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Soviet Press and Propaganda


Lenin – 1917, writing in the paper ‘Rabochi Put’ (The Worker’s Path):


The capitalists call “freedom of the press” a situation in which censorship has been abolished and all parties freely publish all kinds of papers. In reality it is not freedom of the press, but freedom for the rich, for the bourgeoisie, to deceive the oppressed and exploited mass of the people.

Lenin’s political view of the free press neglected to refer to his dependency on it for news during the time he was hiding abroad. That excellent historian, Helen Rappaport, wrote of Lenin’s penchant for visiting the Café Odeon in Zurich: ‘Lenin certainly went there to catch the latest of the six daily editions of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the international magazines’. In 1917, if the press in Switzerland had been as controlled and censored as Lenin’s Soviet press would turn out to be, Lenin would never have learned of the Russian revolution. He would have stayed in the café, oppressed, exploited and ignorant.

Freedom of the press, right of association, universal public education – socialism, socialism!*

*Karl Marx, 1850, Neue Rheinische Zeitung-Revue


Karl Marx, who appears to have an opinion on almost everything, is generally rather quiet about the press and propaganda. This is not altogether surprising since their manipulation is about the exercise of power and not the theorising that may lie behind its acquisition. However, I cannot find anything in Marx that is against the free press – quite the reverse, he sees a free press as a component of socialism, on a par with regulation of the state budget, abolition of protective tariffs, and Voltairianism, which combine to ‘…strike at the general monopoly of the party of Order’.

However, Lenin’s practical and fluid attitude to government was such that he would modify Marxism to suit reality. This meant that the press was captured, trained and harnessed to provide longevity for the regime.

Thus we have to put aside our normal ways of thinking and embrace George Orwell’s precise observation on the totalitarianism – that in one truth, two opposing propositions can happily exist.

Spreading the ‘Idea’

Spreading the Soviet message in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 1929. Click here to see a detailed description of this magazine

Spreading the Soviet message in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 1929. Click here to see a detailed description of this magazine

Marx was wrong when he thought that a proletarian revolution could not happen in Russia. It was perfect for it. The Russian people were steeped in mystical, literally Byzantine systems of belief on both sides of the fence – prince and peasant alike. They were generally poor and illiterate, living in conditions that had not substantially changed over millennia. Thus they were psychologically, economically and intellectually susceptible to any ‘idea’ that promised to change their miserable situation. It was a question of getting the ‘Idea’ into as many heads as possible and that is where the press and propaganda were to play a vital role for the Bolsheviks. The revolutionary word needed spreading, firstly to win power and then to keep it. The press and propaganda were cheap, re-usable and superficially harmless weapons of mass control.

Primacy of the written word

In the USSR for most of the first half of the twentieth century, the written word and accompanying images reigned supreme as the only ubiquitous source of news. Radios started to appear in private surroundings in the 1930s but they were expensive and in very short supply. Television broadcasts started in 1945 but were not to become widely consumed for many years. The only serious rival, albeit very distant due to the primitive infrastructure of the country and consequent lack of cinemas, was film.

Education becomes Propaganda

In the immediate post-civil war years, the press and other means of mass information were concerned with education of the masses and the raising of political and social consciousness. After the early 1930s it was largely concerned with propaganda output – to consolidate and prolong the life of the Bolshevik / Communist / Stalinist regime. That is all. In this simplicity, one must keep in mind that the communists strove to control everything. They were hardly likely to forget to try to control their greatest and most persistent enemy, their nemesis – the truth.

REVOLUTION and seizure of the means to dictate the truth

A Mayakovsky ROSTA window

A Mayakovsky ROSTA window

In 1917 the Bolsheviks gained control of the Petrograd Telegraphic Agency. The next year it was merged with Press Bureau of Council of People’s Commissars, and became the Russian Telegraph Agency (Российское телеграфное агентство) also known as ROSTA.

ROSTA was charged with the provision of Soviet public information and propaganda. It adopted the famous avant-garde artistic style and achieved long-lasting fame with the stencilled propaganda/information messages called ROSTA windows. The most famous exponent of this ‘artform’ was Vladimir Mayakovsky, and some of this work is available here.


