Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin / Edition 1

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Masters at visual propaganda, the Bolsheviks produced thousands of vivid and compelling posters after they seized power in October 1917.
Intended for a semi-literate population that was accustomed to the rich visual legacy of the Russian autocracy and the Orthodox Church, political posters came to occupy a central place in the regime's effort to imprint itself on the hearts and minds of the people and to remold them into the new Soviet women and men.

In this first sociological study of Soviet political posters, Victoria Bonnell analyzes the shifts that took place in the images, messages, styles, and functions of political art from 1917 to 1953. Everyone who lived in Russia after the October revolution had some familiarity with stock images of the male worker, the great communist leaders, the collective farm woman, the capitalist, and others. These were the new icons' standardized images that depicted Bolshevik heroes and their adversaries in accordance with a fixed pattern. Like other "invented traditions" of the modern age, iconographic images in propaganda art were relentlessly repeated, bringing together Bolshevik ideology and traditional mythologies of pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Symbols and emblems featured in Soviet posters of the Civil War and the 1920s gave visual meaning to the Bolshevik worldview dominated by the concept of class. Beginning in the 1930s, visual propaganda became more prescriptive, providing models for the appearance, demeanor, and conduct of the new social types, both positive and negative. Political art also conveyed important messages about the sacred center of the regime which evolved during the 1930s from the celebration of the heroic proletariat to the deification of Stalin.

Treating propaganda images as part of a particular visual language, Bonnell shows how people "read" them—relying on their habits of seeing and interpreting folk, religious, commercial, and political art (both before and after 1917) as well as the fine art traditions of Russia and the West. Drawing on monumental sculpture and holiday displays as well as posters, the study traces the way Soviet propaganda art shaped the mentality of the Russian people (the legacy is present even today) and was itself shaped by popular attitudes and assumptions.

Iconography of Power includes posters dating from the final decades of the old regime to the death of Stalin, located by the author in Russian, American, and English libraries and archives. One hundred exceptionally striking posters are reproduced in the book, many of them never before published. Bonnell places these posters in a historical context and provides a provocative account of the evolution of the visual discourse on power in Soviet Russia.

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Editorial Reviews

An accessible and useful addition to the literature on Soviet art, propaganda, and culture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520221536
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 10/12/1999
  • Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 385
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria E. Bonnell is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Center for Slavic and East European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Roots of Rebellion: Workers' Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1914 (California, 1983) and the editor of The Russian Worker: Life and Labor under the Tsarist Regime (California, 1983).

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Read an Excerpt

Iconography of Power

Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin
By Victoria E. Bonnell

University of California Press

Copyright © 1999 Victoria E. Bonnell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520221536


The critical issue facing the Bolsheviks in 1917 was not merely the seizure of power but the seizure of meaning. The Russian revolutions challenged old ways of comprehending the world and aroused profound uncertainty over the meaning of the past, present, and future. At no point was this crisis more severe and widespread than in October, when the Bolsheviks proclaimed the new Soviet state. As Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders understood, there was no consensus, even among their own supporters, about many fundamental issues of interpretation. In the turbulent months following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks attempted to gain control over the sphere of public discourse and to transform popular attitudes and beliefs by introducing new symbols, rituals, and visual imagery. Their aim was nothing less than the redefinition of "all social values by an immense message designed to liberate, but also to create a new mystique."1

Furet makes this statement with reference to the French Revolution of 1789. François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster (Cambridge and London, 1981), 114.

The medium for the message was what Eric Hobsbawm has characterized as "invented tradition," that is, "a set of practices … which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past."2

Hobsbawm, introduction to The Invention of Tradition. ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge and London, 1984), 1.

Invented traditions, according to Hobsbawm, can perform three (possibly overlapping) functions.3

Ibid., 9.

First, they are created for the purpose of "establishing or symbolizingsocial cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities." For the Bolsheviks, whose claim to power was based on an ideology that accorded world-historical importance to the proletariat, it was critically important to establish in public discourse the heroic position and collective identity of the working class. The party urgently needed to convey to the population at large an image of the new worker-heroes, the "conscious" workers who were the chosen people of Marxism-Leninism. Equally important was the need to inculcate the concept of "class" as the central epistemological element in the new official ideology. Class, rather than nationality, religion, gender, or ethnicity, was to serve as the basis for social and political solidarity. During the immediate postrevolutionary years and well into the 1920s, the Bolshevik party wrestled with the problem of defining collective identities and making policies consistent with these definitions.

Invented traditions perform a second function of "establishing or legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority." Revolutions, such as the one in Russia in October 1917, discredit and destroy existing institutions and relations of authority, opening up the discursive field for an entirely new definition of the social order of political power. The key problem for the Bolsheviks in the months following the revolution was to legitimize the new party-state and a novel set of relations between subordinate and superordinate groups. The former dominant classes, and the Provisional Government that had ruled Russia since February 1917, lost power as a consequence of the October Revolution. In their place was the Bolshevik party and the new Soviet state, with its commissars, secret police, Red Army, and a small but vociferous band of true believers, fellow travelers, opportunists, and henchmen. The Bolsheviks recognized very early that power without legitimacy provided a precarious basis for a new regime. A key element in their legitimation strategy was the formulation and dissemination of their own master narrative of world history, which justified the establishment of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" under Bolshevik leadership and fortified the party's authority among the population.

A third major function of invented traditions is to promote "socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behavior." In the years before seizing power, the Bolsheviks, underLenin's leadership, were distinguished from most other left-wing radical parties and groups in Russia by their profound commitment to a monolithic view of the truth. After the October Revolution, this readily translated into an effort to reorder all of individual and social life in accordance with ideological precepts proclaimed by the Bolshevik party. Although comprehensive socialization and indoctrination remained beyond their reach until the 1930s, from the very inception the Bolsheviks aimed at reconstituting the individual citizen so that eventually everyone would think, speak, and act Bolshevik as well.

Invented traditions, to be effective, must be invariant and repetitive, and they must convey ideas in a way that will be comprehensible to the intended audience. In the course of 1918, the Bolsheviks put into motion a propaganda apparatus designed to transmit the party's ideas to the population by means of words (both spoken and written) and images.4

Peter Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929 (Cambridge and London, 1985); Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York and Oxford, 1989); James von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993).

By any previous standard, the effort was impressive and extensive. Within a year of taking power, they had created compelling emblems and symbols (for example, the hammer and sickle, the red star, and the image of the heroic worker), new or reconstituted rituals (the November 7 [October 25] and May Day celebrations),5

A legislative act of January 13, 1918, replaced the Julian calendar (followed by the Russian Orthodox church) with the Gregorian calendar. After the shift to the Gregorian calendar, the revolution of October 25 was celebrated on November 7, but was still known as the "October" Revolution.

and novel devices for transmitting their message (agit trains and ships, village reading rooms, instsenirovki ).6

Von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals, 31, describes the instsenirovka as "an adaptation of nondramatic material, usually prose, to the stage." One notable example was the large-scale reenactment of the taking of the Winter Palace on the occasion of the third anniversary of the revolution.

In addition, they used political posters, monumental sculpture, books, newspapers and journals, and film to bring their ideas to a broad audience. Not since the French Revolution of 1789 had there been a regime so unequivocally committed to the transformation of human beings through political education.

Mass propaganda took many different forms during the early years of Soviet power, but there was a privileging of the eye in the task of political education. This meant that a great deal of effort and ingenuity went into the production of visual propaganda of all types. Visual methods for persuasion and indoctrination appealed to Bolshevik leaders because of the low level of literacy in the country and the strong visual traditions of the Russian people.

When the Bolsheviks took power, a majority of the population was still illiterate, especially outside major urban centers. Data for 1917 are not available, but twenty years earlier a national census disclosed that about 83 percent of the rural population and about 55 percent of the urban population was illiterate. As a result of the widespread literacy campaign waged by the Bolsheviks after taking power (an adjunct to their propaganda efforts), overall levels had substantially improved by 1926.7

Kenez, Birth of the Propaganda State, 73, 157.

Nevertheless, about half of the rural population and one-fifth of the urban population still did not have even rudimentary literacy skills.8

Viktor Kumanev, Sotsializm i vsenarodnaia gramotnost': Likvidatsiia massovoi negramotnosti v SSSR (Moscow, 1967), 296.

The "literate" classification was applied in the 1920s to a range of people, including some with only the most elementary ability to read and write. On the eve of the First Five Year Plan, a substantial proportion of the population (especially peasants) was still poorly equipped to read simple texts, such as newspapers. Visual propaganda, which greatly minimized the need to comprehend the written word, offered a means of reaching broad strata of the population with the Bolshevik message.

The centrality of visual images and rituals in old regime pageantry and especially the Russian Orthodox Church made for a highly visual traditional culture.9

On this subject, see Richard Wortman, "Moscow and Petersburg: The Problem of Political Center in Tsarist Russia, 1881-1914," in Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual, and Politics Since the Middle Ages, ed. Sean Wilentz (Philadelphia, 1985), 244-274; Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, vol. 1 (Princeton, 1995).

The Russian Orthodox icon occupies a special place in Russian religious practice. As Leonid Ouspensky observes in a study of icons: "It can be said that if Byzantium was preeminent in giving the world theology expressed in words, theology expressed in the image was given preeminently by Russia."10

Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, trans, G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky (Crestwood, New York, 1983), 45. On the origins of the worship of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church, see Peter Brown's essay, "The Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy," in Peter Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982).

For the Orthodox believer, "the holy image, just like the Holy Scriptures, transmits not human ideas and conceptions of truth, but truth itself—the Divine revelation."11

Ouspensky and Lossky, Meaning of Icons, 41.

The image itself had sacred powers for the Orthodox believer. The power of saints, for example, "was thought to be especially concentrated in their icons, sometimes referred to as 'gods' (bogi ), which in time of need or on ritual occasions were used for special blessings."12

Linda J. Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief (Armonk, New York, and London, 1989), 23.

The prevalence of religious icons in Russian life—virtually every peasant hut had its own icon, as did many urban dwellings—gave Russians familiarity with a certain type of imagery and an assumption of its sacredness.

The Bolsheviks appreciated the effectiveness of images for reaching ordinary people with their message. Nadezhda Krupskaia, Lenin's wife, expressed the sentiments of many fellow party members in 1923, whenshe observed: "For the present and the near future, a peasant can learn to improve his production only if he is taught by visual example. And in general, the peasant, just like the workers in their mass, think much more in terms of images than abstract formulas; and visual illustration, even when a high level of literacy is reached, will always play a major role for the peasant."13

Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia, Pedagogicheskie sochineniia v desiati tomakh, vol. 7 (Moscow, 1959), 170.

