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Chapter 63: Posters of the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921 and Soviet Propaganda posters

In the early 20th century, Russia was a vast empire, stretching from central Europe to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic to the borders of Afghanistan covering one-sixth of the land surface of the globe, and was populated by almost 150 million people of more than a hundred different nationalities. With the outbreak of the World WAR I, in 1914, the country, suffering from years of autocratic policies, a recent defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and internal class conflicts, was totally ill-prepared for the war.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of any social reforms after its 1905  revolution, in which  the Tsar  was forced to concede civil rights and a parliament, workers and landless peasants rallied to the Tsarist flag and marched off to fight against the Central Powers. However, the war went terribly wrong and in 1914, Russians lost two entire armies with over 250,000 men, and by the middle of 1915 all of Russian Poland and Lithuania, and most of Latvia, were overrun by the German army. In 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army. His German-blood tsarina, Alexandra, and Rasputin, a debauched faith healer, who was apparently able to stop the bleeding of the hemophiliac heir to the throne, tried to dictate policy and make ministerial appointments. As a result of the war, and their mismanagement, the economic situation deteriorated and many citizens became suspicious and many wondered if Russia's loss of 1,700,000 military dead and 5,000,000 wounded - were a consequence of treason and espionage. The fact that the aristocratic tsarist Russian General Staff's strategy was to forego the lives of hundreds of thousands of destitute peasants and proletariat was adding to the predicament.

Police. Roman Catholic Priest. Tsar. Pope. Rabbi. Bourgeois, 1919

 Tsar, pope and bourgeois. (1920)

"Delusions of William." (1914)

In the winter of 1917, the economic mismanagement caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. On March 8 -- International Woman's Day -- Petrograd's organized feminists paraded with placards calling for equality and freedom. Labor leaders held back from joining the march in support of the women, but some striking male workers joined the demonstration. And the marchers were joined by hungry women who had been turned away from bread lines empty handed. The march developed to a size that was a surprise to all who could see it. Demonstrations got larger and more boisterous every day. On Sunday March 11, large banners were plastered around Petrograd announcing that all demonstrations and assemblies would be dispersed and all those who were not back at their jobs Monday would be conscripted into the military and sent to the front! Troops were summoned to quell the disorders. In the afternoon, a military unit -- the Pavlovski Guard -- fired into a group of demonstrators, killing forty or fifty and wounding others. Some soldiers who had been ordered to fire, fired into the air. Elsewhere more marchers were shot, but marchers continued to feel the power of their numbers. Next day on Monday, soldiers began shooting their officers instead of firing at demonstrators, and about half of the soldiers joined the protesters, some of them in armored cars, with the other half stood by passively. The crowd were shouting "down with the war" and "down with the Romanovs."

Alexander Apsit, Tsar, Pope, and the Rich on the Worker's Shoulders

By March 12, two different groups were claiming to represent the Russian people -- 0ne the Executive Committee of the Duma, and the other the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. On March 15th, with the approval of the Petrograd Soviet the Executive Committee of the Duma organized the Provisional Government chaired by aristocrat and social reformer Georgiy L'vov. A Constituent Assembly, was to be created, but the election was postponed until the fall of 1917. Delegates of the new government met Nicholas that evening at Pskov, where rebellious railroad workers had stopped the imperial train as the tsar attempted to return to the capital. Advised by his generals that he lacked the support of the country, Nicholas informed the delegates that he was abdicating in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. When Michael in turn refused the throne, imperial rule in Russia came to an end.

