Poster Boys

A Specter is stalking Europe," one of them reads. "It is the Specter of Communism!" The words are taken from a Soviet poster (pictured above) produced in 1920. It shows Vladimir Lenin standing on a tribune, his arm in the air, pointing the way to a bright future.

The poster - and many others like it, some of which have never been hung in public - is part of a new exhibit at the Historical Museum (the former Lenin Museum, now a branch of the Historical Museum).

Today, the museum which once housed Lenin's hat and Josef Stalin's uniform and collection of tobacco pipes is the site of "Vozhd kak Simvol," or "The Leader as Symbol," a collection of Soviet-era propaganda posters.

"We are showing posters that date from 1918 through the late 1980s," said Tatyana Koloskova, director of the (former Lenin Museum's) branch office at the Historical Museum.

According to Koloskova, only seven posters were produced during Lenin's lifetime - and four of them are at the exhibit.

"We tried to retrace the evolution of the image of the Soviet leader," she said. "This kind of art is always a combination of ideology and pop psychology, and that's why it's so interesting."

Indeed, the posters do seem to attempt to use psychology in order to make an impression upon viewers. In many posters, Lenin, Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev are portrayed as giants who tower over masses of followers, whose devotion to their leader is apparent in their wide eyes and submissive poses. In one, created in 1942, Lenin - portrayed as an enormous shadow - follows a Soviet tank painted with a portrait of Stalin.

"The great spirit of Lenin and his standard of triumph inspire us in the new war, just as they did 23 years ago [during World War I and the Russian civil war]," the caption reads.

Another, from 1919, shows Lenin dressed as a comic hero in a period comic strip explaining to a Russian peasant how to win the struggle with the kulaki, successful farmers who were virtually eliminated as a class in post-revolutionary Russia.

"In the earlier posters from Lenin's lifetime, Lenin was drawn as a living person, not as a symbol," Koloskova said. "But by 1920, the posters begin to show him as a symbol and he was always pictured in a specific allegorical style."

As the transformation from real person to myth progressed, she said, Lenin's face began to lose its genuineness. "As the country struggled for everything - with both external and internal enemies - it couldn't unite the ideal with reality and so needed an ideological bridge. The leader myth became that bridge."

It is interesting to note that the posters created during Lenin's lifetime, according to Koloskova, reflect a relative absence of censorship and, as a result, the portrayals of Lenin tend to be more creative and subject to artist interpretation.

"All of the images of Soviet leaders changed with time, reflecting social changes," Koloskova said. "After the famous 20th congress of the Communist Party, in 1957, when the Stalin cult was dethroned, society began to return to the human Lenin."

In a 1951 poster that predates this trend, Lenin stands next to a rosy-cheeked Stalin on a podium. Stalin, in a gesture common to the posters' depiction of the leaders, has one arm in the air. He is surrounded by a crowd of Soviet people from varying social classes - white-collar workers in pale shirts and peasants in folk dress. "Forward to Communism under the leadership of the great Stalin!" declares the poster, which happens to have been created by an artist named Boris Berezovsky (no relation to the contemporary Kremlin insider).

But Stalin is not a hero in every poster - particularly in those that date from the perestroika period. In one, Stalin is pictured holding a gun on a blood-red background. The names of repressed persons appear to vanish into the red background.

"Such posters were made as a reflection of the official propaganda of perestroika," Koloskova said. "They were not hung on the streets."

In fact, the museum came by the blood-red Stalin poster by accident - a museum representative found and boughtit in a bookstore during the Mikhail Gorbachev era.

The rarest (pictured at right) of the posters is one which depicts Gorbachev as a conductor, playing music from one of Lenin's books.

"This poster wasn't printed in a run of 200,000 or 300,000 [like the others]," Koloskova said. "Only 200 were printed - and not by a publisher, but by a plastic factory in Leningrad. We bought it from them. We have only one."

Koloskova said that so few of the conductor posters were printed because the poster was not the result of an official government order; it was, rather, created by two artists, never passed through a government censor and was never hung on the street.

The posters became less popular during the Gorbachev era, Koloskova said, when "building a strong leader symbol wasn't necessary and the posters vanished from the streets. They became a kind of fine art then."

As the authoritarian power of the Soviet government waned, the posters began to disappear.

"Perhaps it's wrong to say that these leader symbols are used only in totalitarian societies," said Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow Political Sciences Center. "But, in totalitarian societies, the bond between the people and officialdom is stronger."

Sometimes, though, according to Markov, the bond between the people and the leader begins to weaken. Reinforcement, in the form of propaganda, is necessary - enter the posters. "When the Soviet tanks moved into Budapest and Prague, people stopped trusting [the government] ... and the distance grew, so officials tried to rebuild the image of the leader - without success."

"Today," he said. "Russia is looking for a new charismatic leader."

Putin, get your conductor's baton.

"Vozhd kak Simvol" runs until Feb. 14 at the Historical Museum, located on Red Square, near Voskresensky Vorot. Metro Okhotny Ryad. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, closed Tuesdays.

Upcoming poster exhibits include "Zashchitnik Otechestva" (Protector of the Fatherland), a collection of Soviet military posters (Feb. 19 to Apr. 24) and "Pervoye Maya i Pobeda" (The First of May and Victory), a collection of Soviet World War II-era posters (Apr. 27 to May 29).