had them, but in very bad condition.

It&rsquos important to know that during World War II some of the posters were printed in parts and eventually glued together. So when we came to Stanford&rsquos Hoover Institution, we found many separate parts that were printed on a surprisingly thick and nice paper, which was very unusual. We were collecting them, piece by piece, like a puzzle&hellip.

How did these posters ever survive?

The secret is, this batch was printed on thick paper especially for an exhibition at the San Francisco Soviet American Institute, as well as a similar batch that were found at MOMA&rsquos warehouses. The most intriguing part was that the U.S.S.R. did not have those posters, because many of the very first ones, from 1941, didn&rsquot survive World War II. Most of them unfortunately were lost and destroyed, especially when Hitler&rsquos army was near Moscow &ndash everyone was in panic and of course saving TASS posters was not at the top of their priorities.

Some of them still exist in Russia only as small black-and-white photographs. So preparing for that exhibit we made a few great and surprising discoveries. Every American art institution or private collector we asked lent us what we wanted, so we did not have to contact Russia for this, which was good, because last year, all of a sudden, Russian rules on lending and transporting art pieces became very strict. So if we counted on Russia, our exhibition could have never been the way it was.

Can you tell us about the history of these posters in the Soviet Union?

The so-called &ldquoOkna TASS&rdquo posters were a unique phenomenon. A few days after Germany declared war to the Soviet Union on June 22 of 1941, a group of artists came up with an initiative of making some propaganda materials to raise the fighting spirit of the Soviet people in the artistic tradition of &ldquoOkna ROSTA&rdquo, the placard series of the Civil War. This list of artists included many great names, for instance, Mikhail Cheremnykh, who used to work with Vladimir Mayakovsky. In fact, Mayakovsky has affected this whole project on a much bigger scale than one can think.

In 1940 the whole country was commemorating the 10 th anniversary of the poet&rsquos death. Joseph Stalin had spoken about the dead futurist as &ldquothe best poet of our epoch,&rdquo so the &ldquogeneral line&rdquo of the party was clear. The year of 1940 was dedicated to Mayakovsky, at times in very weird ways. Everyone tried to get his piece of pie off of Mayakovsky. For example, all of a sudden, some old avant-garde artists, neglected by the regime, wrote memoirs about how close they were with the deceased, because it was their only way back to the artistic community. People of all backgrounds tried to demonstrate their connection to the poet, which at times was totally made up, but it was a great social lift of that period. A huge permanent exhibit dedicated to Mayakovsky was supposed to open in Moscow on June 22, 1945, but the German bombing of Kiev confused the plans.

All those legends of how those posters were distributed at the frontline and inspired Soviet soldiers and officers to better fight the enemy, or how partisans crossed the front line wrapped in those posters and pasted them up on the enemy&rsquos side, are nothing but beautiful legends. Okna TASS posters were present mostly in Moscow. However, they grew more and more popular--maybe not among those fighting for their country at the frontline, but among cultured urbanites. At some point their smaller, lithographic versions, that were much easier to produce, started spreading, and that was the main reason for their popularity. Some images became iconic, made it to postcards.

In the meantime the production technology became more complicated with more colors, so the artists often overspent their budget. In Stalin&rsquos hierarchy of art a picture was at the top, so the idea was to make a unique and at the same time mass culture object, that is an oxymoron by definition.

The board of TASS wanted to improve and make light films, slide films and cartoons based on &ldquoOkna Tass&rdquo images, a completely revolutionary animation genre. At that time there were light boxes on the streets of Moscow, screening those posters and war photographs.

How come Soviet propaganda posters became so well-known outside the Soviet Union?

The other life of those posters and images began, when all of a sudden they became a popular export item from the Soviet Union abroad. Some of them looked weird, some cute, some were very funny, so they caught a great amount of attention in foreign countries. TASS posters were exported through different channels, including the Communist Party. First they were sent to the United States, then to the United Kingdom, then to many other countries, from Latin American to China, from 1942. Countless exhibitions of Soviet anti-war posters were held in many countries one after another, including those at the Metropolitan Museum, at the MOMA, in some art institutions in Chicago. The posters were covered in press a lot, and also translated and used, for instance, in the U.S., to raise the allies&rsquo fighting spirit.

But after the end of World War II everyone sort of forgot about them.

So what were people&rsquos reactions to the Chicago exhibit?

First of all, it drew a very emotional reaction from Soviet immigrants of previous generations they were very touched and kept coming again and again. I&rsquom talking about people of the age of 60 and older, those, who emigrated from Soviet Union, not Russia yet. Even though they had a really tough past in the Soviet Union, they loved the exhibition very much. Also, there is a cast of people who love war history and they came from many other cities and states.

There were some related exhibitions at Northwestern University and The University of Chicago. It all turned out to be sort of a festival of Soviet posters, so it was big deal for Chicago.

Can you tell us about the organization of the exhibit and catalogue?

We had four curators plus a few researchers. I can compare it to building a cathedral. It can be tough because there are so many opinions. Originally the idea was to illustrate every day of war, but we were afraid the visitors would die in the first third. Still, it was a very thorough illustration of the war. The original plan was to open on June 22, the anniversary of the Fascist attack on the Soviet Union, but we had to fix some things so it opened in July.

Our exhibition in Chicago was enormous, a little big too big, I think. There were 250 big posters plus additional materials. It was really hard to go through it all at once, it was endless. We did something that has not been done yet, it was the biggest exhibition of Soviet propaganda posters ever.

The first edition of the catalog was sold out instantly, so we had to print another one. [Editor's note: The catalogue, an extraordinary tome, is available from the Art Institute of Chicago online.]

