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Art into Life: Agitprop and Vladimir Mayakovsky

Hannelore Fobo. June 2020

Vladimir Mayakovsky (text and design), Rosta Window No 742 Мы зажгли над миром истину эту... • We Sparked this Truth over the World. Four stencil drawings, 128 x 102 cm, December 1920

Vladimir Mayakovsky (text and design), Rosta Window No 742
Мы зажгли над миром истину эту...We Sparked this Truth over the World.
Four stencil drawings, 128 x 102 cm, December 1920
Ria Novosti, Wikipedia Public Domain more>
Documentation and attribution: The Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts >>
Web 9 September 2020
The text above the drawings quotes Lenin's speech at the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Part (March 1919) about the electrifcation of Russia: "Вопрос об электрификации поставлен в порядок дня съезда "Мы при крупном переломе: на трибуне Всероссийских съездов будут появляться не только политики, но и инженеры." Из речи тов Ленина на 8 съезде. Плакат. Оригинал. Художник В. В. Маяковский. Текст В. В. Маяковского. 4 рис., 128 х 102.

Art into Life: Agitprop and Vladimir Mayakovsky

This text attempts to illustrate some aspects of early Soviet visual propaganda and its most important agent, Vladimir Mayakovsky, before concluding with some remarks about the Leningrad art group New Artists.  

Agitation and propaganda, such as public speeches, wall newspapers or banners carrying slogans, follow a long Soviet tradition rooted in the Great October Revolution or Bolshevik coup d’etat, but the Bolsheviks conceived of the technique of agitprop as a political strategy long before.

The Encyclopædia Britannica gives the following definition of agitprop:

    Agitprop, abbreviated from Russian agitatsiya propaganda (agitation propaganda), political strategy in which the techniques of agitation and propaganda are used to influence and mobilize public opinion. Although the strategy is common, both the label and an obsession with it were specific to the Marxism practiced by communists in the Soviet Union.

    The twin strategies of agitation and propaganda were originally elaborated by the Marxist theorist Georgy Plechanov, who defined propaganda as the promulgation of a number of ideas to an individual or small group and agitation as the promulgation of a single idea to a large mass of people. Expanding on these notions in his pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (1902), Vladimir Lenin stated that the propagandist, whose primary medium is print, explains the causes of social inequities such as unemployment or hunger, while the agitator, whose primary medium is speech, seizes on the emotional aspects of these issues to arouse his audience to indignation or action. Agitation is thus the use of political slogans and half-truths to exploit the grievances of the public and thereby to mold public opinion and mobilize public support. Propaganda, by contrast, is the reasoned use of historical and scientific arguments to indoctrinate the educated and so-called “enlightened” members of society, such as party members. […]

Following Lenin’s access to power, Petrograd, as Saint Petersburg was called between 1914 and 1924, lost its function as capital of Soviet Russia, but preserved its role as a birthplace of the October Revolution – and as a centre for agitprop activities.

Thus, it was in Petrograd that the first important communist celebration took place – in 1918, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Great October Revolution.

The Petrograd Council of Workers and Red Army Soldiers installed a committee to organise a grandiose event using public spaces. Inspired by Luncharsky‘s motto to unite art and life, nearly 170 artists participated in the preparation for decorating the city‘s main squares, streets and bridges with triumphal arches, flags, and banners. Among these artists were Nathan Altman, Vladimir Lebedev, Ivan Puni, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, and Nikolai Suetin. The 2017 exhibition catalogue of the State Russian Museum, “Искусcтво в жизнь”/ “Art into Life” more – a slogan apparently created by Vladimir Tatlin – presents a detailed overview of sketches and designs for the celebration. See exhibition on the website of the Russian Museum >>

Many pre-revolutionary avant-garde (Futurist, Suprematist) artists, writers, architects, musicians, theatre and film directors welcomed the Revolution with enthusiasm. It allowed them to develop their own ideas regarding the transformation of the human being. They became influential in institutions, for instance Kazimir Malevich as director of UNOVIS (Утвердители нового искусства / Utverditeli Novovo Iskusstva, "The Champions of the New Art", 1919-1922) or created publications, of which the most important was “LEF“ – the Left Front of the Arts (Левый фронт искусств, Levy Front Iskusstv, 1922-1929), edited by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Brik and others. LEF printed works by Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Liubov Popova and Vladimir Tatlin.