Another factor promoting the heavy reliance on mass forms of visual propaganda, such as political posters, was the disruption of the printing industry caused by the revolution and Civil War (1918–1921). Major shortages of paper, breakdowns and closings of printing plants, and transportation problems sharply curtailed the printing and distribution of newspapers in these years. The main party organ, Pravda , had a daily press run of only about 138,000 copies, and all twenty-five Red Army newspapers combined had a daily run of less than 250,000.14

Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster (New Haven and London, 1988), 19.

Even taking into account that a single newspaper was often shared by several readers, this was not an impressive outreach in a population of many millions of people.15

In 1917, the population in the Russian Empire was roughly 140 million people. During the Civil War, substantial parts of the country were under White control.

Political posters displayed in public places offered a more effective way of using limited supplies of paper and ink to reach a wide audience.

Whatever the reasons, the party accorded exceptional importance to visual propaganda during the Civil War. The first political posters appeared in August 1918, as the Civil War was getting under way. Over the next three years, about 3,100 different posters were produced by more than 450 different organizations and institutions.16

B. S. Butnik-Siverskii, Sovetskii plakat epokhi grazhdanskoi voiny, 1918-1921 (Moscow, 1960), 19, 23.

A massive number of posters went into circulation. Litizdat, a major organization for poster production operating under the Political Directorate of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Russian Union of Federated Socialist Republics (RSFSR), distributed a total of 7.5 million posters, postcards, and lubok pictures between 1919 and 1922. Gosizdat, the state publishing house established in 1919, printed 3.2 million copies of seventy-five separate posters in the course of 1920. The Rosta (Russian Telegraph Agency) collectives in Moscow, Petrograd, and other major cities produced a unique form of poster that combined the functions of a newspaper, magazine, and information bulletin (called Okna ROSTA, or Rosta Windows). The Moscow Rosta collective alone produced over two million poster frames during the Civil War.17

White, The Bolshevik Poster, 109. The lubok (plural lubki), an illustrated broadside, was popular among lower-class groups. See Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, 1985).

All manner of public spaces were decorated with posters, whose color, design,and imaginative imagery enlivened an otherwise drab society. "The visitor to Russia," wrote American journalist Albert Rhys Williams in 1923, "is struck by the multitudes of posters—in factories and barracks, on walls and railway-cars, on telegraph poles—everywhere."18

Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution (London, 1923), 5, cited in White, The Bolshevik Poster, 109. When Walter Benjamin visited the Soviet Union in late 1926, he noted the ubiquitous presence of posters in workplaces, streets, clubs, and reading rooms. Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary, ed. Gary Smith (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986), 49-50, 60-61, 64.

With the end of the Civil War and the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921, the exhortatory fervor of visual propaganda became attenuated, only to be fully restored eight years later, at the time of the adoption of the First Five Year Plan. The role of the written and spoken word grew considerably in the 1920s with the spread of the Bolshevik press and the introduction of the radio. But the onset of the First Five Year Plan brought a resurgence in political posters and other forms of visual propaganda. Now political art was again accorded a central place in the Bolshevik strategy to mobilize the population on a grand scale and implant a new orientation toward the self and the social and political world. The party leadership understood that traditional ways of thinking were deeply rooted and resistant to change, and that the transformation of mass consciousness would require extraordinary measures. A new political art was created to correspond to the new epoch of crash collectivization and industrialization.

As the 1930s proceeded, visual propaganda became more intensive and widespread. For the first time, in 1931, all poster production was brought under the supervision of the Art Department of the State Publishing House (Izogiz), which operated under the direct supervision of the Central Committee. Henceforth, the themes, texts, and images of posters were dictated to artists and closely regulated by official censors. This centralization and control over poster production coincided with a tremendous expansion in the volume of posters. Whereas Civil War poster editions seldom exceeded 25,000 or 30,000, in the 1930s (especially the second half) key posters appeared in editions of 100,000 to 250,000. In the city and the countryside, in the factory and collective farm, in rooms and apartments and huts and dormitories, posters confronted virtually every Soviet citizen with an exhortation, admonition, or declamation.

Russia's entry into the Second World War in 1941 coincided with yet another major effort to use visual propaganda for the purpose of mass mobilization and indoctrination. World War II posters, also produced in vast editions, presented a new set of images resurrecting traditionalthemes that dated back to tsarist posters of World War I. A period of High Stalinism (1946–1953) followed when political art was once again transformed into a vehicle for an otherworldly socialist realism depicting life in the Soviet Union as paradisiacal.

In each of these periods—the Civil War, the 1920s and 1930s, World War II, High Stalinism—the style of representation and the visual vocabulary and grammar changed in significant ways. Where did these different visual languages come from? The Bolsheviks were committed to the Marxist paradigm that art was part of the superstructure determined by the base (mode of production). Accordingly, some sought to create a new, specifically proletarian culture.19

Lynn Mally, Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990).

The problem was that the effectiveness of political art depended on the artist's ability to "speak the language" of the viewer, to use images, symbols, and styles of representation that people could understand. This meant drawing on familiar vocabularies and forms in order to convey a new message. The pattern, as Hobsbawm observes, was to use "ancient material to construct invented traditions of a novel type for quite novel purposes. A large store of such materials is accumulated in the past of any society, and an elaborate language of symbolic practice and communication is always available."20

Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds., Invention of Tradition, 6.

