History of the Soviet Union, 1924-1929: Propaganda and Youth Organization

Stalin visiting the ailing Lenin at his dacha in Gorki. / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 12.28.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University

Antireligious Propaganda


Left: Gesundheit!, by Mikhail Cheremnykh (1923) / Moscow: M.K.R.K.P
Right: Religion is the Opiate of the People / Hoover Political Poster Database

Among the most important tasks that the Bolsheviks set themselves upon coming to power in 1917 was to emancipate Soviet citizens from the scourge (or as Karl Marx put it, the “opiate”) of religion. Along with the literacy campaign with which it was intimately connected, antireligious propaganda was a key component of the “cultural front” during the 1920s. A protracted affair, the struggle against religion was complicated by the difficulty of defining goals as much as working out how to achieve them.


Left: Cleanliness if the Foundation of Good Health, by N.Kogout (1926) / Moscow: M.K.R.K.P.
Right: The Beatitudes illustration, Matthew 5:3 to 5:12 / Hoover Political Poster Database

The decree of January 20, 1918 that disestablished the Orthodox Church and consigned the clergy of all faiths to second-class citizenship (along with capitalists, merchants, former members of the police, criminals, and “imbeciles”) set the stage for years of bitter and often violent struggle that included the closing of many churches, the confiscation of church valuables, the arrest of the Patriarch Tikhon, and the execution of priests suspected of aiding the counter-revolutionary Whites. With the end of the civil war, the party and state shifted gears, launching a broad, systematic propaganda campaign that targeted popular religious belief. The Komsomol Christmas of January 6, 1923, replete with carnival-like processions of students and working-class youth dressing as clowns, singing the “Internationale,” and burning effigies of religious “cult” figures, was an early indication of the shift. But its mischief sufficiently outraged the sensibilities of believers and non-believers alike to provoke the party’s Central Committee to “recommend” that the forthcoming Komsomol Easter restrict itself to lectures, movies and plays. This less confrontational approach was endorsed by the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) which called for the training of anti-religious propagandists, the publication of scientific and popular literature on the origins and class nature of religion, and the improvement of political educational methods in rural-based reading rooms.


Left: Restorers, photograph by Boris Ignatovich (1928) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Religion and Women / Hoover Political Poster Database

Bolshevik policies targeted at the Russian Orthodox Church were applied to non-Russian populations with mixed results. Jews and Catholics of the Ukrainian and Belorussian regions often saw little difference between Communists and tsarist authorities, who had been hostile to their churches for very different reasons. Bolshevik propaganda proved particularly inappropriate for the many communities of Islam located throughout the RSFSR and Central Asia. There were attempts to accommodate the special needs of that community, but they were few, and were overwhelmed by the forces of radicalization. By 1924 an Antireligious Commission had been set up by the Central Committee, and a newspaper, Bezbozhnik (The Godless) had begun to appear. In August 1924 the call by Emelian Iaroslavskii, a prominent Bolshevik, for a national organization of atheists was realized with the formation of a Society of Friends of the Newspaper Bezbozhnik. Less than a year later, in April 1925, a congress of Bezbozhnik correspondents and Society members met in Moscow to establish the All-Union League of the Godless under the leadership of Iaroslavskii. Aside from publishing newspapers and journals, the League sponsored museums of atheism, anti-religious exhibitions and lectures. The notion that exposure to rationalist explanations of natural phenomena, the wonders of applied science, and ethical, clean-living atheists would demystify religion guided the efforts of the League — at least until 1929 when it added “Militant” to its name in accordance with a more direct assault on religion reminiscent of the civil war years.


The General Citizens’ Tax (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database

During the civil war, the Soviet state operated for the most part without a monetarized unit of account, which spawned wild inflation and fantasies of a moneyless economy. But the logic of the New Economic Policy, introduced in 1921, required a stable currency. In July 1922, the Sovnarkom announced the introduction of a new unit of currency, the chervonets, to be backed by gold. It was to replace the “Soviet token,” or sovznak, the Soviet government’s not-so-inventive name for its version of the ruble. Throughout the remainder of 1922 and all of 1923, while the chervonets was issued in limited amounts and used only for certain restricted financial transactions, the sovznak remained as legal, albeit rapidly depreciating, tender. Already in October 1922, the value of the sovznak had fallen to one-millionth of the pre-war ruble.

