By Jennifer Fargo
Note: this is the first of several articles posted to The New Contemporary that feature writing from this Fall’s Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia in War and Revolution.” Each student in the class had to select an object from the Andre de St.-Rat Collection in Miami’s Special Collections and write about it. These writings, as you will see, spotlight the incredible collections in our library. They also highlight how the Russian Revolutions in 1917 involved a battle over meaning: through these primary sources, one can read the words, see the images, and therefore gain more insight into the experiences of revolution. Other papers have been posted to the History Department’s new online journal, Journeys Into the Past: http://sites.miamioh.edu/hst-journeys/category/essays/. Special thanks to Masha Stepanova, Miami’s extraordinary Slavic Bibliographer.
In the years after the Russian Revolution, most Russians had little to no schooling. This produced a natural barrier between the relatively well-educated vanguard of the revolution and the proletariat class whose interests they were ostensibly striving to fulfill. It became necessary for the Bolshevik Party to educate the masses on crucial Communist concepts, in order to both engender loyalty among the people and assure that people understood how to express that loyalty. This concern over the lack of understanding among the common people is one of the key issues that separates Leninist Communism and its descendants from earlier conceptions of socialism. In a 1918 speech, Lenin himself said, “The working people are thirsting for knowledge because they need it to win. Nine out of ten of the working people have realized that knowledge is a weapon in their struggle for emancipation, that their failures are due to lack of education.”
While the Soviet Union would establish wide-sweeping educational reforms, they also pursued smaller-scale projects. One popular program was the mass production and dissemination of posters. Poster production has its roots in revolutionary conflict, but would not become official Soviet policy until the First Five-Year Plan in 1929, the year before the printing of this poster. Posters were easy to mass produce and could be placed anywhere where there was a wall with little effort. A single poster could be hung in a public space and seen by thousands of people. Since they could be viewed in passing it consumed very little of an individual person’s time, unless that person chose to look at the image for a longer period. While poorly educated individuals might struggle to read a book of philosophy or a pamphlet detailing some issue, anyone could understand the simple iconography that was employed in most posters. They even injected a little bit of art into the lives of the people.
However, political art did not come under a central authority until 1931, the year after the printing of this poster. When the Central Committee gave Izogiz sole publishing rights for all posters used in the Soviet Union, under the direct supervision of the Central Committee, the posters produced in the Soviet Union began to follow a single artistic direction. This poster differs from the general style established a year later by Izogiz, with a style that would be more familiar to the Western World than to citizens of the Soviet Union, with its robust colors and realistic depth.
This poster shows five religious stereotypes fighting over gold coins pouring from a flying sack. Those familiar with Communist history will know that the Soviet Union held deeply anti-religious sentiments, and it is no surprise that this poster presents the five religious figures in a wholly unflattering light, literally grubbing money from the ground or holding up their hands in a depiction that is at once religious devotion and an attempt to catch the falling coins. After all, in a 1909 speech, Lenin explains, “Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organization, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.”
What this poster can demonstrate is what the poster’s design team, for certainly posters produced during this period would have gone through the hands of an entire team of individuals, and the Communist Party that they represented, thought religion was the opiate of the masses (to employ Marx’s phrase). Of the five figures, we have an Islamic imam, a Catholic bishop, a Protestant minister, a Russian Orthodox priest, and an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. While representing a diverse cast of religious figures, what the poster does not represent is any representative in any non-Abrahamic faith. In addition, it’s worth noting that there is nothing about the framing of the picture that makes five individuals work any significantly better than, say, four or six figures. These design choices imply either that the designers of the poster think solely of Abrahamic faiths when thinking about religion, or they believe that most of the people who would see the poster only think of Abrahamic faiths when thinking about religion.
It should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with art that the Jewish figure (lower right) has many of the stereotypical physical traits of the Jew. The artist has drawn the face around the pronounced nose and included a pair of thick glasses and curly hair that are not to be found on the faces of any of the other figures in the picture. The figure is even lowest to the ground and jealously guards the coins that he has already managed to grab. It is not very surprising that the Jewish figure is drawn with these stereotypical traits, as Jews were often the victims of wide-spread, organized violence even before the rise of the Soviet Union. In addition to these physical characteristics, the Jewish figure is dressed in the outfit of the Orthodox Jewish faith, which also makes sense. At this time, the Reform Judaism movement was still fresh and had been started halfway across the world. Even if there were groups of Reform Jews present in the Soviet Union, they would have been a miniscule minority compared to the Orthodox Jews. This figure is by far the most stereotypical of the five, although all five figures find their own way to be offensive.
