Social Advertising in Stalinist Times

Contrary to popular stereotype, the majority of advertising in Stalin’s USSR were associated not with party and ideological propaganda, but rather with what we might today call ‘social advertising’. If during Tsarist times, ‘education of the populace’ was a role of the church, in the Soviet Union, this role was taken by the state, and the extent of educational works were magnified manifold: it was necessary to create a consciousness in the ‘new man’, to form a new way of life, a new quotidian, and to eliminate illiteracy.

Many directions of social enlightenment were first begun in early Soviet period. For example, in 1930 already there were anti-smoking posters.

Nicotine is poison! (One drop of nicotine kills a small animal. A person who smokes will, over 30 years, consume 200,000 cigarettes, or 160 kg of tobacco, which contains 800gm of nicotine)

And the posters already look completely professional, not only in the artistic but also in the informational sphere. Below is another poster from 1930:

Smoking is costly and dangerous for health and life.

As far as I am concerned, we don’t have nearly enough of such posters as the wonderful ‘Our ultimatum to adults‘ (1930):

Our ultimatum to adults! Adults – don’t spread tobacco fumes into the air we breathe; don’t set us a bad example by sucking on cigarettes; before you preach the ills of smoking, give it up yourselves!

‘Do not set us a bad example by sucking on cigarettes!’

It was probably in the USSR of 1930 that the first large-scale anti-smoking campaign was initiated, as indicated by the following poster which dates from the same year:

It is forbidden to smoke here… But I smoke.

Although ‘dry laws’ were abolished in 1924, there continued to be relentless campaigns against alcoholism in the USSR. (Below is a poster from 1929.)

There’s a play on words here. The ‘o’ in Sport gives strength’ while the ‘i’ in Spirt (spirit) gives death.

 Poster by N. Deni, 1930:

No point kidding with the drunk / He needs to be beaten / Culturally / severely / in fury, angrily / beaten every day / every step of the way / no breath should be granted the enemy.

From 1930, ‘What can be bought for kids at the cost of 1 litre of vodka‘:

Another social ill fought vigorously by soviet social advertising was prostitution. This was considered a legacy of exploitative society, requiring total eradication. But the problem was not that easily solved. The poster below is from 1929:

One of the issues faced by the Soviet regime was the emancipation of women, their conversion to active participants in the construction of the new order. Many works were dedicated to this theme. Here is one from the 1920s, ‘Woman – Learn to read and write!

Oh dear, mum, if you could read and write, you could have taught me!

From the 1920s, ‘Down with kitchen slavery!

It is possible that the USSR was the first country in the world to seriously turn attention to the problem of sexual harassment. Here is K. Rotov’s ‘Away with molesters of women‘:

In the 1930s appeared the first posters promoting the traffic code. Here is ‘Disobey the law – risk your life‘ (1930s):

Besides addressing the “negatives”, i.e. the evils of anti-social behavior, social advertising was distributed on a large scale to assert positive behaviours. It primarily promoted a healthy lifestyle as the most important attribute of the new Soviet society.

The struggle against poor sanitation at the time was very serious. Below is ‘Wash your hands after work and before eating‘, 1931.

Have a wash after work‘ (1932):

In the 1930s, one of the ideals of Soviet life was the garden city.

The duty of every worker is to bring sanitation to every house and every street.

In the USSR, there was enormous attention towards the development and propaganda of physical education and sport. Here is Alexander Deyneka’s 1933 poster ‘To work, to build, and not to whine’:

… you may not be an athlete, but you can certainly be fit

Here is A. Kokorekin, ‘Be ready’ (1934):

Be ready for work and defence.

Many of these posters are highly artistic works, almost masterpieces. My favourite is the following poster from 1947 by L. Golovanov:

And this – a total masterpiece: V. Koretsky, ‘Train!’ (1951):

If you want to be like me, train!

