After the Bolshevik victory in 1917, Vladimir Lenin knew that the peasant and worker masses, worn from capitalism, needed a kickstart into a Socialist state of mind. Not only had the Bolsheviks long been the underdog in a revolution decades in the making, but many were educationally unaware of the political battle they were waging on behalf of the party that earned their freedom. Russia was home to some of the most radical, prolific factories of its time, yet over 60% of the Russian population was illiterate. This disability, according to Marxism, was to the advantage of the Bourgeoisie, as it kept Western ideology out of the minds of the Proletariat. For Lenin, there was political power in art.
The propaganda that emerged out of the 1917 Revolution was not solely focused on an educational awakening; Lenin wanted to decorate the streets with visual art that could relay the importance of the revolutions to people that could not read. In other words, “it was to be public art that wrote history onto urban space. The masses would see history as they moved through [Moscow]. The Revolution entered the phenomenal world of the everyday” (Revolutionary Art: The Bolshevik Experience). Different from most 19th Century regimes, Lenin did not want to alleviate the past in order to celebrate revolution, but instead wanted to contrast the old with the new system of government he put in place. Ultimately, the new system turned education upside down in Russia, and as history suggests, successful literacy campaigns happen as a product of revolution.
However, the aftermath of the October Revolution brought immediate internal and external conflict: civil war, foreign intervention, and Western propaganda began to flood the public in the midst of Lenin’s attempts to reassure his party of its legitimacy. The powers that were overthrown as well as foreign militaries that had come to the aid of revolutionaries then posed an enormous threat to a young Soviet state. Along with World War I and the 1917 Revolution, American propaganda became prominent in Russia in order to establish an alliance between a new Russia and the United States. Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew from the beginning that “the longevity and success of the Russian revolution depended in large part on the spread of revolution to advanced capitalist countries,” especially Germany at the time (Education, Literacy, and the Russian Revolution). The U.S. Committee on Public Information, led by journalist Arthur Bullard, conducted a 1917 film propaganda campaign in Russia that displayed the power of the American military, democracy, and thriving industry by showing American films in Russian cinemas.
“Motion pictures, having become the medium of international expression and speaking a universal language, have in this instance, possibilities for extending the political power and prestige of the United States of America, at the same time acting as an educational and political guide to the millions of Russians, whose ideals, under their new form of democratic government, are as yet in the formative stage” – P.A. Strachan to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson
The American propaganda campaign was meant largely to combat German propaganda in Russia that encouraged violent revolution as well as discredited U.S. military influence. Nevertheless, the Committee on Public Information was able to appeal to the Russian people through film and other mediums, and in turn, visually educate them on the politics of democracy and war. Lenin used statues and murals to empower the people as they walked the Russian streets. The United States showed films in Russian theaters to impress American values on the people in ways that could entertain and be understood. Arthur Bullard stated: “[motion pictures] are a very important means of propaganda everywhere, but especially so in a land of illiterates like Russia” (American Film Propaganda in Revolutionary Russia). For both Lenin and the West, sustaining the results of the 1917 Revolution was all about speaking the language of the illiterate and oppressed. While physical war continued, the silent influence of political art helped trigger education reform, international partnership, and revolutionary pride.
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