Coffin to Capitalism

Early Soviet rule saw a lot of improvised propaganda shows, with flashy, right-in-your-face visuals

A cable car in the Red Square converted into a coffin for Capitalists. This happened on the occasion of the 1st of May festivities in Moscow in 1927. The text says “Russian Capitalism. Now, it’s the turn for the foreign one.” The coffin is decorated by a swastika, a hangman, and an impression of the Grim Reaper preparing his tools for the Capitalist holdovers.

Red Square Russian Capitalism Now, it's the turn for the foreign one
Red Square in Moscow, 1927. “Russian Capitalism. Now, it’s the turn for the foreign one.”

Proletarian candy

In Soviet Russia, candy had to serve the cause of Communist revolution

The early 1920s. Wrapping of Soviet candy brand “Red Moscow”, produced by the State Candy Plant Red October. An armed worker is guarding a mountain of proletarian sugar. The Communist pentagram is substituted by a red Star of David with abbreviation “R.S.F.S.R” (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) on it.

Communist candy Red Moscow
Candy wrapping “Red Moscow” from the 1920s.

Pictures that describe the difference between Communist and Capitalist ideology

Posters and propaganda art give a clear idea of the core values behind their ideologies. Communism versus Capitalism illustrate this clearly.

Art celebrating state power is interesting to compare and contrast between Socialist and Capitalist societies.

Soviet Union

The poster below was printed for the 22nd Party Congress. This was in 1961, when NikitaKhrushchev promised the nation to build Communism by 1980. It shows a procession of Soviet people marching toward a bright future of social justice, spiritual perfection and material cornucopia.

The decisions of the 22nd party congress will be fulfilled
Poster “The decisions of the 22nd party congress will be fulfilled!”

What makes it uniquely pertaining to Real Socialism?

  • The dominating presence of a sanctified person who is not a religious saint or an immortal being (Lenin)
  • The importance of industrial scenery in the bottom right corner. Under Socialism, it’s a reassuring symbol of progressivist development, self-reliance, security and future wealth.
  • In the center, a peasant is tasked with carrying around a sheaf of wheat, in plain sight for everyone. The Soviet Union experienced at least four famines during the first 30 years of its existence. I belong to the first generation of Soviet citizens who were not a “hungry generation”. It’s important that food here is presented in its basic form, as grain. Socialism acknowledges people’s need not to go hungry but frowns on foodies and drink connoisseurs.
  • People walk in a very determined way in one direction, but have no map. Instead of a map, they use a Program of the Communist Party printed on an oversized sheet of paper. The only person who seems to have an item useful for orientation and measurements is the land surveyor with a theodolite to the right. But even he is looking for directions at the metal worker and harvester operator who are holding the Party Program.
  • The journey to Communism is expected to be short. The welder didn’t even take off his headgear. Some wear their Sunday clothes. Women especially don’t want to be caught out with bad hair and in ugly dresses at the destination.
  • One of the kids is bringing cut flowers for the big occasion. The other is carrying a huge model of a nuclear-propelled ice breaker he likely made himself. The little girl in her mother’s arms is preparing to cheer and wave her hands in excitement. Real Socialism is not a place for useless people. “He who doesn’t work, shall not eat.”
  • Apart from the Scientist, no 2 from the right, no one seems to be older than 30. This is no land for old people.

United States

Below, the painting “You are not forgotten”, by Jon McNaughton, from “The Empowered Man” series.

You are not forgotten by Jon McNaughton

“You are not forgotten”, by Jon McNaughton
  • The congregation is static. Under Capitalism, everyone is free to walk, run and crawl in any direction they want. The only way to achieve synchronicity is for everyone to stop.
  • The nation’s leader does not need to physically show a direction. Holding speeches and showing up at ceremonies is most often enough to show leadership.
  • President Trump is trampling a serpent of liberal treason. This is unusual for socialist-themed motifs in the USSR. In our place, the secret police were required to take care of traitors and enemies of the people well before the patriotic crowds entered the scene.
  • There are many seniors in the picture. Under Socialism, if you are old, you are not allowed to enter such an artistic motif, even if you are the highest-ranking government official. (To depict Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, painters needed special permission.) Even more surprising is the wheel-chaired veteran in front of the public. There was not a single piece of patriotic art in the USSR where you could see someone with a disability.
  • The gathering stands on bone-dry earth. This is strange. Under Real Socialism, even in devastated surroundings, the soil always remained full of energy, ready to rebound in a sudden burst of vegetation. It symbolized the bottomless creative force of workers and peasants—none of whom seem to be present here outside the White House.
  • The family of three, front and center, are too melancholic—as is the President. It’s as if they are not sure if the tiny green plant they are watering is going to survive. Only the two police officers are applauding, the rest look like there is a burial going on. This lack of faith and enthusiasm is what always puzzled Soviet people about Capitalist ideologies.
  • Apart from a few government persons, there doesn’t seem to be anyone with a college education. There are no signs of American industrial and technological might in the picture. An alien who doesn’t know anything about the country might deduce from this piece of art that America is a pastoral, not too educated country that mainly consists of the military, firefighters, police officers, elderly politicians, and silver-haired bikers.

