Russian Revolutionary Posters: from civil war to Socialist Realism, from Bolshevism to the end of Stalinism by David King: Book Review

Russian Revolutionary Posters is the contribution of David King (1943-2016) in fighting for historical truth in preserving posters and artwork from the Soviet Union for posterity.

8B947D36-52CE-49C1-AE49-77C0A4CD5A48King begins by giving the fascinating prelude to this story in first learning of the existence of, and then trying to secure a copy of “Russki Revolyutsionnii Plakat” by Vyacheslav Polonsky, formerly in charge of the Literature and Publishing department of the Red Army Political Administration under the direction of the Revolutionary Military Council (chaired of Leon Trotsky no less!). In 1925 Polonsky published an anthology of the best posters, reproducing 200 and cataloguing 854 others.

Giving a brief biography of the man, King writes:

“Polonskys book is the first authoritative work to have been written on the subject and is still an invaluable record. It also contributed to getting him into trouble. Throughout the entire 200 plus pages of the book there is no mention of, let alone image, of Stalin, his importance being almost negligible – “a grey blur” – until the late 1920s.. …Polonsky was soon silenced. After Trotsky was arrested, exiled and finally banished forever from soviet soil, Polonsky was accused of “ideological and political mistakes”, “counter revolutionary activities”, denounced as a Trotskyist and a “right-wing opportunist”. While on a lecture tour of Magnitogorsk in February 1932 he contracted typhus and died on the train travelling back to Moscow. he was aged 45.”

He speaks about the quest to find this rare book, Polonski having fallen out of favor, his work was largely lost and forgotten. With very few of this special book known in existence, King tramps through rare and antiquarian bookstores specialising in this type of literature where he recieves tips to the possible whereabouts of surviving copies. He eventually finds a copy and through his fame and reputation as an archivist and publisher he also met those who had the originals and other posters of interest who either gave them freely or sold them to him.

King then goes on to provide something of an short history of the Soviet Union, discussing and documenting the posters starting with the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution in the period of civil war and imperialist intervention, the suppression of democracy in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin in 1924, the mass terror of the 1930s, the ‘great patriotic war’, and the post war period until Stalin’s death. The posters are all annotated and are displayed chronologically. The posters referenced in the text so the reader can flip forward to see the one under discussion. Besides a short biography of Polonsky, King gives a few other glimpses into the life of select soviet poster artists.

Through his meticulous research and study, King has a great knowledge and insight into Russian history, his introduction and comments on individual works, though short, are exceedingly well written. In the time of the post Stalinist school of historical falsification wherein the professional liars of Robert Service et al seek to deny the historical significance of the October revolution, Russian Revolutionary Posters is a joy to read as it is an honest work. This book is an excellent contribution to understanding the tragic fate of the artistic and cultural impulses that initially flourished and then were destroyed in the degeneration of the first workers state under Stalin.

Secondly the efforts of King are counterposed against that of the Russian ruling class, even since the period of Glastnost and Perestroika, there are still much historical material under lock and key, and accessing these archives has become increasingly onerous as they place tougher restrictions on their use. In a recent episode they have been proven to have even gone as far as to wilfully destroying records from the Gulags! These posters are ultimately printed on fragile sheets of paper, through improper storage and negligence many could have been lost forever, we owe King a debt of gratitude for preserving and sharing the posters for future generations to enjoy and study, without his efforts we cant be sure it would have ever happened at all.

Russian Revolutionary Posters
David King
Tate Publishing (September 1, 2012)

Further reading:

David King 1943-2016: Revolutionary socialist, artist and defender of historical truth

Now available from Mehring Books: Russian Revolutionary Posters by David King


Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living between Western Australia and Taiwan. An avid bibliophile and book collector with a special interest in Eastern European literature and history, currently focused on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism.

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