Real power in the new Russia lay with the socialist leaders of the Petrograd (later All-Russian) Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, who were elected by popular mandate. They Soviet supported a defensive war, and were committing themselves to a peace programme with "no annexations or indemnities' – a formula that neither the Allies nor Germany would ever accept. The Provisional Government, in contrast was chiefly represented the propertied classes, headed by ministers of a moderate or liberal bent, which favored keeping Russia's military commitments to its allies, a position that became increasingly unpopular as the war dragged on. The government suffered its first crisis in the "April Days," when demonstrations against the war forced two ministers to resign, leading to the appointment of moderate socialist Aleksandr Kerensky as war minister. Kerensky, quickly assuming de facto leadership of the government, ordered the army to launch a major offensive in June, which, after early successes, turned into a full-scale retreat in July. By then the ability of Russia's officers to induce their men to obey had been entirely negated by the hopes of social transformation and an end to the war that the February Revolution had unleashed in the trenches.

  Poster for the bond issued to support the upcoming offensive against the German Army, an offensive that would fail. the image of the Russian soldier towering over demonstrating workers and soldiers was used to legitimize the provisional government to demonstrate the continuation of the war against the Central Powers

Anarchist and Bolshevik agitators played their own part in destroying the Russian Army's ability to fight. While the Provisional Government grappled with foreign foes, the Bolsheviks, who were opposed to bourgeois democracy, gained new strength. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, returned to Petrograd in April 1917 from his wartime residence in Switzerland. Although he had been born into a noble family, from his youth Lenin espoused the cause of the common workers. A committed revolutionary and pragmatic Marxist thinker, he astounded the party by his April Theses, boldly calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the transfer of "all power to the soviets," and the expropriation of factories by workers and of land belonging to the church, the nobility, and the gentry by peasants. Lenin's dynamic presence quickly won the other Bolshevik leaders to his position, and the radicalized orientation of the Bolshevik faction attracted new members. Inspired by Lenin's slogans, crowds of workers, soldiers, and sailors took to the streets of Petrograd in July to wrest power from the Provisional Government. But the spontaneity of the "July Days" caught the Bolshevik leaders by surprise, and the Petrograd Soviet, controlled by moderate Mensheviks, refused to take power or enforce Bolshevik demands. After the uprising died down, the Provisional Government outlawed the Bolsheviks and jailed Leon Trotsky (Lev Trotskii, originally Lev Bronstein), an active Bolshevik leader. Lenin fled to Finland.

Proletariat -1917-1918 

Meanwhile, in an attempt to restore order and resist the German counter-offensive, most of the generals and forces of the political right threw their weight behind a plan for a military coup, under the Russian Army's commander-in-chief, General Lavr Kornilov, who protested the influence of the soviets on both the army and the government, and appeared as a counterrevolutionary threat to Kerenskiy, now prime minister. Kerenskiy dismissed Kornilov from his command, but Kornilov, disobeying the order, launched an extemporaneous revolt on September 10. The coup failed, but had two important consequences: on the one hand, the generals and the conservatives who had backed Kornilov felt betrayed by Kerensky (who arrested Kornilov after having appeared to have been in agreement with him) and would no longer defend the government; on the other, Kerensky's reputation with the moderate left and with the population at large plummeted when it became clear that he had initially supported Kornilov's plans for the restoration of the death penalty and for the dissolution of soldiers' revolutionary committees. Although the Provisional Government survived the Kornilov revolt, popular support for the government faded rapidly as the national mood swung to the left in the fall of 1917. Workers took control of their factories through elected committees; peasants expropriated lands belonging to the state, church, nobility, and gentry; and armies melted away as peasant soldiers deserted to take part in the land seizures. The Bolsheviks, skillfully exploiting these popular trends in their propaganda, dominated the Petrograd Soviet and the Moscow Soviet by September, with Trotsky, freed from prison after the Kornilov revolt, now chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Realizing that the time was ripe for seizing power by armed force, Lenin returned to Petrograd in October and convinced a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which had hoped to take power legally, to accept armed uprising in principle. Trotsky won the Petrograd garrison over to Soviet authority, depriving the Provisional Government of its main military support in Petrograd.