The above-mentioned catalogue has several articles about how this early Soviet period determined the production of agitation art, especially through the Decorative Institute, founded in Leningrad 1918 for stage and costume design. The Decorative Institute also operated a number of workshops to carry out works commissioned by state and party organisations: placards, posters, banners and objects of applied art.

On the other hand, the Bolsheviks institutionalised agitprop with the Communist Party as early as 1920  – as  Agitation and Propaganda Section at the Central Committee Secretariat (Агитационно-пропагандистский отдел ЦК). The counterpart to the party’s agitprop section on the government’s side, established at the same time, was the Glavpolitprosvet – the Main Political and Educational Committee of the People's Commissariat of Education of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. Soon a process started to either close independent organisations and associations or affiliate them to state institutions.The Decorative Institute was closed in 1926.

By the beginning of the 1930, the process had been completed, and Socialist realism was implemented as a state doctrine. In propaganda posters, the decorative, bright features of folk art, which had co-existed with the geometrical, “industrial” style of Constructivism in the early Soviet period, now came to the fore. Yet, a number of Constructivist techniques, especially those developed through photography, never disappeared altogether. Among these techniques are extremely shortened or elongated perspectives and the principle of collage (see Aglaya Glebova‘s discussion No Longer an Image, Not Yet a Concept’: Montage and the Failure to Cohere in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Gulag Photoessay, DOI:10.1111/1467-8365.12437).The square Constructivist print fonts, slightly adapted to modern taste, also remained popular.

For the Communist Party, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) turned out to be the ideal Soviet pop star, appealing to intellectuals and the masses alike. Mayakovsky’s suicide at the age of thirty-six made him a mystic figure for intellectuals, while  his untimely death allowed party officials to “streamline” his biography. For decades, the contradictory, anarchic features of his life and art were reduced to a simple tale of a young Marxist and Futurist who dedicated his life to the Revolution and his art to the people. In an interview with Ivan Tolstoy for Radio Svoboda on 3 May, 2009, Mayakovsky’s Swedish biographer Bengt Jangfeldt explained in detail what was eliminated from official portrayals of Mayakovky’s life: his constant struggle with the communist authorities to gain permission to publish his works, the arrest and killing of his friends Yakov Blumkin and Vladimir Sillov which might explain Mayakovsky’s suicide as a means to escape the same lot, not to speak of the ménage à trois with Lily Brik, his lover, and Osip Brik, his editor. 

Thus, an avatar of Vladimir Mayakovsky was made a public figure, with a State Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow, Mayakovsky subway stations in Moscow and Leningrad, and countless Mayakovsky streets all over the Soviet Union. The Leningrad branch of the Union of Writers, located in the former palace of Count Sheremetov (with a library, restaurant and billiard room), was called “Mayakovsky House of Writers” (Дом писателей им. Маяковского). Mayakovsky‘s poems (although not all) and graphic works were re-edited a number of times.

Outside the Russian speaking world, but especially outside the former Soviet block, Mayakovsky is today best known for his contribution to the famous ROSTA window posters (Окна РОСТА), also known as “ROSTA Satire Windows” – the propaganda posters of the Russian Telegraph Agency produced between August / September 1919 and January 1921. Glavpolitprosvet produced them for another year, until  January 1922. According to V. D. Duvakin, the author of an article about “V.V. Mayakovsky’s Rosta Windows” from 1949, the total number of designs was between 1550 and 1600, each hand-printed in an average edition of 150. The estimated number of copies thus amounts to 240.000. Duvakin assigns about 1300 of these designs to the “nucleus” of ROSTA artists – Mayakovsky, Cheremnykh and Maliutin – and of those, approximately 450-500 to Mayakovsky. more>>

"The Mice are burying the Cat". An 18th-century Russian lubok print with a very popular plot, that of the mice burying the cat. Wikipedia Public Domain

"The Mice are burying the Cat".
An 18th-century Russian lubok print
with a very popular plot, that of the mice burying the cat.
Wikipedia Public Domain

ROSTA Windows designs were clearly influenced by the popular tradition of the Russian Lubok (лубок), a decorative, brightly coloured print with text or text elements, illustrating many activities of religious and social life, and also featuring political satire.

