Modernist re-imaginings of space and society were everywhere in the 1920s. Avant garde artists were captivated by the ideas of progress, utopia, and, especially in the Soviet Union, by revolution. Film, photography, and architecture all embraced the possibility of creating new worlds: politically, socially, and aesthetically. Soviet propaganda posters denounced the old and celebrated the radiant future awaiting the workers and peasants under socialism.
These visions of the new world were remarkably varied. This was really a period when competing visions of modernity emerged in many different places, from Paris to Moscow to Istanbul to Samarqand. Even within the scope of Soviet propaganda posters – which we might expect to represent the single, official voice of the state – there was a wide range of images and ideas, with influences from religious imagery, abstract art, and commercial advertising.
It’s hardly surprising, then, to find that there were almost as many visions of the utopian future as there were artists to depict it. Some focussed on the image of the “Soviet East.” They depicted the Bolshevik revolution as an anti-imperial uprising, and the non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union as postcolonial space.
One such poster [Fig.1] directly contrasts life for “peoples of the East” [sharq xalqlari (Uzbek), narody vostoka (Russian)] under Soviet and colonial rule. A bold geometric diagonal divides the composition between the Soviet and the colonised East in such a way as to make the Soviet East seem bright and open, in contrast to the crowded and oppressive capitalist world, which was populated by caricatures of grotesque and bloodthirsty colonialists and downtrodden peoples suffering under the colonial yoke.
The light of modernity shines upon the Soviet East, whose people are both much bigger in scale and fewer in number, giving them a sense of monumentality and implicit grandeur. This exaggerated scaleis echoed in the architecture; besides fruitful fields and urban landscapes, the Soviet side also features a huge fantasy structure. Its foundation is a red five-pointed star, and rises up in geometric tiers, like flattened scaffolding, to hold a giant hammer and sickle and the letters USSR (in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts) in silhouette against the rising sun.
The message is clear: the Soviet East, having thrown off imperial rule, is free and fruitful, and serves as an exemplar to be emulated by other colonised peoples. It visualises, therefore, the Soviet government’s policy to exploit cross-border ties in the hope that if they overtly and ostentatiously promoted the interests of minority groups, it would attract the support of other “oppressed nations” abroad, and further the cause of world revolution. The poster even depicts a small group of figures on the colonial side who look and gesture upwards at their Soviet counterparts as if in supplication.
Other images, too, stress the solidarity between the Soviet East and the colonised abroad. А1933 poster by Vladimir Kaidalov contrasts, in bold black and red, peaceful celebrations of the 15thanniversary of the 1917 revolution with violence and starvation in the colonies [Fig.2], while another symbolically represents the Uzbek SSR as “the brightest lighthouse on the edge of the colonial east.” [Fig.3]. The metaphor of light – signified here by the lighthouse, but in other images by the sun, lightening, electricity or abstract rays of light – was extremely common, and not just limited to Eurocentric imagery. The rising sun in particular was used by Uzbek reformist Muslim intellectuals known as the Jadids as a symbol of their own brand of modernity and enlightenment.
However, despite some shared aims with local reformists, Soviet developmentalism was underpinned by a fundamentally Eurocentric, teleological view of progress. The very concept of the “Soviet East” is based in Orientalist assumption: the idea of an intrinsic Eastern-ness uniting the Soviet East with the colonial subjects of European empires, irrespective of specific differences in culture or geography. It is also rooted in the Marxist-Leninist understanding of teleological progress, according to which societies are at different stages of economic development, and some are therefore more “advanced” or more “backward” than others. The “backward” nationalities, according to Soviet definition, were those who had been oppressed by Russian imperialism and lagged behind on the path of progress.
Soviet policy, therefore, despite its anti-imperialist bite, also revived and rationalised particularly crude categories of East (backward) and West (advanced) to justify its civilising mission. To belong to the peoples of the Soviet East was to have a shared history of colonial oppression, to have been liberated by the October revolution, and now to be in the process of catching up. Or, to use the Soviet term of the time, to be “formerly-oppressed.”
In several ways, therefore, depictions of the “Soviet East” actually reveal the profoundly Eurocentric perspectives underlying Soviet cultural policy and propaganda. As the 1920s went on, temporary compromises made between the Soviet state and local elites began to wear thin: national cultures were to be celebrated only so long as they conformed to the party line on progress (without leaning towards “bourgeois nationalism” or “local chauvinism”), and liberation meant not just rejecting imperial power but also overthrowing traditions and social norms seen as backward. Soviet “postcolonialism” therefore operated within rigid boundaries.
This didn’t stop artists from representing the “Soviet East” as a paragon of liberty.
This poster [Fig.4], produced for the 10-year anniversary of the Red Army, does just that. It depicts a cavalryman riding a red horse directly out of the frame of the poster, towards the viewer, his gaze uplifted and his posture composed: he is literally the flag-bearer of Soviet order. He is also a romanticised figure, the mountain horseman depicted in monumental scale and vivid colour against a stylised landscape. The poster frames the Soviet East as ordered, militarised, mapped space, but emphasises too its agency and dynamism.
Others emphasised the brotherly harmony between the formerly-oppressed nationalities and the Russian proletariat, striding Together, As Friends, to Elections, to Work, and to the Soviets! [Fig.5]. Predictably, this image of a peaceful utopia glosses over real resentments and conflicts between workers of different nationalities. In Central Asia, conditions for local workers were often worse than for Russians, who nonetheless often expressed resentment at the preferential treatment afforded non-Europeans under the state’s affirmative action policies [korenizatsiia]. They expressed their mutual hostility in direct fashion on the shop floor: ‘in one Tashkent factory, European workers taunted Uzbeks by calling them women’s names, and Uzbeks dropped crowbars and bolts on Europeans as a “joke”.’ (It is interesting to note that, unusually, this poster is captioned only in Russian, perhaps indicating an intended audience among the predominantly-Russian industrial workers, and perhaps suggesting that the Russian workforce was thought to be the main cause of interethnic conflict).
Images of the “Soviet East,” as created in posters of the 1920s and early 30s, were therefore utopian in more ways than one. The Soviet East was depicted as a beacon, a sunbeam, a ray of light; a model of postcolonial transformation, industrialisation, and interethnic friendship; and a paragon of freedom in vivid colour. Propaganda images hinted at some of the problems faced by Soviet nationalities policy in practice, such as in the reference to interethnic conflict, but largely present images of a postcolonial paradise. These posters show the diversity of Soviet propaganda images in the 1920s, before the ‘friendship of the peoples,’ an array of nationalities gathered around Stalin, became the defining metaphor of the Soviet body politic.
Mollie Arbuthnot is a PhD candidate in Russian Studies at the University of Manchester. Her dissertation focuses on propaganda posters in Soviet Uzbekistan, c.1920-1936, and examines propaganda images in the context of Soviet nationalities policy and contemporaneous theories about national identity, artistic heritage, and visual propaganda. Previously, she studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Cambridge.
 Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001),9.
 Michael Kemper, ‘Red Orientalism: Mikhail Pavlovich and Marxist Oriental Studies in Early Soviet Russia’ in Die Welt des Islams, vol.50 no.3/4, A Muslim Interwar Soviet Union(2010), 435-476 (476).
 Shoshana Keller, To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1941(Westport CA and London: Praeger, 2001), 213-214.