The poster, the lethal weapon of the Russian civil war

The poster, the lethal weapon of the Russian civil war

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October 1917, the giant Capital falls under the mass of workers

© BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BPK image

Publication date: April 2019

Historical context

The revolution under siege

The Bolsheviks seized power with a clever coup d'etat, but they still have an entire nation to conquer. They have on their side a proletariat thirsty for social revenge and young artists who, like Dmitri Ivanovich Melnikov (1889-1956), early and actively engage on the "red" side. He also took advantage of the large budget allocated to propaganda to produce several posters such as Down with capital, long live the dictatorship of the proletariat (1920).

In 1919-1920, the probable date of creation of this poster, the civil war raged in Russia. The October coup and especially the brutal dispersal of the Constituent Assembly on January 8, 1918, followed by the separate peace of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, raised a motley army of opponents of the new regime. British in the north, Poles and Germans in Ukraine, French in Odessa and Sevastopol, and a coalition of French, Japanese, American armies led by General Janin in Siberia are the pillars of "foreign intervention". In the midst of these variegated uniforms, the Czech and Slovak legion made reign of terror in Siberia in 1918, and the peasant deserters of all camps, the "Greens", spread violence in every part of the country.

Image Analysis

Capitalism is the enemy

The dynamic composition of this vertical image combines a multiplicity of elements in a color chart favoring the primary colors red, yellow, white and black. It is not certain that the title now given to Melnikov's drawing was then; on the other hand, one can clearly read the capital letters RSFSR above the kind of hill, which pleads for a creation before the foundation of the USSR at the end of 1922. One distinguishes at the other end of the poster, at the bottom on the right, two discreet black lines forming a sickle and a hammer, and we can guess the slogan "All power to the Soviets" on a banner. These elements suffice to expose the context of the staged struggle. It opposes a mechanical giant bending under the assaults of a red mass from which stand out the silhouettes of workers and especially soldiers of the Red Army, recognizable by their soft triangular headgear, the boudionovka. The giant wears a top hat, emblem of the capitalist in Russia, here made up of two buildings, like his legs, and arms in the shape of cranes. On the other hand, it is difficult to identify what the body refers to. This industrial site is raised from a technological aspect with the flight of two fighter planes underlined by lines indicating the speed, and of the interesting reconfiguration of a major symbol of the workers iconography: the sun of the future. radiant. Instead of being placed on the right, at the end of the reading direction, it radiates circular waves clearly visible to the stage from the left. If we add the fact that the field of struggle is spherical, it appears that the message is not only about Russia in civil war but about the whole world ablaze with the "glow from the east".


The war of images

Most of the aesthetic avant-garde rallies, at least for a time, to the revolution of the Bolsheviks. The Russians did not wait for them to extend their virulent criticism of the Tsar, a "spider drinking the blood of the people" to other adversaries designated as the clergy or the entrepreneurs. The delegitimization of the imperial figure as a result of the Rasputin affair led to the outbreak in the spring of 1917 of a first glasnost where verbal and symbolic violence reached its peak. Melnikov's poster is remarkable because it uses both classic iconographic codes of the working-class world - factories, cranes - and a rapidly developing imagination, that of anticipation with planes, rays and robots. More than ever, the revolution must be global and the overhaul of humanity total. We can also detect a direct influence of the challenge of representing modern warfare. The aesthetic audacity of part of the "red" production now appeals to our eyes which have incorporated the graphic lessons of the art of the XXe century. During the Civil War, it allowed immediate recognition of a style but did not guarantee enthusiastic reading or decisive impact. In addition to the uniqueness of the leader, the firmness of ideology, iron discipline and a policy combining social promotion and very brutal political repression, the Bolsheviks imposed themselves in 1921 by winning the war of images. They have managed to saturate the public space and the political horizon with their simple slogans, their effective Manichaeism, the innovative colors of an inevitably radiant horizon.

  • Bolshevism
  • Rebellion
  • Moscow
  • Municipality of Paris
  • Russian revolution
  • Romanov (dynasty of)
  • Ukraine
  • Mensheviks
  • Siberia
  • Russia
  • Red Army
  • factory
  • cranes
  • robot
  • aviation
  • Sevastopol


Alain Blum, Sophie Cœuré, Sabine Dullin (dir.), And 1917 becomes revolution, Paris, BDIC-Seuil, 2017. Gianni Haver, Jean-François Fayet, Valérie Gorin, Emilia Koustova (dir.), The spectacle of the Revolution. The visual culture of October commemorations, Lausanne, Antipodes, 2017. Jonathan D. Smele, The Russian Civil Wars, 1916-1926. Ten Years that Schoked the World, Oxford University Press, 2016.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The poster, the fatal weapon of the Russian civil war"

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