In this lesson, we will learn about different techniques in Soviet propaganda under Stalin and look at some examples of such propaganda in posters, novels, and film.
Revolution & Propaganda
Imagine that a revolution has recently taken place in your country. You are initially opposed to the revolution because you think it is too extreme. Immediately after the revolution, leaders had allowed some political openness, but the gates to freedom of expression have recently closed. Now, nearly all the art, film, and literature that you encounter is some form of political propaganda. How do you react to being inundated with propaganda? Do you find it easier to begin to believe it? Do you only pretend to, to make things easier for you? Or do you outwardly oppose it, even though this decision means certain death?
Under Joseph Stalin, the dictatorial leader of the Soviet Union from the late 1920s until his death in 1953, such pervasive Soviet propaganda, along with the communist economic system, was meant to create a New Soviet Person. The New Soviet Person possessed all the desired qualities of a Soviet citizen. They cared more about the collective than themselves, they believed in the Soviet country and the Communist party, and they would help spread socialism around the world.
Cult of Personality
Soviet propaganda under Joseph Stalin took a variety of forms and used a number of different techniques. A lot of propaganda placed Stalin along with earlier communist visionaries, like Karl Marx, Joseph Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. This propaganda presented Stalin as the natural successor to these great leaders that were continually praised in Soviet newspapers, schools, and elsewhere in society. Over time, the portrayals of Stalin changed from simple praise, to taking the form of a cult of personality. Soviet propaganda portrayed Stalin as a brilliant and kind, all-knowing figure who would lead the world's people to socialism, calling him the ''Father of Nations.''
Most propaganda in the Soviet Union took the form of socialist realism. Socialist realism focused on glorifying the Soviet Union and communism. Many examples of Soviet socialist realist art praised Soviet workers, while others praised Soviet leaders. Socialist realism could be found in many different types of artwork, including sculptures, paintings, poetry, and novels. As a general rule, socialist realism is not very subtle. Socialist realist artists in the Soviet Union believed that art should be accessible to the workers and depict scenes from everyday life. Socialist realism required that the art be realistic (although it didn't depict things as they were, instead it depicted life as the Soviet state and party said it was), and that art serve the aims of the Soviet state and communist party.
In the Stalinist Soviet Union, subtlety and experimentation in art was often condemned as being ''bourgeois'' and counter-revolutionary. Because of the widespread censorship in the Soviet Union under Stalin, much of socialist realism can't really be described as art as most people think of art today, and is more rightfully classified as propaganda.
This 1940 poster celebrates the Soviet capital Moscow, which is led by a man in worker clothes who resembles an idealized version of Stalin, complete with mustache. He is holding a red star, a symbol of Soviet communism.
Glory to the partisan heroes, who are destroying the fascist rear
In images, Soviet propagandists tended to use dramatic, clear images to convey a clear message. For example, this World War II poster shows a Soviet partisan destroying infrastructure in an occupied area. Partisans were Soviet fighters behind enemy lines who were not part of the army. The poster's words translate as, 'Glory to the partisan heroes, who are destroying the fascist rear.' The message was clear to Soviet citizens: if they were occupied by the Nazis, they were not to cooperate, but to try to sabotage them at every turn.
Soviet newspaper articles and other forms of propaganda like novels, stories, and films, had similar simple messages that were meant to educate the viewer about their proper behavior. In the 1938 novel by Yury Krymov, Derbent, a communist on an oil tanker is able to turn his undisciplined crew into a proper communist collective of workers. Soviet citizens were meant to be inspired by the story, and thus to work harder and with greater concern for the larger purpose of communism. This novel followed a standard plot in socialist realism: a challenge is faced, but the hero rises against all odds to inspire others.
In the 1936 film Circus, a white American circus performer with a biracial child finds racial tolerance and acceptance in the Soviet Union, in contrast to the fierce racism she faced in the Jim-Crow-era American south. In spite of the different themes Soviet propaganda might emphasize, there were larger commonalities: a lack of criticism of the Soviet Union, intense praise for the Soviet Union and communist ideals, and often a critique of non-communist peoples.
The New Soviet Person
Today historians debate how much Soviet citizens believed the propaganda of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Some historians believe that many, or even most, people believed Soviet propaganda. Other historians say that most citizens didn't believe the propaganda, but they pretended to in order to survive the harsh political repression in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Soviet propaganda under Stalin was dominated by socialist realism, a particular form of propaganda disguised as art that glorified the Soviet state and party, its workers, and depicted scenes from everyday life. Soviet propaganda also played the main role in upholding Stalin's cult of personality, which praised Stalin as an all-knowing and beneficent leader. Soviet propaganda, combined with communism, were supposed to lead to the creation of the New Soviet Person, a person who inhabited all the desirable qualities Soviet leaders were trying to encourage in their citizens.