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SOVIET WAR POSTERS c.1940-1945

The TASS Poster Series from the Hallward Library, University of Nottingham

Historical Introduction by Professor D.W. Spring

Soviet Posters from the Great Patriotic War 1941-5

Soviet Poster Art

The heyday of the Soviet political poster was during the Civil War of 1918-21. As Stephen White shows in The Bolshevik Poster it was influenced by the popular lubok (woodcut), by icon painting, and the satirical cartoons of the early 20th century. But the remarkable flourishing and vitality of poster are after 1917 owed much to the originality and commitment of a small number of artists, notably Alexander Aspit, Dmitri Moor, Viktor Deni, El Lissitsky, Mikhail Cheremnykh and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. It reached its apogee aesthetically and in the power of its messages in the years of uncertainty and crisis of the Civil War of 1918-21. Its directness appealed to the black and white issues of that struggle, with the Bolsheviks’ claim to be able to build a bright future for simple people. In a country where the majority of the population was still illiterate, the Bolsheviks were aware of the importance of the visual message in all its forms. Hence the efforts put into the agitation trains and steamers as well as the enrolling of sympathetic artists to their cause. In the 1920s with the direct military struggle won, with the difficulty of dramatising the more complex issues the country faced and with the growing control of individual artistic initiative, Soviet poster art also declined.1

Soviet posters in the Great Patriotic War

From June 1941 for two years the Soviet people found themselves in a situation as desperate as that of the Civil War and one in which once again their black and white propoaganda, their claim of the high moral ground, was able to be projected convincingly by all the media because it could be seen to have a degree of validity: the peaceful country had been perfidiously attacked by an aggresive power with enormous claims on it, with a contemptuous attitude towards the Slav peoples and led by a crazed dictator and his gang. This accounts for the renewed power and authenticity of Soviet poster art particularly in the first years of the war: at this time ‘Life itself so surpassed all fantasies, that the closer the artist was to it, the deeper he was able to penetrate into the genuine romance of its herosim; the beauty of the exploit was in itself so great that it did not require further decoration or exaggeration.’2

Several of the prominent poster artists of the Civil War were still active, Mikhail Cheremnykh, initiator of the ROSTA Windows in the Civil War, as well as Victor Deni and Dmitri Moor continued to make contributions to poster art in this period. But also new figures had come forward: Irakli Toidze, V S Ivanov, A A Kokorekin, B V Koretsky and others. The already well-known Kukryniksy trio of cartoonists (Mikhail Kupriyanov, Porfiry Krylov and Nikolai Sokolov) discussed an idea for a poster already on the afternoon following the German attack on 22 June. On the following day they appeared at the offices of Pravda in which much of their work had appeared for instructions on what should be the character of their art now, as Fascism had already been exposed in the 1930s.3 their famous poers ‘We will mercilessly destroy ....’ appeared on the streets of Moscow already on 24 June. It showed a caricatured Hitler with a revolver, his head breaking through the torn Soviet-German non-aggression treaty of 1939, only to be confronted with a determined looking Red Army soldier whose rifle bayonet pierces his head.4

The printing as opposed to the stencilling of posters was concentrated at the State Printing Works ‘Iskusstvo’ (Art) in Leningrad and Moscow. Amongst the most famous and striking of the printed posters was the heroic ‘The Motherland Calls’ of I M Toidze.5 Only a week after the beginning of the war it appeared covering a whole facade of a building close to the Post Office in Gorky Street in Moscow. A fiery-eyed, determined looking elderly mother in a shawl, the simplicity of her dress enabling the vast majority to identify with her, calls insistently to the observer. Behind her are the bayonets of the Red Army rifles and she holds in her hand the oath of loyalty of the Red Army soldier, the text clearly visible. Toidze conceived his idea already on the first day of the war. It was enormously successful and was printed in millions of copies and in all the main languages of the country.6 Dmitri Moor exploited his famous ‘Have you joined the Volunteers?’ poster of 1919 with ‘How have you helped the Front?’ in 1941, appearling to the Home Front.7 B V Koretsky’s ‘Red Army soldier, Save us!’ first appeared on 5 August 1942 when the Red Army was still retreating across the southern steppes and the outcome of the war remained very uncertain. A young mother with a child in her arms and hate in her eyes fills the whole poster, as a rifle bayonet dripping blood threatens them. The caption in red appears as if written in the blood dripping from the bayonet. This was one of many posters at this period emphasising the sufferings of ordinary Soviet civilians in the war.8

