These days it can seem that the use of the media to manipulate populations has never been so blatant: to sway elections, to supplant truth with rumour and outright lies, to control what “truths” we see. But before we get too certain that we are so unique, a little historical jolt is useful in providing context. Manipulating the public through media, it turns out, is nothing new, for all the shiny contemporaneity of internet news feeds, Twitter, and Wikileaks.
Agitprop: Soviet Propaganda 1905-1945 an exhibition of prints now on view at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, provides context and confirmation that, as bad as our media landscape may seem, the situation is hardly new. Propaganda, for good or ill, has been with us for a long time.
Propaganda was probably invented by the church (think of the carvings in a Gothic cathedral, designed to convey messages to a mostly illiterate populace) and adapted, named, and bureaucratized by governments.
The Soviet Union was masterful at this, as is evidenced by the 41 prints in this exhibition (collected by the late Dr. David Jones, a professor of Russian history who taught at Acadia and Dalhousie universities, among others). Like Gothic era church-goers, most Russians at the time of the Revolution were illiterate, and in order for the new government (engaged in a civil war with Imperial, “White” forces from 1918 to 1922) to communicate effectively with millions of new comrades, most of whom did not even know of the change in government, they needed simple means of communication. Posters fit the bill perfectly, especially when based on familiar graphic tropes drawn from religion and the previous regime’s iconography.
The bulk of the posters in the exhibition stem from the Civil War and the Second World War (called “the Great Patriotic War” in Russia). The anti-fascist posters are among the strongest in the show, beginning in the 1930s and going until 1945 (with a brief hiatus when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, both to buy breathing space to re-arm and to divide Poland between them). These works were aimed at bolstering army recruitment and at encouraging the industrial and farm workers who provided the weapons and food that the army depended on. All promised inevitable victory over the fascists.
Most of the posters were made in realist styles (an exception is El Lissitzky’s constructivist masterpiece, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge from 1920) that could immediately convey their message to the masses. The earlier works tend to be more internationalist in focus, stressing how the Russian Revolution was but a precursor to the workers of the world uniting. With the rise of fascism and the direct threat of German invasion, the message became more Russo-centric.
These posters are poignant, stemming from Russia’s history in the war, from the later Cold War, and our knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated on the Russian people by their governments from Lenin onward. As stirring as the posters are (and they are very effective at communicating a strong emotional charge), they cannot help but seem tainted today, examples of the mendacity of power as much as they are evidence of the strength of the people. A useful tonic to our “curated news feeds” and to the algorithms that are so much more effective than the commissars at controlling what we think we know.
Agitprop is accompanied by an exhibition by an emerging Halifax artist, Gillian Dykeman. Revolution Revolution consists of paintings, an interactive video and performance that seeks to instill collective values in her viewers through the methods of exercise training, agitprop, and self-help gurus to ask us to question how we might harness our energies towards a positive revolution in our individual lives.
Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery is open Tuesday to Friday from 11am–5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from noon–5pm. It is located in the Loyola Building, and admission is free.