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Propaganda in WWII Soviet Russia

Rachell Hayes
A country known for its crude military and corrupt government system, Soviet Russia faced
quite a few challenges during World War II. Aside from the devastating damage to its cities
and the loss of millions of human lives, Russia found itself successful in beating back the
Nazi force. But what exactly was responsible for the sudden turn from imminent defeat?
The communist propaganda machine was one of the greatest feats of social engineering in
the country’s history. The rhetoric devised for the content transformed the oppressed,
bleak populace into soldiers proudly fighting against the Nazi invasion (or starving,
unwilling volunteers depending on which report you read or which movie you watched).

Cult of Personality
The leaders of Soviet Russia are known for making up the rules as they went along. From
Vladmir Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev, the bad-boy bosses of the mother country revolted
against themselves until the dissolution of the country in 1991. Out of the legacy of soviet
leaders, one remains the most recognizable figure in failed, communist history.
Joseph Stalin is remembered most today not for leading Russia into its rusty, industrial age,
not for his fancy mustache, and certainly not for his political etiquette (or lack thereof). He
is remembered most for transforming Soviet Russia into Stalin-land. In the past, the people
of Russia worshipped saints and revered the tsar, but in a government system which
denounced religion and monarchy, the people had little to unite the country under one
beacon of hope. After his 50th birthday celebration, Stalin decided he fit that bill.
Marvin Perry and his associates defined the phrase cult of personality as “…The deliberate
fixation of individual dedication and loyalty on the all-powerful leader, whose personality
exemplified the challenge of extraordinary times” (Perry, Berg, and Krukones 124). He
began this campaign by forcing the press (this includes all forms of mass media
communication) to illustrate him as the father figure and to refer to the people of Russia as
his children. This alienated the remaining figures of the Russian Orthodox Church even
before the institution was purged (Avdienko 124). The texts and teachings on the country’s
cultural history were literally altered to portray Stalin as a hero in the October Revolution,
replacing Leon Trotsky as Lenin’s right-hand man (Perry, Berg, and Krukones 123). All
intellectual writing and art were to focus solely on his accomplishments. After Stalin’s
death, Yevgeny Yevtushenko recalled, “Now that ten years have gone by, I realize that
Stalin’s greatest crime was not the arrests and the shootings he ordered. His greatest crime
was the corruption of the human spirit” (Yevtushenko 124). The city of Tsaritsyn was
renamed Stalingrad in a similar strategy to the Bolshevik campaign renaming St.
Petersburg to Leningrad.

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Surrounded by a group of “yes men” who rarely disputed Stalin’s supreme authority on the
threat of execution, Stalin had little reason to doubt his own capacity for leadership. The
men holding positions in the Bolshevik party or running any of the country’s facilities
reported falsified, positive results of Stalin’s efforts to revitalize the Russian economy and
lifestyle (Perry, Berg, and Krukones 127). Those who disagreed with Stalin, drew attention
away from Stalin’s greatness, bore physical attributes or behavior tendencies other than
“proper” Russian, or uttered something remotely anti-Bolshevik would fall victim to the
purges. This included officials of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the symbols
representing their faith, scientists and artistic intellectuals, and any man, woman or child
he deemed an enemy of the people. These people were executed on the spot, or sent
immediately to the gulags.
During a secret meeting not long after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed:
Stalin originated the concept ‘enemy of the people.’ This term
automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a
man or men engaged in a controversy be proven; this term made
possible the usage of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of
revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with
Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against
those who had bad reputations. (126)
All of this was the result of Stalin’s power which was established through fear and his
abuse of cultural rhetoric. His cult of personality campaign led to a pre-war alliance with the
German Nazi party and Hitler’s betrayal which almost cost Stalin everything.

Rhetoric of Oppression
According to Sonja Foss and her cowriters of Contemporary Perspectives on
Rhetoric, Kenneth Burke defined rhetoric
as “the use of words by human agents to
form attitudes or to induce actions in
other human agents” (Foss, Foss, and
Trapp 191). They elaborated that Burke’s
interpretation of rhetoric involving all of
the facets of language and symbolic
communication contributed to
identification. Persuasive rhetoric can
change the meaning, classification, and

