Photography was an important tool in the consolidation of the Soviet state in the two decades following its establishment. Not only was it a vital tool for the dissemination of propaganda amongst a population that had low literacy levels, it also had the added cachet of being modern, which was something the Soviets keenly promoted to emphasise the contrast between their new egalitarian regime and the backward feudalism of the Tsar. Modernity was synonymous with progress and it was hailed as being the solution for all ills. The equation was simple; everything modern was good (factories, steel production, cars, industrial farming, power plants, aircraft, photography, movies) while everything old was bad (kulaks, exploitation, small farms, illiteracy, peasants, landlords, private property, imperial titles). The new modern USSR was also supposed to usher in the creation of a new ‘Soviet man’ who was destined to inhabit this centrally planned utopia of the future.
This book ostensibly purports to show the great strides made by the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Five-Year plan (1928-1933) during which the collectivisation of agriculture and a drive for industrialisation was supposed to make the country a world power and prove that communism was a viable economic system. The central idea behind this was to make farming more efficient and produce a surplus of food which could then be used to subsidise industrial development, regarded as a true measure of progress and power by Stalin. Having lots of food available meant that wages could be kept low and a lot of people could be freed up to work in factories rather than tilling the land. Industrial development, particularly heavy industry and steel, was seen as the only way for the Soviet Union to become a modern world power as well as build a true communist society. That was the theory; in practice it proved to be a catastrophe.
However we have to look at this book in the context of the time. Communism appeared to offer a serious alternative to capitalism during the 1930s, a time when European and American society was undergoing a deep systemic crisis thanks to the financial meltdown of the Great Depression. Mass unemployment, particularly amongst working class populations, in these countries reached dangerously high levels with the consequent increase in poverty and the ever present threat of social breakdown. Into this mix the Soviets step in with their propaganda which appears to show a working alternative to capitalism in which everybody has a fulfilling job and a decent standard of living because this society is supposedly fair and equal as there is now no exploitation by greedy bosses anymore. Obviously this only works if the flow of information about conditions in the USSR is tightly controlled to stop anything emerging that might tarnish the rose-tinted view being presented abroad. But for many impoverished and desperate unemployed people in Europe and America Soviet propaganda presented a very seductive vision of an alternative system that appeared to offer a real solution to the plight of poverty and destitution that faced so many during that dark decade.
Even the title of this book, The Land Without Unemployment, is ideologically loaded; here the Soviet Union is presented as a land of happiness where harmony reigns and conflict has been abolished. However, as we now know, this was far from the truth. Fear, terror, violence and brutality on a scale that is hard to imagine today was all pervasive.This book dates from the early years of Stalinism when Soviet society had yet to feel the full force of his reign of terror. Everyday life became a nightmare; as the state owned everything it meant that everybody was a public employee so if you were late for work then you could be charged with treason (attempting to wreck the economy and undermine the revolution) and sent to a concentration camp or even shot by the secret police. Denunciations and the threat of violence were everywhere. Soviet society during the 1930s was a nightmare.
Although it has been translated into a number of different languages (French, English and Norwegian are three others I know of – there are probably more) the book appears to have been produced primarily for a German audience; it appears to be an attempt to convince German workers that a better future could be theirs under communism. This has a particular resonance thanks to the life and death struggle between the Nazis and the communists for power in Weimar Germany which was to have profound results. It’s interesting to see what happened to the three authors who contributed to the book when the Nazis took power; Kurella and Weiskopf remained true believers and fled Germany (Kurella became a middling government official in East Germany while Weiskopf ended up as a Czech ambassador and head of the East German writers association after the war). Glaeser’s story appears to be a bit more complicated. He too left Germany after the Nazi takeover and fled to Czechoslovakia but he seems to have engineered a compromise with the new regime and he returned to Germany in 1939 and began to write pro-Nazi propaganda material for German military newspapers and publications during the war. Principles can be very inconvenient at times.
All the great names of Soviet photography in the 30s make an appearance in the book which consists of a procession of (uncredited) images divided up into chapters depicting the successes made in developing the Soviet Union; oil, coal, industry, agriculture, education, the military, literacy and the modernisation of Central Asia. The sequencing is, to my mind, rather haphazard with images being stuffed into pages with little thought as to how they work together. It’s rather hit and miss; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But overall, the sheer number of smiling proletarian workers, collective farms and factories on these pages convey very effectively the message that the USSR is a happy place to live. However, in terms of 1930s Soviet propaganda design the book is quite restrained; apart from the cover (which may have been the work of John Heartfield) there are no attempts at montage and the images are, for the most part straightforward and unambiguous. (It should be pointed out that this book was printed by a German publisher rather than an official Soviet state agency so that may have influenced the design.) A few constructivist images do make it into the book but these are swamped by the sheer volume of the straight pictures which diminishes their visual power and effect. In many ways the layout and design of this book is quite similar to L’Italia Fascista in Cammino, another 1930s photobook which was meant to whitewash the excesses of another coercive system and delude gullible foreigners.
Women are heavily represented in the images, in depictions of factories, fields and everyday life. Although relatively unremarkable by today’s standards, female participation in areas traditionally regarded as male-dominated occupations was trumpeted by the regime as evidence of true equality in contrast to the grudging granting of votes to women by most of Europe and the US in the early part of the 20th century. The Soviets were also keen to rebut some of the anti-communist propaganda being bandied about which said that sexual relations had also been collectivised, assisted by the fact that on-demand abortion was legal until 1936 in Russia, something that was not going to go down well in conservative societies abroad where traditional family values were held dear. Feminine beauty is also emphasised in a number of the images as another charge made against the Soviet regime was that it produced ugly, brutalised women by forcing them to work in heavy labour (an image of a swimmer is even captioned: “Communism is not a menace to Beauty”).
It appears that this publication is playing it very safe. Interestingly, Stalin himself doesn’t make an appearance in the book (Lenin also only makes a brief appearance through a handwritten note and a statue), which by the standards of the time, is astounding. All of this would indicate to me that the publishers wanted to produce something that would reach as wide an audience as possible and that there would be nothing in the book that could be used to criticise the central message of happiness-through-communism. Although the Stalin cult was all pervasive at home it appeared to be permissible to tone it down for a foreign audience and instead focus on the happy contented lives of ordinary people being led under his benovlent reign.
The overall narrative produced by these images is very simple; life is much better under communism than capitalism. This core message is hammered home to the viewer through the sheer brute force of an overwhelming number of images designed to prevent any alternative reading of this book. It is remarkably effective in doing this.