16 Tons
17 Tons: Memory as practice
17 Tons: Memory as practice
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EN / nl

Soviet propaganda

The October Revolution of 1917 replaced Kerensky’s Provisional Government with the world’s first workers’ state. Visual propaganda in the form of monuments, posters, painted trains and ships, films and photographs was quickly mobilised, and in the beginning enjoyed the exuberance of the abstract and constructivist designs of avant-garde artists such as El Lissitsky, Rodchenko and the suprematists Malevich and Nathan Altman, as well as more conventional figurative images. During the Civil War agitprop (agitational propaganda) trains were sent throughout Russia to tell the population about the ongoing struggles in defence of the Revolution. The message of El Lissitzky’s famous poster, “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, was more often conveyed in satirical images of bloated capitalists and heroic red army soldiers. In 1919 Lenin made a series of gramophone recordings of speeches which set the tone for future years: “Soviet power is not a miracle-working talisman. It does not, overnight, heal all the evils of the past – illiteracy, lack of culture, the effects of a barbarous war, the aftermath of predatory capitalism. But it does pave the way to socialism. It gives those who were formerly oppressed the chance to straighten their backs and, to an ever increasing degree, take the whole government of the country, the whole administration of the economy, the whole management of production, into their own hands” (quoted in King 2009: 85). Strategic changes like Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921, which encouraged small-scale, privately run industries and services, were conveyed through posters, as were literacy, health and productivity campaigns. Lenin’s slogan “Communism is Soviet Power Plus the Electrification of the Whole Country” inspired some of the greatest of the Soviet poster artists, such as Gustav Klutsis. In 1917 Lenin appointed the Bolshevik intellectual Lunacharsky as the first Commissar of Education and Enlightenment; by the time he left office in 1929 virtually the whole country was literate and numerate. Like Trotsky, Lunacharsky had a tolerant attitude to all forms of creative activity and defended avant-garde Soviet artists. In 1924 Lenin died and Stalin took power. By the early 1930s the avant-garde had been largely suppressed and socialist realism, with its cheerful images of factory workers and farm girls, had taken over. Nonetheless, some of the inventiveness and dynamism of the earlier years is apparent in publications like Stroim (Building) and USSR in Construction, the legendary propaganda magazine (1930-1941) that featured radical photo-graphics by artists like El Lissitsky and Rodchenko. Such publications were also the visualisation of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), which involved rapid industrialisation and the forced collectivisation of agriculture; this was the beginning of Stalin’s un-Marxist theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’, and his aim to transform the backward Soviet Union into a gigantic industrial power. DA