Visual Arts

Lenin Pledge

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.

"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."

Fagan's interest wasn't simply aesthetic.

"Looking at these things also helped me tremendously to understand the people I was negotiating with."

Representing a large American pharmaceutical company in the early 1990s and attempting to strike deals with Russia in the post-Soviet economy, Fagan says she often found herself having to deal with "crusty old 60-year-old guys who weren't too excited that things had changed. Even though the collapse had come, I'd go into their offices and see the portraits of Lenin and Stalin and the red flag and nothing had changed. They still idolized those guys. When you look back, you see that these things were all part of the systematic brainwashing."

Fagan began haunting the flea markets and bookstores in Moscow and St. Petersburg in late 1991.

"The book stores were open because they still sold the Communist propaganda. But they were also trying to become more entrepreneurial by selling antiques or junk on the side. The posters and publications were sort of their way of working around the system."

What she found in publications from the late 1800s and early 1900s were Tsarist depictions -- along the lines of Ladies Home Journal -- of the good life. Yet into the early years of the 1900s, books and magazines filled with increasingly angry caricatures of imperial privileges, oppression and power.

"Once you got to the revolutionary period, it really became a very interesting mix of stuff," says Fagan. "There were some extraordinary modernist layouts, meant to promote all the Russian projects and the idea of splitting up your families for the larger cause."

The USSR in Construction series in the exhibition exemplifies the high-octane visuals the Russians printed to convince the world that Stalin's Five Year plans were yielding big industrial dividends. Like many Western publications at the time, they portrayed the triumphs of man over nature. Those images were far too good to be true.

But perhaps not if you bought them when Fagan did.

She purchased her first ones in early 1992. "I think I got maybe 40 works for about $5," she says. "My Russian friend thought I was nuts. He asked why I wanted all this crap. But the posters I got then for about $25 now go for $500. Now he kind of wishes he had started buying back then, too."

That's when you know the revolution is kaput.

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: [email protected]

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow