Imagining the Future: Approaching Soviet Propaganda from a New Angle

By Tom Porter

Joseph Stalin’s plan to modernize the Soviet Union’s economy, beginning in 1928, carried enormous cost for the country—especially in its human toll. Agricultural collectivization disrupted the food supply and created a famine that caused millions to die from starvation by 1933.

rjohnson headshot
Reed Johnson

How did Soviet propagandists try to sell the population on the aims of the plan? asks Senior Lecturer in Russian Reed Johnson.

In a recent research project, Johnson took a fresh look at propaganda posters from the era and considered the language and imagery employed to mobilize the largely illiterate or semiliterate masses.  “I want to stress, however, that I’m not an art historian,” he said. “I’m looking at these images as rhetoric rather than delving deeply into their visual aspects.”

In a chapter he has written for an upcoming book about conceptions of time in the Soviet Union, Johnson explores the propaganda posters produced at the time. (The chapter title is “Last Stop: Communism”.) It was an issue he also addressed in a presentation to Bowdoin faculty colleagues in the fall semester, titled “Imagining the Future in Soviet Propaganda Posters: Metaphors of Time as Space.”

“After looking at these posters I did some research into cognitive science and thought about how metaphors frame thinking,” said Johnson. “I’m not referring to the metaphors we think of in literary terms, but a broader way of talking about one aspect of reality in terms of another."

The bow of a large steam ship capsizes small boats and crushes caricatured representatives of Soviet “enemies.”
Dobrokovsky, M. My idem na vsekh parakh po puti industrializatsii k sotsializmu. [We Are Moving Full Steam Ahead via Industrialization to Socialism] 1931.

For example, these “conceptual metaphors,” as he refers to them, are often used to frame the concept of time in terms of space. This was an approach he saw mirrored in many Soviet propaganda posters.

“Space is used to represent time because time is sort of slippery and space is something we see all around us, right?” One way this is portrayed, said Johnson, is to depict time as movement through space, either with the future approaching us, or us approaching the future. As Stalin’s modernization plan got underway, Johnson notes a shift in emphasis in the visual propaganda coming out of the Soviet regime.

“Whereas earlier propaganda, including prerevolutionary material, tended to stress the idea of the revolution moving toward the people, of the future itself approaching, the later works tend to show the country—often symbolized by a locomotive—instead speeding toward the fixed destination of the future. This shift worked to create a sense of urgency. ‘Don’t just sit there and wait for the communist future to come,’ is the message. ‘You need to actively move toward a better future.’ Time is often shown as a race toward the future and the Soviet people need to mobilize and take part in it,” he added, “or their capitalist competitors will win.”

Two train locomotives compete in a race above various graphs showing industrial output in industrialized nations and the USSR.
Artist Unknown. Kto kogo? Dognatʹ i peregnatʹ. [Who Whom? Catch Up and Overtake]. 1929. 

Interestingly, Johnson says this approach provides a notable contrast to the messages coming out of the Kremlin today. “Vladimir Putin’s propaganda at the moment is very reliant on invoking the heroic dark past, especially the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, as opposed to the emphasis on the promised bright future in these posters.”

The most chilling part of Stalin’s propaganda messages is their attitude toward dissent, he explained. “‘Anyone who stands in the way of our progress must be quashed,’ is the message. Likewise, any lives that need to be sacrificed to achieve Stalin’s goals are considered acceptable collateral damage. “This is something that you see a lot in Soviet posters, where the country is shown as on the move and unstoppable.” For example, he added, look at the poster featured above, depicting a steamship laden with cargo plowing forcefully through a group of tiny boats with would-be dissenters. “Bear in mind that millions of people are thought to have perished due to collectivization and Stalin’s first five-year plan, most of them from famine,” he observed. “These posters offer insights into how Stalin’s regime conceived of the movement of time and history through conceptual metaphors such as these, which helped lay the cognitive groundwork for a process that cost the lives of millions.”

Above all, Johnson said he wants to stress the importance of how a particular issue is framed. “This propaganda was perhaps so powerful largely because it was able to appeal to certain underlying cognitive biases or mechanisms to shape how people see things.”

A train steams over spans of a masonry bridge labeled with years.
Artist Unknown. Oktiabrʹskaia revoliutsiia - most k svetlomu budushchemu. [The October Revolution is a Bridge to the Bright Future]. 1920.