Papering Over Tough Times: Soviet Propaganda Posters of the 1930s

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 The 17 posters displayed here are a small subset of 239 posters produced by the Soviet government that now reside at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. The posters came to Northwestern as two separate anonymous gifts. Almost all of them were published in the first five years of the 1930s, a time encompassed within the dates of the First Five Year Plan (1928-1933) and Second Five Year Plan (1933-1937), the massive industrialization and social engineering projects of the Stalinist government. In practical terms the main intents of these Plans were two-pronged: the establishment of heavy modern industrialization in what had hitherto been a primarily agricultural peasant culture, and the collectivization of agriculture with an attendant seizure of private lands. There is no doubt that in the first of these two goals there was profound numerical success. From 1928 to 1940 the number of Soviet laborers in industry, transport, and construction tripled, and the Soviet Union became a world industrial power. The human cost of that success was high, particularly later in the 1930s when “The Great Purge” of supposed state enemies created among other things a class of prison camp slave laborers.

The second goal, the collectivization of agriculture, was a bitter battle. The category of “kulak”, or rich land-owning peasant, became both a real and imaginary enemy of the Soviet state’s intentions, and caricatured kulaks play the role of enemy in many of the agriculture-related posters of this time. This forced collectivization was particularly harmful in 1932, during the Great Soviet Famine (known in Soviet Ukraine as “Holodomor” or “hungry mass-death”) when farmers fearing the state appropriation of their grains and livestock would sometimes hide or destroy both, or simply refuse to work for fruits that would never be theirs. For this kind of activity the punishments by state officials could include deportation, imprisonment and execution.  The attendant starvation caused by this mixture of protest and government assault was epic and appalling. Millions of people starved to death. Parents cannibalized the bodies of their own dead children. News of this horror was suppressed and conte mporary awareness of the situation outside the Soviet Union was minimal in relation to its magnitude.

You will see no evidence of such tragedies in these posters. Instead we see a narrative in which industrialization and collectivization equals modernization, health, happiness, equality, and cleanliness (the last point in some ways ironic, considering the detrimental effects of heavy industry upon the environment). 
 
Enormous numbers of these kinds of posters were published and distributed to even the remotest villages. Since literacy was low in the various Soviets, especially in agrarian regions, the simple graphics and easy to grasp symbolism of the posters were an effective mode of State communication and social control. It w as considered a crime against the state to deface or tear down official posters. One can imagine the horror of starving to death beneath these images of the cheerful modern state and its heroic well-fed workers.
 
Cleanliness or purity insinuates itself as a theme not only in terms of the contrast between the modern architecture and factories and new technologies of the 20th century with past times, but in terms of bodily and political party-line regimentation. Many posters have either as a main or subsidiary theme an anti-alcohol message: drinking being detrimental to one’s health, the happiness and safety of one’s family, and one’s productivity as a worker. The clean, modern, literate Socialist woman engineer is contrasted against the squalid life of her peers in the past, living in dirty hovels with drunk abusive husbands, prey to the lies of the Churc h. Indeed in what would be inconceivable in a 21st century American political campaign, part of the social engineering intentions of many of these  posters is a virulent attack against organized religion as being both an ignorant superstition and an active crony of the capitalist exploitation of the masses. 
 
The capitalism, Nazism, and Fascism of other nations are also depicted as grotesque and evil enemies of the people, and more specifically of the purity of the Soviet state. There is certainly justice in pointing out the evils of the Nazi party, the injustices of capitalism, and the bedevilments and fanaticisms of religions. So this purity does have has its point and seductive logic. But as in other examples of social revolutionary righteousness, this belief, in combination with the empowerment of unscrupulous and brutal actors such as Stalin, justified human disasters such as the purges that were anything but pure. 
 
This exhibit was on display from November 2, 2011 to July 1st, 2012