Russian Revolutionary Posters 1917-1929


Stefan Congrat-Butlar

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 100 in 1998.

The Russian Revolutionary posters on this page are from a collection at the Lenin Library in Moscow, where Italian photographer Caio Garruba was permitted to photograph them for their first publication in the West. They all date from 1917 to 1929, the stormy twelve-year period which ushered in the October Revolution fifty years ago and spanned the decade of unrest, counter-revolution, famine, foreign military intervention, and economic turmoil that followed.


More than 3,600 such Soviet Revolutionary posters are known to have been preserved. They are recorded in the eight leading Soviet museum and library repositories in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, probably not one of which has a collection approaching completeness.

Soviet art historians generally tend to attribute the birth of these posters to the fervor of the Revolutionary movement of the period. But its origin has been traced back, if not to the French and European cartoons and caricatures of 1848 or the Paris Commune, at least to such native Russian precursors as the lubok, a form of Russian popular polychrome print often accompanied by a humorous or satirical rhymed verse or unrhymed text. Political poster art flourished in the Russia of Czar Alexander I. Famous pre-revolutionary artists, such as the St. Petersburg painter Venetsianov, who founded the realistic school of Russian painting, designed patriotic posters during the war against Napoleon.

The Bolshevik posters of the period mirror the conflicts and concerns of the Revolutionary struggle: exploiters and exploited, world capitalism, the Czar and his henchmen, the call to arms for the cause, an appeal to the workers of the world - or, at least, of Russia - to unite. When the Revolution of October-November 1917 ended in victory for the Revolutionary cause, the slogans became peace, Lenin's hoped-for "general peace, without annexations and without indemnities," land reform, economic reform.

With the outbreak of the Civil War after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty in 1918, the poster designers, legend writers, and Soviet publishing houses turned their attention to the emergencies created by adherents of counter-revolution and foreign intervention and to new personalities and events: again calls to arms, anti-Bolshevik White Guards and their leaders, the foreign interventionists and their Russian supporters, the Polish landed gentry and its marshal and leaders and their dreams of an empire "from sea to sea" (Baltic to Black).

With the end of the Civil War attention turns to reconstruction, consolidation, mobilization of moral and economic forces, volunteer labor, education, collectivization, trade unions, appeals to combat anti-Semitism and prostitution and - above all - illiteracy, and celebrations - May Day celebrations with hopes for a society with justice and equality for all.

As for artistic merit, many of the posters are the equal of anything produced in other cultures. Some are brilliant and shocking and evocative and provocative; some are impressionistic, others expressionistic; some are definitely forerunners of the future Soviet socialist-realism.

Some were designed and executed by the foremost Russian artists of the day -Moor, Apsit, Lisitski, Ivanov (Mayakovski alone produced more than 600) -others by unknown and unrecorded but significant draftsmen, caricaturists, and artists. The motifs and styles and sources of inspiration are varied. The posters speak for themselves and for their creators and for the times.