Review: Art exhibitioin, Soviet graphics

A large portrait of Leon Trotsky dominates one wall of the ’Soviet Graphics – States of illusion’ exhibition currently showing at the Tate Modern Museum on London’s South Bank (on display at the History/Memory/Society section). On close inspection, the visitor sees that the portrait has jagged edges. The accompanying narrative explains that a "sheet of card, pasted over it to hide Trotsky’s forbidden likeness".

Art exhibition, Tate Modern, London

Soviet Graphics – States of Illusion

1. Red Moscow Heart of World Revolution 1921

2. Red Cavalry 1921

3. All Russian Agricultural Exhibition 1923

4. Fascism is the Worst Enemy of Women 1941

5. Lenin and Dirigibles 1931

This prominence of this image is particularly apt. The ideas of Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the 1920s and 1930s, who stood for workers’ democracy and internationalism, caused terror amongst the ruling conservative Stalinist bureaucracy. The gangster-elite reacted by persecuting and hounding the Left Opposition and later organising the physical annihilation of all opponents. It was therefore extremely dangerous to be associated with Trotsky, in any way. We can only imagine the bravery of those in secret possession of the Trotsky portrait throughout the decades of mass terror.

Prior to the Russian Revolution, poster making by oppositional forces was at a relatively early stage in the Czarist Empire, certainly compared to the West. The victory of the Bolsheviks, eighty five years ago this month, ushered in fundamental social changes. This inspired a new generation of artists. The poster became an indispensable artistic medium, especially for politically informed works. The art of the early years of revolutionary Russia, just as with the poetry of the period, was to have a huge and lasting effect internationally.

As a product of Stalin’s reign of terror, all genuine artistic freedom was quashed. The brilliant and revolutionary art that found expression in many fields after October 1917 was outlawed under the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. Nowhere was this more clearly revealed than in the art of propaganda poster making. The Tate exhibition is a visual tour of this degeneration, as what had been experimental and explosive art became sterile and hollowed out and made to be the crude tool of a counter revolutionary, parasitic ruling elite.

This excellent exhibition charts very well the rise and fall of the political graphic/poster during the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, but only in a visual sense (note 1). The accompanying narrative, no doubt purporting to be ’neutral’, is generally shallow. This is a great pity. The visitor leaves really wanting some explanation of the great changes in Soviet society that affected art and propaganda over the decades. A brochure would have been helpful, including biographical details of the main artists featured, such as Dimitri Moor, Victor Deni and Vladamir Mayakovsky.

The showing is divided into several general themes. The immediate post-revolution section begins with rather ’primitive’ graphics, when the mass circulation political poster was in its infancy. Some are just text proclamations: ’To the Citizens of Russia’ (26 October 1917), announces the revolution. These early posters are nonetheless inspiring examples of the passions and solidarity unleashed by the Bolsheviks coming to power. One of the first works by Dimitri Moor (1893-1946), a master poster artist, called ’Muslim Comrades’, is an appeal to the peoples of the Caucuses and Central Asia, parts of the former Czarist Empire, to rally to the young workers’ government.

Moor lampoons the League of Nations, with a poster entitled, ’Capitalists of the World Unite!’ This shows three fat bosses representing the major imperialist powers of the day, Britain, France and the US, sitting on the backs of the masses.

In contrast, ’Red Moscow Heart of World Revolution’ (1921), by vkhUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops) drawn in a Cubist-style, is an announcement of the new workers’ international, the Third International (Comintern) (plate 1).

Civil War art

The best part of the exhibition deals with the Civil War years, when foreign capitalist armies and the reactionary Russian White forces attempted the bloody strangulation of Soviet power. The posters are simple, direct and striking, summing up the dangers posed and the revolutionary enthusiasm behind the artists as the working class fought to save the revolution.

’Death to World Imperialism’ shows a huge green dragon (imperialism) wrapped around a factory – the counter revolution aimed to sabotage the economy and wipe away the state owned economy, returning to the anarchy and inequities of the market economy and landlordism.