Mikhail Cheremnykh - History

The Tass Poster Series from the Hallward Library, University of Nottingham

Introduction by Dr Derek W Spring
Consultant Editor
Department of History, University of Nottingham

Soviet Posters from the Great Patriotic War, 1941-5

Soviet Poster Art

The heyday of the Soviet political poster was during the Civil War of 1918-21. As Stephen White shows in The Bolshevik Poster it was influenced by the popular lubok [woodcut], by icon painting, and the satirical cartoons of the early 20th century. But the remarkable flourishing and vitality of poster art after 1917 owed much to the originality and commitment of a small number of artists, notably Alexander Aspit, Dmitri Moor, Viktor Deni, El Lissitsky, Mikhail Cheremnykh and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. It reached its apogee aesthetically and in the power of its messages in the years of uncertainty and crisis of the Civil War of 1918-21. Its directness appealed to the black and white issues of that struggle, with the Bolsheviks&rsquo claim to be able to build a bright future for simple people. In a country where the majority of the population was still illiterate, the Bolsheviks were aware of the importance of the visual message in all its forms. Hence the efforts put into the agitation trains and steamers as well as the enrolling of sympathetic artists to their cause. In the 1920s with the direct military struggle won, with the difficulty of dramatising the more complex issues the country faced and with the growing control of individual artistic initiative, Soviet poster art also declined.

Soviet Papers in the Great Patriotic War

From June 1941 for two years the Soviet people found themselves in a situation as desperate as that of the Civil War and one in which once again their black and white propaganda, their claim of the high moral ground, was able to be projected convincingly by all the media because it could be seen to have a degree of validity: the peaceful country had been perfidiously attacked by an aggressive power with enormous claims on it, with a contemptuous attitude towards the Slave peoples and led by a crazed dictator and his gang. This accounts for the renewed power and authenticity of Soviet poster art particularly in the first years of the war: at this time &lsquoLife itself so surpassed all fantasies, that the closer the artist was to it, the deeper he was able to penetrate into the genuine romance of its heroism the beauty of the exploit was in itself so great that it did not require further decoration or exaggeration.

Several of the prominent posters artists of the Civil War were still active. Mikhail Cheremnykh, initiator of the ROSTA Windows in the Civil War, as well as Victor Deni and Dmitri Moor continued to make contributions to poster art in this period. But also new figures had come forward: Irakli Toidze, V S Ivanov, A A Kokorekin, B V Koretsky and others. The already well-known Kukryniksy trio of cartoonists (Mikhail Kupriyanov, Porfiry Krylov and Nikolai Sokolov) discussed an idea for a poster already on the afternoon following the German attack on 22 June. On the following day they appeared at the offices of Pravda in which much of their work had appeared for instructions on what should be the character of their art now, as Fascism had already been exposed in the 1930s. Their famous poster &lsquoWe will mercilessly destroy&hellip&rsquo appeared on the streets of Moscow already on 24 June. It showed a caricatured Hitler with a revolver, his head breaking through the torn Soviet-German non-aggression treaty of 1939, only to be confronted with a determined looking Red Army soldier whose rifle bayonet pierces his head.

The printing as opposed to the stencilling of posters was concentrated at the State Printing Works &lsquoIskusstvo&rsquo [Art] in Leningrad and Moscow. Amongst the most famous and striking of the printed posters was the heroic &lsquoThe Motherland Calls&rsquo of I M Toidze. Only a week after the beginning of the war it appeared covering a whole façade of a building close to the Post Office in Gorky Street in Moscow. A fiery-eyed, determined looking elderly mother in a shawl, the simplicity of her dress enabling the vast majority to identify with her, calls insistently to the observer. Behind her are the bayonets of the Red Army rifles and she holds in her hand the oath of loyalty of the Red Armu soldier, the text clearly visable. Toidze conceived his idea already on the first day of the war. It was enormously successful and was printed in millions of copies and in all the main languages of the country. Dmitri Moor exploited his famous &lsquoHave you joined the Volunteers?&rsquo poster of 1919 with &lsquoHow have you helped the Front?&rsquo in 1941, appealing to the Home Front. B V Koretsky&rsquos &lsquoRed Army soldier, Save us!&rsquo first appeared on 5 August 1942 when the Red Army was still retreating across the southern steppes and the outcome of the war remained very uncertain. A young mother with a child in her arms and hate in her eyes fills the whole poster, as a rifle bayonet dripping blood threatens them. The caption in red appears as if written in the blood dripping from the bayonet. This was one of the many posters at this period emphasising the sufferings of ordinary Soviet civilians in the war.

In 1943 the tragic theme began to give way to the joyful as the tide of the war began to turn and Soviet victories could regularly be celebrated as towns and regions were liberated from the enemy. But increasingly the messages lost their urgency as the outcome of the battle of Stalingrad (2 February 1943) and the battle of Kursk (July 1943) became clear and the Red Army once again approached its own frontiers. As a Soviet authority summarised the character of the political poster at this time: &lsquoThe joy at the liberation of their native lands was combined with a growing thirst for revenge&hellip On the one hand this brought with it the further development of the theme of the sufferings of peaceful Soviet people in the political poster, and on the other, it brought to the theme of liberation not only feelings of joy, but also bitterness at what they had gone through and a passionate appeal for vengeance&rsquo.