Aside from the rabbi, the figure most distinct is the Islamic imam (upper left). Much like the Jewish figure, the Imam wears the uniform that would be expected of him in this period. During World War I, the Russians fought against the Ottoman Empire along the border regions between the two nations, so it is little surprise then that this poster’s depiction of an imam follows closely the dress that would have been worn by such a figure within the Ottoman Empire at the time of World War I. The artist would have also had closer references to work from, as at the time that the Soviets rose to power, there existed large Islamic populations within the southern reaches of the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union was fundamentally opposed to a priesthood of any kind, imams included, it would have been only a decade earlier that many of the people living in these regions would have had regular contact with Imams. While there was certainly anti-Islamic sentiment during the early Soviet period, the main source of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union came from existing conflicts between Russian and Jewish artisans and merchants within the same communities. While there were plenty of Muslims within the Soviet Union at the time of the Russian Revolution, most of them lived within predominantly Muslim communities and would therefore have had little conflict with Russian artisans and merchants. There was anti-Muslim sentiment, but it was significantly weaker and less widespread, hence the less racist depiction.
The Catholic bishop (upper right), the Protestant minister (lower left), and the Russian Orthodox priest (lower middle) are similarly sober depictions of those populations. The decision to include three figures to represent Christianity, whereas a single figure represents all of Islam with its internal divisions, reflects the significantly greater populations of Christians that lived within the Soviet Union. At the time of the Russian Revolution, Russian Orthodox was the dominate religion throughout the Empire, which was at the time predominantly Russian; its expansion during World War II would increase the number of Christians significantly, although few of the conquered territories were predominantly Russian Orthodox. Russian Orthodox has long been the dominate faith within Russia, and before the Russian Revolution the Russian people had a famously rich religious life. The Russian Orthodox priest was a common enough concern during this period that the image found its way into countless posters that were otherwise totally unrelated to religion. While representing a smaller population, there were certainly Protestants that were brought into the Soviet Union at the time of its inception. While the depiction of the Protestant minister is relatively sober, it is worth noting that he, unlike the other figures depicted, is taking the time to sort out and store the coins that he has collected; he alone has a box within which to store his coins and stable stacks instead of loose piles. This choice reflects the stereotype of the conscientious and hardworking Protestant that remains popular to this day. Similarly, it is a significant choice to use a Catholic bishop, a position second only to the Pope, to represent Catholicism. There were not a lot of Catholics within the Soviet Union at the time of its inception, and it is not surprising that the poster’s designers would have had to work on depictions of high-ranking church officials.
This poster is in many ways a unique look into the beliefs of the early Soviets. While the Orthodox priest would find his way onto countless posters, there weren’t a great deal of posters that focused on faith produced during this period. Among those, most would follow the predominate styles of the Izogiz print-works, not this rather unique style.
Appel, John and Appel, Selma. “Anti-Semitism in American Caricature.” Society 24, no. 1 (Nov-Dec 1986).
Attitude of the Worker’s Party to Religion, The. Ilyich Lenin, Vladimir. Rothstein, Andrew ed., Issacs, Bernard ed. May 13, 1909. Accessed Dec 13, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1909/may/13.htm.
Bonnell, Victoria E. “The Peasant Woman in Stalinist Political Art of the 1930’s.” American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (Feb 1993).
Eklof, Ben. “Peasant Sloth Reconsidered: Strategies of Education and Learning in Rural Russia Before the Revolution.” Journal of Social History 14, no. 3 (Spring 1981).
First All-Russia Congress on Education. Speech at the First All-Russia Congress on Education. Lenin, Vladimir. Riordan, Jim ed. Aug 29, 1918. Accessed Dec 13, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/28.htm.
Kolstø, Pål. “Competing with Entrepreneurial Diasporians: Origins of Anti-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century Russia.” Nationalities Papers 42, no. 4 (Jul 2014).
 Ben Eklof, “Peasant Sloth Reconsidered: Strategies of Education and Learning in Rural Russia Before the Revolution,” Journal of Social History 14, no. 3 (Spring 1981): 356-357.
 First All-Russia Congress on Education, Speech at the First All-Russia Congress on Education, Vladimir Lenin, Jim Riordan ed., Aug 29, 1918, accessed Dec 13, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/28.htm.
 Victoria E. Bonnell, “The Peasant Woman in Stalinist Political Art of the 1930’s,” American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (Feb 1993): 57.
 Bonnell, 58.
 Bonnell, 58.
 The Attitude of the Worker’s Party to Religion, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Andrew Rothstein ed., Bernard Issacs ed., May 13, 1909, accessed Dec 13, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1909/may/13.htm.
 John Appel and Selma Appel, “Anti-Semitism in American Caricature,” Society 24, no. 1 (Nov-Dec 1986): 78-83.
 Pål Kolstø, “Competing with Entrepreneurial Diasporians: Origins of Anti-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century Russia,” Nationalities Papers 42, no. 4 (Jul 2014): 691.
Jennifer Fargo is a senior History Major.