It’s amazing how every challenge to capitalism ultimately becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Even the most nefarious of threats—the dreaded Red Menace of Communism—has become a quaintly nostalgic meme to be either ridiculed, fashionably fancied, or dragged out of its tomb to scare those old enough to remember the Cold War. It seems the one thing we aren’t able to do with Communism is take it seriously.
But even stripped of its radical ideology (in fact, especially when stripped of its ideology) the raw visual power of Communist propaganda art is impossible to deny. The Soviets were such masters of the printed image, it seems now that the only thing holding the USSR together was its propaganda, usually in the form of the mass-produced poster, plastered on the bullet-pocked walls of its decaying cities.
The offset press was the perfect mechanism to transmit the ideals of the revolution to a mostly illiterate peasantry, hungry for hope and progress as much as for food. The artists of Soviet Russia created images that mobilized millions to the Communist cause, but what’s more, they created art that has outlasted the cause it sought to promote, art that has undeniably seeped into the cultural consciousness of western popular culture.
At first glance, one could easily dismiss David King’s Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin as a work of commie propaganda porn, a celebration and sensualization of images that were created specifically to mask the repression of a failing ideology. Yet even with its artsy, fetishistic trappings, Red Star constantly reminds its readers to see the posters as propaganda as well as art, so that the longview comes into focus.
Laden with graphic and depressing photos of real life in the USSR, the book reveals the gorgeous poster images to be a sham, a Bizarro world that Soviet citizens must have felt both longing and disgust for—a lie, but a what a wonderful one! Smiling, upturned faces of healthy Soviet farmers, a bounty of grain at their feet; fierce, determined soldiers marching to victory through a forest of glittering bayonets; hammer-wielding workers admiring the smoke of their productive factories—all juxtaposed with black and white photographs of suicides, gulag survivors and hungry-looking soldiers in thin winter coats.
This clever and exhaustive approach to the subject adds up to a fantastically multi-dimensional history of the Bolshevik Revolution, spiced with King’s often playful, sometimes somber assessments of Soviet life. King, a Londoner who owns perhaps the largest collection of Soviet art in the world, uses lengthy (but never boring) photo captions to discuss the artists who created the Soviet aesthetic, as well as the times that shaped their work. His socialist tendencies and unabashed fascination of all things Soviet rarely overshadow his scholarship, even though his dominant narrative relies much on playing the heroic Trotsky against the brutal and villainous Stalin.
While one can argue the merits of Marxist theory, history clearly upholds this narrative, and its truth can even be seen in the creative decline from the explosive and explorative art of the early Bolshevik posters to the more static, cartoonish art of Stalin’s “Socialist-Realist” period.
The early posters are varied and imaginative, both rooted in Russian folk culture and embracing of European modernism. Orthodox Christian iconography is sometimes glossed with a cubist overlay, making for powerful, street-level expressions of a people’s longing for a free, modern society. But at a certain point, Soviet art calcified into the familiar industrial scenes we associate with it today. It makes one wonder how much Stalin’s meddling in the arts damaged the Soviet propaganda effort. Certainly, killing and gulaging his country’s best artists (along with his more competent political rivals) couldn’t have helped the USSR solve the many problems engendered by its flawed underpinnings.
The effect of Communist propaganda on its own citizenry is evident throughout Red Star. But what is perhaps more interesting, though much harder to trace, is its effect on the rest of the world. After all, the Communist movement was always intended to be global, and its images reflect that aspiration. But what has trickled down to the western world is less about ideology and more about iconography. Soviet and pseudo-Soviet art has been appropriated for mass-marketed pop-art t-shirts, for the flyers and record covers of thousands of musicians, and for the handbills of many hundreds of political groups seeking to capture the insurgent energy of the Reds’ finest hour.
The most relevant example of this today can be seen in Shepard Fairey’s famous Obama “Hope” poster, which may have helped elect the current American president, but did nothing to dispel the now-fashionable charge that Obama is a socialist who has brainwashed Americans into following him through a Stalinesque “personality cult.” Fairey is known for being a student of Soviet (as well as other nations’) propaganda, so he could not have overlooked the subtle yet unmistakable resemblance of his famed portrait to the portraits of Lenin and Marx that were so instrumental in creating the heroes of the Soviet revolution.
An overreaching example? Possibly. But after poring gleefully over Red Star Over Russia, it’s hard to deny the power of the poster. What is also hard to deny is the fact that, if there are any true Communists left, they won’t be rushing out of their hovels to stand in line for King’s book. If you can afford this hardcover, you probably aren’t a real fellow traveler. But for $50, you can proudly display this book on your coffee table and create your own workers’ paradise—without the blood, without the snow, and without fear of offending the secret police.
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