’Red Cavalry’ (1921) is a famous heroic depiction of a soldier horseman (plate 2). The Red Army was organised in the most difficult circumstances, and under the leadership of Trotsky, succeeded in repulsing the armed threat of capitalism, through a combination of a political programme attractive to the working class and peasants, and by brilliantly innovative military techniques.

The internationally renowned "poet of the revolution" Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who was driven to suicide by the Stalinist regime, was also a hugely talented artist. One of his Civil War posters exclaims, ’we must not let the landlords rule over the workers’ and shows two red figures hoisting a landlord with bayonets.

As well as re-organising the economy and fighting a war, the early years of the revolution also saw huge efforts to raise the literacy and cultural level of the mass of people, a basic necessity on the road towards a higher stage of society, a socialist society. Street posters played a vital role in this enormous task. The artist Zelensky devised a graphic of a hammer and sickle (Soviet symbols of the unity of the industrial working class and poor peasantry) over an open book. A photomontage from 1925 by Lebedev bears the slogan, ’Communism is Soviet power and electrification’.

A work by Alexander Lebedev, ’All Russian Agriculture and Craft-Industrial Exhibition – Pageants and Sport’ (August-September 1923) represents the attempt to combine science, technique, rural industry and sporting prowess (plate 3).

The ascendancy of the Stalinist bureaucracy and with it the increasing gagging of all independent thought and initiative had its deleterious consequences in all cultural, scientific and artistic fields, including the production of the mass political poster. This is revealed by the substance and style of the exhibited posters following the Civil War period. More and more, inventive, youthful and experimental graphics are replaced by conservative and dull conformity, reflecting the outlook and selfish material interests of the ruling sphere.

By the mid to late 1920s, the image of Lenin is depicted in a god-like way, and was used to promote Stalin, as a ’great leader’ in his own right, and as Lenin’s ’natural heir’. This of course was a complete caricature. Stalin had played a minor role during the revolution, and actually opposed Lenin’s decisive policies to win power for the working class. Stalin’s narrow vision perfectly suited the rising bureaucracy, that had gained more and more power and influence as the Russian Revolution remained isolated after big defeats for the working class in Europe. Towards the end of his life, Lenin was greatly concerned by the encroaching bureaucracy, and in particular warned the party against allowing Stalin too much influence. In 1923, Lenin called for Stalin to be removed as Communist Party general secretary. Stalin suppressed Lenin’s opinions, however, and his stranglehold of state power grew in a period of general want and cultural backwardness, which led to the growth of the bureaucracy. After Lenin’s death, Stalin presided over the bureaucratic degeneration of the Communist Party and the Comintern (Third International).

Artists’ sycophancy

A poster from 1935 by Gustav Klutis (1895-1944) illustrates the sycophancy that had marked the role of officially blessed artists, ’Long live the Stalinist Order of Heroes and Stakhanovites’ (Stakhanovite was a fictional super-productive worker created by the Kremlin. All Soviet workers were berated to follow his example). Other examples of Klutis’s ingratiating works include,’ Hold up the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin’ (1935), and ’Long live our happy socialist Motherland and long live our beloved Stalin’ (1940).

A 1931 lithograph by Georgii Kibardin entitled, ’Lenin and Dirigibles’ links Lenin the leader (and ’by association’, Stalin) with the achievements in science and industry (plate 5).

Like many graphics from this period of so-called ’Socialist Realism’, Klutis’s style is masculine/heroic, often promoting the Soviet ’family’ (an important base of rule for the reactionary bureaucracy). Like many faithful servants of Stalin, however, Klutis still fell victim to the mass hysteria and paranoia of the 1930s.

The excesses and wild swings of Stalinist policy are partially reflected in the latter stages of the Tate exhibition. A poster by A Strakhov (1896-1979) shows a huge fist driving into the back of a Kulak (a rich peasant). This signifies the abrupt change of policy by Stalin, who previously had leaned on this social layer, but turned on them ruthlessly as their increasing wealth and power threatened the stability of the regime. Stalin introduced a ’five year plan’ in agriculture. Trotsky and the Left Opposition had been condemned earlier by the ruling clique for calling for the collectivisation of agricultural production, which they said had to be undertaken in a sensitive and voluntary manner. Characteristically, under Stalin, collectivisation was introduced in a violent and forced way, resulting in huge economic chaos and famine.

