The British Library’s rarely-seen Russian Revolution propaganda posters

The British Library’s Russian Revolution exhibition features a number of anti-Bolshevik, White Russian and Red Army propaganda posters among other unique artistic responses.


(c) British Library

This year marks 100 years passing since the Russian Revolution, and to reflect on the momentous impact it had on society there’s been a few exhibitions in London - one being the British Library’s fresh take on the revolution which opens to the public today.

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths focuses on rarely-seen items, the "most unknown facts" and lesser known personal stories from the political spectrum - including a number of striking propaganda posters.

The exhibition unites tales of the central characters - Nicholas II and his abdication, caricatures of Rasputin featured in a satirical magazine from April 1917, Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky - as well as the stories of ordinary people. These are shown through posters, letters, photographs, banners, weapons, film and even items of Red Army uniform.

Image: Red Army poster (c) British Library

This poster is the work of Soviet artist Dmitrii Moor - one of the main founders of Soviet political poster design. The central figure encourages men to enlist in the Red Army, which echoes the famous British World War I recruitment posters featuring Lord Kitchener.

(c) British Library

To give you a sense of the exhibition's timeline, it begins in the reign of the last Tsar and goes on to explore the growth of revolutionary movements, showing the transformation of Russia’s traditional monarchy into the first ever Communist state.

Stand-outs from the exhibition include the first edition of the Communist Manifesto (published in London in 1848), Nicholas II's Coronation Album from 1896, leg irons from a Siberian prison camp and Lenin’s Memorial Book.

There are also a few interesting touches - such as the "forest clearing" in the middle of the exhibition reflecting the great undeveloped land of the time, and an animated map to provide a simplified idea of the different forces who advanced and retreated.

Image: A worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land from Russian Placards 1917-22 

This poster was designed in the constructivist style born in the early 1920s, by Vladimir Lebedev. Constructivism was an artistic movement that aimed to serve the social purposes of the new era. It became emblematic of the Soviet art and propaganda posters of the period.


(c) British Library

Surprisingly there an entire section - called A New World - dedicated to artist responses to the Russian Revolution which shows the importance of propaganda and Bolshevik’s introduction of literacy.

This section includes White Russian counter-revolutionary propaganda posters and their strong visual impact (including recruitment posters for Caucasian Muslims), Russo-Japanese cartoon posters and propaganda wallpaper hand-painted by factory workers.

Image: White Army recruitment poster, circa 1919

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This is the first time much of the library's Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik propaganda material has been on public display.

Many of the posters produced in the first years of Communist rule show the optimism of building a new society, and the how the Bolsheviks saw education as one of the main ways this could happen, with message of turning from "battle to books".

Image: Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops, Soviet propaganda poster 1918-20


(c) British Library

“As well as giving an overview of momentous events all the way from the last days of the Russian Empire and the downfall of the last Tsar Nicholas II until the rise of the first communist state under Lenin’s leadership, we will also be focusing on the lives of those who lived through the period for the first time, using letters, diaries, photographs, posters and film,” says lead curator Katya Rogatchevskaia, who even contributed bank notes from her own family to the exhibition.

The last section focuses on international responses, including commentary from journalist John Reed and espionage stories of famous Russian spies at the time, and factory workers in Russia given to former territories and how they fought.

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths will be held at the British Library from April 28 to August 29, including various events exploring the impact the revolution had on Russian literature, architecture, music and artistic expression, as well as examining key figures such as Lenin and the Romanovs. For more information on these events check out the British Library website. Full Price tickets cost £13.50.

Image: Novyi Satirikon (New Satiricon) April 1917, cover. Caricature of Grigorii Rasputin


(c) British Library

Last month we checked out the Design Museum’s Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution exhibition, which has a unique angle on the architectural design concepts of the 1920s and 1930s in Russia.

See more posters from the exhibition in the rest of this feature. 

Image: Laltinskaia delegatka (The Yalta Female Delegate), hand-lettered wall newspaper, 1927

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(c) British Library

This poster represents Russia as a warrior beauty and Japan as a dragon-like monster. Japan was an emerging power at the time, and in response to increasing provocation, attacked the Russian navy base in China. As a result, the Russian army suffered a series of defeats, and tens of thousands of troops were killed or captured. The Peace agreement was signed in September 1905.


(c) British Library

In another poster by Dmitriy Moor, a peasant sneezes out his religious beliefs under the supervision of a worker who wishes him good well. It comes from the anti-religious satirical magazine Bezbozhnik ustanka (the godless at the workbench) founded in the 1920s. Promotion of atheism was desired by the Bolsheviks, as Orthodox Christianity had been a pillar of support for the Tsarist state.


(c) British Library

This poster illustrates an exhausted worker on a pile of useless banknotes, referring to hyperinflation and claims that this is a 'happy worker in Sovdepiia'. Continuing to demonise the enemy, the Whites used this derogative term to refer to the Soviet state. Sovdepiia literally means 'the Land of the Deputies'.

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(c) British Library