Figure 1: ‘Stalin as Father’ Propaganda Poster

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function of something or someone. Stalin’s oppressive, coercive campaign convinced the
people that he was the father of their country and the citizens were his children. He
replaced ideological symbols with sixty foot monuments bearing his image, printed dozens
of propaganda artifacts, and even changed written history to reinforce this crazed
mythology. Figure 1 was a propaganda poster from the same campaign, and it reads,
“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood” (AllWorldWars). With this type of
mentality in mind and the fear of ending up in a gulag, many volunteered for the Red Army
during World War II and very few resisted the draft.
Critical and feminist rhetorician, Bell Hooks, recognizes rhetoric’s influence on culture and
how this influence increases when spread through mass media. Her writing focuses mostly
on television and film, but any form of mass communication that promotes racial, sexist,
and classist oppression condemns the recipients to the ideology of domination. Foss’s
summation of this ideology is the commitment to inferior and superior roles within society
with the superior ruling over the inferior (Foss, Foss, and Trapp 270). The oppressing
rhetoric of Bolshevik communism engrossed the country in the ideology of domination
using mass media and preventing outside influences. Yevtushenko stated of Soviet
indoctrination, “Stalin’s theory that people were the little cogwheels of communism was
put into practice and with horrifying results” (Yevtushenko 125). The peasant masses of
Russia were told to embrace their roles as contributors to the great October revolution and
everything communism represented.

Tyrannizing Image
Richard Weaver’s writings focused on the relationship between rhetoric, language theory,
and culture. He coined the phrase tyrannizing image in reference
to a center of authority “represent[ed] [by] the cultural ideal or
vision of perfection for which a society strives” (Foss, Foss, and
Trapp 162). Tyrannizing images encompass the epitome of the
perfect specimen. It establishes cultural hierarchies and creates
their roles. The sickle and the hammer (featured in Figure 2)
was the ultimate symbol of Russian peasant responsibility to the
motherland (AllWorldWars). Farm for the country, build for the
country, fight for the country, and die for the country was the
regular role of the masses. The alternative was execution or the
gulags. In “True Stories,” Lev Razgon explained, “’Corrective
Labor’ was part of Stalin’s efforts to terrorize the peoples of the
Soviet Union into compliance with his plan to modernize the
Figure 2: Workers unite! You have
country’s economy and society” (Razgon 128). Arthur Koestler
nothing to lose but your chains!
described the fear the average Russian peasant lived with on a

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daily basis, “Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation
may take them to prison or the scaffold; the highest officials in our administration ruin and
destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the
slightest slip and be destroyed themselves” (Koestler 135). During World War II, the
Heroes of the Soviet Union campaign transformed the tyrannizing image from faithful
worker to devote soldier.

WWII Religious, Social, Political Propaganda
In the beginning of WWII, Stalin was so certain his alliance with Hitler was solid that
despite warnings from his best advisors, including Vyacheslav Molotov and a written
warning from Winston Churchill, he ignored news of an invasion until two weeks after the
first attack (Perry, Berg, and Krukones 226). The desolate and broken country struggled to
fight back and their leader struggled with strategy. Most of Russia’s greatest military minds
were imprisoned in the gulags after falling out of Stalin’s favor. Once he realized his people
required a degree of unity to surpass this threat, he executed a reforming campaign to
revitalize the image of communism.
Nationalism was one of few of Stalin’s better accomplishments. He restored the faith of the
people in the leading party by uniting them under the flag of the Red
Army and reminding them of their own strength. In Contemporary
Europe: A History, James Wilkinson and Stuart Hughes described
Russian nationalism as “the saving grace of a near-fallen country and
the only thing that saved them from overwhelming odds” (Wilkinson
and Hughes 326). The tyrannizing image transformed from the
peasants brandishing the sickle and the hammer into the men of
Russia taking up arms in defense of the motherland. The communist
political propaganda demonized the German Nazis and despite their
oppressive conditions, the people chose to defend communism
Figure 3: "The Face of
rather than accept defeat. Figure 3 is a poster depicting the image of
the Nazi soldier’s monstrous nature (AllWorldWars). Although a
short-lived reformation, nationalism was the Soviet machine’s strongest defense during
Nazi occupation.
Racial equality followed nationalism. Prior to the Nazi invasion
Mongols, Chinese, Georgians, Jews, and Gypsies were exiled to rural
areas of the country and forced to work on collective farms yielding
little results from their hard labor (Wilkinson and Hughes 313).
Former second class citizens were asked to defend their home. Figure
4 is a poster that reads, “Greetings to all fighters against fascism”

Figure 4: Poster promoting racial acceptance.