The actual insurrection--the Bolshevik Revolution--began on November 6, when Kerenskiy ordered the Bolshevik press closed. Interpreting this action as a counterrevolutionary move, the Bolsheviks called on their supporters to defend the Petrograd Soviet. By evening, the Bolsheviks had taken control of utilities and most government buildings in Petrograd, thus enabling Lenin to proclaim the downfall of the Provisional Government on the morning of the next day, November 7. The Bolsheviks captured the Provisional Government's cabinet at its Winter Palace headquarters that night with hardly a shot fired in the government's defense. Kerenskiy left Petrograd to organize resistance, but his countercoup failed and he fled Russia. Bolshevik uprisings soon took place elsewhere; Moscow was under Bolshevik control within three weeks. The Second Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd to ratify the Bolshevik takeover after moderate deputies (mainly Mensheviks and right-wing members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party) quit the session. The remaining Bolsheviks and left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries declared the soviets the governing bodies of Russia and named the Council of People's Commissars (Совет народных комиссаров - Совнарком -- Sovet narodnykh kommissarov--Sovnarkom) to serve as the cabinet. Lenin became chairman of this council. Trotsky took the post of commissar of foreign affairs; Stalin, a Georgian, became commissar of nationalities. Thus, by acting decisively while their opponents vacillated, the Bolsheviks succeeded in effecting their coup d'état.

In this White (anti-Bolshevik) poster, caricatures of the Bolshevik leadership (Uritzky, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Lunacharsky, Lenin, Patrovsky, Trotsky, Kamenev, and Radek) sacrifice an allegorical figure representing Russia to the idol of internationalism resembling Karl Marx. In the background, Alexander Kerensky (who had been Prime Minister of the Provisional Government at the time of the Bolshevik coup in November 1917) looks on impotently. In the foreground are racial and class stereotypes of a Jew with thirty pieces of silver, Asiatic Red Army soldiers with booty, and a sailor symbolising the battleship Aurora’s role in the 1917 Revolution.

Peace and Freedom in Sovdepiya (1919),
 White Army propaganda poster from the Russian Civil War era (1919), depicting a caricature Leon Trotsky (as a large demon like figure with bright red skin.) and Chinese soldiers (below, wearing braids and blue and gold uniforms).

Trotsky depicted by Polish propaganda as a blood-soaked Bolshevik during the Polish-Russian war of 1920

After taking power, the Bolsheviks promised to deliver 'Peace, Bread and Land' to the beleaguered people of Russia. Lenin seeking to disengage Russia from World War I, called on the belligerent powers for an armistice and peace without annexations. The Allied Powers rejected this appeal, but Germany and its allies agreed to a cease-fire and began negotiations in December 1917. After dictating harsh terms that the Soviet government would not accept, however, Germany resumed its offensive in February 1918, meeting scant resistance from disintegrating Russian armies. Lenin, after bitter debate with leading Bolsheviks who favored prolonging the war in hopes of precipitating class warfare in Germany, persuaded a slim majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee that peace must be made at any cost. On March 3, Soviet government officials signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, relinquishing Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland, and Ukraine to German control and giving up a portion of the Caucasus region to Turkey. With the new border dangerously close to Petrograd, the government was soon transferred to Moscow. An enormous part of the population and resources of the Russian Empire was lost by this treaty, but Lenin understood that no alternative could ensure the survival of the fledgling Soviet state.

Literacy is the road to communism. (1920)

Light and Knowledge, The People (1917-1921)

Take care of your book -it is the true companion in campaigns and in peaceful work.

