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Soviet Propaganda exhibit showcases region’s history

Maria Smith | Thursday, August 18, 2005

When college students think about the Soviet Union, it might seem like something that has already faded into the annals of history.It wasn’t so long ago that Soviet officials still exerted close control over information and art through vast areas of Russia, eastern Europe and central Asia. “Darker Shades of Red: Official Soviet Propaganda from the Cold War,” an exhibit currently on display at the Snite Museum of Art, features propaganda posters and other artifacts from the emergence of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s until its collapse in the late 1980s.Posters were the main method for spreading propaganda in the Soviet Union for several reasons. After the Bolshevik Revolution most Russians were illiterate. In an era before television, officials made use of posters to spread images that would promote a desirable image of Soviet leaders and lifestyles. The political poster also played off the strong Russian tradition of devotional icons and popular prints.Tuesday afternoon’s lecture by Karen L. Kettering, associate curator of Russian art for the Hillwood Museum & Gardens in Washington, D.C., provided further insight into the methods and historical periods of Soviet art. Under the strict censorship of the Soviets Socialist Realism, the officially espoused method of art in the Soviet Union, became the main form of expression in almost all forms of art, including literature, drama and painting. Kettering described how Socialist Realism in the visual sphere was used to send messages to Russian citizens. One of the most important terms in understanding Socialist Realism is the untranslatable Russian word “zhizneradostnost.” The term might be loosely translated “joie de vivre” or “joy of life,” but the terms fail to capture the full meaning of the focal term.”What you’re supposed to get is a sense of pleasure,” Kettering said. “Also, there is an idea that there is no natural force Soviets can’t overcome.”Soviet artists used many methods to obscure the difficulties of life in the Soviet Union and try to portray this image and idealize Soviet life for citizens.One overriding feature of the propaganda posters is the emphasis on vivid colors and bright lighting unlike what is really found in the Russian landscape.”The intense light is almost Mediterranean. It doesn’t exist in northern Europe, certainly not in St. Petersburg,” Kettering said. “You start to feel like you’re looking at Mediterranean travel posters.”Early in Soviet history many of the posters featured idealized images of Soviet leaders, often portraying figures like Josef Stalin not only as courageous leaders but also as caring and benevolent figures. Stalin was portrayed as following in the footsteps of great figures like Marx and Lenin.Other figures also began to infiltrate Soviet art as images that would show progress. Uzbeks, for example, were frequently depicted as progressing towards an ideal state because Uzbeks citizens often had the lowest incomes and literacy rates.The figure of the strong Russian woman also became prevalent, partly as an image of Mother Russia. During post-war reconstruction, there was a great emphasis on images of agriculture and industry to encourage the effort of brute force that would be needed to pull the Soviet economy back from the edge. Since so many young men had been killed in combat and the recovery depended largely on women, women were often depicted at the center of agricultural and industrial images as well.Another idealized figure in socialist realism was the border guard. Soviet officials played off the fear that lingered from German attacks long past WWII to promote loyalty to the Soviet government.”They used an innate fear of war, of immanent attack at any time,” Kettering said, “This was successful into the 50s, 60s and 70s.”In later examples of Soviet imagery the concentrated fear of war and work towards progress is replaced by images denouncing foreign organizations and officials. These were less successful than posters that did not idealize the Soviets, and dealt with social problems like alcoholism.”There was a feeling that ‘We have enough problems right here to deal with,'” Kettering said. “Artists were allowed to address current problems.”Many of the Soviet posters feature rhymed quatrains that are powerful in Russian, but are difficult to translate. For the Snite exhibit Russian professor Alyssa Gillespie rendered the literal English translation into rhymed verses that have not previously been included in the exhibit.The Soviet Union may be fading into history, but its methods of propaganda are not.”Eighteen months ago when U.S. forces entered Baghdad, they found similar imagery with Saddam Hussein,” Kettering said. “Hussein studied Stalin. It is amazing to see the parallels.”If history can teach lessons, this exhibit of Soviet propaganda has many to teach.