10 — Stalin’s propaganda machine

Study Overview

  1. The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
  2. Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
  3. State control: the purges and the cult of personality
  4. Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
  5. The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war

Stalin’s Propaganda Machine

In this unit

  1. The reasons for state-controlled thought in the USSR
  2. The methods and results of state-controlled thought in the USSR

Questions to ask yourself

  1. What common themes could be observed in state-approved media?
  2. Why should the 1936 Constitution be seen more as propaganda than a legal document? (think about the context of 1936-37!)
  3. Why did the state order that socialist realism be followed? 
  4. How true is the claim that support for the cult of personality was mostly cynical? Why or why not?  

Warmup – what impression is the artist trying to give of Stalin in the following posters? How might this help secure Stalin’s position?

“When the Press denounced Zamyatin and Pilnyak [two prominent writers] as public enemies, the first for a biting satire on totalitarianism, the other for a fine realist novel, my author friends [in the Soviet Writers’ Union] voted everything that was expected of them against their two comrades.”
— Soviet writer Victor Serge, 1945
“Stalin wanted to absolve himself once more from personal responsibility for what was happening… he addressed a severe warning to all those who had been “intoxicated by the success of the collectivisation and had forgotten the necessity of sparing the peasants unnecessary suffering.”… Stalin thus became to the peasants a sort of ‘Little Father,’ who listened to their complaints and endeavoured to right their wrongs. The fact that he himself was the immediate origin of their misfortunes was beginning to escape them. An image was taking the place of reality. It is a paradoxical fact that these terrible years of collectivisation saw the origin and increase of Stalin’s popularity among the Russian peasants.”
— historian Y Delbars, 1951
“I think Stalin’s cultural policies, especially the cultural policies… were cruel and senseless. You can’t regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick, or by barking orders. You can’t lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don’t deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.”
— Khrushchev (Stalin’s successor), 1957

Why did Stalin want to control Soviet thought?

State-controlled thought in the USSR comprised several different elements:

  • Stalin’s cult of personality and the idea of socialist realism (both of which infiltrated all kinds of general propaganda),
  • Censorship, and the control of education
  • The 1936 Constitution, though advertised as a political document, was also little more than propaganda, and should be seen as such.

It is no coincidence that Stalin’s cult of personality began in earnest in 1929, after a grand celebration of his 50th birthday, and on the eve of his ‘Second Revolution’; thus it was closely linked with Stalin’s other policies aimed at the harnessing and control of the Soviet citizenry and consolidating support within the Party (think of the Five Year Plans and collectivisation, and the political reasons for implementing them). At the same time we must not see the cult of personality merely as a top-down process; at the same time there was much spontaneous, bottom-up support for Stalin’s propaganda. It was not so much a formal policy as something that Stalin (strongly) encouraged people to engage in. This mechanism made it comparable to Stalin’s purges throughout the 1930s, and in fact many tried to protect themselves during the purges by openly showing loyalty to the cult of personality.

Why did Stalin want a cult of personality in place?

The cult of personality legitimated Stalin’s rule by constantly portraying him alongside Lenin. Stalin could appear as Lenin’s friend, just as capable as him (or even more so!), and naturally the right successor to Lenin. Stalin thus shrewdly made use of Lenin’s prestige to enhance his own image — Lenin is respected in Russia even todayThe cult of personality could tap into the people’s traditional beliefs: adoration of the Tsar and veneration of religious icons. Harnessing these latent beliefs would not only strengthen Stalin’s position in hearts and minds, it could encourage and unite the Soviet people in a time of great disruption and upheaval throughout society
The cult of personality made Stalin largely inviolable among the Soviet people, respected above all and beyond criticism. The cult of personality, just like the blaming of ‘wreckers’ and ‘kulaks’, allowed Stalin to distance himself from the shortcomings of his economic policies; even the horrors of the purges and collectivisation were blamed not on Stalin, but on his subordinatesAbove all the cult of personality consolidated Stalin’s position within the Party, encouraging obedience even as Stalin was terrorising the Party into obedience through the Great Purge. Party members were encouraged to see Stalin as the Vozhd (‘leader’ or ‘guide’), a godlike figure, infallible in his decisions and preeminent among the Party; acting as if this were true might just save one’s skin during the Great Purge

Why did Stalin promote socialist realism?

Stalin had little respect for art for its own sake, but he saw its use in uniting and harnessing hearts and minds. Socialist realist art would glorify the working class and inspire them to work ever harder to meet their demanding quotas
Since Stalin wanted Soviet art to unify the people, he shrewdly marketed it for the masses. Socialist realist art was designed to be easily understood by the average, poorly-educated worker or farmer, and if the intellectuals began to grumble, well… that might well be seen as a sign of counterrevolutionary thinking! 
Stalin wanted art to support his regime by idealising life under communist rule. Ordinary people doing ordinary work were portrayed as heroes, while the realities of life under communism — poverty and difficult family life — were ignored

What forms did state-controlled thought take under Stalin?