The book is nothing else, but a public speaker. (1921)

Kogout, N., From darkness to light, from battle to books, from sadness to joy. (1917-1921)

Before October, you gathered wheat only for Bourgeois  (1917-1921)
Female peasant and worker.] (1920)

Outraged by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the anti-Bolshevik Russians who had remained loyal to the Allies now took up arms in earnest against the Bolsheviks. They were actively assisted by Allied forces in Russia, who hoped to rebuild the Eastern Front. Notable in this regard was the Czechoslovak Legion, a 40,000-strong army made up of former POWs, who in 1918 seized the entire Trans-Siberian Railway, from the Volga to Vladivostok. By the spring of 1918, these elements dissatisfied with the radical policies of the communists (as the Bolsheviks started calling themselves) established centers of resistance in southern and Siberian Russia. Beginning in April 1918, anticommunist forces, called the Whites and often led by former officers of the tsarist army, began to clash with the Red Army. During these campaigns Admiral Kolchak, the 'Supreme Ruler' of the Whites, attacked across the Urals from Siberia; General Denikin advanced on a broad front up the Volga, into Ukraine and to the town of Orel (within 250 miles of Moscow); and General Yudenich's North West Russian Army, based in Estonia, twice reached the outskirts of Petrograd.

Wrangel is advancing! Black robber wants to take our bread, coal and oil, workers and peasants.

Deni, Viktor Nikolaevich, Manifesto of Baron Wrangel. All power for landowners! For workers and peasants - a lash! (1917-1921)

A member of an old German baronial family, Pyotr Wrangel served in the Russian imperial guards and became commander of a Cossack division during World War I. He continued to serve in the army after the February Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Romanov dynasty. However, when General Lavr G. Kornilov, whom he supported, was arrested for attempting to overthrow the provisional government (August 1917), Wrangel resigned his commission and went to the Crimea. After the Bolshevik coup d’état (October 1917), he joined the White forces of General Anton I. Denikin and was given command of an army.

Wrangel is coming - to arms, proletariat!  (1917-1921)

 During Denikin’s offensive (summer 1919), Wrangel captured Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd; July 2); he succeeded Denikin as commander of the White armies in April 1920, after the Whites had been forced back into the Crimea and Denikin had resigned. Wrangel tried to rally the support of the peasants, Cossacks, and western allies for the Whites, then launched a new offensive in the Ukraine (June 1920). By early November, however, the Red Army had defeated the Whites, who retreated into the Crimea and were evacuated to Constantinople (Nov. 8–16, 1920). After leaving Russia, Wrangel lived in exile in western Europe and wrote his memoirs, which appeared in English translation in 1929./div

Wrangel is Coming. Black bandit baron wants our oil, coal. Don't let him starve us. (1917-1921)

Wrangel still alive. Rest him without mercy. (1917-1921)  

Yudenich, Denikin and  Vrangel Expelled from Russia (1917-1921)

General Nikolay Nikolayevich Yudenich, General Anton Denikin, and Baron Pyotr Nikolayevich  Wrangell were officers in the Imperial Russian Army. They joined the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army (later the Armed Forces of South Russia with general Denikin as commander-in-chief, after the 1917 Bolshevik putsch.

The Reds, however, rebuffed these attacks, and survived, and by late 1920 had driven the Whites back into the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Pacific - causing hundreds of thousands of White soldiers and civilians to emigrate. The Reds were able to take advantage of internal lines of communication and could utilise the railways, arsenals and the economy of the most populous provinces of the former empire. In this way they managed to arm, man and manoeuvre an army that by 1921 had grown to almost five million soldiers. The Whites, in contrast, never commanded forces totalling more than 250,000 men at one time, were separated from each other by huge distances, and were based around the less developed peripheries of Russia. Also, crucially, the Whites underestimated the Bolsheviks' capacity to resist. It still seems surprising that Trotsky was able to fashion a Red Army more effective than that of the experienced White generals ranged against him. He, however, enjoyed the material advantages mentioned, and he also introduced some revolutionary innovations: notably the network of Political Commissars - devout Bolsheviks who offered political guidance to the Red Army and who watched over the loyalty of the 50,000 imperial army officers the Reds employed to help command their forces. He also used terror most ruthlessly. The White armies, in contrast, exhibited only brutality, venality, disorder and a lack of political and military direction. Even their most effective fighters, the Cossacks, were more interested in booty and in securing their own regional autonomy than in driving Lenin from the Kremlin.

The League of Nations (1917-1921)
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 the Allied countries of the West cut off their links with them. They were angry with the Communists for withdrawing from the First World War, and several of them sent armies to help fight the Communists in the Civil War of 1918-21. They did not invite Russia to sign the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919-20, nor did they invite it to join the League of Nations. Russia thus became an outcast in the world. At first the Communists did not mind being isolated in this way. Lenin thought that Communist revolutions would soon sweep away the hostile capitalist governments in Europe and the USA. Then the world would be united in Communism and Russia's isolation would end. To help bring about this world revolution the Russians set up an organisation called Comintern. Led by Grigori Zinoviev, the aim of Comintern was to help Communists abroad organise strikes, rebellions and protests by sending them advisers and by providing them with money.

Join Red Cavalry. (1917-1921)

Russian revolutionaries understood the value and the potency of visual communications. Their posters delivered Proletarian Revolution's slogans to the masses and called on workers and peasants to fight for freedom and justice. In time of Civil War, propaganda posters were sent to the front lines in the same capacity as bullets and artillery shells. They were posted on walls, in cities which were under assault by the White Guard armies and foreign interventionists. The bottom of the vivid, bright-colored poster usually contained a warning: "Anyone who tears down or covers up this poster – is committing a counter-revolutionary act". The poster was a powerful weapon, and just like any weapon, it had to be guarded with utmost care. Poster created an immediate contact with the viewers and conveyed an array of subtle messages beyond the simple textual slogans. These sharp and short slogans engaged the viewers intellect, since the artists took their viewers and their own artistic works seriously. The graphic artistry encountered in these Russian Civil War posters is truly stunning and has captivated the viewers for decades. The visual boldness and departure from established tradition were in themselves statements of how much had changed since the Revolutions of 1917. Artists who had been on the "fringe" before the Revolution moved center stage, and would remain there until the imposition of Socialist Realism under Stalin in the late 1930s.

The most outstanding among the first revolutionary posters are the works of D.S. Moor, V.V. Mayakovsky , M.M. Cheremnykh and V.N. Deni. Each of these artists used unique methods and techniques in order to create emphatic art with powerful propaganda messages. During the Civil War, "ROSTA Windows" ("Okna ROSTA") – a famous project by the Russian Telegraph Agency, brought together artists who turned telegrams from Red Army soldiers into posters within hours of receiving them from the front lines. Renowned poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, became the soul of this undertaking. He produced texts based on the most recent telegrams and accompanied them with sketches. Mikhail Cheremnykh was also actively engaged in the project. Soviet artists frantically produced dozens of posters overnight, and every morning   ROSTA's were posted in the empty storefronts and windows (hence the project’s name), informing the citizens of the latest news in vivid and sharp-witted form. Victor Deni, a superb master of political caricature of his day, introduced smashing satire to the Soviet propaganda art. His posters mercilessly ridiculed capitalists, corrupt politicians and spineless yes-man.

Three years if social revolution. (Ukrainian; 1920)
Apsit, A. P. , Internationale. [ International lyrics at bottom.] 
Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We'll change henceforth the old tradition 
And spurn the dust to win the prize.

So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We'll shoot the generals on our own side.

No saviour from on high delivers
No faith have we in prince or peer
Our own right hand the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear
E'er the thieves will out with their booty 
And give to all a happier lot.
Each  at the forge must do their duty
And we'll strike while the iron is hot.

