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