In February 1924, the chervonets, valued at the equivalent of 50,000 sovznaki of 1923 issue, became the sole unit of currency. By this time, some 809 quadrillion sovznaki were in circulation. On the basis of the less volatile currency, the state moved to convert the tax in kind which had been introduced with great fanfare in 1921 as the cornerstone of NEP, to monetary payments. It is a measure of how far the Soviet Union had traveled from the chiliastic visions of the first years of the revolution and civil war that the name of the new unit of currency soon reverted from chervonets to the (Soviet) ruble in popular if not official discourse.

Death of Lenin


Left: Toward the Cult of the Leader, by Isaak Brodsky (1925) / State Historical Museum Moscow
Center: Lenin, by Iakov Chernikhov (1929) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Strengthen the Industrial Might of the Soviet Union, by Sergei Sen’kin (1931) / Wikimedia Commons

On January 21, 1924 Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, the architect of the October Revolution and the “leader of the world’s proletariat,” died, having succumbed to complications from the three strokes that progressively robbed him of his faculties. He was not quite fifty-four. For more than a year before his death, the Communist Party and the Soviet government had soldiered on without him. Now the question was what purposes could the deceased leader serve.


Left: Lenin Lives On, by Konstantin Rotov (1924) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Lenin, by V. Ul’ianov / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Government announcement on Lenin’s Death (1924) / Wikimedia Commons

The cult of Lenin, a fusion of political and religious ritual, was the answer. Inspired by both genuine reverence and a political desire to mobilize the masses around a potent symbol, the Politbiuro decided — against Lenin’s own wishes and those of his family — to embalm his body and place it in a sarcophagus inside a mausoleum for public viewing. The mausoleum, designed by A. V. Shchusev as a cube-like structure of gleaming red granite, was built on Red Square abutting onto the Kremlin wall. Here, the most prominent party, military and government leaders would stand to view parades passing by on the anniversary of the October Revolution, May Day and other special occasions. Images of Lenin’s stern visage soon appeared everywhere throughout the Soviet Union in stone and metal, on canvas, and in print. Lenin Corners, analogous to the icon corners of Orthodoxy, became a fixture of nearly every Soviet institution, and Lenin’s name graced thousands of collective and state farms, libraries, newspapers, streets and cities. Among the latter was the birthplace of the October Revolution which assumed the name of Leningrad on January 26, 1924.


Left: Lenin, 1870-1924 / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Great is the Grief, Greater Still is the Heritage (1924) / Wikimedia Commons

Within the party itself, Lenin was revered almost as a Christ-like figure. The slogan “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live” typified the discourse of revolutionary immortality. In the struggle to assume Lenin’s mantle, Zinoviev, Stalin and Trotsky sought to enhance their own credentials and cast aspersions on their rivals by quoting selectively from Lenin’s massive oeuvres even while they invoked “Leninism” as a coherent body of doctrine. Thus, Stalin promoted “socialism in one country” as consistent with Lenin’s outlook, contrasting it with Trotsky’s pre-revolutionary theory of “permanent revolution.” For his part, Trotsky sought to prove his loyalty to Lenin as well as his own historic role as leader of the October Revolution. Each, in effect, invented his own Lenin to suit his purposes.

Industrialization Debate

Intensify the Soviet Offensive in the City and Village, by K.S. Eliseev (1929) / Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik

The industrialization debate of the mid-1920s was a key turning point in the history of the Soviet Union, and more broadly, of socialism. For better or for worse, the outcome of the debate over the pace of industrialization, sources of investment, pricing and wages policies, and other related matters would determine the Soviet Union’s answer to the question of how to overcome “backwardness” in the modern era, serving for much of the rest of the world as the only real alternative to a capitalist framework of development. The debate, which in many respects overlapped with the controversies surrounding the party’s policy towards the peasantry, began in 1923 and for all intents and purposes was over by the autumn of 1927.

All participants in the debate accepted the notion that industrialization was a desirable end both on national security grounds as well as for the more ideologically inspired purpose of overcoming contradictions between town and countryside. They differed, however, on the timetable for achieving the goal, the kind of industry to be developed, and the means for doing so. So long as there was underutilized capacity in industry, the debate over how to expand industrial production and the sources of capital to make it possible tended towards the theoretical. In this sense, Evgenii Preobrazhenskii’s “fundamental law of socialist accumulation” which required the state-owned industrial sector to squeeze surpluses from small-scale privately owned agriculture via “non-equivalent exchanges” (i.e., taxation, credit restrictions, and a pricing policy that favored industrial goods) stood at one end of the spectrum. At the other was Nikolai Bukharin’s organic metaphor of “growing into socialism” by strengthening the link (smychka) between town and country and the doctrine of “socialism in one country” which both he and Stalin defended. More compatible with the initial thrust of the New Economic Policy and the party’s “face the countryside” strategy of the mid-1920s, Bukharin’s position was essentially the party’s line. Preobrazhenskii’s was identified with the Left Opposition and its “super-industrialization” strategy deemed by the rest of the party leadership as excessively risky.