In the early post-war years appeared the first posters for mass tourism. Here is one from 1947, ‘Be a tourist on the weekend‘:

Be a tourist‘ (1949):

Be a tourist! Travel around your native country!

A special focus of social advertising in Stalin’s USSR was to entice the youth into new technologies and prestigious professions. The most prestigious, of course, was aviation. Here is G. Klyutsis’ ‘Youth – get in the planes‘:

At the same time, advertising morally encouraged people into the difficult, noble professions. Below is ‘Fame and honour to village doctors‘ (1948):

Perhaps it was pleasant for people in these professions to see such posters. Here is V. Koretsky, ‘Glory to the teacher‘ (1949):

One of the most ambitious projects of the Stalinist USSR was the so-called ‘cultural revolution’: the complete eradication in the shortest possible time of illiteracy (which had been 75% of the population in Tsarist times), the construction of an enormous network of libraries, clubs, cinemas, radio stations, the opening of new schools, institutes and universities. This huge work was reflected in poster art. Here is ‘Everyone to the library‘ (1929):

Every farm hand, peasant and poor man should become a reader at the library.

Here is ‘A good library for every Soviet village‘ (1935):

The book – our true helper on the Bolshevik path to a culturally rich and prosperous collective farm life. (The man’s got a Sholokhov, but note the book the woman’s reading – scintillating stuff! Stalin on Lenin (!))

There was promotion of high standards of service. Here is a poster from 1948:

We will cater culturally to every visitor!

By the way, it was found that even under capitalism, high standards of service did not appear by themselves, and needed to be inculcated.

There was the promotion of social activism and participation in various socially useful productive works. Here is ‘Join the volunteer fire service‘ (1952):

And, finally, social advertising in the Stalinist USSR promoted even such eternal and classless values and concepts such as ‘family honour’. Here is a poster by V. Govorkov (1949):

This is only a brief overview of some of the directions of social advertising in Stalin’s Soviet Union; an introduction to this huge subject. Of course, real life was quite far from beautiful posters; Soviet society under Stalin faced massive repression and years of hunger. But still these examples of social advertising demonstrate the main directions of state policy, its ideals, values and attentions. There is much that today’s world can learn from it.

[Translated from Социальная реклама в сталинском СССР, Visual History on LiveJournal, Feb 11, 2013.]

Examples of Socialist Realism

According to Wolfgang Holz,1 Socialist Realism was the manifestation of a particular myth-making and allegorical style of art. To illustrate his view, he takes four works and analyses them for thematic content.

The Shot-putter, by Alexander Samokhvalov. (1933).

The Shot-putter, by Alexander Samokhvalov. (1933).

His first example is The Shot-Putter (1933), by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971). In his words, the work shows:

a sportswoman dressed in a white jersey, bearing the letter ‘D’, an abbreviation and symbol for the Moscow sports club Dinamo. … She also wears red shorts. In her right hand, she holds the metal ball. In the left corner of the background a zeppelin hovers almost casually in an illuminated sky.

Holz points out the alliteration of ‘devushka‘ (girl), ‘dirizhabl‘ (zeppelin), and ‘dinamo‘ into that letter D, to condense the New Socialist Person into a machine-body, ‘inside which soul and physical body bear the dynamic tempo of the organised society.’ But for all the supposed equality of women and men in Soviet times, there was an undercurrent of gender repression: even in this superior socialist creature, for a woman with a physical masculine strength, her attributes of feminity are paramount: the broad hips, thick thighs and full breasts, and soft physiognomy.

Higher and Higher, by Serafima Ryangina. (1934).

Higher and Higher, by Serafima Ryangina. (1934).

The next example is Higher and Higher (1934) by Serafima Ryangina (1891-1955). This shows a Socialist couple at work at an electric pylon. They are both in work clothes a few hundred feet above the ground, and carry metal ropes and pincers.

The man is looking intensely into the woman’s face, and she herself is staring towards some point near the top of the pylon. Both faces are brightly illuminated by the sun, and their hair is blown by the wind in order to indicate the movement of their actions as well as the pathos of their deeds. The couple’s movement upwards is encouraged pictorially by the dynamic diagonal of the electric pylon that cuts right through the image.

This is an obvious celebration of the progress in the USSR’s second five year plan. Holz interprets this as an “oscillation between the ‘being’ of present reality and the ‘will be’ of collective production targets.” The woman appears to be gazing towards the fulfilment of the plan’s ambitions and the future happiness that might stem from it. Equally, from a vantage point of the ‘couple-constellation’ at the centre of the canvas, the viewer is asked to believe that Soviet society is about to reconstruct paradise on earth, an utopia in which Adam and Eve will walk around in overalls and carry screwdrivers.

According to Joanna Pitman2, both Samokhvalov and Ryangina’s women are archetypes (gorgeous blondes, to boot!) who work tirelessly under sunny skies, bursting with health, to tame the physical or geographical wilderness. This ideal did not pass without criticism even by Soviet apparatchiks: the newspaper Izvestia decried its “chocolate-box sweetness” that made the building of socialism look like an afternoon’s outing.

New Moscow, by Yuri Pimenov. (1937).

New Moscow, by Yuri Pimenov. (1937).

Holz moves onto New Moscow (1937) by Yuri Pimenov (1903-1977):

a street scene in the centre of Moscow, near the Bolshoi Theatre and Sverdlov Square. In the foreground, a woman is steering a convertible along a boulevard-like prospect towards the House of Trade Unions (Dom Soyuzov), depicted in bright red colours. Pimenov’s perspective is that of a viewer seated in the rear of the car, watching busy street life – black limousines, pedestrians and red trolley-buses … the monumental architecture of the new Moscow.

Besides the repetition of the colour red (which we saw in the previous two paintings as well – also observe the red carnation on the left of the windscreen), there is another identical dynamic at play – that of modernity and striving towards a socialist paradise. The intent here was to portray the Soviet future as modern as New York (with its similarly represented flappers and high-society women).3 As the woman moves from classical to neo-classical to Stalinist architectures, the distance she covers signifies the distance covered by her society since the Revolution.

Collective Farm of 1937, by Arkady Plastov. (1937).

Collective Farm of 1937, by Arkady Plastov. (1937).

Holz’s last example is Collective Farm Festival of 1937, by Arkadi Plastov (1893-1972), who created this during the brutal collectivisation of farmers in Stalinist times. Given that millions died in the drive, this painting in the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) style might reek of triumphalist myth making; yet many people at that time believed in miracles that in the end became reality.

Plastov depicts cheerful peasants who are eating from tables full of food, dancing, playing the balalaika and talking. … it harmoniously unites children, youths, young men and women as well as a group of stariki or old men, seated next to the samovar.

Again we have the occurrence of the colour red – in the star and the banners, the red woman and the tomatoes. This time, the iconography is towards medieval religious painting, with the heavenly placement of Stalin and the earthly location of the peasants, and also represents a ‘quasi-feudal’ pyramidal structure in Soviet society that Stalin himself proposed in 1931 with himself at the top and happy lumpen elements beneath. And again we have a diagonal thrust in the painting, which serves to connect the “red of Soviet ideology (red star, banners) with the sensual reds of food and vibrant felinity, again mixing up political meanings with popular ones, rendering an elitist ideology attractive and familiar to the mass viewer“.


  1. Wolfgang Holz, ‘Allegory and iconography in Socialist Realist painting’ in M. C. Bown and Brandon Taylor (eds), Art of the Soviets: Painting, sculpture and architecture in a one-party state, 1917-1992., Manchester University Press, 1993.
  2. Joanna Pitman, On Blondes, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.
  3. Stephen Pain, “Russian and Soviet Art: Levitan and Pimenov“, Escape into Life.