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(AllWorldWars). Men of all color and nationality were drafted into the Red Army and asked
to fight alongside each other.
Stalin released the army’s best generals and advisors
from the gulags and allowed them control over military
tactics to keep the Nazi invasion at bay (Wilkinson and
Hughes 314). The ideology of domination was
temporarily removed for the sake of saving the “gains of
the October revolution” as represented in Figure 5
(AllWorldWars). Much of the rhetoric surrounding the
generals’ reinstatement praised them as heroes, such as
Figure 5: Let Us not give Up the Gains of October
Georgy Zhukov. His contributions to the Eastern Front
garnered him awards and attention in the press
(Wilkinson and Hughes 326). After the war, he was one of many who were later exiled as
enemies of the people.
After years of anti-religion propaganda, Stalin released figureheads of the Eastern
Orthodox Church from labor camp imprisonment. The great purges evicted Eastern
Orthodoxy from the oppressive, communist institution (Wilkinson and Hughes 254).
Anyone caught practicing or ministering the faith were executed or imprisoned in the
gulags. But as the German army cut-off supplies to Leningrad and the skies were darkened
with smoke, Stalin sought a beacon of spiritual light for the down-trodden soldiers in his
army. He promoted faith for the motherland to defeat the godless fascist army (Wilkinson
and Hughes 327).
After the fall of Leningrad, Women were drafted into the fight.
This reform in social propaganda encouraged mothers and wives
to defend Russia with their exceptional eyesight and steady
hands. The poster in Figure 6 shouts, “Glory to our fighting
women” (AllWorldWars). The rhetoric reversed the cultures
gender roles taking women off of the farm and onto the
battlefield (Wilkinson and Hughes 314). The Russian ladies of
the farmlands and industrial sites made a strong impression on
militarism and are allowed to enlist even to this day.
Another form of military propaganda was the Heroes of the Soviet
Union campaign. Random soldiers were called to the Kremlin and
rewarded with a badge of honor. The stories of their great feats in the battlefield were
published in newspapers, recounted in song, and featured in images on posters (Wilkinson
and Hughes 327). However, most of these stories were the invention of the Soviet
Figure 6: Women Soldiers of

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propaganda machine to promote a tyrannizing image of the perfect fighter defending his
country. In fact, many of these men were later imprisoned in the gulag if their heroism was
given too much attention and revered higher than Stalin’s contribution to the “Great
Patriotic War.”
After Hitler’s army retreated to Germany where the remaining soldiers
eventually surrendered or perished, Stalin insured Russia would be the
first allied nation to enter Berlin. Soldiers blundered into the Nazi capital
city and took their revenge for Leningrad, Stalingrad, and all of the other
stripped and destitute cities of Russia. And they did so with a brutality
and ugliness to rival history’s tellings of Genghis Khan. Marie Neumann’s
“We’re in the Hands of a Mob not Soldiers, and they’re all Drunk out of
their Minds” recalled the degradation she suffered at the hands of the red
army, “Totally drunk, they pulled me out of bed and raped me in an
Figure 7: Revenge Poster
unnatural way…I learned back then how much a human being can endure;
I couldn’t talk, couldn’t cry, couldn’t even utter a sound” (Neumann 263). The propaganda
encouraged the barbarity with headlines and posters proclaiming “For Leningrad! For
Stalingrad! For the Motherland). Figure 7 is a poster reminding the soldiers of all of the
suffering their people endured during German occupation (AllWorldWars). It reads simply,
Although the country starved and froze while under siege by the Nazi army, they eventually
rallied against them in the winter months leading to a grueling victory.

The Aftermath
World War II ended with the Soviet Union suffering 28 million casualties. Major Russian
cities were devastated. The reconstruction rhetoric returned Russia to the communist
country with the peasants laying down their weapons to once again bear the sickle and the
hammer for the motherland. Stalin retired the pro-religion campaigns and sent the
clergymen back to the gulags by claiming they were spies for the Nazi regime. The same
went for the generals and for some of the Heroes of the Soviet Union. The propaganda and
literature published after the smoke cleared announced Stalin as the sole, great figure of
the “Patriotic” war. It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost that Stalin’s sins were
unearthed from the graves of 60 million people who died under his command.

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Works Cited
AllWorldWars. “Russian World War II Propaganda Posters.” AllWorldWars. Web. 4 Dec
Avdienko, A. O. “The Cult of Stalin.” Sources of European History since 1990. 2nd ed. Boston:
Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 123-124. Print.
Dragan, Anton Kuzmich. “A Soviet Veteran Recalls.” Sources of European History since 1990.
2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 226-228. Print.
Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. 3rd
ed. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2002. Print.
Khrushchev, Nikita. “Khrushchev’s Secret Speech.” Sources of European History since 1990.
2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 126-128. Print.
Neumann, Marie. “We’re in the Hands of a Mob, not Soldiers, and they’re all Drunk Out of
their Minds.” Sources of European History since 1990. 2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth,
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Perry, Marvin, Matthew Berg, and James Krukones. Sources of European History since 1900.
2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.
Razgon, Lev. “True Stories.” Sources of European History since 1990. 2nd ed. Boston:
Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 128-133. Print.
Wilkinson, James and Stuart H. Hughes. Contemporary Europe: A History. 10th Ed. Upper
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Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. “Literature as Propaganda.” Sources of European History since 1990.
2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 124-126. Print.