Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part One

The Russian Avant-Garde and Agit-Prop Posters

Out of “Art” and into the Revolution

In 1917, the Russian Empire, assaulted from within and without, finally crumbled under its own anachronistic weight, bending under the burden of the unheard demands of a people under the fashionable heel of an aristocratic boot. The Russian Revolution was a long process, unfolding during a years-long Civil War between the Reds and the Whites, ending with the Bolsheviks in charge and the Czar and his family gunned down in a basement and buried in a secret grave in Siberia. What the Communist regime, headed by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), inherited was a vast sprawling nation, nearly completely landlocked, weakened by a negligent monarchy, torn apart by the Great War and a revolutionary struggle. Having laid waste to centuries of autocratic rule, the people, led by a band of exiled intellectuals, who had come home to lead them, inherited their Slavic patch of the earth and gazed across the razed plain that had to be reconstructed from destruction. By 1918, artists and peasants alike had the opportunity—rare in history—to build a brave new world, one in which there would be economic and social equality. But there was a catch: the population of Russia was uneducated and illiterate. The proletarian masses and the huddled peasants knew they were downtrodden but, even after the new government came into power, outside of Moscow and Leningrad, there were millions, who had no idea that the Czar had been assassinated. Starting with that basic fact—the sheer ignorance of a blighted citizenry—and proceed with the hope and the resolve to help the people of Russia to rise from their knees and actualize themselves under the banner of communism then the question turned back upon Lenin’s seminal manifesto of Bolshevik philosophy: “What is to be Done?” The answer to the post-war challenge was contained within the 1902 document—the newly released Russians, the Soviets, would be re-educated. The Bolsheviks considered propaganda to be political education work, which involved agit-prop that would teach the people socialism. In his section on “Can A Newspaper Be A Collective Organiser?” in his long essay, Lenin wrote that

..the masses will never learn to conduct the political struggle until we help to train leaders for this struggle, both from among the enlightened workers and from among the intellectuals. Such leaders can acquire training solely by systematically evaluating all the everyday aspects of our political life, all attempts at protest and struggle on the part of the various classes and on various grounds. Therefore, to talk of “rearing political organisations” and at the same time to contrast the “paper work” of a political newspaper to “live political work in the localities” is plainly ridiculous.

Propaganda or the education of an entire population was both visual and verbal, and visual culture was the realm of the artists, who marshaled their considerable talents and skills and gave themselves over the government. Art was dead. The artist was dead. In the place of such bourgeoisie concepts, the engineer emerged full of projects and pictures and objects, all aimed towards propaganda. By the end of the Great War, an otherwise neutral word, “propaganda,” meaning persuasion or a spreading of a certain message, had morphed from a doctrinaire teaching of a received truth, such as that from a religious organization, or, on a lower level, the semiotics of selling a product, to a campaign to teach the audience to hate. During the War, vast and sophisticated machineries, based in the governments of the contending powers, cranked out posters, articles in newspapers, books, primitive films, even postcards, shaped stories and crafted messages with one goal in mind: to stir up the feelings and emotions of the people to hate the other side. In England, a nation without a universal draft, the messages were ones of shaming fit young men into serving in the military. In France, the content was simple, the Germans were barbarians. In Germany, the story was that the British Empire surrounded the world like a giant octopus. However, when the exiled leaders of the Russian Revolution returned to their homeland, joining those who had stayed behind to fight directly against the Czar, a sophisticated machinery had been honed through years. Aided by intellectuals and abetted by artists, all of whom came from the small middle class, the fight for the hearts and minds of the lower classes began.

The earliest posters were plastered onto the windows of the Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, located in cities from Moscow to Petrograd to Odessa and points beyond. ROSTA had its own Moscow-based art department until 1921 and its posters were the joint products of an artist, Mikhail Cheremnykh, and a journalist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who directed a project that eventually employed local teams beyond Moscow. Given that this endeavor existed for only two years and yet over two million posters were distributed. Although the founders of the program were sophisticated, the audience was working class and largely illiterate. To reach this audience, which needed to be informed of the latest news, the ROSTA artists appropriated the look of a lubok or traditional Russian folk art print was deployed. Avant-garde artists, such as Ivan Maliutin, were recruited to communicate with a public that had a horizon of expectations limited by a low level of literacy and a visual acuity trained by Russian icons. The Russian people could read images fluently and the simple narrative style of the ROSTA posters—rather like cartoon drawings—could be easily followed. The Bolsheviks needed to convince the people of the righteousness of their philosophy, one of empowering the working class, de-legitimating the ruling class, and establishing a centrally controlled economy valorizing the laborers. ROSTA text was kept to a minimum and the weight of the message rested upon simple but graphically effective images.

Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sowing Campaign: Let’s fulfill the decree!
“Everyone fulfilled the Soviet plan” (February 1921)

In an interesting article, written on the occasion of a 2014 exhibition at the Gallery Thomas Flor in Berlin, Alexander Roob, explained,

In February 1919, the painter and caricaturist Mikhail Cheremnykh in collaboration the journalist Nikolai Ivanov started an artistic campaign in the shop window of an empty confectionery with a visually designed news agency report. The campaign was to last three years, from the devastating period of the civil war to the introduction of a rudimentary market economy. The initiative was taken up a few weeks later by the popular revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had recently caused a stir with the publication of an anthology of his futuristic poems and the performance of an elaborate satire spectacle, the “Mystery Bouffe”. When passing by one of Cheremnykh’s ROSTA windows, it seemed he immediately grasped the potential of the initiative. If one can believe his own accounts and those of his hagiographer, Mayakovsky soon functioned alongside Cheremnykh as the spiritus rector of a constantly growing illustrated news collective.

These posters told stories, sent messages, taught lessons with images that would have been at home in a child’s picture book. The colors were bright and arbitrary, applied by assistants who would work from a basic linoleum block, allowing the strong colors to run outside the lines. The result was an image that was friendly and persuasive, sophisticated and amateurish at the same time, with the folkish charm selling strong political messages. In 1921, ROSTA was abruptly shut down by the new government, and its windows were closed so to speak, and the large brilliant posters disappeared. But the way in which the agency was run would be typical of propaganda efforts: workers would be radicalized or co-opted to the cause and there could be no deviation from the party line. The concise and consistent message would dominate and it was the task of the artist to become an engineer in the service of the permanent revolution.

Agit Prop Train

Following the civil war and the consolidation of power, the Communists then set out to transform and unify the vast Russian territories to knit them under the Soviet rule and way of life. The railroads, the one accomplishment of the Czarist regime became avenues of education as the new government reached out to the masses. Long agitprop trains, painted on the exterior with colorful designs that captured the eye and informed the mind traveled everywhere, pausing at towns and small cities. The populations would gather around to receive information, written, verbal and visual, on topics from best practices in health and the values of Communism. The workers, the peasants and the downtrodden learned that they were now heroes, enlisted in the great revolution of the Russian people, now powerful and in charge of their own lives. The visuals of these agitprop trains were closer to ROSTA posters than to the avant-garde posters of the cities, where the audience was more sophisticated. In the 1920s, there was still no set aesthetic for the Revolution and the avant-garde artists moved into the vacuum and gave their lives to Communism. But the story of the Russian avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia is nothing short of tragic. The artists, mostly from Moscow and Petrograd, had been politically left-leaning before the Revolution and most enthusiastically joined the new government with high hopes and good intentions. They willingly gave up the pretensions of “avant-garde” and happily become workers, engineers, and cultural producers, reinventing themselves in the cause of the workers and in the name of the Bolshevik creeds. For a few short years, these artists flourished and were appreciated, supported by the young government, but a revolution never stops, it is only paused from time to time. By the time it reached its natural end—the evolution of a strong totalitarian leader—Stalin—avant-garde art and artists were purged and silenced. Russian avant-garde graphic design and its fate were a case study of the trajectory from aspiration to suppression.

Mikhail Dlugach, Electric Chair (1928)

Containing the stylistic seeds of their own destruction, the avant-garde posters designed by the Russian avant-garde artists were everything the ROSTA posters were not. Rooted in Suprematism and Cubism and Futurism, rather than in folk art, borrowing the tactics of photomontage rather than simple block printing, these posters were complex, not simple, and often constructed on the strong diagonal, giving the images a feeling of dynamism and a sense of change and progress, they were more artistic than communicative, with an alienating aesthetic that put off the masses at which they were aimed. The artists did not help their cause by debating among themselves about which avant-garde style would be appropriate for the masses. Given that Futurism, for example, was Italian rather than home grown, the use of pre-war styles seems out of step with the main goal of the artists, which was to create a new visual universe, full of new objects, in which a new language would appear and communicate the meaning of the brave new world. The new language would be that of the proletariat. But despite the obvious complications, the artists proceeded along their own path to what historians John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich described as “the leftist artists and writers snarled relationship to power and language as the media of political control.” Indeed, as the writers continued, “the avant-garde artist can be seen as the politician’s rival who usually loses the battle to the more powerful opponent.” It is possible to make the argument that the Russian avant-garde ended for all intents and purposes with the end of the Great War, and, after that, the artists carried their memories and their styles from non-revolutionary bourgeois contexts forward with them into a revolution for which this language was profoundly unsuited. Yet out of this ultimately unsuccessful relationship came some of the most striking designs of the twentieth century.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Two

