Historical perspectives and propaganda

I work in the IT industry, and it often surprises people when I mention that my academic background is as an historian. Looking back on my school career, when I came to choose options for A-levels I had a fairly open choice between “arts” and science subjects, and I just went with my strongest interest – history. That extended on to university, where I studied Modern History.

When I was visiting my in-laws in Poland recently, they unearthed a couple of fascinating booklets – fascinating to me, anyway, since one of the the countries I specialised in during my academic studies was Russia and the Russian Revolution, covering the early 19th century through until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Krupska Lenin - 01
Kononow Elektrownia - 01
Click the image to go to a Flickr set containing images of each page, or download a PDF
Click the image to go to a Flickr set containing images of each page, or download a PDF

The book on the left (published in the same year I was born!) presents a version of Lenin’s life, in the voice of a father talking to his child. It’s a highly and unsurprisingly romanticised account, talking about his struggle to free the poor, and how very hard he worked… ending with a note about how sad everyone was when he died, but how his ideas are remembered – “work and life are organised according to the new system”. The booklet on the right, published a year later, contains a number of stories. I’ve not had all of them translated to me, but one story involves Lenin getting a Christmas tree for all the poor children!

This portrayal of Lenin as the hero of the poor working classes, friend to children everywhere, is classic stuff – I’d read about the way in which his image was manipulated in order to romanticise and legitimise the Communist system, particularly under Stalin and his successors, but here I had two booklets which were being used as recently as 30 years ago to teach my wife and her siblings (although not all of them remember it so vividly, given that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Poland is now celebrating 20 years of democracy). The back pages of each booklet contain the publishing information noting that they were printed in “ZSSR”. The Communist themes, symbols and colours are prevalent. Of course, it also elevates Lenin to an almost religious position of reverence, ironic given the Marxist opposition to religion, but convenient for Stalin’s purposes in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. I felt very strongly that it was worth preserving them, so I engaged in a little digital archaeology / restoration with the aid of a scanner and Apple’s Pages 09.

Talking to my wife, she remembers these books being read to her as a child… she told me that she remembers her mother not seeming exactly sure about them or keen to tell the stories, but looking back she can see that it was because it was not the done thing to speak out against the materials – if her child had gone to school making comments against comrade Lenin it would have been a problem!

I do have to wonder just how many of the portraits of Lenin can ever have been legitimate. I particularly like the images of Lenin the worker and Lenin the family man. Absolutely fascinating.

It’s absolutely true that my own initial views of Poland were based on the grey news footage of Solidarity strikes in the 1980s, and when I first went to the country in 2002 I was astonished to find how “modern” and vibrant a place it is – of course, I can now see that I was just seeing the place through the filter of 15-year-old news coverage of a period of unrest and hardship, in a particular region of a large country. What I know now about the way people lived is based on memories which are fast slipping away. I can talk in very broken Polish to my wife’s grandmother who lived through the war and remembers it; to her parents about the hard times they lived through; and get the occasional remark about my wife’s childhood. Materials like these books make it much more real. I hope you’ll find them as interesting to think about as I did, even if you don’t understand every word written inside.

2 thoughts on “Historical perspectives and propaganda”

  1. Andy, The thing about those booklets is they were a sort of life fossils already back then. They were produced in USSR because of decisions taken many years before. Even the communists realised that they were out date. I remember and interesting scene in Czechoslovakia I witnessed back then.
    There was a soviet military track filled with books in front of a bookstore and people from the bookstore dropped the books directly to a skip that came just in order to dispose of the books. Papers were signed and the books went straight to apparently serve as a raw material for the most desirable object of the time – toilet paper.

    This also reminds me about a cold war era posters “watch out for spies” in Seoul underground. Someone setup an agency many years ago, agency has a budget and they need to spend it on something. So even though most South Koreans totally do not understand those posters they are still being published and mounted in all kinds of places.

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