In 1943 the tragic theme began to give way to the joyful as the tide of the war began to turn and Soviet victories could regularly be celebrated as towns and regions were liberated from the enemy. But increasingly the messages lost their urgency as the outcome of the battle of Stalingrad (2 February 1943) and the battle of Kursk (July 1943) became clear and the Red Army once again approached its own frontiers. As a Soviet authority summarised the character of the political poster at this time: ‘The joy at the liberation of their native lands was combined with a growing thirst for revenge.... On the one hand this brought with it the further development of the theme of the sufferings of peaceful Soviet people in the political poster, and on the other, it brought to the theme of liberation not only feelings of joy, but also bitterness at what they had gone through and a passionate appeal for vengeance’.9

In 1944 the context changed further as the war was fought through on to German erritory. ‘In the images of the poster of this period’, writes Demosfenova, ‘together with a consciousness of the whole horror of fascism and a thirst for revenge, the joy and exhaustion of victory, we see the appearance of a new characteristic: a feeling of price and consciousness of having carried out a great historical service for humanity.10 But the agitation message was more difficult to convey as the war came to an end and energies needed to begin to be directed towards reconstruction rather than saving the motherland from the invading enemy. The propagandist’s task was also complicated by the need to maintain the momentum of the war effort even after the country was cleared of the enemy, in order to achieve his complete defeat. The Red Army soldier passing into the East European countries was able to make comparisons with his own life and experience which in the propagandists’ view required greater vigilance to combat ‘erroneous’ ideas and conclusions. Similarly a substantial part of the Soviet population had been living under German control for a lengthy period of occupation and Party authoritis were apprehensive about the conclusions they may have drawn. The populations of the reincorporated western Ukraine and western Belorussia had only previously lived under Soviet rule and influences for less than two years. And the Baltic states, Bessarabia and Bukovina had been annexed only a year before the German invasion of June 1941. These areas would require special attention, not least in the field of propaganda. In 1944 brighter emotional posters called for liberation of the peoples of Europe from Nazism, and for reconstruction. By the end of 1944 the chief theme had already become the forthcoming victory. But while the horrors of the Nazi regime were evident, the emphasis on the external enemy and his possible continued survival in hiding helped to distract attention from a cooler analysis of the Soviet war experience, as Staling dashed hopes of an internal relaxation as the war came to an end.

It is to the context of these last three years of the war that the posters published in this collection belong.

The TASS Windows

A major role in soviet poster art in the war was played by the TASS Windows and they form the largest part of the collection published here. They were large, bightly coloured, hand-painted posters, stencilled and produced in runs of uip to 1000 copies. They usually were accompanied by a didactic text or often quite lengthy poem. They were the direct descendants of the comparable ROSTA Windows of the Civil War period, so-called because they were displayed in the empty shop-windowsof that period. Like ROSTA, TASS was the official Soviet telegraphic agency of the day, and the purpose of the association of this propaganda effort with the agency was both to provide a continuing visual chronicle of the war and to respond immediately, often within hours to the laters telegrams of TASS. M M Chermnykh, who had initiated the ROSTA Windows, also took the lead in the 1941 project. On 24 June the organisational committee ofthe Union of Soviet Artists established the TASS Window collective and the first poster appeared already on 27 June 1941.11 The Windows were numbered through to no. 1485 in June 1945. About 1250 were made in the original manner with stencils during the war itself. For several months at the turn of 1941-2 they were published with dates rather than numbers both in Moscow and in Kuibyshev to which part of the team had been evacuated. It is therefore difficuly to be sure that the complete series has been located.12

Some of the first Windows were only produced in a single copy. Until the end of December 1941 none was produced in more than 120 copies. This was soon increased to 300 to 600 copies by the end of 1942 and sometimes to over 1000 copies in 1943-5. Posters similar to the TASS Windows amounting to ‘an artistic movement’ according to one of the leading artists, N F Denisovsky were also printed in Leningrad, Kuibyshev, Gorky, Perm, Kirov, Kazan, Cheboksar, Tula, Penza, Saratov, Sverdlovsk, Murmansk, Tomsk, Chita, Biisk, Khabarovsk, Tashkent, Baka, Tbilisi, Frunze, Ashkhabad and other towns, though little research has been done to trace them.13 In Frunze, capital of the Kirgiz republic, the style of the posters was adapted to use local motifs.14 They were widely made known as significant artistic contributions to the war effort through laudatory articles in the press.15 President Kalinen visited the TASS Window collective on 19 December 1941 at the height of the battle for Moscow urging artists to take up poster work and made his oft-quoted remark that ‘just as historians of the October Revolution have not passed over the ROSTA Windows, so historians of the Patriotic War will not forget the TASS Windows....’16 The Windows were distributed to the front, to army units, factories and collective farms and there were even reports of them appearing mysteriously in occupied towns such as Vitebsk, Voronezh and Kharkov. A report during the war on a partisan’s experience specifically mentions the value of a TASS Window amongst his equipment.17

The limited number of copies of each TASS Window might suggest a rather limited impact particularly for the many early single copy posters. Even the 1000 copies at full production would have been quickly exhausted in the vast country. However, apart from the limitations of the Moscow productions in other towns, many of the TASS Windows which had a message of more than transitory importance were subsequently properly printed in several tens of thousands of copies. Also nearly 75000 copies of TASS Windows were reproduced in the film cassette series Posledniye izvestiya (The Latest News) and from March 1943 on slide films with reproductions of 40-50 TASS Windows on each reel. Nearly 26000 silk screen (shelkografiki) posters were made and over a million lithographic reduced size copies were made by the TASS collective from the beginning of 1942.18 The rate of production of new posters was however uneven. In the first year of the war over 500 different TASS Windows were produced, but the second 500 took nearly 2 years to complete. Number 1000 was dated 6 June 1944.19 N G Palgunov, the director of TASS from June 1943, compares the impact of the TASS Windows on morale during the war with Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony or with the popular song Holy War.20 The newspaper Trud in an article on the TASS Windows in June 1943 proclaimed that they ‘in essence reflect the history of our country in the years of the Great Patriotic War.... They addressed themselves to the most noble sentiments of the Soviet people, to their patriotism....’21

The posters were also made known abroad. Copies and sometimes whole exhibitions were sent to Britain, the United States, China, Australia and several other countries. In a few cases they were translated for war propaganda in those countries. Exhibitions were mounted in the East European countries later in the war as the Redy Army occupied them.22

The Moscow ROSTA collective of the Civil War years had produced about 1600 ‘Satire Windows’ between September 1919 and 1922. Outside Moscow the Odessa and Petrograd branches probably produced over 1000 each. The volume of production was therefore no less over a comparable period, at least in the case of Moscow, than the TASS Windows 20 years later. Like the TASS collective, ROSTA had been able to react to the latest telegrams within a few hours. the TASS Windows however neve reached the 200 different Windows producted by the ROSTA collective in the exceptional month of October 1920.23 But ROSTA Windows could be reproduced only in 40-50 copies, whereas TASS Windows reached 1000-1200 copies at their peak and were also distributed in other forms. The TASS Windows poetic texts were directed as a more literate society in the 1940s, though their impact was inevitably more on the urban than the rural population. The ROSTA Windows were mainly satirical. The TASS Windows were both satirical and increasingly heroic, although according to a substantial Soviet analysis, ‘it was precisely as satire that the TASS Windows played their most telling word’ and because of the limitations of the stencilling method, the heroic figure was most fully achieved rather in the printed poster.24

The theme and the text of each TASS Windows were agreed with the leader of the collective, and ultimately with the agreement of TASS. TASS was the official news agency for disseminiation of Soviet news abroad and for reception of news from abroad and consequently was strictly controlled by the Party. Most posters were completed and reproduced within 24 hours, the team working in three shifts. After the artist had completed the drawing and painting of the illustration, the poster was cut up into sections and stencils were cut out appropriate to each colour used in the composition. The most elaborate posters used up to 60 sencils. The stencils were then passed to the copy room where each section was copied on a lithographic machine in waterproof oil colours, initially in very few copies but eventually in up to 1000 copies. When all the colours had been applied to each stencilled section, they had to be glued together to make the completed poster and the text was added in a separate operation.25

Why was this method used rather than straight printing? Firstly the experience with the famous ROSTA Windows was influential on key figures like Cheremnykh who was still active in 1941. An idea which had arisen out of the desperate crisis of 1918 naturally came immediately to mind in the crisis of 1941, as having shown its worth. Secondly there were certain advantages in the production methods of the TASS Windows. They enabled a reaction to be made to an event within a very short period, as little as 24 hours. New posters appeared almost every day of the war. The TASS Windows became a kind of chronicle of the war, referring not only to general issues but also to incidents of the immediate moment as they arose in the press. They were also able to be reproduced in much brighter and more startling colours than could be produced at the time by printing, and they could be produced - as their imitators did - in towns outside Moscow where there were only very primitive printing facilities.26

Several of the poster artists of the revolutionary period were still active in 1941, the most notable being Viktor Deni, Mikhail Cheremnykh and Dmitri Moor. Prominent amongst the younger generation were the Kukryniksy, Boris Efimov, Irakly Toidzye and Viktor Ivanov. Many painters and artists who had had no connection with poster art participated in the TASS collective as the most direct way in which they could aid the war effort by boosting morale and exposing the enemy. 129 artists from various backgrounds contributed to the TASS Windows, including painters such as P P Sokolov-Skalya (176 Windows), A P Bubnov (25), P M Shukhmin (40), M V Mal’tsev (15) and F V Antonov (16).