At the height of the Moscow Show Trials, which led to the murder of most of the Bolshevik leaders of Lenin’s time, political posters in the hands of people like Sergei Igumnov (1900-1942) became hysterical calls for the liquidation of all those that dared to resist the criminals in the Kremlin. One of his works bears the demand, ’Let us eradicate all spies and saboteurs, All Trotskyites’ (1937), illustrating a hand throttling a snake with Nazi swastikas for eyes. Trotsky was the main defendant, albeit absent, at the 1936-38 frame-up trials in Moscow. In 1940, he was assassinated in Mexico by one of Stalin’s secret police.

Heroic struggle against Nazism

In August 1939, Stalin signed a ’non aggression pact’ with Hitler. This desperate and cynical bid to keep the Soviet Union out of war failed disastrously. In June 1941, Hitler mounted a huge attack and made big territorial incursions into Russia. The Red Army, massively weakened by widespread purges, was initially swept aside.

It was the heroism of the people of the Soviet, defending the social and economic gains of the October Revolution against Nazi barbarism, and the superiority of the planned economy (directed towards war demands) that led to the defeat of the Nazi armed forces – despite the burden of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Over 25 million people died in the conflict. This human tragedy of unimaginable proportions is indicated by some of the posters concerning the war years, even when made by those artists completely slavish to the ruling elite.

’Young Female Partisan – Tass Window, Number 469’ c. 1942-43, by Alexander Pavlovich Babnov (1908-1964) is a stencil of a young female resistance fighter firing at occupying forces from a tree.

Victor Ivanov (1909-1968) records the outrage against the sheer brutality of the Nazi invasion. ’Death to child murders’, is a gruesome picture of a blood soaked Nazi boot stepping on the lifeless body of a young girl.

A 1941 lithograph by the artist Nina Vatolina, ’Fascism is the Worst Enemy of Women’, depicts a defiant Russian woman dressed in red in the forefront of burning buildings and a dead woman and child (plate 4).

Stalinism emerged enormously strengthened after the war, with new Stalinist regimes emerging in Eastern Europe. The official artists lost no time rewriting history, portraying Stalin as the ’Great War General’. V Klimashin’s ’Salute Stalin’s Artillery’ (1946) is one such example provided at the Tate.

The antagonism between an emboldened Stalinism and the major capitalist nations, two fundamentally opposed social systems, soon led to the development of the Cold War. The advent of atomic and then nuclear weapons raised the terrible possibility of a new world war that could lead to the destruction of the entire planet. In fact, the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), should these awesome weapons be deployed, stayed the hands of Moscow and Washington. It was not in the interests of the capitalists or the bureaucracy to embark on a conflict that would destroy the working class and the productive forces. But this did not mean that nuclear Armageddon was completely ruled out. The Cuban missile crisis of forty years ago brought the world close to a new war. On the basis of a fascist regime coming to power in the US, which would only be possible after big defeats for the US working class, a ’first strike’ against the Soviet block would have been very possible. This did not happen over the long years of the Cold War, although many millions of people died in ’lesser’ conflicts, or proxy wars between the superpowers, set in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Cold War

In this global context, the Moscow bureaucracy was keen to find props of support and promoted its ’international peace campaign’. The ruling elite cynically played on the genuine fears of working people everywhere at the horrors of another world war.

Kanstantin Konstantinovich Ivanov produced a poster in 1948 celebrating a heroic Soviet man and woman and the flags of many nations, under the slogan, ’For Peace – For People’s Democracy’. This echoed the earlier policy of so called ’popular fronts’, which called for blocks between the tops of the mass workers’ organisations and sections of the ’progressive’ capitalists, supposedly in opposition to the reactionary capitalists. This was the antithesis of an independent class approach: in the 1930s Trotsky had called for a genuine united front of workers’ organisations to defeat fascism. A united front would marshal the forces of the Left against the dangers of reaction and at the same time allow the independence of political programmes.