Political artists drew on the rich traditions of Russian popular culture, commercial advertising, fine arts, religious and folk art, classical mythology, the imagery of Western European labor and revolutionary movements, and political art of the tsarist era. Different elements were incorporated at different periods. Mythical elements from these various sources were fused with contemporary ideology to create a special visual language. Mythology, in combination with political ideology, gave Soviet propaganda a unique and compelling character.

By 1920, Bolshevik artists had generated distinctive images that incorporated elements from various traditions but were also unmistakably expressive of the Bolshevik ethos. These were the new icons—standardized images that depicted heroes (saints) and enemies (the devil and his accomplices) according to a fixed pattern (the so-called podlinnik in church art). The icons of Soviet political art did not reflect thesocial institutions and relations of the society. Rather, they were part of a system of signs imposed by the authorities in an effort to transform mass consciousness. Like other "invented traditions," these iconographic images were consistent and incessantly repeated, and they resonated strongly with mythologies from the Russian past.

This study focuses on four sets of iconographic images that appeared in political posters, visual displays for holiday celebrations, and monumental sculpture. I begin by discussing the icon of the worker, a pervasive image at the very core of Bolshevik rhetoric. The worker-icon provides a versatile symbol of changing official conceptions of the proletarian basis of political power. It also conveys important ideas about the location of the sacred in Soviet society, since the proletariat was designated as the equivalent of the chosen class in Bolshevik ideology and possessed superhuman powers capable of transforming nature in accordance with the "laws" of Marxism-Leninism.

Through the creation and re-creation of the worker-icon, the Bolsheviks sought to assert their continuity with the past and their vision of the future. From 1919 to 1930, a single iconographic image of the worker-blacksmith predominated in Bolshevik visual propaganda. After 1930, however, the blacksmith is seldom encountered in political art. A new image of the worker takes its place. The transformation of the worker-icon in the 1930s coincides with a general decline in the representation of workers in political art and the shift of the sacred center to a new locus. The history of this imagery is recounted in chapter 1.

A second theme centers around the iconography of women. As Joan Wallach Scott has persuasively argued, "gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power … [It] is one of the recurrent references by which political power has been conceived, legitimated, and criticized."21

Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), 42, 44, 48.

Visual imagery of men and women thus conveys important messages about relations of domination and subordination, both in the realm of social interaction and in the broader sphere of political life. The depiction of gender has particular significance in periods when authority relations are in flux, such as the Civil War years and the 1930s.

Civil War posters depicted a predominantly male world. Women were often represented allegorically until 1920, when images of the woman worker and the peasant woman first become established. Thesenew, more realistic female images were usually depicted in a subordinate relationship to male workers and peasants, thereby conveying the idea that women had only a weak claim to membership in the pantheon of heroes. The implication of these patterns for the emerging Bolshevik discourse on power is examined in chapter 2.

Whereas women occupy a position of secondary importance in visual propaganda produced between 1917 and 1929, they appear very prominently in connection with the campaign for the collectivization of agriculture beginning in 1930. Collectivization, one might say, is presented visually in the female idiom. Chapter 3 analyzes this important episode in visual representation as part of the new Stalinist ideology and the broader changes taking place in the function of political art.

The third theme examined in this study concerns the iconography of the vozhd' (leader). Images of Lenin appear early in political posters, increasing in frequency and prominence after his death in 1924. It is not until the early 1930s that representations of political leaders—particularly Stalin—are centrally featured. Stalin, depicted as a living god, moves to center stage in visual propaganda, displacing both his predecessor Lenin and the proletariat as the core elements in Bolshevik mythology. These trends, which continued during World War II and reached their peak during the years of High Stalinism, are discussed in chapter 4.

Chapter 5 focuses on the depiction of internal and external enemies. In contrast to other iconographic images examined in this study, the representation of enemies shows a good deal of continuity between 1917 and 1953, due to the consistent application of standard styles of satire and caricature. But beginning in the 1930s and continuing in the 1940s, the representation of enemies expands to include a multiplicity of new images corresponding to the categories of transgressors concurrently introduced into verbal political discourse. These are images of "the other," the negative figures against which Bolsheviks attempted to define their positive heroes and create models for acceptable thought and action. Such images served to reinforce a Manichean view that divided the world into two camps (analogous to the forces of good and evil), which existed in a state of irreconcilable conflict.

Finally, chapter 6 shifts in emphasis from a particular visual theme to an examination of the years 1946 to 1953. Political art created duringthe final years of Stalinist rule incorporated elements from earlier periods and in some ways brought to a culmination many trends of the preceding decades. Nevertheless, the postwar posters were distinctively different from anything that had preceded; to view them is to appreciate their almost magical qualities. Saturated by a newfound imperial ethos and an intensified Stalin cult, these posters conveyed a vision of the "divine order" of Soviet society, in which abundance and harmoniousness were the essence of the new Stalinist imperial order. In the Soviet paradise conjured up by political art, many traditional class markers and attributes for Soviet citizens had disappeared, to be replaced by a new image of Homo sovieticus .

My overall strategy is to use an analytic framework based on a linguistic analogy, treating images as part of a visual language (with a lexicon and syntax) in which all the elements are interdependent. As we have seen, key figures (for example, the male worker, the female peasant) in the Soviet visual lexicon changed significantly over time. These changes will be analyzed in detail, in the hope of identifying the distinctive attributes of these representations (the appearance, physiognomy, clothing, activities, gestures, emotions, and so forth).

