When Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, one of the new government’s first acts was to negotiate a unilateral peace treaty with Germany. Throughout the war the German government had actively supported and funded Lenin and other exiled Bolshevik revolutionaries, hoping for just such an outcome, and Russian participation in the deeply unpopular ‘imperialist war officially ended with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.
The driving force behind the Bolshevik revolution came from the works of 19th century German political philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Their brief but highly influential book Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) was the cornerstone of what was to become Marxism, the principal ideological influence on Lenin and other leading Russian revolutionaries including Trotsky and Stalin.
Marx and Engels had undertaken much of their research work for the Communist Manifesto at Chetham’s Library in Manchester, a city at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and a hub for radical political activity such as Chartism. Engels himself had strong connections with Manchester. He had worked at his father’s cotton mill in Weaste and his book The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) is both a sociological study and a political tract, containing many ideas that were to become absorbed into Marxist theory.
However, the assumption that the first communist revolution would take place in an advanced, highly industrialised society such as Great Britain or Germany, proved to be mistaken. The task facing the new Bolshevik government in largely agrarian Russia in1917 required a different strategy and much effort was put into the use of propaganda, to deliver the party’s message across the length and breadth of the country.
The use of such ‘Agitprop’ (agitation and propaganda) took many forms. Apart from political haranguing by trained agitators, art works, theatrical performances and film were also used, particularly effective methods of communication to an audience where mass illiteracy was still a major problem.
To tackle this, Lenin initiated a literacy campaign in 1919. Instructors were sent out into the countryside to develop literacy networks and disseminate Bolshevik ideology through books and pamphlets. There were even Agitprop trains, equipped with radios and printing presses, which carried propaganda material deep into the heart of rural Russia, setting up Agitprop ‘stations’ and libraries as they went.
The new regime also created its own artistic institution, ‘Proletkult’(proletarian culture), which for a brief period harnessed the techniques of Russian avant-garde movements such as Constructivism and Suprematism to serve the interests of the state and the people. The bold and challenging use of typography, colour, geometric shapes and ‘industrial’ materials such plastic, glass and metal to construct new forms, were ideal for posters and public art works that both conveyed Bolshevik propaganda and reinforced the message that art should be created and enjoyed by all, not just a privileged elite. Many of these concepts and techniques were to be highly influential on later generations of artists and graphic designers, not least the idea that art need not be confined to formal buildings such as galleries and museums, but could also move into the street and the workplace.