In 1944 the context changed further as the war was fought through on to German territory. &lsquoIn the images of the poster of this period&rsquo, writes Demosfenova, &lsquotogether with a consciousness of the whole horror of fascism and a thirst for revenge, the joy and exhaustion of victory, we see the appearance of a new characteristic: a feeling of pride and consciousness of having carried out a great historical service for humanity. But the agitation message was more difficult to convey as the war came to an end and energies needed to begin to be directed towards reconstruction rather than saving the motherland from the invading enemy. The propagandist&rsquos task was also complicated by the need to maintain the momentum of the war effort even after the country was cleared of the enemy, in order to achieve his complete defeat. The Red Army soldier passing into the East European countries was able to make comparisons with his own life and experience which in the propagandists&rsquo view required greater vigilance to combat &lsquoerroneous&rsquo ideas and conclusions. Similarly a substantial part of the Soviet population had been living under German control for a lengthy period of occupation and Party authorities were apprehensive about the conclusions they may have drawn. The populations of the reincorporated western Ukraine and western Belorussia had only previously lived under Soviet rule and influences for less than two years. And the Baltic states, Bessarabia and Bukovina had been annexed only a year before the German invasion of June 1941. These areas would require special attention, not least in the field of propaganda. In 1944 brighter emotional posters called for liberation of the peoples of Europe from Nazism, and for reconstruction. By the end of 1944 the chief theme had already become the forthcoming victory. But while the horrors of the Nazi regime were evident, the emphasis on the external enemy and his possible continued survival in hiding helped to distract attention from a cooler analysis of the Soviet war experience, as Stalin dashed hopes of an internal relaxation as the war came to an end.

It is to the context of these last three years of the war that the posters published in this collection belong.

The major role in Soviet poster art in the war was played by the TASS Windows and they form the largest part of the collection published here. They were large, brightly coloured, hand-painted posters, stencilled and produced in runs of up to 1000 copies. They usually were accompanied by a didactic text or often quite lengthy poem. They were the direct descendants of the comparable ROSTA Windows of the Civil War period, so-called because they were displayed in the empty shop-windows of that period. Like ROSTA, TASS was the official Soviet telegraphic agency of the day, and the purpose of the association of this propaganda effort with the agency was both to provide a continuing visual chronicle of the war and to respond immediately, often within hours to the latest telegrams of TASS. M M Chermnykh, who had initiated the ROSTA Windows, also took the lead in the 1941 project. On 24 June the organisational committee of the Union of Soviet Artists established the TASS Window collective and the first poster appeared already on 27 June 1941. The Windows were numbered through to no. 1485 in June 1945. About 1250 were made in the original manner with stencils during the war itself. For several months at the turn of 1941-2 they were published with dates rather than numbers both in Moscow and in Kuibyshev to which part of the team had been evacuated. It is therefore difficult to be sure that the complete series has been located.

Some of the first Windows were only produced in a single copy. Until the end of December 1941 none was produced in more than 120 copies. This was soon increased to 300 to 600 copies by the end of 1942 and sometimes to over 1000 copies in 1943-5. Posters similar to the TASS Windows amounting to &lsquoan artistic movement&rsquo according to one of the leading artists, N F Denisovsky were also printed in Leningrad, Kuibyshev, Gorky, Perm, Kirov, Kazan, Cheboksar, Tula, Penza, Saratov, Sverdlovsk, Murmansk, Tomsk, Chita, Biisk, Khabarovsk, Tashkent, Baku, Tbilisi, Frunze, Ashkhabad and other towns, though little research has been done to trace them. In Frunze, capital of the Kirgiz republic, the style of the posters was adapted to use local motifs. They were widely made known as significant artistic contributions to the war effort though laudatory articles in the press. President Kalinin visited the TASS Window collective on 19 December 1941 at the height of the battle for Moscow urging artists to take up poster work and made his oft-quoted remark that &lsquojust as historians of the October Revolution have not passed over the ROSTA Windows, so historians of the Patriotic War will not forget the TASS Windows&hellip&rsquo The Windows were distributed to the front, to army units, factories and collective farms and there were even reports of them appearing mysteriously in occupied towns such as Vitebsk, Voronezh and Kharkov. A report during the war on a partisan&rsquos experience specifically mentions the value of a TASS Window amongst his equipment.

The limited number of copies of each TASS Window might suggest a rather limited impact particularly for the many early single copy posters. Even the 1000 copies at full production would have been quickly exhausted in the vast country. However, apart from the imitations of the Moscow productions in other towns many of the TASS Windows which had a message of more than transitory importance were subsequently properly printed in several tens of thousands copies. Also nearly 75000 copies of TASS Windows were reproduced in the film cassette series Posledniye izvestiya [The Latest News] and from March 1943 on slide films with reproductions of 40-50 TASS Windows on each reel. Nearly 26000 silk screen [shelkografiki] posters were made and over a million lithographic reduced size copies were made by the TASS collective from the beginning of 1942. The rate of production of new posters was however uneven. In the first year of the war over 500 different TASS Windows were produced, but the second 500 took nearly 2 years to complete. Number 1000 was dated 6 June 1944. N G Palgunov, the director of TASS from June 1943, compares the impact of the TASS Windows on morale during the war with Shostakovich&rsquos 7th Symphony or with the popular song Holy War. The newspaper Trud in an article on the TASS Windows in June 1943 proclaimed that they &lsquoin essence reflect the history of our country in the years of the Great Patriotic War&hellip They addressed themselves to the most noble sentiments of the Soviet people, to their patriotism&hellip&rsquo

The posters were also made known abroad. Copies and sometimes whole exhibitions were sent to Britain, the United States, China, Australia and several other countries. In a few cases they were translated for war propaganda in those countries. Exhibitions were mounted in the East European countries later in the war as the Red Army occupied them.