Incendiary propaganda for the city hall in Moscow

Starting the fire of world revolution at any cost was the top priority of Soviet rulers during the first years of the Communist rule.

Incendiary message from Soviet Russia in 1920. The motif below was a suggestion for decorating the city hall in Moscow, called “Red Knight”. It mimics the style of pre-revolutionary lacquer decorations popular with peasants. This is a man in ethnic Russian clothes who carries a torch of revolution around the world riding on a winged horse. In the background, a Parthenon-like edifice of Capitalism is being consumed by flames. Text: “We’ll set ablaze the entire world with the fire of the III International“.

winged knight of revolutionary flame

“We’ll set ablaze the entire world with the fire of the III International”. 1920.

Samizdat: system-critical publications in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union prohibited publication or even imports of “anti-Soviet” and “ideologically vague” books. Being caught in contact with them was a sure way to become a dissident.

Inside the Soviet Union, replication and dissemination of system-critical books and articles was an impossibility. Publishing was performed by state or co-operative agencies. Publishing was under total ideological control. State censorship covered everything. Individual citizens are not allowed to engage in such activities.

Even small print runs of the Bible and psalm books required explicit permission from the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Smuggling prohibited

Nothing deemed even remotely critical of Real Socialism was ever translated. If you traveled abroad and had such books in your luggage entering the country, they would be confiscated. If you were a foreign citizen, you risked to be expelled. Soviet citizens in possession of such books could be indicted for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. Titles in Russian and other languages spoken in the country were considered an aggravating evidence.

Allowed readership

Single copies of “anti-Soviet” and “ideologically vague” works were available to “specialists” and “researchers” in Spetskhran, repositories of classified printed matters and publications with tightly regulated access. Selected members of Nomenklatura had access to referentskyie obzory, a kind of executive summaries on a range of classified subjects, including a description of book plots, with essential quotes.

” works were available to “specialists” and “researchers” in Spetskhran, repositories of classified printed matters and publications with tightly regulated access. Selected members of Nomenklatura had access to referentskyie obzory, a kind of executive summaries on a range of classified subjects, including a description of book plots, with essential quotes.

This job was assigned to the most trusted translators with impeccable resumes. Their work was anonymous and resembled the Wiki style.


Enthusiasts of reading sometimes translated some of prohibited works and spread them around in the form of Samizdat (“kitchentable publishing”). This involved producing six (sometimes more) carbon copies of a title using typing machines, which then would be handed to six other people who produced another batch for further cycles.

These Samizdat pieces circumvented state control and changed hands even when the disseminators were caught by the police. Novels, poems and songs
they contained enjoyed wide popularity, much more than most of the titles peddled by official media and mouthpieces.

samizdat title USSR
A typical Samizdat title, with minimized margins and single line spaces. The were rarely bound, so that several people could share a single copy for a night or two of binge-reading

Orwell’s 1984 in the USSR

George Orwell’s 1984 failed to impact Soviet, and later Russian culture in any meaningful way

The literary horizons of Soviet citizens were dictated by the tastes of our authorities. Few could read in English, and even fewer traveled abroad where British books were widely available.

We read James Aldridge, Bernard Shaw, Herbert Wells and other authors who held more benevolent views on the Communist project. Graham Greene, in occasional translations and a tiny circulation, was on the verge of the prohibited.

George Orwell, for understandable reasons, was not a popular author in the USSR. From time to time, we saw his name in propaganda as an example of Capitalist abomination under the guise of high literature. We were told that the story was a satire of the BBC, but the perverted mind of its author and his anti-Soviet backers projected it all on our beautiful country.