I will also pay close attention to what I am calling the visual syntax of the posters: the positioning of figures and objects in relation to each other and the environment. As images changed, so did the syntax. By way of illustration, the positioning of the female peasant in relation to other figures changed significantly at the same time that the image of peasant woman changed, around 1930. Formerly she had been presented in combination with other heroic figures (workers of both sexes or male peasants) but virtually never alone, thereby conveying the idea that her inclusion among the heroes depended on a relationship of contiguity (metonymy). From 1930 on, she appeared alone in posters or in a dominant position, a shift in the syntax that profoundly altered the meaning being conveyed.

Like books, images and their combinations may be "read" in unpredictable ways. Pictures meant to emphasize class identity also conveyed—often unintentionally and subliminally—ideas about genderand gender relations, ethnicity, and other forms of cultural and social identification. Though it is not possible to establish with certainty how various groups in the population "read" visual material, this study attempts to map out the repertoire of references available in contemporary culture and to suggest some possible interpretations. We can try to comprehend the aims of the officials and artists who produced visual propaganda. But whatever the intention, images are almost always polyvalent. Depending on context and audience, many different kinds of messages may be extracted from them. In the Civil War years and afterward, visual symbolism constituted one of a number of key areas in which contemporaries struggled over issues of meaning and interpretation. Ultimately, these struggles were about the nature and uses of political power.

The artists who produced posters in the early Soviet period were a diverse group, with training in painting and political and religious art.22

See White, The Bolshevik Poster, for a discussion of the background of key artists from the Civil War period.

Their backgrounds and relations to the Bolshevik regime also varied greatly. Some, such as the masterful artist Dmitrii Moor (1883–1946), had professional careers as satirical artists under the old regime, but immediately threw in their lot with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. Moor created some of the masterpieces of Soviet political art and served for many decades as the unofficial "commissar of propagandistic revolutionary art."23

The title was conferred by fellow artist Aleksander Deineka. White, The Bolshevik Poster, 43.

Aleksandr Apsit (1880–1944) was one of the earliest and most influential political artists of the Civil War years. Originally trained as an icon painter, he had been a political artist under the old regime. In 1921 Apsit emigrated to his native Latvia and never returned to the Soviet Union. After the revolution, schools were established to train political artists, and by the 1930s there was a new generation of people—such as the three Kukryniksy (Mikhail Kupriianov, Porfirii Krylov, and Nikolai Sokolov)—whose artistic experience was acquired under Bolshevik auspices.24

For an account of Soviet art training, see Natal'ia Adaskina, "The Place of Vkhutemas in the Russian Avant-Garde," in The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932 (New York, 1992), 283-293.

Prior to 1931, the dispersion of poster production among many different organizations and institutions precluded any centralized directives concerning content or execution, though as we shall see, there was nonetheless remarkable consistency in the creation and dissemination of certain iconographic images. From 1931 on, however, visual propaganda was highly centralized, and poster production originated in a single government department. Due to the extreme sensitivity ofpolitical art and its critical role in indoctrination, it was supervised by the Central Committee and other top party and government organs. After 1931, poster artists were invited to submit sketches appropriate for particular slogans and texts prepared by Izogiz and its counterparts in the republics. Poster production was monitored closely, and from the 1930s on, most posters were published with the name of both the artist and the official responsible for the poster's ultimate content.

The audience for political art was highly variegated. It encompassed educated groups who had traveled to Berlin and Paris and peasants who had never strayed far from their hut, those who visited museums and those who knew only the lubok (illustrated broadside). What they all had in common, however, was exposure to a highly visual culture dominated, above all, by the icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Until the end of the First Five Year Plan in 1932, the audience for political posters, monumental sculpture, and holiday displays was predominantly urban. But even within the urban population, there were many different groups, set apart by education, social background, geographical location, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Given this diversity, it is impossible to speak about a single interpretation of the images discussed in this study; there were many possible ways of understanding these pictures.

What about the reception of posters and other visual propaganda by ordinary people? The content of images can be described and analyzed, but this tells us little, if anything, about the way contemporaries may have interpreted what they saw. Unfortunately, the evidence concerning contemporary reactions to posters is quite limited. What we have applies mainly to the first half of the 1930s, when journals were published with extensive reviews of posters and occasional reports of meetings held among workers or peasants to evaluate posters. Memoirs, newspapers, and unpublished documents provide additional material on this subject.

In the absence of direct reports of popular reactions, the sociologist must look at the cultural repertoires of the viewers. By cultural repertoires I have in mind, first, the habits of seeing and interpreting images that people brought to visual material.25

On this general subject, see M. Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (London, 1972).

In Russia, this was based on viewing some combination of religious icons, lubki, commercial advertising, Western European and tsarist art of all kinds, and by the end ofthe Civil War, the accumulated legacy of Bolshevik art. In this highly visual culture, people had considerable opportunity to look at pictures and learn the conventions for comprehending them. Take the case of religious icons, undoubtedly the most familiar visual medium before 1917. Icons used certain key devices, such as color symbolism, to convey meaning. People accustomed to viewing icons knew that red was a holy color, used in connection with figures worthy of veneration. When Bolshevik artists used red to represent workers, they were invoking a long-standing convention in color symbolism familiar to most Russians. Of course, red had also been associated with revolution since 1792, when the Jacobins raised a red flag as a symbol of rebellion.26

Ronald Paulson, Representations of Revolution, 1789-1820 (New Haven and London, 1983), 17.