The Moscow ROSTA collective of the Civil War years had produced about 1600 &lsquoSatire Windows&rsquo between September 1919 and 1922. Outside Moscow the Odessa and Petrograd branches probably produced over 1000 each. The volume of production was therefore no less over a comparable period, at least in the case of Moscow, than the TASS Windows 20 years later. Like the TASS collective, ROSTA had been able to react to the latest telegrams within a few hours. The TASS Windows however never reached the 200 different Windows produced by the ROSTA collective in the exceptional month of October 1920. But ROSTA Windows could be reproduced only in 40-50 copies, whereas TASS Windows reached 1000-1200 copies at their peak and were also distributed in other forms. The TASS Windows poetic texts were directed at a more literate society in the 1940s, though their impact was inevitably more on the urban than the rural population. The ROSTA Windows were mainly satirical. The TASS Windows were both satirical and increasingly heroic, although according to a substantial Soviet analysis, &lsquoit was precisely as satire that the TASS Windows played their most telling word&rsquo and because of the limitations of the stencilling method, the heroic figure was most fully achieved rather in the printed poster.

The theme and the text of each TASS Window were agreed with the leader of the collective, and ultimately with the agreement of TASS. TASS was the official news agency for dissemination of Soviet news abroad and for reception of news from abroad and consequently was strictly controlled by the Party. Most posters were completed and reproduced within 24 hours, the team working in three shifts. After the artist had completed the drawing and painting of the illustration, the poster was cut up into sections and stencils were cut out appropriate to each colour used in the composition. The most elaborate posters used up to 60 stencils. The stencils were then passed to the copy room where each section was copied on a lithographic machine in waterproof oil colours, initially in very few copies but eventually in up to 1000 copies. When all the colours had been applied to each stencilled section, they had to be glued together to make the completed poster and the text was added in a separate operation.

Why was this method used rather than straight printing? Firstly the experience with the famous ROSTA Windows was influential on key figures like Cheremnykh who was still active in 1941. An idea which had arisen out of the desperate crisis of 1918 naturally came immediately to mind in the crisis of 1941, as having shown its worth. Secondly there were certain advantages in the production methods of the TASS Windows. They enabled a reaction to be made to an event within a very short period, as little as 24 hours. New posters appeared almost every day of the war. The TASS Windows became a kind of chronicle of the war, referring not only to general issues but also to incidents of the immediate moment as they arose in the press. They were also able to be reproduced in much brighter and more startling colours than could be produced at the time by printing, and they could be produced &ndash as their imitators did &ndash in towns outside Moscow where there were only very primitive printing facilities.

Several of the poster artists of the revolutionary period were still active in 1941, the most notable being Viktor Deni, Mikhail Cheremnykh and Dimitri Moor. Prominent amongst the younger generation were the Kukryniksy, Boris Efimov, Irakly Toidzye and Viktor Ivanov. Many painters and artists who had had no connection with poster art participated in the TASS collective as the most direct way in which they could aid the war effort by boosting morale and exposing the enemy. 129 artists from various backgrounds contributed to the TASS Windows, including painters such as P P Sokolov-Skalya (176 Windows), A P Bubnov (25), P M Shukhmin (40), M V Mal&rsquotsev (15) and F V Antonov (16).

Similarly, more than 70 poets and writers sought to make their contribution to the same cause with appropriate short, sharp, witty and striking verses and slogans. The precedent had been set by Mayakovsky who wrote more than 600 texts for the ROSTA Windows as well as contributing as an artist. The proletarian poet Demyan Bedny (E A Pridvorov, 1881-1945), whose verses had been admitted by Lenin, had contributed to the earlier ROSTA Windows and although in poor health (he died in 1945 on the eve of victory), he insisted on returning to Moscow late in 1941 from the safety of Kazan to play his part. Bedny contributed the texts and verses for 113 TASS Windows during the war. Samuel Marshak (1887-1964) was a poet and prolific translator of English literature into Russian (having studied for two years at London University from 1912 to 1914) including Shakespeare, Burns, Keats and Wordsworth. He was renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for his children&rsquos stories adapted to the post-revolutionary conditions. During the war he published many satirical poems in Pravda and co-operated particularly with the Kukryniksy team, the best-known of the satirical artists of the TASS collective. Marshak wrote the texts for 108 TASS Windows during the war. V I Lebedev-Kumach (1898-1949) was an established poet of the period who had already been involved in the ROSTA propaganda agency during the Civil War. He wrote the text of the popular 1930s Soviet musical films Vesyolye Rebyata [The Happy Guys] and Tsirk [Circus] and for some of the most forceful of the patriotic songs of the war period such as Syvaschennaya voina [Holy War]. Lebedev-Kumach wrote the texts for 92 TASS Windows. The other most prolific contributors to the texts were the poets A I Mashistov (136 texts) and A A Zharov (95 texts).

Alexander Roob

In a situation in which museums, put under pressure by the market, are increasingly withdrawing from their core business of basic historical research on the state of present-day art, it can happen that precisely in this regard they are overtaken by extraordinary initiatives of the market itself, by galleries, for instance, which are now taking charge of establishing a necessary critical discourse. The gallerist Thomas Flor in Berlin is now doing so with the exhibition of an equally legendary and hard-to-classify key project of the classical avant-garde, the so-called ROSTA windows from revolutionary times in Russia. These bright and colourful pictorial messages form a peculiar interface between elitist modernist aesthetics, popular illustration graphics, state propaganda and communicative guerrilla techniques. The pressing question as to an historical connection between the two antagonistic views of art, the formalistic ideal of autonomy, which was constitutive in establishing the art market in the post-war era, and a subversive, interventionist practice, is posed anew in this show.