What to do During a Revolution

The Death of Art

It is one of the oddities of modernism that the nations most attached to the past gave birth to movements that yearned most strongly for the future—but that longing for a new way of life cannot be a coincidence. Mired in the past, Italy and the Russian Empire were, by any standards, “backward,” a word universally used, when comparing them to the rest of Europe, to describe these two anachronistic and decrepit nations, clinging to the past and unsure of the way forward. And yet on the eve of the Great War, Italy and Russia had two admittedly small groups of avant-garde artists, writers and poets, the radical intelligentsia, straining to find modernity in places mired in the past. In the case of Russia, the sprawling ungovernable Empire, stretching like a growth, reaching out from west to east, the imperial government was ambivalent when it came to its relationship with the rest of Europe. Russia had a Western face, the side that struggled to modernize and adapt technology to its needs, but Russia also had an Eastern face, a deep consciousness of Russian exceptionalism or uniqueness. And it would be that backwards looking traditionalist face that would—ironically—fuel Russian Futurism—a contradiction in terms.

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Marinetti in Moscow in 1914

When Futurism came to Russia, first as a word, a neologism implying all that which was modern and then later in the person of Marinetti, it was in the waning years of the anachronistic reign of an incompetent Czar. Marinetti was badly received by his Russian audiences in 1914, whose “Futurism” derived more from literature than from contact with actual Italian art. Little did he or any of the other Russian Avant-Garde artists, realize that that winter was the last before the Great War. Although the Futurists could not realize that the Empire could not survive such a massive social and cultural disruption, they were keenly aware of the anachronistic and insanely melodramatic nature of an illegitimate regime. The Czar, Nicholas II, was ruled by his vindictive and unstable wife, Alexandra and, through her allegiance to a mad monk, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, called “Rasputin,” the royal couple had allowed this unstable character to control the affairs of state. For whatever reason, Rasputin had managed convinced the parents that he alone could keep their precious child alive and cast a spell over the poor doomed child Alexia, heir to a throne he would never mount. The situation of the royal family sounded like a plot from a horror film but was, in fact, indicative of how insular Russia had become, going far off course, drifting away from modernity and moderation. The pointless and parasitic aristocrats, like the Royal Family served little purpose, but the nobles plotted against Rasputin and eventually managed to murder him in 1916.

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Russian Royal Family

Rasputin and the drama in the Royal Family were symptomatic of deep internal instabilities within the Empire that could not be sustained. In order to hold on to its power, the regressive Russian Orthodox Church had deliberately held back the hands of time—literally, for, unlike the other nations of the so-called family of Queen Victoria, Russia refused to adopt the Julian calendar and rejected Greenwich Mean Time. In terms of time, Russia was in one place, the rest of the world was in a totally different time, all in the name of tradition and all things “Russian.” So hostile was the Empire to all things foreign that the railroads in Russia were of a gage different from those in Europe. Nevertheless, the counterweight to this deliberate refusal to dilute the uniqueness of the Empire was the life line to modern life was a paradox: the railway that stretched from Moscow to Paris. In the annals of art history, the fabled Moscow to Paris train carried Sergei Schchukin to the studios of Paris where the wealthy art collector scooped up the latest canvases from the ateliers of Matisse and Picasso, browse the galleries and carefully stowe his purchases on the train which carried the art back to Moscow.

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Matisse paintings in Sergei Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace (1920)

Compared to Cubism, Futurism was, before the Great War, a brief movement, only two years and, during this short time could be seen only in Italy, France, Germany, and England, and, in 1915 and 1917 in America. No Futurist exhibition was ever mounted in Russia. Although it was possible to receive Cubism if one were an artist invited to Schchukin’s mansion, a more reliable conduit for West European avant-garde styles would be black and white reproductions seen in magazines and postcards. Dr. Konstantin Akinsha gave an interesting lecture at the Neue Galerie in New York in 1915 in which he described David Burliuk coming in to possession of a post card of a Cubist portrait by Picasso and how the artist immediately did a portrait of his own, telling himself to make it as “good as Picasso.” In addition to scattered reproductions, there were two catalogues of Futurist exhibitions circulating in Russia. With the exception of Russian expatriates in Paris, Russian artists in Moscow received Cubism and Futurism in black and white, a mode of replication which would stress line and structure and obliterating the subtleties of color or facture. As a result, the early responses to both styles on the part of Kazimir Malevich and Nataliya Goncharova were labored and naïve and literal, and it is only when the Russian artists appropriate the reproductions and transform Western styles into something uniquely Eastern and deeply Russian do the Russian avant-garde artists come into their own.