A second aspect of what I am calling cultural repertoires centered around the context for interpreting political art. Viewers apprehended images in relation to relevant past and current experiences. From this point of view, the depiction of a woman blacksmith assisting at an anvil must have struck contemporaries as exceedingly odd. Neither in the city nor in the countryside did women customarily engage in this occupation. Most viewers must have noted the disjuncture between the image and the reality. The question posed in this study is how their cultural repertoire equipped them to make sense of such an image. Some probably dismissed the image as preposterous; others may have looked for symbolic meaning in popular culture or classical mythology. We cannot know for certain. The best we can do is suggest alternative "readings" based on contemporaries' frames of reference.

This study is based on the assumption that official ideology mattered. As expressed through visual propaganda, it contributed to the definition of new social identities and helped to create new modes of thought and action in Soviet society. Official words and images should not be dismissed as having little to do with the "real" and important developments taking place in other spheres, such as the economy or politics. To be sure, major shifts in propaganda coincided with far-reaching changes in other areas. But the relationship among these developments is far from clear. Official ideology must not be treated as epiphenomenal. It had its own internal dynamic and functioned as an independentforce in situations where the discursive field was undergoing important changes and popular attitudes were in flux.

My aim is to provide an analysis of the mental universe conjured up by political art, to use visual language as a way of comprehending the "new mystique." Visual propaganda provides us with a revealing expression of the official ideology (even in its deepest subrational aspects) that was produced by those in authority for those who were not. It also allows us to see what was encompassed by the discursive field and what was off limits; which options were open in terms of orientation and action and which were closed off.

A central argument in this study is that the purpose of political art, beginning in the 1930s, was to provide a visual script, an incantation designed to conjure up new modes of thinking and conduct, and to persuade people that the present and the future were indistinguishable. In important respects, the visual medium anticipated developments in Soviet society and provided a model for them, rather than simply reflecting processes already under way. Images gave a reality to concepts whose "expression was novel, pregnant with the future."27

Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 1985), 76.

Official imagery, somewhat like commercial advertising in other societies, provided models for individual appearance and conduct. From the 1930s onward, for example, political posters visualized the kolkhoznitsa (collective farm woman) and "the new Soviet man." These pictures prescribed clothing, hair style, demeanor, facial expression, and emotions for Soviet heroes. Posters also taught viewers what to look for in the appearance and conduct of "class enemies," who proliferated in the 1930s. But however powerful and persuasive these images may have been, however shrewdly they incorporated popular mythologies, viewers' responses were unpredictable because visual representations are inherently polyvalent.

This study analyzes political art using the critical terms usually applied to spoken and written language. This application of linguistic terminology (for example, lexicon and syntax) is not meant to suggest, however, that the spoken and written language is the same as visual language. Although functionally related to spoken and written discourse, political art presented its own complementary system of signification, with its own implicit mythology, associations, and assumptions. The elaboration of meaning generated by visual propagandaserved not only to amplify the related verbal message (say, a cartoon accompanying an editorial) but also to introduce into it heterogeneous elements which produced a new and often unintended surplus of meaning. Posters almost always had words as well as images, though usually very few of them. These words provide an important component of visual representation, but pictures captured something that words could not ("a picture is worth a thousand words"). Throughout the book, I will juxtapose oral and written discourse to its visual counterpart.

The study of official ideology is also a study of change, since Bolshevik ideology and practice did not remain static throughout the period covered by this book. The three and one half decades between 1917 and 1953 witnessed dramatic and abrupt shifts in the style and content of representation (1920, 1930, 1941, and 1946 mark the critical turning points). I will be comparing the images over time, in an effort to establish the changes in meaning that took place. In some ways, this methodology bears resemblance to the work of Reinhart Koselleck and William Sewell. Koselleck's application of the methods of Begriffsgeschichte to social history focuses attention on the changing semantic significance of concepts, much as I will be looking at the changing semantic significance of images.28

"Begriffsgeschichte and Social History," in ibid.

Sewell's study of the language of labor in France between 1789 and 1848 uses the methods of cultural anthropology to chart the changing social construction of key concepts.29

William Sewell, Jr., Work and Revolution: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge, England, 1980).

The empirical basis for this study consists of about 5,500 posters, viewed in their original form at the Hoover Institution Archives (Stanford, California), the Poster Collection at the Russian State Library (Moscow), the Imperial War Museum (London), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and the British Museum (London). In addition, I examined photographs of several hundred posters at the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow.

The Hoover Archives contain about 3,000 Soviet posters, randomly collected over several decades, and dating from 1904 to the present. I went through the entire Hoover collection in the spring of 1987, before it was cataloged. The Russian State Library Poster Collection, the largest of its kind in the world, houses some 400,000 posters. The catalog for this collection was not available to me when I conducted research there in 1988 and 1991; I was permitted access to it for the first time in1995, when I returned to photograph posters. The research was thus conducted without the benefit of a catalog, and I requested posters by general topic, theme, or period, such as the collectivization of agriculture, women in various periods, the New Economic Policy, labor discipline in the 1930s, the years 1946–1953, and the vozhd ' (the latter turned out to be one of the categories used for classification in the archive).30

I did not always obtain material on topics that I requested. For example, I saw relatively few posters pertaining to the period between 1939 and 1941, when the Hitler-Stalin Pact was in effect; nor was I able to obtain posters relating explicitly to the anti-cosmopolitanism campaign.