Announcement of the All-Ukrainian meeting of the poor men congress (1917-1921)

Down with the Murderer of the highroad worker - every bandit...(1920)

Enemies of the Revolution (1917-1921)

Fire - Cities are burning.  (1920)

Deni, Viktor Nikolaevich, Entente under the mask of peace.(1920)

 Little Entente  was a  loose alliance formed in 1920–21 by Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Its specific purposes were the containment of Hungarian revisionism (of the terms of the World War I peace treaty) and the prevention of a restoration of the Hapsburgs. The three nations were drawn together by three bilateral treaties of defensive and economic alliance. This combination eventually became closely bound to France by financial and treaty obligations, and Poland sometimes cooperated with it but did not enter the alliance. Yugoslavia and Romania were also members of the Balkan Entente, formed in 1934. 

The overall aims of the Little Entente and the Balkan Entente, taken together, were the preservation of the territorial status quo, established by the treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain, Trianon, and Neuilly, against the efforts of Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Bulgaria to have those treaties revised; the prevention of Anschluss, or union, between Germany and Austria; and the encouragement of closer economic ties among its members. The Little Entente was successful in its aims until the rise of Hitler in Germany, when French prestige was gradually displaced by German economic penetration and political pressure. It began to break apart in 1936 and was effectively ended when Czechoslovakia lost its membership by the formation of the Munich Pact (1938).

Deni, Viktor Nikolaevich, "Constituent Assembly" (1917-1921)
In 1918 the Soviet government closed down the Constituent Assembly and banned the Socialist Revolutionary Party and other anti-Bolshevik parties. Crew members are: France, a bourgeois, the military has no label and on the right is Victor Chernov, who edited the SR journal, Revolutionary Russia. He argued against Marxists who claimed that the peasants were a totally reactionary social class. Chernov left Russia and lived in Czechoslovakia before moving to the USA.

Fire - Cities are burning. (1920)

Ukrainian Red Army liberates its people.  (1917-1921)

To the aid of pans [landowners]. The last reserves of Marshal Fosha (1920)

 A pig trained in Paris. [French general is holding a drooling Polish pig.) (1920)

People are brothers and I like their bribes. [Play upon word "brat'ia" and "brat' ia"] (1919)

Labor is Bread -Who doesn't work doesn't eat.  (1917-1921)

Deni, Viktor Nikolaevich, Who is against the Soviets,  (1919)

Watch  the Tsar's  regress into the darkness led by church's allegory of the Three Magi   and the advance into the light of Communism

Moor, Dmitrii Stakhievich, Hail to the Universal Red October (1917-1921)

Long live the Red Army!  (1921)

Long Live World October [revolution].] (1917-1921)

Theatre - before and after October. (1917-1921)

Through Revolutionary Soviet to peaceful collective labor. (1920)

Moor, Dmitrii Stakhievich,  ArtisGlory to victorious Red Army soldier!   (1920)

 Down with capitalism - Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat (1920)

Only the close union of workers and peasants will save Russia from destruction and hunger.

Appeal to peasants to take measures against bandits.  (1917-1921)

Vicious circle. Worker hitting spot on map. [Statistics on an increasing number of desertions on the railroad] (1920)

Proletariat, you didn't fear heavy weapons -- don't fear heavy labor. The workers' country is built by labor. (1917-1921)

For the first time in the history of mankind October Revolution took the liberty to demand from the ages long oppressors of working people the payment for blood and tears of hundreds generations of the slaves. ... We will gain! (1920)

They give Soviet Russia coal. Give them machines, clothing and food. (1921)

Work in the rear, victory at the front.  (1920)

Parasites and loafers stop others from working. (1920)

10 Commandments of the proletariat. (1920)

Defense of Tula

 Tula defensive operation lasted from 29 October 1941 to December 5, 1941. The village of Tula Rogozhinskiy destroyed 75 enemy tanks on October  30th and 31st.

Soviet Propaganda Posters

"Hello, Mother-Land!"USSR Poster. Nina Vatolina, 1945


The youth sings the song of friendship

Be Vigilent While On Guard

Peace to people

Imperialism is war.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Giving meaning and context to powerful, emotional art

  3. This is just an especially well done blog; and thorough. I am using it in my History class. Thank you so much.