Mayakovsky created ingenuous political cartoons often consisting of a sequence images – forerunner to modern comics, directed at that large number of illiterate people in Russia to keep them updated about the Russian Civil War (1917-1922).

Their message is simple and unambiguous. With their humorous text lines and slogans and their readily identifiable figures – sometimes reduced to mere silhouettes – they unmistakably set apart the good guys (Red Army soldiers, the Bolsheviks, the workers…) and the bad guys  (White Army soldiers, the bourgeois, the Capitalists…). The ROSTA posters make it clear what has to be done next: Пока не укрепится красное знамя, винтовка не может быть нами брошена. / As long as the red banner is not firmly established, we must not throw away our guns. more>>

Mayakovsky was not the only important artist creating ROSTA Satire Windows – there were also Malevich, Lebedev, or Moor. But Mayakovsky undoubtedly possessed the talent of playing with words, and he also wrote texts for his fellow artists. His penchant for caricatures and his great agility with words make his posters funny and attractive, although the works of other ROSTA artists might be considered graphically more achieved.

For Leningrad’s unofficial artists of the 1980s, Vladimir Mayakovsky was an emblematic figure. He embodied many of the qualities that had become extremely rare in the secluded Soviet society. Speaking for the New Artists, (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov remembers, in a private talk in 2020: “Mayakovsky stood for style, urbanity and radical originality. His genius was primary and made a unique contribution to the world of art.”

Vladimir Maykovsky, 1915.  Unknown photographer Wikipedia Public Domain

Vladimir Maykovsky, 1915.
Unknown photographer
Wikipedia Public Domain
more >>

It was Mayakovsky, the artist, not Mayakovsky, the self-proclaimed spokesman of Lenin that interested these artists. Mayakovsky’s artistic wit and finesse is in fact quite contrary to his bizarre eulogies of “an ordinary little boy by the name of Lenin born in the solitude of Simbirsk”: (в глуши Симбирска родился обыкновенный мальчик Ленин).

It goes without saying that Mayakovksy grossly overstated the facts, because when Lenin was little boy, he was Vladimir ilych Ulyanov, not Lenin, and Simbirsk was not a place of solitude, but an important regional centre with a population of 32 000. Lenin’s family was by no way ordinary, but middle-class: his parents were well educated, and his father was the Director of Public Schools and a nobleman.

It is quite obvious that Mayakovsky wanted to lift Lenin to the rank of the new savour of the world, thereby substituting the old church for the new church, the Communist Party. Although he did not go so far as to present this “ordinary boy” in a cot filled with hay, today a replica of the straw hut where Lenin lived in hiding before the October Revolution is still a museum.

The relation between Mayakovsky and Lenin may be seen as that of an unrequited love: Mayakovsy needed an object for his desire to change the world, while Lenin hated “those Futurists” in general and Mayakovky’s “Ruffian Communism“ (according to Lunacharsky) in particular, giving orders to print these authors in very small editions only. This didn’t deter Mayakovsky from writing his dithyramb to the “ordinary little boy by the name of Lenin” in 1924, shortly after Lenin’s death, and dedicate it to the Russian Communist Party.

Generations of Soviet school children were taught to draw inspiration from Mayakovsky’s youthful enthusiasm for Lenin, with a fragment of “To Our Youth” from 1927:

"Even if I
were an elderly negro
and then
without being despondent or lazy
I would learn Russian
only because it
was spoken by Lenin."

See Нашему юношеству, Wikisource Russian version >>

Be that as it may, with his charisma, originality and sense of fulfilling a mission, Mayakovsky has always remained a strong brand. Ultimately, it was his being in conflict with the authorities that saved his reputation. In 1986, when a new Soviet law allowed “amateur associations and interest clubs” to register officially, Timur Novikov and his friends founded the Mayakovsky Friends Club as a kind of administrative branch of the New Artists and later organised a number of exhibitions under this new label.

Text: Hannelore Fobo, June 2020.

Uploaded 5 June 2020
Last updated 23 September 2020