Window weapons: forgotten Soviet war posters

Hidden from view for decades, two large caches of Soviet wartime posters have recently emerged from the archives of the Chicago Art Institute and British Communist Party. Clementine Cecil reviews the striking, beautiful and often belligerent collections.
Clementine Cecil
11 October 2011

Two discoveries, one in the Chicago Art Institute, and one following the disbandment of the British Communist Party have both recently led to the resurfacing of large caches of Soviet propaganda posters, that had lain forgotten throughout the Cold War and well after the break up of the Soviet Union.

The Karl Marx Memorial Library inherited the posters of the British Communist Party and has restored and researched them on a Leverhulme Trust grant that led to the publication of this book, the first in a three-volume series. The collection consists of posters amassed over the period 1917-1953 by political activists such as Robin Page Arnot and Andrew Rothstein, who picked them up on trips to the Weimar Republic. They were intended to rouse the British Communist Party and show solidarity for the Soviet Union, bringing the zeal of revolution to our shores. The collection presents the preoccupations of not only the Soviet Union, but of the British Communist Party as well, in their choice of poster. 


Windows on the War: Soviet Tass Posters at Home and Abroad 1941-1945 Published by Yale University Press, October 2011
400 pages with 300 colour and b/w illustrations
Editors Peter Kort Zegers and Douglas W. Druick


The Art of Revolution: How posters swayed minds, forged nations and played their part in the progressive movements of the early 20th Century.
Published by Evans Mitchell Books, 2011
Illustrated by the Collection of the Marx Memorial Library
By John Callow, Grant Pooke and Jane Powell

The Karl Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green in London, contains the study where Lenin edited the Communist newspaper Iskra (Spark) from 1902-3, and is now kept as a museum piece, well worth a visit, as is their library of radical literature. The torch of Communism still burning on Clerkenwell Green is felt in the pages of this book, written in a more impassioned style than the scholarly Yale publication. For the authors these posters remain potent propaganda tools. This makes the book an interesting propaganda document in its own right, one containing certain anachronisms. For example, one of the authors writes of a 1935 poster advertising Odessa as a tourist destination: “Founded in 1929, Intourist was the state owned travel agency of the USSR until its privatisation in 1992. Offering unrivaled service and value, it was the way that most visitors experienced the Soviet Union.” Its service and value were indeed unrivaled: Intourist was the only tourist company operating in the USSR.

"Over the 1,418 days of the war, a group of some 92 artists, poets, writers, stencil cutters and painters, produced 1,240 designs. These enormous posters, between 5 and ten feet tall were intended to fill empty shop windows, and were thus were called TASS Windows."

The collection contains many gems: a 1920 poster featuring a hammer and sickle three years before it was adopted as the official Communist symbol, (p.10),  and the 1934 poster in which Stalin first superseded Lenin as the chief symbol of Soviet might. Unlike equivalent collections in the Russia archives, the collection includes posters with images of former Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Commissar Serge Ordjonikidze, both victims of the purges, who were erased from Soviet imagery and history. 

The posters were printed on acidic, thin paper that ages badly and becomes brittle with time. When, in 1997, the Chicago Art Institute found 26 thick rolls of paper at the back of a cupboard, they found that on opening them, they crumbled to the touch. After being put in a humidity chamber, where the paper was softened, 157 Soviet war-time stenciled posters were revealed which celebrated the three-flag alliance between Britain, the US and the USSR, in startling strong images accompanied by poems and slogans by some of the best poets of the day. These posters were a memory of a period of cooperation between the allies that became unthinkable during the Cold War.  


The newly rediscovered collections document times of revolution, terror, war and unlikely alliance. Click to scroll through the posters. Images courtesy of the Chicago Art Institute and Marx Memorial Library

On 22nd June 1941, the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union, a group from the Artist’s Union offered their services to make agitational posters for the Soviet streets that would inform, rally and cheer the public. Their suggestion was quickly approved and they were taken under the wing of the TASS news agency, where over the 1,418 days of the war, a group of some 92 artists, poets, writers, stencil cutters and painters, produced 1,240 designs. These enormous posters, between 5 and ten feet tall were intended to fill empty shop windows, and were thus were called TASS Windows. They were also hung in factories, schools and theatres. Each design was reproduced some 150 times by hand, over three shifts every day. Photographs in this book, designed to accompany an exhibition of the posters in Chicago, show them being studied by passers-by on the streets of Moscow.

Due to shortages of equipment, stencils were used rather than lithographs, producing a striking effect. In the stenciling process, paint is applied to the paper and sits on the surface, rather than soaking into the paper as it does in printing. This dedicated group took stenciling to a new level of artistry:  one ghoulish portrayal of Hitler used 25 colours and more than a hundred stencils.  Some of the country’s best poets, such as Marshak, were called back from evacuation to keep producing copy for the posters, many of which drew directly on Stalin’s war-time speeches. 

The British book contains some of the same TASS windows, as well as lithographs produced in larger print runs, by the Iskusstvo State Printing Works. 

The posters found in Chicago were a selection of those designed for international use, intended to encourage the US and Britain to open a Western front, which they finally did with the Normandy landing in 1944. This is also a strong theme in the British publication, including a 1943 British Communist Party poster that proclaims, “Finish the job. Open a Second Front NOW.” Also in the book is an British earlier poster, “The Menin Road or the Lenin Road?” which posits a bright Communist future as an alternative to death and militarism. However, it was not until their stand against fascism that the British Communist Party became a strong force: their membership doubled from 17,000 in 1939 to more than 45,000 in 1945. 

While in the British publication, war-time posters are placed in a broader historical context with the inclusion of earlier propaganda posters related to 5-year plans, collectivisation and the construction of the Moscow metro, the Yale publication gives the Chicago posters context through the inclusion of 75 other TASS windows disseminated within the Soviet Union. The meticulously researched Yale book drives home the horror of the war in the Soviet Union, in which its authors estimate that 27 million people were killed. We see the heroic partisans, the female ditch-diggers, and the banal every day reality of war - posters calling on people to save electricity and collect scrap metal for tanks. 

Both books provide information on the poets and artists who created the posters, whose stories were earlier subsumed in self-glorifying Soviet state propaganda. The British book quotes from memoirs of some of the artists, such as Pavel Sokolov-Skalya, who sums up the moving commitment to art as propaganda to boost a nation’s morale in war-time: “Could there be anything more agonising for a Soviet man or for an artist,  than the realisation that he is cut off from his people? Is there anything more fulfilling however, than the realisation that you are fighting together with the rest of your country? I am fighting the war and my weapon is three hundred posters.”

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