Thirty Years of the Soviet State: Calendar 1917-1947

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For the USSR, 1947 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution that ushered the Bolsheviks under Lenin into power. Coming just two years after the end of the Second World War, the year also marked the emergence of the Soviet Union as a global superpower who controlled vast swathes of territory in Eastern Europe (under compliant local rulers dependant on Moscow for support). The post-war narrative also heavily emphasised the victory of the competing economic systems (after all hadn’t the communist Soviet Union defeated the Germans?), but it also consolidated the personal power and control of Stalin as arch-dictator, whose rule during the initial German invasion had looked increasingly shaky. Now, the wartime compromises and promises made to the people of the USSR were being slowly rolled back, terror was returning, those who had shown initiative during the war were now increasingly regarded as potential threats to be crushed, while the tensions between the former wartime allies were rapidly turning into a state of fear that would consume the world for the next forty years.

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This book, despite its name, is not an actual calendar, more an encyclopaedia celebrating the accomplishments and achievements of the USSR over the previous thirty years on a month by month basis.  The overall message is straightforward: under the guidance of Stalin and Lenin (but mainly Stalin or you risked going to a prison camp) the USSR has evolved from a backward agrarian country into a global power. Tangible accomplishments are presented in terms of the development of a new society in which a communist utopia was being created (under Stalin’s control). Like the plot of Orwell’s 1984 come to pass, the book is an attempt to rewrite and reconstruct a version of history in which the triumph of communism is presented as inevitable. Although the dictator dominates the everything, space is permitted for acceptable heroes and role-models that embody the virtues of blind loyalty and self sacrifice (i.e. fawning, opinionless yes- men and women) who are presented as embodying the ideal for those who lived under this regime. Literary and other artistic figures who survived the purges of the 1930s (usually by informing on their peers to the secret police) are also valorised as embodying the vibrant, thriving culture of this new revolutionary society under construction. Similarly, space is devoted to prestige projects that appear to demonstrate the accomplishments made during the Soviet period, mainly around agriculture and industry, the twin pillars of communist society. Naturally, the book only shows the successes; the downsides and human costs of this vast social experiment are ignored.

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Design-wise the book is an interesting example of the evolution of Soviet propaganda. (Alas, the binding appears to have been very poorly done and finding a copy that has not split open over the past sixty years is a hard job.) Gone are the experimental techniques of the early 1930s as socialist-realism has taken root as the only permissible way of visualising the great leader and the paradise he has created. For photography, this meant that every image should convey a singular, unambiguous meaning that could be easily understood by everybody (particularly the censors). The book uses colour in places to convey the positive message of the USSR on the way up and separate pages display the various national symbols that made up the constituent countries of the Soviet Union, the national anthem is presented in bold red text, sayings of the great and good are emblazoned in red, while tipped in colour photographs show the great leader himself presiding over this display of might and unity.

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Photographs dominate the book and are used to illuminate the anniversaries of the assorted heroes, accomplishments of the regime and the cult of personality surrounding Stalin that constitutes history according to this book. Uncredited, these images show us a procession of martyrs whose example is held up as being the supreme example of how people should behave in Stalinist society. Two years after the end of the Second World War, a deeply traumatised society was still trying to come to terms with the horrific loss of life that it had just endured in fighting the Germans and were desperately trying to repair and rebuild a shattered country. All this was taking place in the menacing shadow of their unpredictable psychotic leader who, by all indications, fully intended to reinstate the regime of terror he had instituted in the 1930s that had seen millions killed or sent to prison camps.

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Similarly, industrial scenes show how the USSR under communism has emerged from agrarian backwardness into becoming a world power to rival the US and the rest of Europe, while the reconstructed new-towns and cities are presented as proof of the care the state takes in looking after its loyal and happy citizens. Photographs of heavy industry, belching factories and steel plants are ideologically loaded, becoming images of a global superpower, more than capable of taking on the Western world. Similarly, photographs that show spotlessly clean, modern cityscapes, dotted with cars, populated by well dressed and happy inhabitants are used as proof that the utopia promised by Marx has come to pass under Stalin. Of course, the reality was very different.

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But the real purpose of this book is to prove that Stalin’s rule has been a success. The cult surrounding him had grown to massive proportions by this period and everything in this society, all art and culture, was devoted towards valorising his dictatorial reign. He is presented as a god-like figure, all-knowing, ceaselessly devoting his life towards improving the lot of the common man as well as single-handedly winning the war. Actually, the book format is almost biblical: communism is the new religion, Stalin is the messiah sent to save the world, the heroic Stakhanovite workers are saints, the Second World War was a test of faith, while the industrial and agricultural development are miracles that prove the validity of the new ideology. But the cracks were starting to show in Stalin’s rule by this time: too many people had demonstrated their ability to think for themselves during the fight against the Nazis and the balance of terror that had prevailed in the 1930s no longer worked as effectively in a society exhausted by war and devastation. The fact that after his death in 1953, the cult was quickly dismantled with little protest from the general populace showed just how shallow were these claims of popular acclaim.
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