ROSTA, exhibition view, Gallery Thomas Flor, Berlin 2014 (14 posters, handmade with stencils, each 41 x 51 cm)

ROSTA-Collective, GPP 223, Juli 1921 (14 posters, handmade with stencils, each ca. 41 x 51 cm)

ROSTA was the news agency of the Bolsheviks, founded shortly after the October Revolution. In February 1919, the painter and caricaturist Mikhail Cheremnykh in collaboration the journalist Nikolai Ivanov started an artistic campaign in the shop window of an empty confectionery with a visually designed news agency report. The campaign was to last three years, from the devastating period of the civil war to the introduction of a rudimentary market economy. The initiative was taken up a few weeks later by the popular revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had recently caused a stir with the publication of an anthology of his futuristic poems and the performance of an elaborate satire spectacle, the &ldquoMystery Bouffe&rdquo. When passing by one of Cheremnykh&rsquos ROSTA windows, it seemed he immediately grasped the potential of the initiative. If one can believe his own accounts and those of his hagiographer, Mayakovsky soon functioned alongside Cheremnykh as the spiritus rector of a constantly growing illustrated news collective.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (Source: Wassili Katanian, Majakowski, Moskau 1930)

The project was support with great effort by Platon Kerzhentsev, the new director of ROSTA. Kerzhentsev was one of the driving forces of the avant-garde Proletkult organization, whose aim was to establish an autonomous working-class culture leaving all traditional, bourgeois genres behind. The revolutionizing of expression, which Proletkult had hitherto sought mainly in the field of literature and theatre, could now be applied under the aegis of Mayakovsky to the area of graphic picture publishing as well. Mayakovsky selected the ROSTA news items and prepared them along with other poets and journalists for pictorial realisation. &ldquoThe field of activity was huge: advertising work for the Comintern and for collecting mushrooms in the interest of those suffering from hunger, the battle against Wrangel and the typhus lice, posters requesting to keep old newspapers and posters advocating electrification.&rdquo [1] He gave many of the reports rendered in compact verses to befriended artists such as Ivan Andrevich Maljutin, Amshey Nurenberg, Viktor Deni, Alexander Rodchenko and Mikhail Volpi, who had meanwhile joined the collective. [2] Together with Cheremnykh, Mayakovsky was responsible for a large part of the ROSTA graphics. He estimated his portion of the enormous overall production to be 3,000 drafts and 6,000 captions. [3]

Although the attribution of the unsigned posters to individuals contradicts the collective intention of the project and is not even possible in an unambiguous way, several distinguishing features can be detected. For example, Cheremnykh&rsquos works, estimated to amount to one third of the entire production, reveal the professional cartoonist on account of their dynamic handwriting and catchy picture ideas. Nurenberg&rsquos posters make an equally virtuoso impression, but they are more reserved and richer in detail. Mayakovsky&rsquos style is particularly noticeable. The minimalist figurations come close to pictograms his planimetric style seeks loud colour contrasts, while his posters appear more playful and incoherent than those of his professional graphic artist colleagues. Most of the windows displayed by Thomas Flor reveal his and Cheremnykh&rsquos handwriting.

The first posters exclusively addressed the Muskovite public, but the distribution frame and size of the collective quickly expanded. Since there was no functioning printing shops and a lack of paper, the first posters were traced in small editions, later a system of manual reproduction with stencils was established, modelled on the Pochoir culture of the French caricature movement and an early form of screen printing. &ldquoThe technique of reproducing and sending the windows took place in a flash,&rdquo Cheremnykh recalls. &ldquoAfter receiving the original, the stencil-maker had already completed 25 copies the next day, 50 more on the second day, and after a few days he had completed the entire edition, around 300 copies. The stencil-maker usually worked with his family or a small collective.&rdquo [4] Even the most sophisticated printing methods could not compete with this manual method as far as the brilliance of the colour effects was concerned. In his memoirs from 1930, Mayakovsky states that ROSTA was a &ldquofantastic thing&rdquo, since it &ldquomeant serving a little populace of 150 million by a handful of artists.&rdquo [5] The reproduced poster series &ndash usually thematic sequences of 4 to 14 prints &ndash were sent to all parts of the country, where they were displayed in tableaux-like sequences.

Stencil-coloured graphic of the Parisian Commune by G. Bar, 1871 (MePri-Coll.)

ROSTA- Collective , GPP 213-4, Mai 1921

The prerequisite for reaching as much of the mostly illiterate population as possible was to develop a more or less consistent pictorial sign system. The grammar of pictograms established by the ROSTA collective over time is a novelty in the history of illustration. It had a decisive impact on the development of modern infographics. [6]

ROSTA&rsquos compact picture language can be ascribed to a number of different factors. On the one hand, they were of a technical and organisational nature and had to do with an intoxicating production speed that had to keep up with the rush of news. &ldquoIt occurred that the telegraphic report of a victory at the front was already displayed as a coloured poster on building walls within forty minutes to an hour.&rdquo [7] Rapid stencil reproduction also demanded a formal language that was as reduced as possible. And, of course, the primitivist ideal of the classical avant-garde also played a role. What was explicit in the case of ROSTA was the reference made to the rustic Russian popular prints, the lubok woodcuts. The crude text-image combinations of the lubki were the structural model of the windows. As opposed to Kandinsky&rsquos formalist interest in the lubok, which had a folkloristic-mystical background, the ROSTA artists were concerned with the communicative content, for in the archaism of the depictions the old picture prints also addressed the illiterate majority of the population. Mayakovsky had gained relevant experiences in the field of pictorial propaganda already at the beginning of the first World War when he designed together with Kazimir Malevich and other futuristic artists series of lithographic caricature-like posters for the publishing house Segodnyashny lubok (contemporary lubok) in the traditional lubok- style.

