The soviet communist party, or the Bolsheviks, always new that strong propaganda was essential to increase the consciousness of the masses. As stated in the Encyclopedia of Propaganda, ” propaganda was central to Marxist-Lennist ideology long before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.”(675) The power of persuasion and coercion were exercised with great force by Soviet leaders. The two leaders whom utilized propaganda to influence public opinion in the USSR were Vladimir Lennon and Joseph Stalin. Both men used many different facets of the media to spread their propaganda. They also used the troubled social climate along with the ignorance of the masses to custom tailor a regime that lasted for over seven decades.
The Russian Revolution was where the Bolsheviks proved that their propaganda machine worked. The Communists seized power over an empire that suffered from a progressive downfall. Russia at the time of the revolution was merely a broken down “barely functioning” version of its former self.(Encyclopedia of Propaganda, 675) A disastrous World war, a civil war, and foreign occupation opened the door for Lennon’s propaganda.
How did Lennon obtain power over the working class? “The working class was very suspicious of intellectuals.” (Pipes 43) Lennon did not portray himself as an intellectual. Rather than preach politics as the intellectuals had done, Lennon opted to use agitation propaganda or “agitprop” to make the workers aware of the need for political action. He new that by showing how workers were being exploited by their employers he could gain their support. Lennon hoped that with this strategy he could ignite industrial strikes. Once these workers would strike they would surely see that the employers and the state were one of the same.
In turn the working class would arrive at the conclusion that they could not possibly improve their condition without having a strong political influence. Lennon said, “The struggle of the Russian working class for it’s liberation is a political struggle, and it’s goal is the attainment of political liberty.” (Pipes 45) Lennon used this form of propaganda, agitprop, to convey the need of a total reformation of Russia’s government. He knew that this form of propaganda would work best. “Propaganda of agitation, being the most visible and widespread attracts all the attention.” (Ellul 71) In his agitative propaganda Lennon cited specific enemies, or scapegoats namely, The Mensheviks. Along with the Mensheviks, or “whites” as they were called, the soviets expressed outright hatred of the western world and it’s ways. Soviet propagandists created the idea that the western capitalist civilization was falling behind, as the superior socialists marched forward.
Soviet artists and intellectuals were ordered to create propaganda material that portrayed this idea of a weak and inferior western world. The soviets official ideology was that they needed to gain complete control of all aspects of communication. Lennon embraced the idea of agitative propaganda that was introduced earlier by Georgi Plekhanov. Since the Soviet Union was founded in 1920 there was an official department of agitprop. This department worked directly through schools, publications and the broadcast media. (Encyclopedia of propaganda 17)
Part of Lennon’s strategy was keeping his ideas simple. Simple enough to be effective on a nation with widespread illiteracy. His slogan “Food, peace and land” appealed to the peasants. Lennon’s simple methods were very effective, “Nothing in the past could compare with the Communists’ propaganda effort to mobilize social energy…”(Von Laue 193)
The poster art of the Lennon era usually were red color, red being widely accepted as the color of socialism. The poster artists, most notably D.S. Moor, often portrayed the simple idea of good versus evil. The good is the socialist peasants, and the bad usually being the capitalist landowners. One wartime poster urged young soviets to “Defend the freedom, the nation, and the honor fought for by farmers.”
