Lenin Pledge

Russky business focus of USSR propaganda poster exhibition

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, you wouldn't have measured a woman's commitment to capitalism by the number of Communist posters she hung on her walls. But in these post-Cold War days, the West's reply to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's early 1960s boast "We will bury you" has evolved into something like "We will buy and collect you." And that's just what Elinor Fagan has done.

Her north Phoenix home is the closest thing Arizona has to Lenin's tomb -- a nondescript tract home packed floor to vaulted ceiling with Bolshevik propaganda posters, publications and artifacts. Most of the them date from the years shortly before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917-20. All of them carry the heavy-handed message of communist revolt. And Lenin's face seems to be everywhere, even peering down through balustrades in the upper-floor banister.

"This is one of my favorites," says Fagan, a short feisty woman in her 50s, reaching behind a living-room sofa to pull out a framed propaganda poster by Petr Kiselis. The image, from the 1910s, depicts a studly Bolshevik with rippling muscles swinging a pick at a nest of capitalist snakes.

"The Revolution in Print: Russian Political Posters From the Elinor Fagan Collection" will run with "Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde" through July 2 at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue. Mary Statzer, who curated the poster exhibition for the museum, will discuss the works on May 25 at noon and 7 p.m. Elinor Fagan will give a talk about her collection on  June 1 at the same times. For more information, call 602 257-1880.
"The Revolution in Print: Russian Political Posters From the Elinor Fagan Collection" will run with "Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde" through July 2 at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue. Mary Statzer, who curated the poster exhibition for the museum, will discuss the works on May 25 at noon and 7 p.m. Elinor Fagan will give a talk about her collection on June 1 at the same times. For more information, call 602 257-1880.

"It's unusual because the worker is topless," she says. "The Commies weren't too big on showing a lot of skin. I think that might have been what got him shipped off to the Gulag."

One can't help speculating where Fagan's zeal for Communist propaganda might have gotten her shipped during our own McCarthy stretch of the 1950s. Yet that's the charm of history. It turns revolutions and even Red Menaces into artifacts and collectibles worth appraising on Antiques Roadshow.

About a dozen of Fagan's stash of some 100 Russian posters and nine journals from her collection are on view at Phoenix Art Museum in conjunction with its current exhibition "Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde."

The works range from parodies of the Tsar and his chubby pals, the merchants and priests, to triumphal images of clenched-fist factory workers marching toward a proletarian future. Some of the publications, such as USSR in Construction from the early 1930s, were designed by avant-garde artists El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko. But most of the posters in the exhibition are the works of political cartoonists, such as Dmitri Moor, Viktor Deni and Alexander Apsit, who etched a niche for themselves as early illustrators of Lenin's cause.

Much of the imagery looks simplistic and comically dogmatic to modern eyes attuned to multimedia political and commercial blitzes. The capitalist pigs were just that: fat and slothful, practically oinking oppression. The good peasant guys and gals always appear as hard-chiseled, underfed salts-of-the-earth, working their way up from agrarian poverty to industrial betterment.

But in the early Communist era of high illiteracy and relatively limited visual media, these works must have touched the public psyche in ways that illustrated posters and other two-dimensional portrayals no longer can.

Fagan mentions that at the time of the revolution, the Communists sent propaganda trains filled with revolutionary imagery across the countryside. "All of this colorful, wonderful stuff must have made them feel like the country was really going somewhere," she says.

The effectiveness of some propaganda was due to its fusion of education and indoctrination.

Fagan points, on her living room wall, to a framed rendition of an alphabet whose letters came with Bolshevik parables.

"After the revolution," says Fagan, "they took the alphabet and changed the characters from the traditional Cyrillic and produced these things for the peasants. It was all part of an effort to teach them to read. But underneath each letter there's an anti-capitalist story about the revolution. So learning became a basic way of imparting propaganda."

The curiosity of these efforts is how nimbly they followed the path laid down by centuries of religious training, where learning to read and write were united with learning to believe. And how well they foreshadowed modern capitalist marketing, particularly to children, whose natural desire to learn has been a solid match for corporate desires to sell.

Viktor Deni and many other artists relied on hard-hitting political satire to get their messages across. Deni initially had the Marxist (Groucho, not Karl) view: "Whatever it is, I'm against it." He focused on the plight of the peasantry. Yet, along with the Communist regime, he became increasingly hard-core as time wore on.

His The Entent Under the Mask of Peace shows a slavering beast emerging from behind a docile-looking mask of a face labeled "Peace."

Works by other artists, such as The Truck Factory is a Small Revolution in All Industries of the Soviet Union, were basic, blunt pitches for the Big Red team.

The Communist effort to win the Russian mind wasn't without some whimsy, though. Dmitri Moor's The Tale of the Devil's Garden depicts the faces of Russia's World War I Austrian and German enemies Emperor Franz Josef and Kaiser Wilhelm metamorphosing from the knotty features of a potato and an onion. And Apsit relied on a dated allegorical style to illustrate the Soviet anthem The Internationale.

"What appealed to me about these things," says Fagan, "was looking and seeing and touching how the Communists controlled their people. I never understood really how the people could fall for this line of B.S. But when I saw the propaganda, I understood immediately."

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