Thursday, February 9, 2017

Art Is Propaganda - Part I: Art and Soviet Ideology

Art has always been a tool for influencing people's thinking. What does such propaganda look like? Is it really bad? And can there even be art without propaganda? In Part I we take a look at some examples from the Soviet Union.

Propaganda? - Definitely! But also a piece of art.

No matter what your opinion is - as soon as you express it there will always be someone saying you've been brainwashed by somebody's propaganda. This is just how the mind of a modern homo sapiens works:
"I have a very good reason to believe what I believe, so everyone who believes something else is wrong."
We all consider ourselves intelligent and sincerely believe that our own opinion is based on facts. The funny thing is, however, that a truly intelligent and critically thinking person would rather say:
"I know that I know nothing."
Let's be honest: Throughout all of human history people tried to influence each other and developed some well-functioning techniques. And since people tend to believe their personal experience and emotions most this is where the most skilled influencers strike.
As a writer, I've stumbled quite a few times over feedback like:
"Somehow I feel like everything you say is right."
Art - and especially stories - create an illusion, an imaginary world where the artist has full control over the audience's experience. The events in the story may be fictional, but the emotions are real. And the audience believes them. They are their very own emotions, after all. They can't be wrong, can they?

No Dictatorship Can Work without Artistic Support

You can't just suppress people. History has shown that if the majority doesn't like a regime the government will be overthrown. An angry mob can't lose. It's quantitatively superior to the government and its army. - Superior weapons? A government can't use them against their own people for two reasons:
1. Even those who normally would prefer to stay neutral would turn against it.
2. If a government commits a mass murder of their own people there will be nobody left it can govern over.
A government without support from the people can't govern, simply as that. And this is when brainwashing comes in.

As stated in an earlier article, art has always played a major role in conveying moral values. Children learn from stories about good and evil, art exposes and discusses social problems in an emotional manner, and it is always created in the ideological context of its respective time and place. It's never neutral, and even if it doesn't have a political message it can still serve propaganda purposes.

A government that wants to stay in power knows about the crucial role of art in conveying an ideology. This is why the Soviet Union has focussed very heavily on developing its film industry. Its importance was noticed very early by Lenin himself:
"You must remember always that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema."
V. I. Lenin: Directives on the Film Business, 1922.
The Communists even went so far as to establish a whole art style for all genres. It's called socialist realism, though "communist utopia with a realistic art style" would be more precise. Its main element: propaganda by glorifying communist values. There were novels and poetry, movies and architecture, paintings, sculptures ... Just everything!

Socialist realism lost its popularity in the 1960's. However, even though it was very explicit propaganda there apparently were many people enjoying it until then. And while some works do seem boring or ridiculous from a modern and subjective point of view, there's also real beauty. Just visit the Moscow Metro. It may be the most beautiful subway in the world.

Examples of Soviet Propaganda

Being born in the Soviet Union, I grew up with propaganda art of all kinds. And trying to keep it simple, I'd like to mention that personally I see three different kinds of it:
  • art that was explicitly created for propaganda purposes,
  • art that was created without propaganda in mind but has absorbed a certain ideology and thus indirectly teaches it to the masses,
  • and, last but not least, all the stuff in between.
Propaganda can be found in everything, and sometimes it's almost invisible. It can be hidden in the most stunning works and your favourite pieces. But knowing that something is propaganda or indirectly helps consolidating an ideology shouldn't keep you from enjoying it. Just like in the case of the Moscow Metro, propaganda is often very beautiful.

Here are a few examples of remarkable works I consider propagandistic to a certain degree:
1. The Palace of Culture and Science, given to the citizens of Warsaw by Comrade Stalin, is, like all buildings of socialist classicism, a display of superiority (which is why the Polish consider it a symbol of suppression by the Soviet Union) and a promise of a utopian communist future (which the Polish stubbornly refused to believe in). It has a very strong ideological background that in socialist countries they called almost every building serving for public purposes a "palace". And a palace this skyscraper is indeed: It's simply gorgeous.
2. Sergei Eisenstein was a pioneer of film montage, and without his input modern cinematography probably wouldn't exist as we know it. European critics adored his movies for their artistic value. And yet, his works are among the heaviest propaganda pieces I've ever seen. 
3. One of my favourite movies of all time is D'Artanyan i tri mushketera (D'Artagnan and Three Musketeers), a musical miniseries released in 1978. I watched it for the first time when I was three years old, and even though I was too young to really understand it, it awakened my love for history, weapons and men with long hair. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that this highly entertaining movie about adventures, camaraderie and heroism was released a year before the Soviet army entered Afghanistan
4. Nu pogodi! (Just You Wait!) is a timeless classic of Soviet (and Russian) animation. Its concept is quite similar to Tom and Jerry, but instead of a cat and a mouse there are a wolf and a hare in a Zootopia-like world of humanoid animals. What starts with the wolf trying to catch and eat the hare results in a never-ending chase with the wolf failing every single time and always blaming the hare for his misfortune. It should be noted that the hare embodies all the socialist virtues, being young, intelligent, kind and athletic. The wolf, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: He kicks trashcans, he ignores safety instructions, he's disrespectful towards others and a heavy smoker. It should be noted, however, that the wolf isn't portrayed as evil. He sure is a bad person, but whenever he gets into serious danger the hare is always there to save his life. The socialist ideology was in fact very much about integrating social outcasts and teaching them to be better people. 
5. In 1983 the rock band Zemlyane ("Earthlings") released a song called Trava u doma ("Grass by the Home"). The lyrics aren't ideological at all: The song compares cosmonauts missing earth to children missing their mother. It doesn't look like it was created with a propagandistic purpose, and most certainly Zemlyane were just as excited about space as everyone else during that time. However, let's not forget that this song was written during the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. So while this spaceflight competition quietly ate away a huge part of the country's resources, songs like this certainly added to the overall euphoria. Especially taking into account that Trava u doma is really awesome and catchy. No wonder it became the official anthem of the Russian cosmonauts in 2009.
Please note that these were just a few examples. Despite and sometimes because of strict regulations and censorship the Soviet Union was home to many great masterpieces that, sadly, get too little attention outside the former Soviet countries. Yes, there's a certain amount of ideology everywhere, but it doesn't mean a work of art isn't good. In fact, there's much you definitely should check out.

On February 23rd we'll turn west and take a look at propaganda in the "free world". Subscribe to this blog if you don't want to miss it!


  1. I think there is a crucial difference between propaganda and influence. Most propaganda, including religious works, are pretty bad art because the blatant nature of what they are saying overwhelms the aesthetic value of the work. People are not stupid. We know when others are yelling false truths at us. At times, we can do nothing about it but we still know, regardless of how much vodka we drink. Influence, on the other hand, does not aim to change our thinking, even if it happens to do so.

    1. Maybe I'm too pessimistic, but I don't think we really know when we encounter "false truths". Sadly, our own perception is always extremely biased and if propaganda happens to spread beliefs we already share we don't perceive it as propaganda. So I don't think it's that simple. And as shown in the examples in the article, there really can be aesthetic value to works of propaganda.


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