Soviet Political Art

By Cheryl Rychkova

When the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia in 1917, one of their first and most important goals was to inform and convince the Russian population that not only was a new and government in place, but that the new regime, its leaders, and ideology would create a new and better nation.

Indeed, the ultimate goal – and the thesis of Victoria Bonnell’s Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin -- was to create a new type of individual, the Homo sovieticus (Bonnell, xix). This new “Soviet man” would be devoted to building a Marxist state in thought, deed, and lifestyle. The widespread use of various images was a key method used by the Soviet government to convince citizens to embrace socialist ideals.

Image Hosted by In Iconography of Power, the reader is guided through the formative years of the Soviet Union and how political art helped to indoctrinate a largely illiterate population.

Early on, Bonnell states why the use of images went beyond the practical aspect of reaching an audience lacking reading ability. Images had been a major part of every Russian’s life for hundreds of years through the Russian Orthodox use and veneration of icons. Images, provided they contained certain types of iconography, were not only familiar to the population; they were also powerful and at the same time comforting. A large portion of the book is devoted to comparing the iconography in religious art to the political variety.

The author, writing in a flowing and highly readable style, explains the foundational ideas of Soviet political art, then continues to lead the reader through the various stages of artistic development, pointing out cultural, economic, and political signposts along the way. Ample use of images in the book, conveniently placed at the end of each chapter, allows a reader with a background in Russian studies to attain a deeper understanding of the Soviet Union, while at the same time enlighten readers new to the subject without becoming overwhelming or intimidating.

The first three chapters of Iconography of Power are predominantly chronological. This linear style allows the reader to develop a gradual understanding of the how’s and why’s of Soviet political art and why it was so significant to a country undergoing massive change and upheaval.

Image Hosted by The author traces the lineage of specific iconography such as the image of the blacksmith/worker (23), the use of allegory (68-69), and “before and after” frames within a poster (107). Bonnell repeatedly stresses the importance of familiarity in Soviet political art. To the largely religious and superstitious population, tradition and familiarity were the most effective artistic devices.

Much of Iconography of Power deals with aspects of art history, but Bonnell rarely uses terminology associated with that discipline. Overall, and especially for readers with no background in art history, this contributes to the readability of the book. She specifically states in her introduction that her study uses critical terms in a linguistic (as opposed to image-based) lexicon and syntax (14).

A careful reading of the text, however, may cause some readers to suspect the author uses such an approach not because linguistic terminology is more understandable to her audience; rather, she is glossing over her own inadequacies in art historical terms.

More importantly, it is a lack of explanation of the meaning behind a number of iconographic details that may be disconcerting to readers. According to her book’s end cover, Bonnell is a sociologist and a specialist in the field of Slavic Studies. Her extensive background in the two fields is evident throughout Iconography of Power, but the missing art historical details leave hollow spaces in an otherwise strong narrative.

One of the most striking examples of this has to do with hand and arm gestures. Bonnell claims that when Soviet artists began to portray Soviet leader Lenin as pointing or gesturing with his right arm (beginning about 1929), they were borrowing the idea from religious icons (144-145). The Lenin images in question feature the soviet leader boldly gesturing toward the future. Bonnell states that his arm is in a posture of benediction in these posters (146), however, a viewer might instead “read” a posture of determination, or even accusation.

The hand position most often featured in Russian religious icons is far more subtle and is a symbol of reassurance, not a call to challenge nor a prediction of the future (Mathews, 117-118). This gesture may well have roots in Buddhist art (Gardner, 164), along with the concept of the mandorla (which Bonnell repeatedly refers to as “the oval shape” positioned behind Lenin and other communist leaders in political art). While she points out the oval shape, and that it is also found in Russian Orthodox art, she fails to explain what it actually represents.

The mandorla is found in both eastern and western religious art. It is used to indicate and highlight a figure representing a deity or a very holy individual (Mathews, 117-118). When Soviet political artists used the mandorla they were not simply appropriating an artistic form that was familiar, they were emphasizing the divinity aspect. Most Russians associated the mandorla with images of Jesus Christ, whom they viewed as a divine figure. In art historical terms and to many Russian viewers, an oval placed behind or over a soviet leader automatically places the individual in the realm of divinity, therefore worthy of worship.

Another detail Bonnell says was borrowed from religious icons and which she does not elaborate upon deals with what she terms “distorted perspective.” She uses this term repeatedly and almost as a catch-all phrase for any political art that deviates at all from the most naturalistic forms. The distortion reference concerns the size and placement of human figures in Soviet political art.

The prototype blacksmith (symbol of the proletariat during the early Soviet period), towers over other figures, particularly enemies such as capitalists and imperialists (23). The latter figures are usually very small and often buffoonish in posture and appearance. By the late 1920s, Lenin and Stalin are the largest figures represented in political art, and are often flanked by smaller figures of workers and peasants. The art historical term for this technique is hierarchal arrangement (Bunt, 109).

Image Hosted by The author’s use of the word “distortion,” while not inaccurate, implies confusion. This was hardly the case in either Orthodox or Soviet art. Both were specifically designed to reassure and convince, not confuse. Such arrangements serve the purpose of vividly demonstrating who or what is most important and powerful in any given image.

Throughout history, artists have routinely and with careful thought painted for a particular audience. The audience had the cultural background necessary to translate the iconography imbedded within the work of art. The hierarchal arrangement was a concept extremely familiar to the Russian audience, since they were accustomed to viewing and interpreting religious art where the most important figure – almost always Christ or the Virgin Mary – was the central and larger figure.

The central figure was frequently flanked by smaller figures of saints and apostles (Bunt, 111). To take an important step further, the viewer of religious icons actually participated in the art. The devout viewer knew that in order for their prayers and requests to be heard by the larger (divine) central figure, he or she would need to first address – either through prayer or contemplation – the smaller, more approachable figures of the icon, who would serve as intercessory to the Holy Mother or to Christ himself.

Thus, there is a good possibility that the average Soviet citizen associated the larger-than-life figures of Lenin and Stalin with aspects of divinity, and may have viewed them (despite Socialist ideals) as unapproachable, and above reproach (reminiscent of the old Russian saying, “God is in heaven and the Tsar is far away”).

The reader of Iconography of Power is not always left wondering about the meaning behind iconography. Some aspects of the icon comparison are more thoroughly explained, such as the Trotsky as Saint George political poster (152-53). Bonnell clues the reader in on the significance of St. George as a national symbol, along with other allegorical themes from the Tsarist era.

Like the icons, these types of images were traditional in Russian culture. The author’s comparisons of the narrative “before and after” (lubok) sections of political posters with a similar technique found in Orthodox Christian art are discussed at a deeper level than other aspects of iconography (112). She effectively weaves into her narrative the moments when political artists deviate from tradition, such as capturing Lenin in mid-stride. The focus in those posters is on movement and activity, which is the antithesis of the frontal, rigid, and unchanging poses of figures in religious icons.

Bonnell stresses the emphasis of icons in Russian culture, even to the point of explaining how most Russians, no matter their social or economic position, had a special area of their home devoted to the display and veneration of icons. She refers to this area as the krasni corner, which translates as “red corner” (147).

She goes on to explain how this evolved into the Communist Party “Lenin” or “Red” corner, in which images and symbols of the party were displayed and honored (148). This particular passage may be confusing to some readers, since the icon corner in Russian culture is actually referred to as the krasivi, or “beautiful” corner (Clements, 55).

Image Hosted by Furthermore, the comparison of the two types of corners might incorrectly imply to the reader that Russians abandoned their icons in favor of the Communist “red corner,” even in their homes. The tradition of the beautiful corner is deeply imbedded in Russian culture (Massie, 59), and overall, such abandonment was the exception, not the rule.

The icon issue aside, Iconography of Power offers the reader a unique, highly visual way to learn more about the formation and development of the Soviet Union, using political art as the primary vehicle. Bonnell’s description of the evolution in the portrayal of Lenin (from strident revolutionary to solemn statesman) is enlightening and full of details.

The discussion of Stalin in political art is far more complex, but the author continues in a steady, clear, and descriptive vein. She traces the origins of Stalin’s Personality Cult back to the 1920s, when the new Soviet leader had himself placed next to Lenin in political art. This “immortality by association” evolved into Stalin becoming the dominant image until the visage of Lenin was portrayed in the background and then disappeared altogether.

Bonnell devotes space in each of the six chapters to exploring the treatment of women in Soviet political art. Once again she uses the effective and easily understood chronological approach to demonstrate how images of Soviet women progressed from allegorical figures (69) to the stalwart and devoted assistant to the male worker (77), then finally into the 1930s, when women came into their own, at least in Soviet political art (103).

The example of women featured as tractor drivers (106) became almost a cliché, yet in reality very few women ever commandeered such equipment (112). The author goes on to elaborate that in fact many of the collective farm-themed posters were never intended to be viewed by rural workers (who would likely have ridiculed such representations). Instead, such posters were designed to encourage city dwellers to support and perhaps participate in the process of collectivization.

According to Bonnell, this approach was typical of a current that ran through much of Soviet political art. The point – beyond education and indoctrination – was to provide images of the way life should be and would become in the great and golden Soviet future (110).

This sort of wishful-thinking reached ridiculous levels post-World War II, when the Stalin government released posters of joyful, dancing citizens. One poster proclaimed, “The entire Soviet nation is singing and dancing” (249). This poster was distributed in 1946, when Russia was still reeling from the huge losses and destruction wrought by World War II.

Bonnell points out several times that there are very few recorded reactions of Soviet citizens from those days, but one can imagine that feelings of disgust, confusion, and anger must have been felt, if not outwardly expressed.

Bonnell hastens to point out that this type of artwork came out of the era of “High Stalinism,” and was a culmination of the Soviet artistic propaganda agenda (258-260). As long as smiling children, dancing youths, and happy workers – watched over by the benevolent and larger-than-life father figure of Stalin – beckoned from posters on every corner, it did not matter if the dreams and aspirations of the Bolsheviks had not truly come to pass. No one was supposed to notice, and if one did, the only acceptable response was silence.

The author leaves the reader in this delirious Neverland, surrounded by a sea of denial where the “Arctic breezes of the Cold War” (264) are beginning to blow.

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