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Nataliya Goncharova. The Forest (1913)

But if we follow the usual Modernist narrative, the Paris to Moscow tale, which has privileged French art, assuming that paintings from the familiar “isms” perpetrated in Paris brought “culture” to the Russians, we will see the “avant-garde,” and totally miss the “Russian” aspect of the art world. In fact, Futurism was already alive and well in Moscow before Cubism arrived, but this is a Futurism that was created at a great remove from Italy. It is important that it was in Moscow where so-called “Cubo-Futurism” and then “Suprematism” were invented, because this was a city deep inside Russia. In fact, when Lenin moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, it was not only because the port city was in danger during the civil war but also because having Moscow as the new capital sent a signal that Russia was no longer looking outward, towards the West and would turn inward, seeking its essence. The Russian artists, even before the Revolution, were dedicated to transforming the ideas coming in from Europe into Russian concepts or ideas that reflected the very nature of the Russian soul and mindset. Going back to the earlier statement that both Italy and Russia were technologically backward nations, carried into the twentieth century by a few pockets of modernism, the Futurists were interested in speed and dynamism in very literal ways, seeking to replicate the motion of fast objects, such as cars and trains, on the static canvas. The Russians, in contrast, translated the idea of “dynamism” into abstract forms, indicating a shift from the material to the spiritual.

Certainly, the Russians were aware that the pace of modern life was quickening and as in Italy this incursion of modernity would have been a sharp contrast to the motionless and becalmed regime of the Czar. The poet the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remarked in 1914, on the edge of the Great War that, “In Russia the nervous life of cities demands quick, economical abrupt words.” It is important to stress that, in Russia, Futurism predated Italian Futurism and was always a linguistic exercise in finding a new form of expression. Kazimar Malevich (1878-1935) learned basic lessons of the appearance of the European avant-garde works in his series of paintings in the so-called “Cubo-Futurist” style but his understanding was surface only. These paintings, oddly enough, often focused on subjects that are anything but modern, the traditional Russian peasant. In foregrounding the peasant, Malevich was stressing his Russian heritage but there are political overtones as well in his presentation of a group long exploited by the government. The painting show that he was far removed from the theoretical underpinnings of either Cubism or Futurism and this separation allowed him to seize upon a visual vocabulary, rather than an intellectual concept, and translate Cubist semiotics and linguistics from an exploration of space and time to a leap into the spiritual realm. Suprematism, based upon the Latin word “supremus” which means “extreme” or “highest” and of course “supreme.” Malevich’s version of Cubism, especially his take on collage, did not rest upon fragmentation but upon the idea of combination.

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Kazimir Malevich. Bureau and Room (1913)

For Malevich, Cubism was unsatisfactory, not just because its basis was strictly material, but also because any understanding of the style depended upon an exercise of logic in which the viewer accepted the premise that the object was being depicted from multiple points of view. But for the Russian artist, logic was limited and he sought something beyond logic, outside the materiality of the object itself. Malevich proposed a stance called the A-logic or the non-logical, stating, “The ‘Alogical’ movement has been created to free it from preconceptions.” In other words, the exercise of logic creates certain preconceptions which then limit thought and consequently burden art as well. The notion of the alogical was borrowed from the modern movement in poetry and referred to the “zaum” or the idea that words must be freed from their task of having to make meaning. The word, divested of its traditional role, could transcend spiritually. Malevich himself explained that his leap into the void of painting, manifested by the Black Square of 1913, was out of a desire to throw off the “ballast of objectivity.” Once Malevich had made the leap, he had launched his own personal premature Revolution, if you will, preceding the actual political changes just a few years in the future. As he said of Suprematism:

The Suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm. Suprematism did not bring into being a new world of feeling but, rather, an altogether new and direct form of representation of the world of feeling..The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space..Only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art.

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Kazimir Malevich. Self Portrait in two Dimensions (1915)

Thus the “zaum” and Surpremtist art were closely related to the idea of translational poetry, being developed in literary circles. The poet, Aleksey Kruchenykh, who was the first poet to use the non-word, “zaum,” explained in 1915, “Writing and reading must be instantaneous,”or in other words, visual, graspable at a glance. The notion of the fourth dimension, time, was a popular one, much buited in intellectual circles, and, like many artists early in the twentieth century, Malevich was interested in the possibility of totally freeing artistic forms from “objectivity” or reality. In creating what he called Sprematist “Zero Forms,” Malevich slipped the bonds of logic and was able to mobilize forms without any worldly reference points on to his canvases. The artist had complex and deeply felt concepts which explained and justified his extreme art, blank forms, so shocking at the time, and he invested an enormous amount of time in polishing his rarified positions. Out of the large group of Avant-Garde artists, Malevich had created his own uniquely Russian spiritually based approach to art. Without the competition of Mikhail Larionov and Nataliya Goncharova, after the Great War began, Malevich was the leader of the avant-garde in Moscow; a leader with followers and a new Russian style. But fate intervened, and a Revolution, political and social, suddenly exploded, demanding new art, an art that was practical and useful for the new state regime. After 1917, the fate of Malevich and his art was on the line.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]