They spoke in the village about the socialists who distributed broadcast leaflets in blue ink. In these leaflets the conditions prevailing in the factory were trenchantly and pointedly depicted, as well as the strikes in St. Petersburg and southern Russia; and the workingmen were called upon to unite and fight for their interests.
The staid people who earned good pay waxed wroth as they read the literature, and said abusively: “Breeders of rebellion! For such business they ought to get their eyes blacked.” And they carried the pamphlets to the office.
The young people read the proclamations eagerly, and said excitedly: “It’s all true!”
This passage from Maxim Gorky’s Mother (1906) puts in crystalline prose the influence leaflets had on public opinion in pre-Soviet Russia. Their low cost of printing and the relatively anonymous nature of distribution had made leaflets the medium of choice for those wanting to spread ideas, especially ideas deemed subversive by the Tsarist government. And for a population deprived of information and independent opinion, they were a non pareil source of inspiration at home and in factories.
Even after the Tsarist government fell in the February Revolution of 1917, leaflets didn’t lose their sway. As the sense of discontent among the public continued, so did the production and dissemination of leaflets and pamphlets by political parties of every ideological colour.
As American journalist-poet John Reed put it in Ten Days That Shook the World (1919):
Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.
There’s still a great appetite for those leaflets and pamphlets, and the Soviet posters that followed them. The original Soviet posters are now pricey collectibles and their reprints, which are relatively more affordable, are everyday wall art. You can digitally alter posters, having your visage replace a soldier or a worker or peasant. Or you can get them in faux Cyrillic script.
A Twitter account called @SovietVisuals celebrates the iconography of those times as it appeared in the original leaflets, posters, photographs and movies. You get the early stock images – such as the male worker, the collective farm woman, the capitalist – in fixed patterns. And the later doctrinaire models for the conduct of the new social types – the young member of Komsomol, the soldier, the cosmonaut. You also get the material manifestations of Soviet policy – the hydroelectric dam, the steel factory, Sputnik. And, of course, the ubiquitous visage of Lenin.
It was during the October Revolution and the ensuing civil war that pamphlets, and more so posters, played a crucial role in spreading information, educating masses and forming political opinion. “Poster art was widely accessible to the masses,” says the website sovietposters.com
The newly formed Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (and later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) too put a lot of faith in posters. The RSFSR set up a Department for Agitation and Propaganda (or Agitprop) to disseminate ideas of communism and took the assistance of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a playwright, artist and actor, who was closely involved in creating both the graphics and text of Agitprop posters. In merely three years from 1919, Mayakovsky produced about 1,100 posters and cartoons.
The early posters had various themes.
Some, like this poster below by artist Dmitry Moor, dealt with the civil war and enjoined the people to stand with the Bolshevik Party and the Red Army.
Others, like this poster by the satirist and artist Viktor Deni, praised Lenin for his role in the revolution and in cleansing the nation of opponents.
The wife-husband duo of Valentina Kulagina and Gustav Klutsis used photomontages – a method of cutting and pasting together photographs – to depict the economic vision and achievements of the Soviet government.
Some posters depicted the New Soviet Man and the New Soviet Woman – not glamorous but happy and strong – extolling the virtues of the collective farm.
The next big moment in the history of Soviet Union, and of Soviet posters, was the Great Patriotic War, otherwise known as World War II.
The iconic poster of this era was Irakli Toidze’s “Motherland Is Calling!” In many ways, it typified the spirit and style of Soviet propaganda. Bold lines, a determined person at centre-stage, a mostly black-and-white poster with the key figure in red, a short and catchy headline – all designed to invoke patriotic zeal. This was the time when the State Anthem of the USSR replaced The Internationale as the national anthem, and the concession made to patriotism became apparent in the posters too.
Some posters highlighted images associated with the essence of Soviet Union, such as the Kremlin stars.
After the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the focus of the USSR changed to industrial and scientific progress. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, outer space became a new frontier to prove Soviet superiority. A poster of Yuri Gagarin holding the hammer and sickle, with the blue Earth in the background and a star-studded deep blue space above was the perfect example of the Soviet Republic’s efforts to proclaim the achievements of communism to the world.
As Cold War saw polarisation of the world among ideological lines, USSR published posters to show its solidarity with other communist nations, especially when they were in conflict with capitalist countries. Vietnam War was a particular flashpoint.
Today, comparing these with American posters and comics, which equated the colour red with dangers of communism, during the Cold War can be most instructive.
In the heat of the Cold War, it was forgotten that the two sides had once allied against Nazi Germany.
As any textbook would tell you, the Cold War and the subsequent efforts to open up the Soviet economy didn’t end up too well for USSR. After 69 years of existence, where it impacted global history significantly, the USSR ceased to exist on December 25, 1991. However, its memories remain with us – through books, magazines, films and through its leaflets and posters.