On the basis of archival research, I assembled a computerized data base consisting of detailed information on 1,022 posters. Using this data base, I have attempted to identify patterns in the production of images and visual syntax as well as changes in thematic emphasis and style. The quantification of evidence was not my main aim in creating the data base, but I have found it useful for establishing proportions in certain instances.

In addition to archival sources, I have collected information on other posters from contemporary journals devoted to reviews and analysis of poster art: Produktsiia izobrazitel'nykh iskusstv (1932), Produktsiia izoiskusstv (1933), and Plakat i khudozhestvennaia reproduktsiia (1934–1935). I have also perused many published collections of pre-Soviet and Soviet posters. My research has extended to other forms of political art besides posters, such as monumental sculpture and displays at holiday celebrations. Though this type of evidence has not been included in the data base, it has figured importantly in my analysis. I have generally found consistency in some of the patterns of development and iconography across a range of propaganda media, including films and popular literature.

The scholarship on Soviet political art can be divided into several categories. A vast Soviet literature exists on this topic, extending back to the earliest years of Soviet rule. Soviet critics, propagandists, and officials took great interest in the theory and practice of visual propaganda during the 1920s, and a number of studies appeared at that time. By far the most sophisticated and informed account is by Viacheslav Polonskii, a former Menshevik and leading literary critic who directed Litizdat during the Civil War.31

Polonskii was also a founder and chief editor of the journals Novyi mir and Pechat' i revoliutsiia. White, The Belshevik Poster, 40-41; Jeffrey Rossman, "Politics, Culture and Identity in Revolutionary Russia: A Reading of the Life and Works of Viacheslav Polonskii," unpublished seminar paper, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley, May 1990.

Polonskii's study, Russkii revoliutsionnyi plakat (1925), offers a sharp analysis and critique of political posters during the Civil War.32

Viacheslav Polonskii, Russkii revoliutsionnyi plakat (Moscow, 1925). A short earlier version appeared in Pechat' i revoliutsiia 2 (April-June 1922), 56-77.

In the post-Stalin era, the most useful study is Sovetskii politicheskii plakat by G. L. Demosfenova, A. Nurok, and N. Shantyko.33

G. L. Demosfenova, A. Nurok, and N. Shantyko, Sovetskii politicheskii plakat (Moscow, 1962).

Published in 1962, this general history of posters raises a number of important issues, such as the representation of the hero in political art and the early emphasis on allegorical and symbolic imagery. But this and other Soviet accounts, however informative, are limited in their analytical scope by the tendency to measure artistic production with a yardstick of political correctness. The authors do not investigate the origins or implications of particular images; they seldom step outside the enchanted circle of Bolshevik ideology to consider the messages that pictures conveyed.

Relatively few works on the subject are available in English. Richard Wortman has done pioneering work on court rituals and symbols of the imperial era.34

Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, vol. 1 (Princeton, 1995).

The first study to present a political analysis of the Bolshevik aesthetic in mass propaganda was René Fueloep-Miller's The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in the Soviet Union , which appeared in an English translation from the original German in 1927.35

The first edition was under the title Geist und Gesicht des Bolschewismus (Zurich, Leipzig, and Vienna, 1926). The English edition was translated by F. S. Flint and D. F. Tait and published in the United States and England in 1927.

Stephen White's indispensable study, The Bolshevik Poster , concentrates on the contributions of individual artists during the Civil War.36

White, The Bolshevik Poster.

Articles by French author François-Xavier Coquin provide a valuable survey of some Bolshevik imagery during the first decade after the revolution.37

François-Xavier Coquin, "L'affiche révolutionnaire soviétique (1918-1921): Mythes et réalités," Revue des études slaves 59, no. 4 (1987), 719-740; Coquin, "L'image de Lénine dans l'iconographie révolutionnaire et postrévolutionnaire," Annales ESC 2 (March—April 1989), 223-249. François-Xavier Coquin, "Une source méconnue: Les affiches contre-révolutionnaires (1918-1920)" in Russie-URSS, 1914-1991 Changements de regards, ed. Wladimir Berelowitch and Laurent Gervereau (Paris, 1991), 52-60.

Brief but important discussions on the theme of Soviet political art can also be found in Nina Tumarkin's study of the Lenin cult, Peter Kenez's book on the propaganda state, and Richard Stites' Revolutionary Dreams .38

Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983); Kenez, Birth of the Propaganda State; Stites, Revolutionary Dreams.

Igor Golomstock's Totalitarian Art , Boris Groys's The Total Art of Stalinism , and Hans Günther's edited volume The Culture of the Stalin Period offer thought-provoking analyses of visual propaganda.39

Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People's Republic of China (New York, 1990); Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (Princeton, 1992), originally published as Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Munich, 1988); Hans Günther, ed., The Culture of the Stalin Period (New York, 1990).

On related topics, Katerina Clark's The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual , Christel Lane's study of Soviet rituals, and James von Geldern's Bolshevik Festivals, 1917–1920 contain stimulating arguments concerning the transmission of official ideology through literature, rituals, and public festivals.40

Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Chicago and London, 1981); Christel Lane, The Rites of Rulers: Ritual in Industrial Society—the Soviet Case (Cambridge, England, and London, 1981); von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals.

Though these studies provide a context for my own work, they do not address the problem of visual propaganda as a system of signs whose production and reception were shaped by political ideology in combination with popular mythology.