Yet, even for those few who got access to “1984”, it failed to make an impact. Orwell was way too refined and reflective, to us, to be considered effective anti-Soviet propaganda. “Big Brother”, as it was in the book, bore no allusions to our rulers or the secret service. No one in their right mind would consider these people their brothers. Stalin was our Great Father, and any brotherly affection to him in public would raise many eyebrows, to say the least.

The 1984 universe was too sanitized and rational to reflect anything of the leaden, fusty, often absurd version of totalitarianism we were used to seeing around us. It reminded us more of the Nazi ordnung, with additions of an Anglo-Saxon coolness that subtracted from the horror the story was meant to project. We knew that the Nazis were the worst enemies to us. Therefore, it was some weird story about what the world would have been, if we had not won WW2.

A total dud, propaganda-wise.

Picture: “Happy New Year, Beloved Stalin!” As you see, the portrait of Stalin bears nothing even remotely brotherly. And there was hardly anything high-tech. Our secret police always preferred unimpeded human touch.

Happy New Year Beloved Stalin
Happy New Year, Beloved Stalin!

Everything is propaganda. Occasionally, it’s not

Propaganda in 21st century is no longer an exclusive domain of top players like the state, national media, church and political parties. It’s now everyone’s game

Human are social animals. Whatever we strive to achieve in life, is dependent on cooperation from other people. Consciously or unconsciously, all of us strive to instrumentalize others in order to get through another day.

Therefore, as a propaganda veteran, I believe that hardly anything people tell each other, is ever unbiased. To be on the safe side, you always must assume that every piece of information passed around by humans is propaganda— you just have to accept that, like death and taxes.

And only then you may have a luxury to pick occasional bits that are not propaganda. Because around humans, non-propaganda happens, too.

  1. Propaganda is communication. It must involve at least two persons. That means the propaganda poster I put up on the inside of my bathroom door to admire while taking a dump is not a propaganda. The communication bit is missing. I’m alone with myself.
  2. Propaganda is a human communication. That means that the dog repellent I sprayed along my fence is not propaganda. While the sign “Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again” propagates the message of inviolability of my territory.
  3. Propaganda has an intention to impact. Teacher writing 2+2=4 on the chalkboard in front of the class, doesn’t do that with the intent to impact the kids’ behavior. Simple acts of education don’t impact behavior in predictable ways. But a poster saying “2+2=5” is propaganda because it tries to convince the target to work 25% more productively for the same pay. In the same way, telling kids to clear their mess under the threat of being grounded is propaganda of parental control, not education.
  4. Propaganda wants to impact the target in a very specific way. The proverbial weather talk among true Englishmen has the explicit meaning of communication without any hidden agenda. At the same time, a Jewish mother insisting that her son takes on a cap when going to an open-air rock concert is a propaganda of maternal control over her son’s well-being.
  5. Propaganda must serve the source’s objective. Telling a girl about a boy “He loves you” is not a propaganda if it just confirms something she already knows and won’t change anything for her. At the same time, it is a propaganda if your name is Iago, the girl’s name is Desdemona, and your objective is to surreptitiously record a video with Desdemona’s private parts in lively action that you can use later to ruin her relationship with Othello.

In my time in propaganda, people believed that propaganda is something that only flows in the top-down direction. That is, it’s something only those in power do: governments, the church, political parties, established gurus, religious cults. The classic Marxist definition of propaganda is:

popularization and dissemination of political, philosophical, religious, scientific, artistic or other ideas in society through oral speech, the media, visual or other means of influencing public consciousness”.

The arrival of the Internet and social media made this definition outdated. The new tools of mass communication made each of us capable of what earlier only governments could do. Nowadays, words of many celebrities on the Facebook and Twitter make more impact that of presidents, prime ministers and the Pope. This makes it necessary to modify the XX-century definition. The new one, that takes the 360-degree impact of today’s communication, would be comething like that:

Propaganda is any act of human communication intended to impact the behavior of the target to suit the source’s objective.

The photo below shows an example of 360-degree propaganda in the XXI century. The shoelaces of this Twitter user are tied to form Cyrillic letters ПТН ПНХ. This is an improvised attempt to communicate an anti-Putinist message in terms of the urban youth subculture: the letters are known to be the code for a subversive rally cry Pútin, poshól nákhui (“Putin, f*ck off”), which can get you a couple years in a Russian prison for “extremism”.

shoelaces tied in anti-Putinist knots
A young Russian uses his shoelaces to broadcast an anti-loyalist message. An obscure pattern reveals coded words in Cyrillic “Putin, f*ck off” familiar to anyone in the target group.

