Propaganda is often thought of in negative terms, although simply put it’s the manipulation of public opinion carried out by using the media to reach as many people as possible and persuading them to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something. This makes it an important tool in any war and the Second World War was no exception. In fact in many ways propaganda was at the height of its power during World War II. Propaganda was everywhere – on the radio and newsreels, in papers and magazines, distributed as leaflets, and of course on every street corner in the form of posters.
The propaganda of the poster was highly effective in the allies fight against Nazi Germany and was used to deliver all kinds of important messages to the allied peoples. Whether it was rallying them to become a single identity, persuading them to become involved personally, or focussing them on a clear message, it was the poster that proved to be most effective. Posters were used to promote all aspects of the wartime struggle including careless talk, fundraising, health issues, the role of women, civil defence, and of course morale.
Despite deep-seated mistrust and hostility between the Soviet Union and the Allied Western democracies of Great Britain and the United States of America, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 resulted in an instant alliance between the Russians and what they had previously called the “imperialist camp”. Suddenly enemies were friends and united against a single enemy – Germany.
Once they had joined the Allies against Germany the Russians wasted no time in harnessing the commitment of the Russian people. According to Professor Philip M. Taylor of Leeds University, World War II “witnessed the greatest propaganda battle in the history of warfare.” All participants, including Germany, used propaganda on a scale that had never been seen before and Russia was no exception.
Propaganda posters had first appeared in Russia during the Proletarian Revolution to deliver Communist Party slogans to the masses, calling on workers and peasants to fight for freedom and justice. When Russia entered the war it was only natural that the Soviet Information Bureau should continue to manage the Russian People’s expectations through the power of the poster. During what is known in Russia as “The Great Patriotic War,” they played a pivotal role in rallying the population to resist the Nazi invasion.
Whilst the American’s used ‘mom’s apple pie’ imagery and the British a slightly cosy, stiff-upper-lip feel to their posters, the Russians took a more direct and passionate approach. Sometimes the posters were close to being horrific; a stark picture of a Russian soldier bayoneting a serpent shaped like a Nazi swastika with the words “Death to the beast”. At other times they were instructive and simple: “The shovel is the soldier’s friend” and “The sniper hits from afar but for sure!” Good advice it seems, as many historians believe that Russian soldiers were better prepared for the terrible winters, digging in to the deep snow with their shovels, and in the majority of Western countries, including Germany, snipers were regarded as dishonourable, so few German soldiers signed-up for sniping training. The Russians, on the other hand, saw sniping as a survival technique and picked off the Germans at their leisure.
It would be true to say that the Russian approach to the propaganda poster was usually far more serious than that of either the United States or Great Britain. This doesn’t mean that either the British or the Americans took their posters lightly, but advertising was more developed in these countries than in Russia and this clearly influenced the themes and particularly the look of the posters. The British and American artwork seemed glossier, whereas Russia’s was more stylised, brooding, and ominous. Perhaps it was the colour used in the Russian posters; usually red, black and grey, or maybe the deep oppressive shadows that lurked in the starkly drawn, almost post-modernist, line of the images.
History and party loyalty were common themes in Russian posters with patriotic declarations such as “The descendants of Suvorov and Chapaev fight bravely” and “For homeland, for Stalin!” Whilst these sentiments were echoed in “Uncle Sam” and “Queen and Country”, the Russians somehow managed to portray a gravitas often missing from the posters designed in the United States and Great Britain.
Even the women portrayed were different. Both Britain and the United States usually showed women wearing gaily coloured headscarves and bright lipstick smiles, giving the women of their posters a ‘movie starlet’ quality. The Russian posters on the other hand showed serious, make-up free women kneeling besides piles of bricks ready to build walls with the slogan “Fascists will be stopped!”, or solid, stoic, dungaree wearing women resting a hand on a mortar shell: “All for Victory! Soviet Women Work for the Army” – very much in the style of Irakli Toidze, creator of another legendary Russian poster, “Motherland Is Calling!”
Humour, albeit black, was occasionally allowed to creep into a soviet poster. Whilst The US depicted a caricature of Hitler with his “Panzer’s” down and showing his shorts, and the British depicted a huge eared ‘Mr. Hitler’, Russian humorists showed a cartoon Hitler and his Chief of Staff being crushed under a Russian tank whilst Himmler was portrayed as a scurrying rat on all fours. “Glory to the soldier-liberator!” the poster declares.
Russian posters have left a lasting legacy on the world of advertising and art with the Art Institute of Chicago exhibiting a collection of 250 massive Soviet propaganda posters dating from 1941-1945. Incredibly, the meticulously stencilled works were hidden away deep in a storage area for the Department of Prints and Drawings in Chicago for over half a century before being rediscovered.
Russia’s Second World War posters had a style and impact that still has the power to influence the beliefs and actions of people today, and they are still very much admired and sought after. Facsimiles of Agitprop posters sell in their tens of thousands and poster designers continue to use the simplicity of the Russian poster tradition to put over their messages in very clear and certain terms.
We have a good selection of Soviet style posters & t-shirts in the Soviet Art section of our online store.