Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the ruling Communists faced the difficult prospect of replacing firmly entrenched Russian ideas and customs with the new ideals of the Communist state. Religious observance, which Karl Marx famously called “the opiate of the people,” became a major target for wide-scale eradication. Between 1918 and 1939, the Soviet government engaged in an extensive multi-pronged antireligious campaign that used posters, periodicals, photographs, and films to ridicule and disparage all religions collectively and individually. These propaganda campaigns were supported by harsh legislation and brutal oppression of the clergy and religious laity, many of whom were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. The most vitriolic and vicious attacks were against the prevailing Eastern Orthodox Church which had a strong following in the region. Through the use of images and text, the Communists sought to sway a largely illiterate public by equating religion, including its leaders and followers, with backwards thinking and capitalist manipulation and exploitation.
Visual propaganda is insidious and often effective. It has been deployed by many different cultures over time when one group tries to wrest political and cultural authority from another. Using visual techniques such as color and spatial relationships, type design, recognizable and significant details, caricature, stereotyping, and shock value, the makers of the posters of the kind featured in this exhibition sought to exploit the Soviet populace’s deep-seated class and ethnic prejudices as well as their reverence for the written word, all with the aim of destroying organized religion in Soviet territory.
The aim of this exhibition is not in any way to advocate the views expressed in the posters, but to examine them as recognizable examples of manipulative propaganda that were designed to, and still do, provoke a strong reaction. Through examining these works, viewers will gain a better understanding of the mechanics of visual propaganda as well as learn more about a devastating moment in world history that is largely unknown in the United States.
Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
Translations, research, and writing for this exhibition has been contributed by Alexandra Merley, a Ph.D. candidate in German Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Additional writing, organizational, and research support was contributed by Nina Wilkinson (class of 2007), Cunningham Center Curatorial Intern.
The Museum gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following people in the organization of this exhibition: Hayat Nancy Abuza, Interfaith Program Coordinator, Smith College Office of the Chaplains; Maria Banerjee, Professor of Russian, Smith College; Bella Barmak, Russian Center Assistant, Center for Russian Culture, Amherst College; Ludmila Garciu, Smith College class of 2007; Father Michael Korolev, Rector, St. Peter and St. Paul Russian Orthodox Church, Springfield; Jim Lapides, Director/Owner, International Poster Gallery, Boston; Dr. Alla Rosenfeld, former curator of the Russian collection, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University; Vera Shevzov, Associate Professor of Religion, Smith College; Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Selzer, Smith College Chaplin and Advisor to the Jewish Community; Suzanne Strauss, English Teacher, Northampton High School; and Jane Taubman, Professor of Russian, Amherst College.