How well-documented was WW2 in the Soviet Union?

Documentation of WW2 in the Soviet Union was subject to strict requirement of the official narrative. Private documents were scarce and keeping them often risky

Documentation of WW2 in the Soviet Union was heavily tilted by the official narrative.


The USSR was a security-obssessed power. Especially during Stalin’s era, it strived to be a hell for spies, saboteurs and turncoats. And it was indeed.

  • It was forbidden to the troops to keep diaries (proof link in Russian). Some did it surreptitiously, at their peril. If you were in the Red Army, and hated your officer, and knew where he keeps his diary book, all you needed was a short talk to a Smersh operative, and you wouldn’t see the sucker anymore.
  • Only authorized propaganda personnel carrying special permits were allowed to have photo cameras. If you happened to snatch a camera off a dead German, you were required to hand it over to the special trophy storage. Were you caught with a camera in your possession, good luck proving to the Smersh guys you are not a spy.
  • All correspondence to and from the army was vetted.
  • You come home alive from the war, or you are in transit entertaining fellow officers with true stories from the battlefront, and start sharing shocking details that show the Red Army in an unflattering light—you always have the harsh Stalin’s sentences for anti-Soviet activity hanging over you.

All this explains, why on the WWII forums, even the most patriotic Russians often operate with quotes from German war memoirs, Nazi archives and German photos. We often have too few own data, and those available were heavily sanitized during the war and after it.

Which leads us to the following point.

Strict narrative

The Soviet Communists were the most consummate ideologists of all times, probably beating to that title even the Catholic church. Bolsheviks knew not only how to lie in the most majestic, inspiring ways. They also knew that ideology should never stand in the way of expediency. That required the sublime art of covering their actions in plain sight. Stalin and his people simply excelled at this.


Contrary to Nazis, Bolsheviks, starting with Stalin, made a good job of disguising their true intentions, when they knew enemies could use it against them. No advertising for lebensraum, or unsubstantiated hate speech. No Trotskyists “permanent revolutions” and suchlike. The same went for documentation.

Suffice to say, in my time in the Soviet propaganda, we denied the existence of the secret protocols to the ’39 Soviet-German pact to the very end. The Soviet archives preceding WWII show great holes for the details of how the Red Army and the Soviet leadership were preparing for the oncoming war. Everything that’s left points in the direction of “stupid Stalin having too much faith in Hitler’s honesty”.


Cornerstone of identity

The victory in WWII has been the cornerstone of our national identitly ever since 1945. No Russian ruler, and very few Russian opinion leaders, or historians—with a short exception before and after the collapse of Communism—have shown any desire to dig deep into history, for the fear of disrupting the narrative of our greatness. We don’t even know the exact number of our dead during the war.

We are going to live with some huge white spots, and a myriad of tiny ones over the history of Soviet WW2 for some time, maybe forever. And you know what—the nation is perfectly fine with it.

Picture: Anyone with a camera in their possession in the Red Army needed such an ID. Their owners were stars among the troops: they could fix you a mugshot to send home—maybe, the last one, before you die in the next attack, or from an incoming mortar shell.

id cameraman USSR ww2
Photo: a wartime ID of a cameraman Ibragimov issued by the Political Administration of South-Western Front

Five essential book titles for an effective politician

Top five book titles for an aspiring ruler, suggested by former Soviet propaganda executive

  1. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. An absolute primer. Even though you won’t follow the man’s recipes, it’s useful to know how everyone else among the competition is thinking.
  2. 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene. An expanded, updated, reader-friendly version of The Prince.
  3. Any modern book about The Thirty-six Strategies Of Ancient China. For example, The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China, by Stefan Verstappen.
  4. The corpus of works about taking and retaining power by Communists in Russia. Lenin is a must, Trotsky and Stalin a useful extracurricular reading. A good start is the compendium National Liberation, Socialisim and Imperialisim: Selected Writings, by Vladimir I. Lenin. Take particular note of how the theory and practice of power-grabbing is seamlessly weaved in Lenin’s works with elaborate use of language and propaganda techniques.
  5. The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Probably the most entertaining reading on this list. Has particular focus on the psychology and anthropology behind the power game.