You don’t need to read Russian to understand this Soviet poster. Two larger-than-life hands lower a huge book from the sky, holding it open for all to read. Crowds flock to the book, extending as far as the eye can see. In unmistakable visual language, designer Sergei Ivanov conveys the importance of literacy—a crucial issue in the early years of the Soviet Union, when nearly seventy-five percent of the population couldn’t read. In the previous centuries of Tsarist rule, education was a privilege of the elite. Like contemporary viewers unversed in Cyrillic, the peasants and workers who first viewed this poster relied on visual clues to understand its meaning.
With his audience in mind, Ivanov drew on the symbolic vocabulary of religion to send a secular message. While religion had no place in the new Soviet government, it remained central to the lives of millions raised in the Orthodox Church. Spiritual traditions were especially resilient in rural areas, where political reforms had not yet reached. While few people had access to formal education in these provinces, many received religious training, and doubtless recognized Ivanov’s iconographic source. In his poster, disembodied hands holding the book might belong to a government leader or a nameless proletarian, but in Christian imagery, they invoke the presence of God. They appear in Russian icons, extending from the heavens holding the Bible, or the Ten Commandments. In this context, Ivanov’s book seems important by association. An orator stands on a platform to read the book aloud, just as a priest might during an Orthodox service.
To the literate viewer, the poster proclaims “A book is nothing but a person talking publicly.” This relationship between reading and rhetoric underscored the Soviet campaign for universal literacy. As Soviet leaders understood, only literate citizens could engage in political life. Lenin explained, “Without [the alphabet] there are only rumors, fairy tales, prejudices, but not politics.” Like the audience members in the poster, those unable to read were dependent upon an orator for information and understanding. But even after instituting educational reforms, the government retained its proverbial orator. State publishers distributed books glorifying Soviet history and doctrine, which discouraged critical analysis. Their ideal reader was a passive recipient of propaganda, and as the Soviet readership grew, so too did censorship initiatives. Ivanov worked during a period of relative artistic freedom, but his poster unwittingly anticipates future repression. His book is little more than a political slogan, handed down from faceless leaders, as government-approved texts would be in the decades to come.
1.Vladimir I. Lenin, “Speech to the Second Congress of Political Education,” in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii 4, 5th ed. (Moscow: Gospolitzdat, 1960-5), 174, quoted in Masha Kowell, “Illuminating Socialist Literacy in Soviet Propaganda Posters,” Soviet Books & Literacy Programs: A Poster History, Center for Book and Paper Arts, Columbia College Chicago, 2013.
Virginia McBride was the 2014 Peter Krueger curatorial intern in the Department of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She studies art history at Kenyon College.