Conference of Heavenly Healers. c. 1920s
Lithograph printed in color on paper
Gift of Mrs. D. Spencer Byard (Margaret Mather, class of 1933)
Photograph by Stephen Petegorsky
The target audience of most Soviet propaganda posters was minimally educated. Eighty percent of the population was illiterate in 1897, which meant that propaganda had to be graphically strong and visually comprehensible. By 1920, however, literacy had risen to 40%, creating a new focus on text in propaganda posters. Textual information became increasingly crucial to the comprehension of the image, as in the case of this poster. This is reason to believe that some posters were not intended for the illiterate peasantry, but for the working class and soldiers who had been educated by the Communist regime. It is likely that those who could read were expected to bring these posters to the factories and villages, spreading the antireligious message to those who could not decipher it themselves.
This poster is complex, both in image and text. There are two tables in the scene, indicating a hierarchy among the figures. The head table includes God, the devil, Saint John, and the Mother of God, while the lower table is populated by figures as diverse as Rasputin, Saint Catherine, and the Russian folklore figure Baba Yaga. On the table are bottles of holy water, bones, a jar of spiders, and a black cat. The caricatures of the figures are universally negative, thus reducing all faith to the lowest level of superstition. Yet the figures are not instantly recognizable in themselves, and their names, written in their halos, are necessary to identify them. The text presents more puzzles. Its language is crude and at times vulgar. It uses peasant slang, often sacrificing sense for the sake of rhyme. For the most part, the text functions to identify each of the saints, pointing out the superstitions generally associated with them. Both the language and the content of the text suggest that the audience for this poster was a less educated, largely rural public. On the other hand, the extensive text appears to necessitate a translator—someone to point out the supposed irrationality of faith, which the nonsensical text and image insidiously underscore.
What’s all this noise? What’s this entire clamor? All faces of doctors, heavenly in manner. Not on the left or on the right can you escape from God’s might. If God wants to save you, you will not die, no matter what or how hard you try!
This is an introduction. Keep your wits about you, people!
At the top, presiding over the conference of heavenly healers, are fighters of illnesses and residents of heaven. Stop! First on the left—the devil, a notorious gentleman. It is flattering to be infected and be cured by him. Second—Nicolai, he’s not Nicolai the Second, but also worked when he was beckoned. They stood for the same thing, obviously! Third is the Warrior John, who acts as the bourgeois pawn. He's up to snuff, he guards your stuff, and he brings home the slaves that have gone. In the middle, the main ringleader—Uncle God, merciful and strict. He sends illness, and later starts to cure it. He is used to being out of place. Christopher—foreign delegate, pleasant person. A specialist in all illnesses: sewing and reaping and playing the pipe. Kazanskaya, the virgin, many say about her that she helps from the evil eye. Saint Panteleimon, meek and beloved, he is a person like Christopher, capable of anything. He can cure all illnesses, with only one spoon.
Well, but now we will have a look at the whole picture and analyze the lower half.
Number one here is Koldun the Sorcerer—rascally skinflint, healer, and seer. The second number is John the Baptist, treating for an ocular illness. Further along is Saint Catherine, fat like a feather bed, helps with the birth of a daughter or son. Saint Martinian cures the prodigal son of the mess he's in. Receiver of God Simion, he treats diarrhea in children. And there is Saint Paicii-- when you die, pray to him. Very saintly Marufa cures of the evil spirit. Baba Yaga, chicken legs, she cripples herself and she cures herself-- works like Uncle God. Kiprian takes away evil spells. For the plague of cattle, pray to Flora. He who has a pretty mug obviously prayed to Saint Konon. Saint Basil helps with fever and Nikita with infantile fits. He whose tooth hurts, prays that Holy Antip helps. Roman—a man of great nobility—takes away infertility. Of hernia cures the red-headed Artemii; Barbara—from sudden stroke; of bestial illnesses—Vlacii; and then there's Murin the Monk—look at his face, it’s obvious what he heals! Finally Grishka Rasputin-- well, we know what he's involved in!
Look, what company! Only one thing to say: See ya, arrividerci!