The following art forms were turned into propaganda, moulded and informed by Stalin’s cult of personality and by socialist realism: painting and sculpture, music and dance, literature, and film. 

Pretend you are working in the state censorship bureau. Which of the following should be approved for consumption by the masses, and why?

Art formAcceptable?Why (not)?
Swing danceAmerican, bourgeois, decadent
ChessLenin loved chess
A story about a young couple who fall in love and travel abroadTravelling abroad? Why would you want to do that? Fall in love and raise a productive family here
Kalinka dancingThe most Russian of dances
A film about Prince Alexander Nevsky defeating evil German knightsA great Russian hero who defeats Germans? Relevant to the latter 1930s for sure.
A novel about a factory worker who works, like… really hardFantastic role model
Whatever this is ?Good, working-class family. But they’re not working…
This one too Showcases the wonders of the kolkhozes
A poem about the beauty of Russian wheatfields in summertimeAh, the beauty of Russia
Balalaika performance The most Russian of music pieces
Avant garde dancing Bourgeois, decadent, gross
A film about the back alley streets of Leningrad Why would you even suggest that parts of our cities are unsavoury?
Orthodox Church chants Religious, backward, full of lies
A story about an orphan and her journey of self-discovery All orphans as we know are provided excellent care by the state. Why not talk about how the orphan works hard for the state?
This painting Lenin and Stalin together firing up the people for revolution? Five out of five red stars
A poem thanking Stalin for his leadership of the country My only question is: why can’t all our poems be like this?
A novel about Central Committee members planning a new dam ?Good, productive story, but doesn’t say enough about the rank-and-file working class
This music piece In the minor key, unacceptable
This piece too American, decadent, unhealthy. What’s wrong with you, Comrade?
Ballet dancingBeautiful, easily-accessible for the masses
An exposé on Gulag conditions Nothing bad ever happens in the Gulag. Why the need for an exposé?

Beside the production of information and art, state-controlled thought also took the form of censorship: all kinds of media would be vetted before publication, while many existing works were also judged for their message. Any works containing opinions and messages which the state thought incorrect, bourgeois, or counterrevolutionary (again moulded by Stalin’s cult of personality) would be removed or edited; during the 1930s, state censorship bodies made a point of erasing any mention of mass starvation or hunger. Authors and artists who refused to abide by these rules could face imprisonment or execution; the more fortunate ones (such as Yevgeny Zamyatin) might face exile.

State-controlled thought also spread into the classroom. Stalin saw education as one more way to unite and control the Soviet people, especially since young people’s minds are more malleable than those of adults. All education was closely supervised of course by the Party.

  • Education styles were changed from the more informal, hands-on approach of the 1920s to something much more strict and centralised: school uniforms and national curriculum encouraged a sense of unity, while subjects such as Russian language, Russian History, and communist ideology were made compulsory, training students to become loyal Soviet citizens. Of course textbooks were also shot through with praise for Stalin — his cult of personality could truly be seen everywhere. The photo below was taken from a Soviet textbook from 1953.

  • Textbooks also contained much bias in order to promote the Stalinist worldview: History textbooks greatly exaggerated Stalin’s role in the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War (in fact he played minor roles in both), with little to no mention of Trotsky’s vital role. Many photos were also edited, either to create a more idealised version of the past, or to erase any references to Stalin’s old opponents:

October Revolution: shop sign in the top photo (on the left) reads “watches, gold, and silver”, replaced in the bottom photo with “fight for your rights”. The flag that says “long live the republic” in the top photo has also been made clearer in the bottom photo
Russian Civil War: top photo shows Lenin addressing a crowd in 1919, with Kamenev and Trotsky to his left. Both have been removed in the bottom photo
  • Young people were also encouraged to join Komsomol, the nationwide communist youth group. This provided PE activities and sessions on communist ideology, as well as encouraging members to publish communist literature and take part in service projects (often as part of the Five Year Plans).
    Komsomol youth were taught to revere Pavlik Morozov, a boy who had informed on his father (who was then arrested by the authorities), and was in turn murdered by his own family. The message was clear: loyalty to the Party came first, and informing on one’s family and friends was encouraged. In typical Soviet fashion, there is evidence that the story of Morozov is fictionalised: he was possibly murdered by other teenagers during a mundane squabble.

