By P@ Gallant

The proper status of art in relation to Socialist ideals was a much disputed topic in the early Soviet Union. Many associated modern avant-garde art, such as Impressionism and Cubism, with the bourgeoisie, and felt it was not understandable by the proletariat and could not be used by the state. Some of these individuals argued to ban such art. Lenin, however, rejected this notion, as he believed proletarian culture must be the logical development of capitalist culture. His untimely death led to less support for avant-garde art, which continued to be less popular as Stalin put pressure to move into a simpler, more easily understandable style known as Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism became state policy officially in 1934, and it stayed as such for almost 60 years as a strongly enforced censorship strategy. Art which did not conform to the regime's guidelines was labeled as decadent, unintelligible, or counter-revolutionary, and the creators of these works were severely punished.

Communist propaganda in the early Soviet Union took its most notable form as posters. As tools for manipulating the masses, they were often stylistically straightforward in order to be clear in message. However, many posters, particularly before Stalin's reign, showed much influence from modern avant-garde movements, particularly Cubism and Constructivism. As a result, Soviet posters show great variety in representational style, and perhaps the greatest common element to all the posters is color. Poster artists were limited by technological and ideological constraints, and as a result most posters were black, white, and of course red.

A Spectre is Haunting Europe- the Spectre of Communism (1920)
The piece on the left, produced shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, contains multiple levels of meaning. On the surface, it is simply a depiction of the leader of the party, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin is leaning forwards, guided by the Communist flag, a symbol of the party. He is pointing to the left, which is characterized by industry (represented by the smokestacks), and this even symbolically represents the political Left as a driving force for progress. The text is a quote from Marx's Communist Manifesto.
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920, El Lissitzky)

On the right is a piece which exemplifies the avant-garde influences on Soviet propaganda of the time. Lissitzky was a prominent Russian artist whose work was integral in the development of Suprematism, Constructivism and other early avant-garde Russian art movements. Like many Suprematist pieces, this poster is composed of simple geometric shapes filled with solid colors and arranged in an apparently haphazard fashion. There is, however, great meaning in the work. It represents the struggle between the Reds (Communists) and Whites (supporters of the old regime) during the Russian Civil War. It therefore depicts similar themes as do many other propaganda pieces, only in a somewhat different fashion than what was considered mainstream. The fact that the method of representation in this piece and others was not mainstream was grounds for Stalin and others to claim that these pieces were unintelligible to the proletariat and should thus be banned.
To Defend USSR (1930)
Long Live the Mighty Aviation of the Soviet Country (1939)

The pieces on the left and right show the great difference in propaganda style before and after state censorship. The left poster, while created during the period of decline in avant-garde Russian art following Lenin's death, was created before official state censorship in 1934. This is why it is stylistically modern. Cubist influences on the piece are obvious.

The poster on the right features similar content as the poster on the left: soldiers, airplanes, and industry. And like every propaganda piece, it serves to glorify the power of the state. It differs, of course, in the manner of representation- rather than blocky, abstracted figures, it features realistic, detailed depictions of airplanes and industry. Unlike many earlier posters, there is very little symbolic meaning to interpret- it is intelligible to the proletariat at face value.

Great Stalin is a Flag of the USSR's Friendship

This last poster is an excellent example of the mature Socialist Realism style developed under Stalin's reign. Many works of this time depicted Stalin as a wise, kindly man in order to further his cult-of-personality. This particular piece intends to promote the unity of the USSR as a multi-ethnic state, as it depicts individuals of various ethnicities offering flowers up to Stalin at his podium. The crowd clearly adores him and his rule.

Architecture, owing to its intrinsically public nature, is perhaps the medium in which a society represents itself to itself and others the most. Architecture was thus used by the state as a tool for propaganda, albeit in a more subtle way than posters. Soviet architecture always expressed the power of the people, but in different ways throughout its history. Early Soviet architecture expressed progress and industry through modern avant-garde influenced designs, while later the state, under Stalin, sent signals to architects to transition to a more traditional Classicist style, representing the strength and stability of the people in a manner more readily understandable to the people. As the transition to Classicism in architecture paralleled the transition to Realism in posters, Classicist Stalinist architecture is typically associated with Socialist Realism.

Model of Tatlin's Tower (1919)
Tatlin's Tower, a model of which is seen on the right, is a good example of the Constructivist style popular during the 1920's and early '30s. Intended to be built as the headquarters of the Comintern, it would have been built with industrial materials, such as glass, steel, and iron. As a conical spiral with a skeletal frame, it is structurally quite different from any previous traditional style of architecture. This eschewal of traditional techniques is representative of the progressive nature of architecture at the time. The Tower would have signified strength as well as progress, for it was planned to be one of the tallest buildings in the world. It was not built, however, due to financial and logistical difficulties.

Constructivism flourished throughout the 1920's, but went into decline in the early '30s as Stalin's regime put pressure on architects as well as other artists to end experimentation and conform to Realist norms. The mid-30s then saw the rise of a hybrid architectural style derived from both Constructivist and Classical Revivalist architecture. This style, known as Postconstructivism, is characterized by Classical motifs modified by Constructivist details. The Park Kultury Entrance Pavilion, featured below, exemplifies these characteristics well.
Park Kultury Entrance Pavilion (1935)
Its facade is reminiscent of a Greek temple, with a columned portico and a pediment, but its features are square and undecorated, rather than round or ornamented. On the side
Red Army Theatre (1940)
are arcades of engaged columns, but the columns are square as in the Postconstructivist style. The structure is overall symmetrical. It was constructed mostly out of wood, in contrast to the cement Constructivist buildings, due to limited supply of cement.

The Red Army Theatre, to the right, is an excellent example of the mature Classicist style of Stalinist architecture. Gone are the blocky, unadorned features and progressive techniques of Constructivism and the altered Classical forms of Postconstructivism. They are replaced by traditional architectural motifs, such as the facade of Corinthian columns and the white marble exterior. What is distinctly Soviet about the building is its shape- seen from above it is a Communist star. The building communicates the strength and stability of the Soviet Union in the most straightforward manner possible.

The Soviet Union struggled to find its exact identity during its early history. The nature of its propaganda, whether it be in the form of posters or buildings, thus changed to accommodate changing tastes in the way the state wished itself to be represented to itself and to others. The overall trend during the 20's and 30's was towards Realism and away from avant-garde tendencies, and this was in large part due to state pressures on artists and architects to make their work more "intelligible" to the proletariat. What resulted was, in particular, a shift to Classical motifs in architecture and to realistic, unambiguous representation in posters.

Works that are Cited

Architecture of The Stalin Era, by Alexei Tarkhanov (Collaborator), Sergei Kavtaradze (Collaborator), Mikhail Anikst (Designer), 1992

Oleg Sopontsinsky, Art in the Soviet Union: Painting, Sculpture, Graphic Arts, p 6 Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad, 1978

"1934: Writers' Congress". Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Retrieved 2 June 2014.

Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, p. 288, ISBN 978-0-394-50242-7

Images from: