The Influence of Art in Illiterate Russia

Russian literacy propaganda

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.

“As long as there is such a thing in the country as illiteracy it is hard to talk about political education” – Vladimir Lenin

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

1917 propaganda

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.

redstarThis post received a “Red Star” award from the editorial team




15 thoughts on “The Influence of Art in Illiterate Russia

  1. I never knew how involved the US was regarding the early soviet union or how much they wanted to influence the early revolutionaries. It’s was a very interesting read.


  2. I thought this was an excellent post because there wasn’t a lot of talk about how the lower classes could understand what was going on other than through word of mouth from each other. I find it interesting that Lenin pushed for art rather than speeches or things of that sort to educate. It makes the revolution not only present during the revolution but more noted in history when looking at it now.


  3. I really appreciate you highlighting the efforts of Germany and the USA here. The Bolsheviks’ commitment to combating illiteracy and enlisting the arts to further the revolutionary cause are well-known, but we forget that other governments realized cinema’s power as a tool of mobilization as well. And your sources — so cool!


  4. You tackle a very interesting topic here! Lenin was right to place so much faith in the film industry. The website talks a bit about the influence that film had on the peasants of Russia. In a time where mass communication was on the edge of being available, film offered a common medium that expressed societal highs and lows as well as a subliminal political agenda. Much as the opera took the world by storm, so did film and even more so. Lenin was huge into making propaganda films and understood the power that the cinema held over the common people. I found another website that breaks down how Lenin used different forms of propaganda (, it is a very interesting topic and in many ways he was ahead of his time in placing the faith he did in the burgeoning industry of film. It is interesting, as a side note, that you put in the Strachan quote and talk about the effects of film industry, because just a couple decades later, a communist influx would threaten to tear American Hollywood apart.


  5. Very good post. The international influencing of Russian propaganda was very interesting, especially since the Germans hoped their propaganda would encourage violent revolution. I was also surprised at how much America invested in Russia propaganda in order to educate the population about democracy, as well as to sway the populace away from violent revolution.


  6. I really enjoyed this post and how it focused on the push for a stronger Russia without militaristic moves. It is really interesting to see the measures that not only Lenin took in trying to tap the national pride of his people, but also the interest taken by Germany and the United States. For the United States, the idea of getting the message of how strong and stable it was through the its use of democracy was interesting, but also makes sense if it was having a “propaganda war” with Germany. The United State’s push for democratic propaganda also may foreshadow the problems later that Hollywood would face once the rise in communism was seen. Many actors, directors, musicians, etc. were blacklisted for either being thought to have turned to the communist party or be a communist sympathizer. Once again, really interesting post!


  7. Very interesting post; I found it particularly informative. Propaganda has the power to motivate people, and a picture speaks a thousand words. Did Lenin come from a artistic background? I also wonder if U.S. involvement in the early Soviet Union led to the mistrust that would spawn the Cold War.


  8. I really enjoyed your post this week. I did not realize the United States and Germany had put Propaganda into Russia and I found that very interesting to read about. I also didn’t know that the United States put peaceful and democratic propaganda into the country and did not promote violence like Germany did.


  9. It’s so interesting to read about how those leading the revolution had to think outside the box in recruiting more to join them. I low literacy rate in Russia is unfortunate but also not surprising. When the majority of the state is made up of peasants and factory workers who are trying to make ends meet, reading and education do not come first. Last week, I wrote my blog post about the increasing numbers of students in Russia who were going to college. In college, they discovered the writings of the great revolutionary minds and joined forces with them. This demonstrates just how powerful reading can be. The creative solution to this is art and media. It allows for everyone to understand the meaning behind the picture, creating more political unrest in the state.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is such a cool post that views propaganda efforts from a whole new lens. Everyone expects propaganda to come from the state – it’s a powerful tool to win the hearts and minds of the citizens. But the idea of dueling propaganda from other states infiltrating a newly minted state is something that is discussed less often. It really makes you think about Russian history in a very global way.


  11. I enjoyed your post and also found it interesting how propaganda allowed for the emergence of educational reform. When thinking of the revolution it is not often associated as global with many different countries, including the US and Germany, implementing their propaganda into the country. Furthermore I like how you highlighted that through art, the Russian’s who were illiterate could gain a say politically.


  12. Awesome blog all the way around! This was a very interesting read and a topic that I hadn’t put much thought to. The influence of art in combatting illiteracy is brilliant. What I found the most interesting was the influence that the United States and Germany were playing in the propaganda industry! Well written, great blog design, and very informative!


  13. This was very informative on how propaganda was used and displayed in Russia after the revolution. Really great use of photos to support the topic. I had no idea that American propaganda was used in Russia. This post really explains how there was political power in art.


  14. This was a really cool post. I had no idea that the United States was being invited to show propaganda in Russia. I find it totally surprising that Lenin would want to import influence from the United States, but maybe that’s just my post cold war bias. I would be interested in learning more about the involvement of the United States in Russia before WWII.


  15. If you are bored sometime, you should check out this 1924 movie “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks”. It is a pretty funny satire/propaganda piece! Your comments about different propaganda campaigns in the early days of Bolshevik power reminded me of it.

    It is a silent film, but the transitional cues have English subtitles.

    Liked by 1 person

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