Kazimir Malevich (image) / Vladimir Mayakovsky (text): "The French Allies have a basket full of defeated German soldiers / The English brothers carry a tub filled with tattered German soldiers." Poster for Segodnyashny lubok, 1914

The fact that the ROSTA graphics were not only obliged to archaism but also stood on the ground of a rich political illustration culture is less familiar. Russia was not a developing country in regard to press graphics. There was a long tradition of critical illustrated journalism that the Czarist regime was able to largely suppress, but that powerfully forged ahead twice. The 1860s, after the fiasco of the Crimean War, experienced a first heyday of Russian pictorial satire. The short but intensive intermezzo was eclipsed in 1905 after the Bloody Sunday of St. Petersburg by a further avalanche of caricatures. More than 400 satirical magazines countered the continuation of the autocratic Czarist regime during the course of the first Russian Revolution. [8] Although this spring of freedom of expression lasted just two years, it did suffice for the emergence of one of the most brilliant graphic milieus of the times and the implementation of the foundations for developing a socialist pictorial language in Russia. Two internationally leading satire magazines had a huge influence, the German Simplicissimus and the French anarcho-artist journal Assiette au beurre with draughtsmen such as Jules Grandjouan, Thomas Theodor Heine, Frantisék Kupka and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen. Certain features of the ROSTA style, e.g., the tendency towards condensed emblematics and iconic typography or the use of constructivist formal elements, could already be found in a rudimentary form in the first phase of Russian revolutionary graphic art.

Frantisek Kupka, Assiette au beurre, 1904 (MePri-Coll.)

Volshfon, V01-N03, 1905 (USC Digital Library, Russian Satirical Journals)

Shpilka,V00-N01, 1906 (USC Digital Library, Russian Satirical Journals)

ROSTA- Collective, ROSTA 753-4, Dezember 1920

The second revolution then brought the artistic novelty of Cubo-Futurism&rsquos space-fragmenting perception into play, a commonality of all artists of the ROSTA collective. During this time, the use of avant-garde styles in illustration graphics was already a longstanding practice in the progressive French press. One can assume that the artists of the ROSTA collective were quite familiar with the gaudy, late-Cubist and Cloisonist illustrations of a Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Paul Iribe, Gustave Jossot or Felix Vallotton that had appeared in internationally distributed satire papers such as Cocorico, Le Mot or the already mentioned Assiette au beurre.

Paul Iribe, in: Le Mot, No. 20, Paris 1915 (MePri-Coll.)

ROSTA- Collective, GPP 331-9, September 1921

ROSTA- Collective, GPP 331-5, September 1921

The excellent selection that Thomas Flor presents in his show also makes it clear that the stylistic contemporariness of the ROSTA graphics was not limited to an adaptation of the already declining art of the classical avant-garde, but also included the then highly topical culture of American daily strips. Communism and comics were not oppositional camps in the pre-Disney era, quite to the contrary. The slapstick-like funnies with political contents that Ernest Riebe had been drawing since 1912 for the international union movement IWW were very popular in communist circles. Particularly the windows of Mikhail Cheremnykh reveal a conspicuous stylistic proximity to comic cartooning. The world he visualised reminds one more of Coconico Country populated by funny spinach sailors than of a country devastated by civil war, where kolkhoz farmers and Red Guards struggle for their existence. With this synthesis of late-Cubist abstraction and comic style, Cheremnykh created a poster art that appears to have fallen out of time. It shows astonishing parallels to experiments undertaken decades later under entirely different circumstances in the paintings of Jean Hélion and Markus Lüpertz.

Ernest Riebe, Mr. Block invests his savings, Spokane Industrial Worker, 1912 (www.blunderbussmag.com)

With the publication of the German translation of Viktor Duvakin&rsquos monograph [9] , the ROSTA windows became known in the West in the late 1960s and had quite a bit of influence on the development of the European agitprop culture. Jörg Immendorf&rsquos and Chris Reinecke&rsquos Lidl project, for example, would not have been conceivable without this background. [10] The cultural historical range that ROSTA spans is much broader, though. Mayakovsky&rsquos &ldquoday-order to the art army,&rdquo that &ldquostreets are our brushes&rdquo and &ldquosquares our palettes,&rdquo [11] combined the flashy posters hung in the drab everyday life of the revolution in Moscow with the illuminated display windows of the Parisian publisher Aubert, where in the early 19th century Philipon&rsquos caricature army with its outspoken picture campaigns had invented the heroic worker, undermined the July Monarchy and prepared the February Revolution, and the caustic stencil-coloured satirical posters of the Parisian Commune with the pavement beach of &rsquo68 peppered with posters, with street art and communication guerrilla.

Charles Joseph Travies, Aubert Editeur, 22.12.1831 (MePri-Coll.)

Les caricatures politiques (Philipons Caricature-Windows in the center of the February -Revolution) in: Journees Illustrees de la Revolution de 1848 Paris 1849 (MePri-Coll.)