In 1925, total media monopoly was achieved with the creation of TASS, the USSR Telegraphic Agency. It had exclusive access and distribution rights for all state information. This agency controlled news communicated to papers, magazines, radio and later television. It directly dictated to the lowest provincial newspaper 11 time zones away from Moscow all the way up the communication hierachy to formulating press releases of the Soviet Embassy in Washington and the Kremlin itself. Local censors were brought in throughout the country and punishments for deviationist press behaviour were both harsh and swift. For many years the USSR also controlled the media of its satellite states., ensuring there was no negative comment about the country from its conquered or socialist ‘brothers’. The press of the satellite states took on the same content, look and feel of the Soviet press.

Paper Shortage in the USSR

Ogonyok celebrates school textbooks being printed in time for the new school year – August 1950

Ogonyok celebrates school textbooks being printed in time for the new school year – August 1950

‘Media’ also includes the very means of production of a newspaper – the printing presses, copying machines, book binding technology, and even the paper itself. During the 1920s, Lenin, Bukharin and Stalin were busy publishing books on all manner of subjects, despite a critical shortage of paper for other uses, particularly school books. Although the country had more raw material for paper than any other, the shortage lasted many years and its end is graphically portrayed on the frontispiece of Ogonyok in 1950. Click here to see a description of that issue in our collection. It should also be noted that toilet paper was also often very difficult to find during the Soviet period. Perhaps that is one reason why so few newspapers and magazines have survived from that time. This is more a comment on the availability of alternatives than the literary or factual merits of the near-at-hand.

We can be heroes – just for…

The prolific written output of Lenin and Bukharin was published partly to fulfil their not inconsiderable egos, but also for the purpose of hero creation. This strange phenomenon is clear to see in every new regime that rises around the world from time to time.


Is the purpose of revolution to destroy the old way with the new, or simply to destroy the old people and replace them with your own? The Bolsheviks fully understood that none of the heroes of Russia could be credibly called communists or even socialists.

Thus new heroes had to be quickly inflated and displayed. The Bolsheviks who had the good fortune to die outside Stalin’s official execution chamber were all elevated to the position of ‘hero’ – Kirov, Ordzhonikidze, Sverdlov et al. By the late 1930s Stalin had not created a revolutionary society, rather he had overtaken the Tsarist approach and out-played it at its own game. He had replaced the pre-revolutionary, authoritarian, brutal, bureaucratic and unreliable regime with one surpassing it in all its failings. It was not the same story as under the Tsar, it was a lot more dangerous. However, the people in power were different and society had new heroes.

semyon-budyonnyOther ‘heroes’ were commanders from the civil war, such as Budyenny (left – shown here on his 70th birthday in Ogonyok).


Marshal Zhukov was greatly admired in the USSR after the 1941-45 war – so much that he had become a real ‘hero’. Stalin had him removed and sent away. This portrait of him is from the 1970s, well after his rehabilitation.

German Titov, cosmonaut

Airmen were particularly celebrated, as were explorers and sportsmen. However, the greatest of all Soviet heroes were its astronauts, and in particular the first two – Yuri Gagarin and German Titov. Further details about Titov and his portrait in the collection can be found here.

Shock-workers and Stakhanovites

rabisPerhaps the most obvious new ‘heroes’ were a fantastic creation of the state. In the first proletarian state, the heroes had to be predominantly proletarians – so ranks of working class ‘heroes’ who were working hard were identified and put on show as ‘shock workers’. This concept invaded every facet of life – illustrated by the cover of one of the magazines in the collection, Rabis, (‘Artworker’). It reads: ‘The day of the Artworker-shockworker – inspection of the warriors at the frontline of Socialist art’.

In 1935 the shock workers were superceded by a new group of production super-beings, known as ‘Stakhanovites’ – workers who had apparently laboured so well, so quickly, so intensely, that they had smashed their production targets. Named after the extraordinary miner Alexei Stakhanov, who apparently dug 14 times the normal amount of coal in a single shift, they were invited to Moscow for conferences, photographed in their workplaces, given passes for holidays and other sought-after privileges. These people were regularly featured in the press and celebrated as role models. Undoubted favourites with magazine editors, the Stakhanovites provided pages and pages of worry-free, completely safe reportage.

Stalin’s thick, wormy fingers

ogonyok-lysenkoStalin would manipulate the press to show his favouritism towards an individual or a point of view, without being implicit in judging. An excellent example of this is the 1948 cover of Ogonyok from our collection. In April of that year, Stalin’s favourite agronomist, Lysenko, was criticised for being a charlatan by members of the Soviet scientific establishment. The ensuing row ended in August of that year when Lysenko appeared at the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences and delivered a speech of victory. His critics were humiliated and the sycophantic Lysenko was allowed to work on.

To coincide with Lysenko’s ‘victory’, his was put on the cover of the leading news magazine of the USSR, just in case anyone was wondering where Stalin’s sympathies lay. By 1964, Lysenko’s incompetence had been widely exposed by leading scientists. The Academician Andrei Sakharov reported,

He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.

However, with Stalin’s patronage and thus the support of the Soviet media, Lysenko had worked for decades.

A Discussion about Language


A situation similar to the Lysenko affair arose in the field of linguistics. Stalin decided to weigh into a debate between leading Soviet academicians regarding the fundaments of language. He used Pravda to publish his own very long article, ‘Marxism and Problems of Linguistics’ from June to August 1950. He discredited the theories of a leading Russian linguist, Marr, pronouncing them ‘anti-marxist’. To replace Marr, Stalin called on V. Vinogradov, who had previously been exiled to Siberia in 1941, and made him director of the Linguistics Institute. Vinogradov was duly thankful and in return used the pages of Ogonyok to publish a crawling two-page review of Stalin’s intervention in the linguistic debate, concluding,

‘Thanks to the brilliant works of I. V. Stalin, the central questions of Marxist theory and the history of language have been solved.’

Click here (LINK URL??) to see that issue of Ogonyok.


All journalists were normally very respectful to the regime, since making any negative comment about the government, the party, the economy, or even a local official could be seen as engaging in counter-revolutionary provocation. The reward for this activity was at least 8 years in an arctic labour camp. Thus publishing critical comments or factual articles that implied criticism – for instance reporting on the terrible state of Soviet housing – became a highly unpopular option. Cartoonists were however at liberty to make obvious fun of the country’s enemies, both internal and foreign. The USSR had a complicated relationship with humour and satire. The funniest jokes (and they were hilarious by anyone’s standards) were never heard on the radio or read in the papers, but passed from trusted friend to family member to trusted friend. The ‘officially’ amusing parts of the press were in general rather dull and predictable. However, there was some social comment – but always at risk to the editor and journalists or cartoonists involved.

krasnaya-niva-cartoonEarly Soviet satirical journals included ‘New Satiricon’, ‘The Whip’, ‘Red Devil’ and ‘Red Pepper’. However the most famous was ‘Krokodil’, which was published from 1922 to 2006.

This cartoon, published in ‘Krasnaya Niva’ in 1928 is entitled ‘The Fruits of the Standard’ and comments on the fact that ‘standard cigarettes are not popular among the people’. One vagabond is saying to the other: ‘They live rich, those devils! You used not to find a fag end anywhere, and now they’re throwing out full packets.’ It is doubtful that this cartoonist would have dared to draw such a controversial and critical piece a few years later. The title is directed at the lack of quality and choice in consumer goods, and the wider meaning is that those available are fit only for tramps. That is anti-Soviet propaganda – 8 years in a camp. Click here(LINK URL??) for more information about this edition of Krasnaya Niva.

Everyday output

izvestiyaEarly Bolshevik papers were very thin (due to shortages of paper, ink, equipment and news). Titles such as Bednota (Poverty) and Krasnaya Gazeta (Red Newspaper) reported on the civil war. Later, the two most widely bought papers during the Soviet era were Pravda and Izvestiya. At their peak they daily achieved over 20 million copies together which were read by around 40 million people. Pravda was the more serious of the two, being the official organ of the Communist Party. Izvestiya (special 50thanniversary edition, left) allowed more articles of discussion and was slightly lighter in tone. Among the 8000 different papers published there were regional editions – Leningradskaya Pravda, for example, that tended to concentrate on national and local political issues. The armed forces had a newspaper covering military matters – Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Intellectuals were attracted by Literaturnaya Gazeta (the Literary Gazette), a bi-monthly paper published by the writer’s union. Hundreds of other titles were published in the many different languages of the USSR. In 1988, newspaper circulation was around 160 million copies per day.For those who could not afford newspapers or who wanted to look at one they had not bought, there were boards in parks and other places where the papers were displayed behind glass – allowing a reader access to the whole paper.

Magazines and Journals

Thousands of magazines and journals were published in the USSR. They covered almost every subject that was legal. Here are some examples from our collection:

prozhektorProzhektor came out as a supplement to Pravda from 1923 to 1935 and was the only full-colur magazine in the country. It was a lively, diverse and artistic journal, so its closure by Stalin in 1935 is of little surprise. Nikolai Bukharin was on its editorial board for 8 years.

krasnaya_nivaKrasnaya Niva (Red Field) was the Izvestiya counterpart of Prozhektor, lasting from 1923 to 1931. It was a less lavish publication, with a more literary direction. Its editorial team included Lunacharsky, who was People’s Commissar for Enlightenment. Its circulation was around 50000 copies per week.

ogonyok-welderOgonyok (The Little Fire) had been published before the Revolution and was re-animated by the famous intellectual, Mikhail Koltsov in 1923. The magazine is still published today, although Koltsov was shot. It was largely concerned with social and work issues, and had a distinct educational aspect. It contained cartoons, crosswords and reports from all over the USSR and abroad. It featured colour full-page reproductions of famous Russian and Soviet paintings. Stalin liked them so much he used to cut them out and stick them on the walls of his rooms, even though he could have had the real thing.

sovetski-ekranSovetski Ekran (Soviet Screen) was the official publication of the Union of Cinematographers and Goskino (State Cinema). It contained news about the domestic and international film industries, technical innovation, new releases, stills from popular movies and portraits of actors and actresses. It went through several name changes and survived nearly until the year 2000. Its peak circulation was nearly 2 million in 1984. From 1957 to 1991 it ran a yearly reader opinion poll to establish the best film of the year, best actor/actress, best children’s film and best musical film.

Posters and Murals

Old Soviet propaganda posters attract great attention because they are so strange in the modern context. They sell for fantastic sums of money, often many thousands of Euro.

Posters were used widely because they reached a wide audience for a small investment in materials and could be renewed quickly. Soviet propaganda posters, in as much as they were concerned with ‘selling’ a product, (belief in the government), follow the basic ‘rules’ of advertising, devised by the U.S. ad agencies in the early 1900s. The principle is known by the acronym ‘AIDA’ and states the purpose of the advertisement in the following stages:

Marxist-Leninist ideal

  1. Attract attention
  2. InvokeInterest
  3. Engender Desire
  4. Initiate Action

Attracting attention could be achieved with simple colour. Red is traditionally the most attractive colour in the Russian psyche, and indeed the Russian word for ‘beautiful’ (Krasivi) has the same root as the word for ‘Red’ (Krasni). Thus red was adopted by the Russian socialists and subsequently by the government and used wherever possible. The example from our collection is simple and stark in its message. Any one of the 4 stages could be the final objective of the piece.

gorbachevFor example, this poster of Gorbachev fulfils stages 1 and 2. It is more ‘brand advertising’ than pushing a certain product within that brand. It is asking the consumer to invest trust in the office of the President and its first occupant.

Stop moonlighting!

This can be contrasted by the piece ‘Stop Moonlighting’ which covers all 4 stages of the formula and ends with a call to the consumer to take action.

Soviet posters occupied 5 main categories:

  1. Political propaganda
  2. Nationalism and achievement
  3. Public information and social responsibility
  4. Condemnation of enemies
  5. Advertising a product or service


During the New Economic Policy, (1921-28), a certain degree of private enterprise was allowed to operate. This solved (temporarily) some of the main foodstuff shortages in the country. It gave rise to some of the most instantly recognisable and memorable advertising material in the world – that of the avant-garde artists whose work was published in poster form and also in magazines. A major practitioner was the artist, designer and sometime VKhUTEMAS teacher, Aleksander Rodchenko. He was commissioned by various companies to promote their products via visual imagery, and often teamed up with his friend Vladimir Mayakovsky who contributed both words and image ideas. Rodchenko did the outside decoration of the headquarters of the Mosselprom building, which can still be seen today in Moscow, as well as many press advertisements for the same business. Mosselprom was a producer of foodstuffs and had both static and mobile sales points all over Moscow.

This is an original Rodchenko advertisement for Mosselprom from our collection:

Rodchenko Mosselprom advert

The Strategic Objectives of Soviet Propaganda

The Soviet propaganda industry followed certain trends and rules, some of which apply to any system of persuasion.

eisensteinControl all the information gathering capabilities. Once monopoly of information was achieved, information was used or discarded, or formed a base to create completely new information unconnected with fact.

Control all the media. The Soviets controlled the means of delivery of the message, not just the message itself.

