Soviet Propaganda Art

Much of the art of Russia was created to make a political statement. There are countless portraits of Lenin and Stalin and other works that glorify the political system, such as Lenin with Peasants by Vladimir Ivanov. However, there were also works produced during this period that do the opposite of glorifying the system and would have been condemned as “bad” by the government, possibly resulting in the artist’s arrest and sentence to prison camps. One of our artists, Alexander Nozhkin, is a good example of this type of art. He was anxious to get his water-colored etchings expressing his abhorrence of different aspects of his society out of the country where they could not get him into trouble. His art depicts the state as a monster rather than the protector and care-giver its leaders wished it to appear.

Another example of negative propaganda art is Alexander Kurzanov’s Starvation Triptych. The three large paintings depict the starvation of the people during three different periods in Russia’s history – first, in 1917 when the Bolsheviks were in power and sent many off to concentration camps, or gulags, in Siberia where they died of hunger and cold (this, the center panel is a memorial to the artist’s grandfather, who died in such a camp); second, in 1932 when Stalin cut off the grain supply to the Ukraine, and more people died of starvation than had died in World War I on both sides (the left panel); third, in 1941 when many Russians died of hunger during the hardships of World War II (the right panel).

An example of a different type of propaganda art would be Mikhail Likhachev’s portraits of Lenin. During World War II, Likhachev was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war. Russian soldiers who spent time in German prisons were viewed by their own government as spies for Germany and sentenced to a minimum of ten years in Siberian gulags. After the war, when Likhachev returned to Russia, he produced a vast number of portraits of Lenin to “prove his patriotism” to his country in order to avoid being sent to a gulag to be “cleansed” of all German influence he may have retained.