The campaign at ROSTA ended at the beginning of 1921 with the departure of Platon Kerzhentsev. Afterwards, it was continued for one more year with a stricter conception in didactical terms under the patronage of Glavpolitprosvet (GPP), a newly founded educational institution of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The hand-made propaganda picture prints were now outdated. Their woodcut-like rhetoric no longer met the more complex communication demands of the development years and the party also distanced itself more and more from the initiatives of the Futurist avant-garde. Leo Trotzky, who like Lenin was initially not unsympathetic towards the commitment of the artistic avant-garde, registered an unbridgeable divide between the Futurists&rsquo communist initiatives and the mentality of the workers, which in his view was caused by the elitist, bohemian provenance of the art movement. [12] Trotzky&rsquos criticism was also directly aimed at Mayakovsky and his efforts to be at the service of the revolution. It above all raised the question of the extent to which the abstracting picture language is actually accepted by the &ldquolittle populace of 150 million&rdquo, or whether the gesture of primitivism was not instead supported by the unrealistic assumption of a simpleminded proletarian culture.

Mayakovsky at least shared Trotzky&rsquos observation that the proletarian revolution had enormously advanced the development of individualistically constricted Futurism in that it provided for a productive dissolution of boundaries. Mayakovsky mainly held the new practice of illustrated journalism responsible, the intoxicated artistic treatment of day to day events that forcibly gave rise to a &ldquotelegraph-like, machine-gun-like speed&rdquo. &ldquoWith it, we also revolutionised artistic taste, enhanced the qualification of poster art and agitation art. If one can speak of a revolutionary style in the art of drawing &ndash then it was the style of our windows.&rdquo [13] This revolutionising of artistic taste implied nothing other than a profound revaluation of the ephemeral to art&rsquos highest form of realisation. But that was a promise the classical avant-garde was only able to keep for a short moment. In the subsequent period, it was all too obliged to an ongoing orientation towards conservative values that emerged through the formation of fronts after the Second World War. But the window thus remained open in a new traditionalism of socio-technical art practices that began in the 1960s.

The exhibition ROSTA at Gallery Thomas Flor runs till April 26

(All images ROSTA/ GPP: Courtesy Gallery Thomas Flor, Berlin - Photos: Eric Tschernow)

Chris Reinecke : Mass-Stäbe, aus: Schaufenster-Bilder, 1969-71 (Courtesy Galerie Thomas Flor)


[1] Krempel Anm. 426 > Majakowski Werke, V, p. 319 f.

[2] During the peak of poster production, the ROSTA collective consisted of more than 100 persons, according to estimates by Viktor Duvakin. (p. 44)

[5] Mayakovsky, Ich bitte ums Wort (1930), > Duvakin, p.43

[6] The pioneers of pictorial statistics, Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz, maintained close ties to Moscow

[7] Mayakovsky, Ich bitte ums Wort (1930), cited after Duvakin, S.66

[9] published 1967 in Dresden (original edition:1938 in Moskau und Leningrad)

[10] Chis Reinecke with her "Schaufenster-Blätter" (1969-70) inspired the ROSTA-exhibition at Thomas Flor.

[11] Gedicht von Mayakovsky vom 7.12.1918, cited after Duvakin p. 37

[12] Leo Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution, Wien 1924, p. 121

[13] Mayakovsky, Ich bitte ums Wort (1930), cited after Duvakin, p. 66 and Krempel p. 279

Leo Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution, Wien 1924

Wiktor Duwakin, ROSTA-Fenster. Majakowski als Dichter und bildender Künstler, Dresden 1967 (2. Auflage 1975)

Ulrich Krempel, Die ROSTA-Fenster und ihre Stellung in der Entwicklung einer sozialistischen Bildersprache, Dissertationsarbeit an der Ruhr-Universität Bochum 1975

David King & Cathy Porter, Blood and Laughter: Caricatures From the 1905 Revolution, London 1983

Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster, Yale Univ. 1988

Div., Die große Utopie: Die russische und sowjetische Avantgarde 1915-32, Frankfurt Main 1992

Div., Victor Deni, ein russischer Karikaturist im Dienst der Propaganda, Hamburg 1992

Leah Dickerman, ROSTA Bolshevik Placards 1919-1921. Handmade Political Posters from the Russian Telegraph Agency, New York 1994

Stephen P. Frank & Mark D. Steinberg ed., Cultures in Flux: Lower-Class Values, Practices, and Resistance in Late Imperial Russia, Princeton 1994

Alex Ward ed., Power to the People: Early Soviet Propaganda Posters in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem 2007

Russian Poster Revolution by Design

Although posters were produced in Russia before the Revolution, they were overshadowed by the remarkable designs of the Soviet era. Lenin created the first truly modern propaganda machine, and its most colorful, dramatic and original form was the poster. It was through poster art that the greatest artists of the time proclaimed government policies, asked for support, and demanded greater efforts--all with the goal of building Soviet power.

The Soviet art of propaganda falls into six main periods:

The Bolshevik Era (1917-1921) was a time of life-and-death struggle for the Bolshevik ideology. Helping to fight enemies within and without, the early Soviet poster was remarkable for its revolutionary fervor and powerful symbolism. [ View Bolshevik Posters ] [more text]

The New Economic Policy (1921-1927) was a period of recovery and relative freedom for a country ravaged by war, famine and bitter discontent. The commercial and film posters of Russia's "Roaring Twenties" were remarkable for their avant-garde Constructivist style. [View NEP Posters] [more text]

The First and Second Five Year Plans (1928-1937) were Stalin’s draconian push to convert Russia into a fully communist industrialized power. The great photomontage posters of the First Five Year plan echoed the heroic side of this effort, only to be followed by the purges of the late 㣂s and the retreat from avant-garde art in the Second Plan period. [View Five Year Plan Posters] [more text]

The Great Patriotic War (1939-1945) saw a revival of the great age of the Bolshevik poster. The Soviet struggle for survival forced a return to symbolism that fanned the patriotic fires of the heartland. [View Great Patriotic War Posters] [more text]

Soviet posters are a relatively new area of collecting. Virtually unavailable in the West until perestroika, they were thoroughly researched by Stephen White in his 1988 monograph The Bolshevik Poster. With the decline of communism, there is more interest than ever in the images from this bold social experiment.

The mid-1980s saw a steady trickle of images out of Russia, but that trickle has slowed, and many of the highest quality pieces are already unavailable. The works of Rodchenko, Lissitsky and Klutsis can range from $10,000 to $100,000, but many museum caliber pieces from before World War II are available at $300 to $1500. The Bolshevik period is a particularly rich one for collecting. Less expensive, but still fascinating and valuable post-WWII images are also available.

Apsit, Aleksandrs
The International, 1918/1919

Deni, Viktor
Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under the Heels of Capitalism

The Bolshevik Revolution created the world's first Communist state. The poster played a key role in selling Lenin’s vision of total cultural and political transformation to a largely illiterate population: it was the centerpiece of the first modern propaganda machine. About 3,600 poster designs were created in roughly three years--more than 20 per week.

The new government began by seizing control of the paper supply and all forms of printing. By mid-1918, it began to print and distribute posters. Alexander Apsit, the first great Bolshevik poster artist, developed many distinct Soviet symbols, such as the hammer and sickle and red star. Although his allegorical style was traditional, his imagery reflected the rhetoric of a new age.

As Civil War intensified in 1919, the Bolsheviks set up a new Literary-Publishing Department to coordinate propaganda. Its major weapons were Dimitri Moor and Viktor Deni, both cartoonists before the Revolution. Moor was a fervent Communist, whose views had been formed during the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905.

By mid-1920, the Bolsheviks had defeated the Whites and reached a stalemate with the Poles. This marked the end of the pioneering era in Bolshevik propaganda.

Rhythmics Vladimir Kapralov,
c. 1929

Stenberg, Vladimir & Georgy
Open Subscription to the Journal New World, 1926

By 1921, Russia was finally at peace, but the wars had brought almost total economic collapse, famine and bitter discontent. In desperation, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed some private enterprise to return. Small farms and businesses flourished, while the State kept control of heavy industry, transport and foreign trade.

The NEP years were the "Roaring Twenties" of Russia. This relatively free period featured exciting experimentation in all fields. In the arts, the Constructivist movement dominated. Rejecting art for art’s sake, this group wanted to contribute to the "construction" of a new Communist society. The rallying cry "Art into Production" was led by the towering geniuses of El Lissitsky and Alexander Rodchenko. Their work with photomontage, photography, and graphic design had a major impact on the direction of Western graphic arts, particularly the Bauhaus school.

State poster production was headed by Yakov Ruklevsky, who recruited a remarkable group of design school graduates. Most famous were the Stenberg brothers, Georgii and Vladimir, whose dynamic images capture the chaotic spirit of the age. Others included Nikolai Prusakov, Iosif Gerasimovich, and the prolific Mikhail Dlugach who created more than 500 posters.

Klutsis, Gustav
We Will Turn the Five Year Plan into a Four Year One, 1930

Upon assuming complete control in 1928, Stalin immediately put an end to the NEP and embarked on a new course to full communism with the Five Year Plan. Intended to turn the USSR rapidly into a powerful industrial nation, it called for vast production increases and massive construction throughout the country.

The second aspect of the Plan was the destruction of private farming and the creation of collectives where the peasants worked for the State. After widespread resistance and brutal enforcement, the goals were achieved. By 1933, industry and agriculture were firmly under Stalin's control and the Plan was declared complete six months early.

Klutsis and others praised the shock-brigade workers, collective farmers, Young Communists and women workers, demanded contributions for the air fleet or road construction, and stressed the goal of the Plan and a classless socialist society. They attacked the enemies of the State both within and without, always portraying the Soviet Union as the champion of peace and social justice.

After this frantic and heroic age, a second Five Year Plan was announced to start immediately. It essentially made up for the shortcomings in the first plan, especially in transport, and even offered some consumer goods, but these were rapidly subordinated to the need to rearm in face of the Nazi menace.

More and more a single theme dominated. Literature, art and posters of this period overwhelmingly stressed the role of the infallible leader, Joseph Stalin. His image appeared everywhere, in every context, and always greater than life. The dead hand of conformity, backed by the all-pervading terror, drove out originality and spontaneity, producing the art of Social Realism that dominated the USSR long past the death of Stalin in 1953.

The stylistic conformity of Social Realist posters of the late 㣂s ended abruptly with Hitler’s invasion in June 1941. The forces unleashed in the crisis days of the Civil War were reawakened, and Soviet artists again rose to the challenge.

Indeed, some of the most powerful icons of the Civil War reappeared. The most famous was Moor’s Have you Enrolled as a Volunteer?, which resurfaced as How have you helped the Front? Mikhail Cheremnykh, creator of the ROSTA Windows during the dark days of the Civil War, issued the first "Tass Window" shortly after the invasion. Tass was the news agency which superseded ROSTA in 1925, and stenciled Tass Windows became a symbol of Soviet resolve throughout the struggle.

The Post-War period was marked by a return to Social Realism, with Stalin once again becoming the focus of most posters. The High Stalinist Period (1946-1953) revealed images of utopian harmony. Revolutionary fervor returned in the '60s, fanned by the Cold War and the Space Race, and this was reflected in more heroic and satirical images. As perestroika (1984-present) neared, protest became a dominant and powerful poster theme.

Mikhail Cheremnykh - History

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