Control the past – once monopoly over information and the media was achieved, the ability to re-write history was available. Eventually, this required manipulation of the present as proof of the false history. Eisenstein’s film ‘October’ (1927) supplied staged sequences and events that never took place, but which have supplanted fact because there are no enduring images of what really happened. Roman Karmen’s war documentaries did the same thing. Sergei Eisenstein (right)

Creation of enemies – The Bolsheviks were constantly ‘at war’ with numerous enemies, both real and manufactured, creating reasons to explain the regime’s lack of achievement. These enemies included at various times: Anarchists, Mensheviks, Monarchists, Whites, British, French, Czechs, Capitalists, Kulaks, Wreckers, Saboteurs, Diversionists, Trotskyites, Left-Oppositionists, Right-Oppositionists, Bukharinites, Emigrants, Parasites, Bourgeois Nationalists, Fascists, Germans, Finns, Hungarians, Romanians, Italians, Poles, Vlasovites, Zionists, South Koreans, Americans, Chinese and NATO.

Creation of heroes – Stakhanovites, soldiers, sportsmen and politicians were identified and promoted as role models.

Subversion of the old with ‘new’ traditions – religious celebration days were removed, the calendar changed to reflect the new era, and Christmas became New Year, and Easter was May day. Around May day, processions and other distractions, all with a strong Soviet flavour, were organised. The holy trinity – The Father, Son and Holy Ghost were replaced on posters and other images with a new trinity – Marx, Engels and Lenin, becoming Marx, Lenin and Stalin later.

Creation of a ‘majority’ view – a fictitious ‘mass opinion’ put forward to encourage conformity and imitative behaviour. Example of this were the organisation of ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations and the seemingly heart-felt adulations that greeted leaders whenever they appeared before the public.

Control of illiteracy – The near eradication of illiteracy in the USSR created an audience capable of reading and thus disseminating propaganda. In 1926 about 55% of the population was literate. By 1937, due to the program known as ‘Likbez’, the figure reached 75% and by the 1950s – nearly 100%.

Accessibility and availability of news and propaganda. This was achieved by very low prices for newspapers, cinema tickets and political books and pamphlets. Papers were published in hundreds of regional languages and were widely available all over the country, with the daily ‘Pravda’ on sale in every one of the country’s 11 time zones at more or less the same moment.

krasnaya_niva_2Targeting of women. In pre-Stalinist times, women were a propaganda target, since they were overworked, had to look after their families and in particular had to try to buy food in whatever time they had left. Women were encouraged to put their children in kindergartens from very early ages so allow them to go back to work, and they were also lured by the concept of communal dining rooms where the whole family could eat without having to shop and cook at home. This Bolshevik view of the woman as a full contributor to the economy both at home and at work had a practical outcome. Buildings such as blocks of flats were designed with no kitchens in the apartments but direct access to communal canteens. Other social facilities such as libraries and kindergartens were built in. An example of this is Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow. Thus Soviet propaganda attempted to explain to women that a free, new and labour-saving future awaited them. Soviet woman would no longer be a slave to the kitchen and the family, but a fully liberated, empowered individual within the commune.


Propaganda targeting women in ‘Krasnaya Niva’, 1927. The feature is called ‘The Society Woman’ and shows how one can gain ‘status’ via the new opportunities. The examples include membership of the Presidium of the local Soviet, being a judge and candidate member of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. The cover of this issue shows a picture by A, Strakhov entitled ‘The New Woman’.

Targeting of the young. Young people were a specific problem and opportunity for propagandists. They are more mouldable, but more likely to resist. Thus considerable effort was invested in the creation of youth groups with the specific aim of political indoctrination of young citizens. They were the ‘Oktyabryata’ for 7-9 year olds, ‘Young Pioneers’ (10-15 year-olds) and the ‘Komsomol’ for older members. All grew out of the demise of Scouting in Russia shortly after the civil war. They offered their own premises with dedicated clubs, hobby facilities, sports and camping equipment and study rooms. The summer camps were very popular among the children of the industrial cities. Membership of organisations included compulsory political education. They were heavily advertised.

Targeting of the uneducated. Propaganda elevating the status of the uneducated was sure to bring loyal subjects among the general population. Hence the appearance of peasants on the covers of magazines. Factory workers – the industrial proletariat – had a higher status, and so were often photographed reading or looking generally studious.