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Seeing Red

The Soviet Union was a repressive regime that stifled all forms of creative expression. But author David King discovered a treasure trove of visual relics from the communist era by little-known photographers, designers, and artists.

All images courtesy of Abrams Publishing
All images courtesy of Abrams Publishing

In his forthcoming collection, Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin, David King unearths otherwise lost Soviet images. From advertisements and political posters to photographs, and even mug shots, these works and images defined their time, evoking the drama of the communist era.

Lenin stands on the left side of the bottom step with comrades at a Marx Day rally in Moscow’s Red Square in 1919. On a gramophone record, Lenin mercilessly lambasted the leaders of Karl Marx’s First International and the Third International organizations, saying: “They betrayed the workers, prolonged the slaughter, became enemies of socialism, and went over to the side of the capitalists.”

Photographer unknown.

 

Leon Trotsky engages in intense discussion with his officers and men during the Russian Civil War.

Photographer unknown.

 

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army celebrate victory over Baron Wrangel in the Crimea in 1920.

Photographer unknown.

 

The full force of Lenin’s fury is depicted by Ukrainian artist Adolf Strakhov on the cover of The Life of Lenin Is the Story of the RKP (Russian Communist Party) in Ukraine in November 1924.

Designers working for the “dynamo” forge and cast-iron foundry paint banners for a “5 in 4” mass demonstration in Moscow circa 1930. With the first five-year plan came a new direction in visual propaganda. Gone was the depiction of the revolutionary worker, solider, and peasant slaying the fat capitalist seen in the posters of the Civil War period, and gone was the productivist graphic and typographic design of the 1920s. The new approach was to show, often in montage and photomontage, images of skilled workers in the vanguard of Soviet agriculture and industry, their labor scrutinized from on high by an increasingly authoritarian leadership always demanding the plan be finished a year ahead of schedule.

Photographer unknown.

 

“We Are Building a Fleet of Airships in the Name of Lenin” reads a 1931 poster by Georgii Kibardin with old-style Azeri text.

“The USSR Is the Center of International Socialism” reads one of a series of 20 posters designed by a group called Artists’ Brigade and published in Moscow in 1933. The posters visualized in powerful photomontage graphics and slogans the major achievements and objectives of Stalin’s plans for the rapid expansion of industry, the forced collectivization of agriculture, and propaganda on the political, educational, and cultural fronts.

Stalin is captured in this photograph by Lt. Gen. Nikolai Vlasik, the Soviet dictator’s bodyguard. Vlasik’s off-the-record photos of Stalin caused a sensation in the early 1960s when an enterprising Soviet journalist spirited some out, selling them to newspapers and magazines worldwide.

Under the gaze of a portrait of himself, Stalin lays down the law on collectivization to his seemingly hypnotized comrades in Moscow on Dec. 4, 1935. Four of the participants were later crossed out of the photo after they were arrested and purged. Surviving in the photo are, from left: Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, Kliment Voroshilov, Shaduntz (party boss of Tajikistan), Anastas Mikoyan, Andrei Andreyev, and Matvei Shkiryatov. Those whose faces have been crossed out are, from left: Boris Tal, Nikolai Yezhov, Mikhail Chernov, and Yakov Yakovlev.

Photographer unknown.

In August 1936, Grigory Zinoviev was chief defendant at the first Moscow show trial (known as the Trial of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center), a trial Stalin conducted against his political enemies. Zinoviev was sentenced to death and executed later that month.

Photographer unknown.

 

Murmansk, the Arctic sea port near the Russia border with Finland and Norway, and photographed above by Yevgeny Khaldei in December 1942, was used in the war as a landing base by American and British convoys supplying the Soviets with large quantities of military equipment. Murmansk had therefore been an obvious target for bombing, and on June 22, 1942, Hitler ordered its total destruction. In 24 hours of nonstop aggression, the Luftwaffe dropped 350,000 incendiary devices on the town’s mainly wooden buildings, more than fulfilling the Führer’s wishes.

“Thunderbolt,” window poster No. 504 of TASS, the Soviet news agency, was hand-painted by the Kukryniksy, a famous Soviet trio of caricaturists. TASS window posters were used for propaganda displays.

Stalin, photographed by Dmitri Baltermants, lies in state at the House of Trade Unions in Moscow, where the show trials of his political enemies had been acted out in the 1930s.

Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin by David King comes out in September 2009 from Abrams Press. 

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