Finally the 1936 Constitution should be seen as a work of propaganda, especially those concerning the rights of Soviet citizens. Below is an extract of articles from Chapters 10 and 11 of the 1936 Constitution:

Article 118Citizens of the USSR have the right to work, that is, are guaranteed the right to employment and payment for their work in accordance with its quantity and quality.The right to work is ensured by the socialist organization of the national economy, the steady growth of the productive forces of Soviet society, the elimination of the possibility of economic crises, and the abolition of unemployment.
Article 119Citizens of the USSR have the right to rest and leisure. The right to rest and leisure is ensured by the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.
Article 120Citizens of the USSR have the right to maintenance in old age and also in case of sickness or loss of capacity to work. This right is ensured by the extensive development of social insurance of workers and employees at state expense, free medical service for the working people and the provision of a wide network of health resorts for the use of the working people.
Article 121Citizens of the USSR have the right to education. This right is ensured by universal, compulsory elementary education; by education, including higher education, being free of charge; by the system of state stipends for the overwhelming majority of students in the universities and colleges; by instruction in schools being conducted in the native Ianguage, and by the organization in the factories, state farms, machine and tractor stations and collective farms of free vocational, technical and agronomic training for the working people.
Article 122Women in the USSR are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.
Article 123Equality of rights of citizens of the USSR, irrespective of their nationality or race, in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.
Article 124In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the USSR is separated from the state, and the school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.
Article 125In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to strengthen the socialist system, the citizens of the USSR are guaranteed by law:freedom of speech;freedom of the press;freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;freedom of street processions and demonstrations.These civil rights are ensured by placing at the disposal of the working people and their organizations printing presses, stocks of paper, public buildings, the streets, communications facilities and other material requisites for the exercise of these rights.
Article 126In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to develop the organizational initiative and political activity of the masses of the people, citizens of the USSR are ensured the right to unite in public organizations–trade unions, cooperative associations, youth organizations,’ sport and defense organizations, cultural, technical and scientific societies; and the most active and politically most conscious citizens in the ranks of the working class and other sections of the working people unite in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), which is the vanguard of the working people in their struggle to strengthen and develop the socialist system and is the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state.
Article 127Citizens of the USSR are guaranteed inviolability of the person. No person may be placed under arrest except by decision of a court or with the sanction of a procurator.
Article 128The inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence are protected by law.
Article 129The USSR affords the right of asylum to foreign citizens persecuted for defending the interests of the working people, or for their scientific activities, or for their struggle for national liberation.
Article 130It is the duty of every citizen of the USSR to abide by the Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, to observe the laws, to maintain labor discipline, honestly to perform public duties, and to respect the rules of socialist intercourse.
Article 131It is the duty of every citizen of the USSR to safeguard and strengthen public, socialist property as the sacred and inviolable foundation of the Soviet system, as the source of the wealth and might of the country, as the source of the prosperous and cultured life of all the working people.Persons committing offenses against public, socialist property are enemies of the people.
Article 132Universal military service is law. Military service in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army is an honorable duty of the citizens of the USSR
Article 133To defend the fatherland is the sacred duty of every citizen of the USSR Treason to the country—violation of the oath of allegiance, desertion to the enemy, impairing the military power of the state, espionage is punishable with all the severity of the law as the most heinous of crimes.
Article 135Elections of deputies are universal: all citizens of the U.S.S.R. who have reached the age of eighteen, irrespective of race or nationality, religion, educational and residential qualifications, social origin, property status or past activities, have the right to vote in the election of deputies and to be elected, with the exception of insane persons and persons who have been convicted by a court of law and whose sentences include deprivation of electoral rights.
Article 136Elections of deputies are equal: each citizen has one vote; all citizens participate in elections on an equal footing.

In reality Soviet citizens could enjoy few of these rights. Some of these could not be enjoyed because of social conditions at the time, such as women’s rights; other rights were denied by the state, either indirectly (such as the right to rest and leisure, difficult given the demanding work quotas handed down by Gosplan) or directly (such as the right to freedom of speech and press, and freedom of religious worship, which were more or less bald-faced lies). It seemed especially hypocritical that these were proclaimed in 1936, on the eve of the Great Purge, and any exercise of freedom of speech or religious worship could result in arrest. Why then was the Constitution released in 1936?

  • Most of its chapters were concerned with laying out the government structure of the USSR, which cemented the authority of the Communist Party; much like the Great Purge itself, this would strengthen Party (and Stalin’s) control over the nation
  • The granting of political and civil rights to the Soviet citizenry served as propaganda, meant to impress both the common people (who were also also taught in school to revere Stalin and the state) and the leaders of the western world, whose support Stalin wanted in the face of the growing threat from Nazi Germany
“Many who lauded Stalin’s Soviet Union as the most democratic country on earth lived to regret their words. After all, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 was adopted on the eve of the Great Terror of the late 1930s; the “thoroughly democratic” elections to the first Supreme Soviet permitted only uncontested candidates and took place at the height of the savage violence in 1937. The civil rights, personal freedoms, and democratic forms promised in the Stalin constitution were trampled almost immediately and remained dead letters until long after Stalin’s death.” 
— historian JA Getty

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