Similarly, more than 70 poets and writers sought to make their contribution to the same cause with appropriate short, sharp, witty and striking verses and slogans. The precedent had been set by Mayakovsky who wrote more than 600 texts for the ROSTA Windows as well as contributing as an artist. The proletarian poet Demyan Bedny (E A Pridvorov, 1881-1845), whose verses had been admired by Lenin, had contributed to the earlier ROSTA Windows and although in poor health (he died in 1945 on the eve of victory), he insisted on returning to Moscow late in 1941 from the safety of Kazan to play his part.27 Bedny contributed the texts and verses for 113 TASS Windows during the war. Samuel Marshak (1887-1964) was a poet and prolific translator of English literature into Russian (having studied for two years at London University from 1912 to 1914) including Shakespeare, Burns, Keats and Wordsworth. He was renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for his children’s stories adapted to the post-revolutionary conditions. During the war he published many satirical poems in Pravda and co-operated particularly with the Kukrynisky team, the best-known of the satirical artists of the TASS collective. Marshak wrote the texts for 108 TASS Windows during the war. V I Lebedev-Kumach (1898-1949) was an established poet of the period who had already been involved in the ROSTA propoganda agency during the Civil War. He wrote the text of the popular 1930s Soviet musical films Vesyolye Rebyata (The Happy Guys) and Tsirk (Circus) and for some of the most forceful of the patriotic songs of the war period such as Svyaschennaya voina (Holy War). Lebedev-Kamach wrote the texts for 92 TASS Windows. The other most prolific contributors to the texts were the poets A I Mashistov (136 texts) and A A Zharov (95 texts).

Notes

1. Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster, Yale, 1988, is the most thorough and authoritative analysis of Soviet poster art in this period in English. On propaganda in general in the revolutionary period see Peter Kenez, The Birth of the Propoganda State, Soviet methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-29, CUP, 1985.

2. G Demosfenova, A Nurok and N Shantyko (eds), Sovetskii politicheskii plakat (The Soviet political poster), Moscow, 1962, p 146. This is a substantial analysis of the history of the Soviet political poster from 1917; for the Great Patriotic War period see pp 131-80. For other comparable forms of propaganda in the Great Patriotic War, see for instance on literature ‘Russkiye pisateli na frontakh Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny’ (Russian writers on the fronts of the Great Patriotic War), Literaturnoye Nasledstvo, vol 78, 1966, on newsreel film see D W Spring ‘Soviet Newsreel in the Great Patriotic War’ in N Pronay and D W Spring eds, Propaganda, Politics and Film, 1918-45, London 1982 pp 270-292.

3. Shumakove (ed), Plakaty Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny (Posters of the Great Patriotic War), Moscow 1985.

4. White, op cit, p 123.

5. White, op cit, p 123

6. Shumakova, p 18.

7. Shumakova, p 5; White, pp 49, 123

8. Shumakova, p 65.

9. Demosfenova, p 171.

10. Demosfenova, p 174

11. N F Denisovsky, Okna Tass 1941-45, (The TASS Windows 1941-1945) Moscow, 1975, pp 13-14.

12. The fullest catalogue of TASS Windows includes details (bujt not the text) of 1291 items. See Trudy Gosudarstvennoi Biblioteki SSSR imeni V I Lenina (Works of the State Library of the USSR named after Lenin), vol 8, 1965, pp 167-316; 77 copies of TASS Windows are reproduced in Denisovsky, op cit; the texts of 36 Windows not previously published separately are in Literaturnoye nasledstvo, 78, 1966, pp 452-62. The Nottingham collection includes 16 TASS Windows which are not listed in the catalogue published by the Lenin Library.

13. Denisovsky, op cit, p 13.

14. Literatura i Iskusstvo, 25 April 1942, as quoted in Denisovsky, p 35.

15. See for example Pravda, 22 March 1942; Literaturnaya Gazetta, 1 October 1941, no 39.

16. Denisovsky, pp 5-8.

17. Literatura i Iskusstvo 31 December 1942 as quoted in Denisovsky, pp 33-4.

18. Vechernaya Moskva 1 March 1943 as quoted in Denisovsky, p 35.

19. ‘Okna TASS’, Literaturnoye nasledstvo, vol 78, 1966, pp 444-64.

20. Palgunov in Denisovsky, op cit, pp 10-11.

21. Trud, 10 June 1943 as quoted by I P Abramsky in Denisovsky, p 36.

22. Denisovsky, pp 15-6, 38-9; Demosfenova, pp 179-80.

23. White, pp 68, 84, 89

24. Demosfenova, pp 132-4.

25. Literaturnoye Nasledstvo, vol 78, 1966, pp 445-6; Denisovsky, pp 17-18

26. Literaturnoye Nasledstvo, vol 78, 1966, pp 444-63.

27. Alexander Zharov in Denisovsky, pp 20-1.

D W Spring
History Department, University of Nottingham

 

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