For research models to guide this study, I have turned to Western Europe, and particularly France. Historians of France have undertakenpathbreaking research in the area of visual representation. Studies by Maurice Agulhon, Lynn Hunt, and Mona Ozouf provide particularly influential accounts of the symbols and rituals of the French revolutionary tradition, viewed from a semiotic perspective.41

Maurice Agulhon, Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1880 (Cambridge, England, 1981); Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984); Mona Ozouf, Festivals of the French Revolution, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988). Other significant research in this area can be found in Pierre Nora's collection of essays, Les lieux de mémoire, vols. 1-2 (Paris, 1984-1986).

Two collections have provided important contributions on this topic: The Invention of Tradition , edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger; and Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual, and Politics Since the Middle Ages , edited by Sean Wilentz.42

Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds., Invention of Tradition; Sean Wilentz, ed., Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual, and Politics Since the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 1985).

In addition to his seminal work on the invention of tradition, Hobsbawm has produced an influential, though controversial, essay on socialist iconography which bears directly on the subject discussed in this book.43

Eric Hobsbawm, "Man and Woman in Socialist Iconography," History Workshop 6 (Autumn 1978); Maurice Agulhon, "On Political Allegory: A Reply to Eric Hobsbawm," History Workshop 8 (Autumn 1979); Sally Alexander, Anna Davin, and Eve Hostettler, "Labouring Women: A Reply to Eric Hobsbawm," History Workshop 8 (Autumn 1979).

He argues that, in contrast to the emphasis on female imagery in the iconography of the French Revolution or nineteenth-century labor movements in England and France (the countries from which his major examples are drawn), socialist iconography gradually excluded female images. Hobsbawm's central problematic is this: "Why is the struggling working class symbolized exclusively by a male torso?" This male torso, he goes on to argue, is quite often the naked torso of an unskilled worker, until realism takes over in the late nineteenth century and workers are depicted in clothing. This trend culminates with the image of the worker in the Russian revolutionary poster.

As this study will demonstrate, Hobsbawm's account of Soviet socialist iconography is incomplete. He does not take into consideration the allegorical and symbolic images of women that were common in early Soviet political art, much as they were in labor and revolutionary art of nineteenth-century England and France. His main point, however, is incontestable: male images of the worker predominated in early Soviet political art. But from 1930 onward, Soviet imagery underwent a major transformation, bringing female peasants into prominence, while downgrading the importance of the worker (male and female). Soviet iconography thus presents a somewhat different problematic when viewed from a longer-term perspective. The central explanatory problem is not to account for the early prevalence of male imagery but to analyze the changing emphasis in the representation of gender and the implications of these changes for the social construction of power.

This study lies at the intersection of several disciplines: cultural history,historical sociology and the sociology of culture, cultural anthropology, and art history. The term "iconography" is, of course, borrowed from art history, where it has been applied by such scholars as Erwin Panofsky.44

Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York, 1962), and Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History (Woodstock, New York, 1974).

The iconographic approach has generated a good deal of controversy.45

For a discussion of issues relating to iconography, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago and London, 1986).

Without entering into these debates, I want to clarify my sociological interest in this type of analysis. Nearly everyone who lived in Russia after 1917 had some familiarity with stock images of the male worker, the great leaders, the peasant woman, the capitalist, and others. These images functioned as icons. My analysis of iconographic images is aimed at understanding three issues: the genesis of these images (origins, sources, history); the resonance of various mythologies in these images; the range of possible interpretations contemporaries may have given to these images.46

Other studies in art history that have influenced my presentation of visual material include E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton 1984); T. J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (Princeton, 1982); and Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York, 1988).

Following Clifford Geertz and Michael Baxandall, I am approaching Soviet political art from the point of view of "social contextualization."47

Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York, 1983), 12, 109; Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, part 2.

Images mean nothing by themselves, taken in isolation from their historical context. They acquire meaning only when seen with a "period eye," to use Baxandall's phrase. I have tried to re-create key elements in the intellectual and visual framework of the artists who created, the officials who administered, and the citizens who viewed political art—something I am calling cultural repertoires. As part of this effort, I will discuss contemporary perceptions of gender, the body, and social categories, as well as the value of colors and the function of images.

Ultimately, this book is about the iconography, in the literal sense, of power , that is, about the relations of domination as they were visually inscribed on the hearts and minds of the Soviet Russian people. Visual propaganda allows us to comprehend the official discourse on power in Soviet Russia and its transformation over time. Art of any kind is best understood as part of a cultural system because it expresses a comprehensive worldview that has its own inherent logic.48

See Geertz's essay, "Art as a Cultural System," in Local Knowledge.

My aim is to map the principal coordinates of that cultural system, to show how the propaganda art created between 1917 and 1953 shaped the mentality of the Russian people (the legacy is present even today) and, in turn, was itself shaped by popular attitudes and assumptions.


Excerpted from Iconography of Power by Victoria E. Bonnell Copyright © 1999 by Victoria E. Bonnell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Key to Abbreviations
Note on Transliteration
Introduction 1
1 Iconography of the Worker in Soviet Political Art 20
2 Representation of Women in Early Soviet Posters 64
3 Peasant Women in Political Posters of the 1930s 100
4 The Leader's Two Bodies: Iconography of the Vozhd' 136
5 Bolshevik Demonology in Visual Propaganda 186
6 The Apotheosis of Stalinist Political Art 242
Notes 281
Bibliography 333
Illustration Credits 345
Index 347
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