Lennon era Bolshevik propaganda also utilized film and theater. The Soviet state gained control of the film industry immediately following the revolution, however it took a decade or so for the new authorities to impose their strict supervision over it. The Bolsheviks banned opposition in the press and eliminated free speech, then set it’s sights to control cinematography(Shlapentokh 39) The major theme of the revolution era films was the liberation of the masses. Again, keeping it simple and direct was the focus of the early soviets. The idea was to convince people that an ideal society will come after the proletariat revolution. In the early Soviet movies, the individual worker hero took a backseat to the workers in general. These movies were simplified and depersonalized. They were very basic tales of the Soviets’ portrayal of good and evil. The idea was to appeal to the masses. The idea is shown in The Dream of Taras, a film by Lev Kuleshov. This film tells the story of a Soviet soldier who breaks the military discipline by getting drunk and falling asleep. He dreams of being a soldier in the tsarist army. In his dream Taras, visits a prostitute and is caught by a general. The soldier is sentenced to death and at the last minute awakes to discover that it was all a dream. This film implied that Soviet soldiers should fight for the regime, and do whatever they can to prevent a return to the evil capitalist rule.(Shlapentokh 41)
Lennon often made an effort to win the support of intellectuals foreign and domestic. These supporters, whom shared Lennon’s socialist views, helped establish the illusion that the Soviet Union was a democratic society with total equality. Among these supporters was an American news journalist named John Reed. Reed published, Ten Days that Shook the World. This work featured an introduction by Lennon himself. It romanticized the Bolshevik Revolution. Many other foreign writers helped legitimize the revolution, most notably H.G. Wells. (The Encyclopedia of Propaganda 677)
As mentioned earlier Lennon used all facets of society to aid the flow of propaganda. By 1918 all schools in the Soviet Union were completely controlled by the state. A special agency called, “Pioneers” was set up in 1922 to help “train” Soviet children and ensure that they are properly prepared to become good communists. A primary focus of the “Pioneers” was to substitute atheism for the Russian Orthodoxy. Lennon also set up courts, known as agit-courts, that were held in a public forum. These courts were intended to display the activities of the enemy. The Communist party newspaper, Pravad, was established in order to monitor the distribution of press and to spread the good word of Communism. All these aforementioned propaganda tactics were created and utilized with one specific goal in mind. Lennon set out to create a “New Soviet Man”. Which is a disciplined proletariat atheist socialist.
Lennon died in 1924, this opened the door for a new leader to take control. That leader was Joseph Stalin. Stalin gained a full Lennon-like dictator status by 1929. To fully achieve this status he, in the grand Soviet tradition, had to completely eliminate his opponents. His main opponent was Leon Trotsky. After a few years of bitter struggling with Trotsky and his followers, he eventually had Trotsky murdered. Stalin also rid the Soviet regime of all Trotsky’s followers. Stalin proceeded to remove Trotsky from all Soviet history records, referring to him only as “Judas” Trotsky. The irony is that a supposedly atheist leader used a biblical traitor as a reference to his rival.
One of Stalin’s main strategies to attain power was his allegiance to Lennon. He issued an address to the II All-Union Congress of Soviets. This became known as “The Vow to Lennon”. He said, “We Communists are people of a special mold. We are made of special stuff. We are those who form the great proletarian strategist, the Army of Comrade Lennon…There is nothing higher than the title of member of the party whose founder and leader is Comrade Lennon…” (Treadgold 193) In this statement Stalin places Lennon, the Soviet Army and in effect himself on a pedestal. This convinces the masses that their cause is noble and proud. This speech ensured that under Stalin’s rule the goals and the methods of Lennon will forge ahead. However, it became true that Stalin’s approach to the cause carried on in away that Lennon would have regarded as disgraceful. By 1929 the political system in the country had changed dramatically. Stain crushed any opposition he may have had and practically re-installed the totalitarian regime.
In 1928 Russia’s economic policy under Lennon was replaced by the new Five-Year plan. This plan was supposed to transform big industry and agriculture. The plan marked the beginning of what is often referred to as the “Stalinist Revolution”, or his plan to transform the entire country. But this “revolution” bared little resemblance to the Old Bolshevik Revolution. The plan used decimal point precision to create the image of effectiveness. These stats were only for show and were said to be nothing more than a loose set of goals. (Von Laue 213) The collectivization of agriculture and widespread starvation teamed with mass repression by Stalin signaled the end of the old revolution. People were now forced to accept the ideology of Stalin’s regime.
Between 1928 and 1930 public trials were held in which various members of the bourgeoisie were tried for destroying the economy. Stalin accused these people of being traitors. Stalin’s main target was called the “Kulaks”. These were wealthy farmers whom resisted the collectivization of their farms by destroying their livestock and crops. Stalin blamed the Kulaks for the new economic crisis. He ordered a complete liquidation of the Kulaks and had many executed or deported.
Like many other successful propagandists, Stalin believed that cinema was an ideal medium of persuasion. Stalin built up a system of control over Soviet cinema that outlived him. “His desire to supervise Soviet cinematography bordered on an obsession. (Shlapentokh 75) In 1925 perhaps the most famous propaganda film made by a soviet named Sergei Eisenstien. The Battleship Potemkin tells a story of a rebellion on a ship. These rebels were meant to represent the Soviets and glorify their cause. Stalin knew all the leading Russian film directors personally and would meet with them frequently. He directed them to take their films in certain directions, and often ordered the creation of particular films. In addition Stalin banned several films that did not completely maintain his propaganda efforts. Among these banned films was Iosif Khefit’s, My Motherland. Khefit was asked by Stalin’s people to make a movie about the conflict between the Soviet Army and the Chinese army in Manchuria. The movie was a perfect example of Stalinist propaganda. The Russians prevailed, won the hearts of the oppositions’ peasants. It’s emphasis was on total world revolution, the Communist’s main focus. However, Stalin felt that in this film, the Soviet Army was not harsh enough on the “evil” Chinese army. He ordered the film destroyed.
Over the years Stalin’s propaganda efforts often changed and many times contradicted with his prior views. This especially occurred in his foreign policy. As he did domestically, Stalin insisted that all Socialist values be absolutely consistent with his own. He labeled all other varieties as “the moderate wing of fascism”. (Encyclopedia of Propaganda 677) While he formally perceived the western society as the enemy, he then decided to team with the League of Nations. He allied The Soviet Union with the western democracies and their anti-fascist efforts. The Soviet propaganda role in The Spanish civil war was especially active. Stalin urged people of all the allied nations to volunteer to join the fight against German aggression in Spain. However, Stalin grew insecure and his fear of the German forces prompted him to sign the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. Again, this was a complete turn-around. This led to divisions within the party, and many members withdrew to continue with the anti-Hitler campaign. This teamed with the purges, where many party members were arrested, deported, or executed, created chaos within the party. Stalin grew paranoid and continued to accuse party members of conspiring to overthrow his regime. These were mostly false accusations, and served as excuses for many of his failures.
Stalin’s World War II propaganda was directed at Britain, more specifically Winston Churchill. He and his followers spoke out against American intervention in the war. However, after the war was over and Germany lost, the tables turned again. Fascist collaborators were convicted, as he simultaneously placed the blame for all war on capitalism. He followed by placing anyone with strong ties to either the Nazi’s or the Western world in redoctrination camps, or “gulags”. It’s estimated that between four and five million people were imprisoned in gulags.(Wheatcroft 290) Many of the prisoners were eventually executed. It is also estimated that the level of excess mortality registered by civilians was between three and four million.(Getty 290)
In 1948 the Soviets, under Stalin, began to support a theory that was introduced by Trofim Lysenko. His theory said that certain characteristics are transferred genetically.(Encyclopedia of Propaganda 680) The state wanted to install the belief that model communists could be manufactured genetically. This would ultimately lead them to the promised land; a Soviet Utopia. Stalin died in 1953, along with his regime of terror.
All said, the Soviet Union rooted it self with propaganda. Starting before the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing through the reigns of Lennon and Stalin, and up until the dissolution of the USSR, propaganda was frequently used. The art of persuasion and coercion is what anchored the rise and fall of the communist Regime.
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
Encyclopedia of Propaganda. Volume III, Editor: Robert Cole. P 675-680. New York:
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Getty, J. Arch and Roberta T. Manning. Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Shlapentokh, Dmitry and Vladimir Shlapentokh. Soviet Cinematography1918-1991.
New York: Aldene De Gruyter, 1993.
Treadgold, Donald W. Twentieth Century Russia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.