In the modern epoch there is no such thing as a ’progressive’ capitalist class. The capitalist friends of the Stalinists, who entered ’popular’ or ’peoples’ fronts with the workers’ organisations, did so as a self-preservation exercise, and subsequently turned on the working class once they felt strong enough. Often where popular frontism was practised it led to big defeats of the working class – in Spain, Germany and other countries during the 1930s.

In the post war period, economic growth in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe leapt forward due to the advantages of the planned economies, despite the huge waste and mismanagement attendant with bureaucratic totalitarian rule and the absence of workers’ democracy. The ruling strata was confident, even predicting their economies would outstrip the most powerful capitalist nations in a matter of years. This mood of self-belief and notion of historical mission was faithfully reproduced by Soviet artists. Viktor Kovetsky (1909-1998) produced a dramatic poster in 1948, illustrating a teenage violinist who is poor and unwanted in the West, shunned and homeless (’In the country of capitalism this is the path of talent’). In contradistinction, his talent is celebrated in the more culturally advanced Russia, where he is seen playing in a concert hall (’In the country of socialism all paths are open to talent’).

It has to be said that Kovetsky was not just indulging in empty Stalinist propaganda. Under the planned economy great strides forward were made in the fields of culture and the arts. Universal literacy was introduced, and even the creation of languages and alphabets in some of the Soviet republics. Under capitalism and landlordism these societies had floundered in a pit of social, cultural and economic backwardness. For decades, quite high levels of sporting and cultural achievements were realised (albeit artists and writers and so on were denied all initiative and independence of thought and expression). The long decline of the Soviet economy in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by collapse and the re-introduction capitalism, has all but wiped away most of this legacy.

’Comrades – The End’?

The Tate exhibition ends rather abruptly with a poster by Istvan Orosz, entitled, aptly, ’Comrades – The End’ (1989). We are shown the back of a Russian army officer’s head, signifying the retreat of the Red Army from Hungary. This is especially poignant given that the same armed forces rolled into the country in 1956 to crush a workers’ uprising against Stalinism. During that heroic revolt the working class of Hungary were groping towards a political revolution, that is, the removal of the despotic regime and the introduction of workers’ democracy over the planned economy and society as a whole.

In the late 80s and early 90s there were mass movements in many Stalinist states against the ruling clique. Unfortunately, without a far-sighted leadership, the potential for political revolution was lost. The West was experiencing a boom at that time (albeit one sided and at the expense of workers’ living conditions), which gave the illusion that a return to the market economy was the solution to economic stagnation in the East. Capitalist restoration was achieved in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This has been proved to be a cruel trick for the masses of the former Stalinist states – living standards in these states suffered an unprecedented drop in the following ten years.

The Tate exhibition does not explain this new reality, nor does it provide any political posters from the period of mass resistance to Stalinism (other than the example from Hungary), or during capitalist re-introduction. This is unfortunate, because the collapse of Stalinism does not mean the end of political struggle and its representation through art – anything but! In fact, socialists in Russia have been to the forefront of developing poster art in the campaign against racism. Several years ago, the campaigning organisation, Youth Against Racism in Europe, which was initiated by the CWI, held a very successful art exhibition in Moscow as part of its work against racism.

With the rise of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement, and other campaigns, such as anti-racism, the vital role of the poster will certainly resurge. As part of this radicalisation, we already see that the1960s iconic image of Che Guevara has become even more popular in recent years, in the former Soviet Union, and all around the world. As worker’s struggles develop in Russia, there will also be an increasing turn to the ideas of figures like Lenin and Trotsky and genuine Marxism. This ideological search will undoubtedly find new expression in all artistic fields, including, of course, the political poster and graphic.

Note 1. See ’The Bolshevik Poster’ by Stephen White (Yale University Press/New Haven and London, 1998) for an excellent array of Soviet graphics reproductions and in-depth commentary.

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November 2002