AMO Factory: Truck Assembly (1926) / Moscow: Krasnaia gazeta

Towards the end of 1925, though, the upper limits of industrial recovery were in sight. As Stalin announced to the fourteenth party congress in December 1925, “The main thing in industry is that it has already approached the limit of pre-war standards; further steps in industry involve developing it on a new technical foundation, utilizing new capital equipment and embarking on the new construction of factories.” A policy of industrialization which emphasized the importance of producing means of production was duly approved by the congress and reiterated by the central committee in April 1926. Still, much remained to be worked out in terms of defining levels of investment and growth possibilities. This task fell to the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) which was dominated by economists who were overwhelmingly not members of the party. They employed two approaches: the “genetic” according to which certain objective “regularities” of the pre-war economy were extrapolated to forecast future possibilities, and the “teleological” which altered proportions in the economy in the interests of maximum growth, in effect, making the market adapt to the state rather than the reverse. Both went into successive drafts of the five-year plan that the party’s central committee debated and sent back for (upward) revision. Politics thus became entwined with economic planning. Once the Left had been defeated, the emphasis on increasing levels of investment in “heavy” (producer goods) industry became more politically attractive. The logic of this shift in the party line towards increasing the tempo of industrialization was to step up pressure against the peasantry (disguised as anti-kulak measures) which soon translated into the all-out campaign for collectivization and the abandonment of NEP.

Lenin Enrollment

The Lenin Selection, by Boris Efimov (1924) / Moscow: Pravda

The Communist Party, which considered itself “the vanguard of the proletariat,” was obsessed with social class. Whether defined in terms of social origin or occupation, class was the key index by which the party determined who was a friend and who was an enemy. It was used as the basis for determining citizenship rights, access to higher education, and, of course, party membership. It was all the more distressing then that the party census of 1922 revealed that only 15 percent of all members were working in manual industrial jobs as opposed to 63 percent who listed white-collar occupations. As for new recruits, only 12 percent were workers by actual employment.

Join the Party of Lenin! / Hoover Political Poster Database

In December 1923, the Politbiuro and the Presidium of the Central Control Commission decided to initiate a mass enrollment campaign to bring 100,000 workers into the party. This decision, approved by the Thirteenth Party Conference, was executed as the “Lenin Enrollment” in honor of the just deceased leader. In the course of 1924 and 1925, 638,070 people entered the party, of whom 439,715 (68.9 percent) were workers by “social situation.” Total party membership, which had stood at 446,089 on January 1, 1924, reached slightly over one million by January 1926. Although the Left Opposition’s accusation that the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev was attempting to swamp the party with presumably obedient neophytes seems plausible, other motives–the leadership’s genuine alarm at the deproletarianization of the party, and its desire to increase the weight of the party in the factories at a time when raising productivity was high on the agenda–may have been involved as well.

Comrade Female Workers! (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Who were the proletarians who joined the party as a result of the Lenin enrollment? In Moscow, the majority were skilled male workers under the age of thirty-four. About half had served in the Red Army and most had had some experience in factory committee or trade union work. Although the leadership was counting on the enrollment of these workers to overcome the breach between the party and its putative social base, there is considerable evidence that they proved to be less pliable and more adamant about representing the interests of their fellow workers than might have been assumed.

Lenin’s Succession


Left: Stalin visiting the ailing Lenin, recovering from his first stroke, at his dacha in Gorki. (1923) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Long Live the Worldwide Socialist Revolution, by Aleksandr Samokhvalov / Hoover Political Poster Database

The struggle to succeed Lenin which commenced even before his death in January 1924 rocked the Communist Party to its foundations and had immense consequences to its — and the Soviet Union’s — future. In retrospect, it seems obvious that Stalin, appointed General Secretary two months before Lenin suffered the first of three strokes (May 1922), would assume his mantle. But at the time the Secretariat was not a particularly exalted institution, and for all his capacity for hard work, Stalin seemed to lack the intellectual brilliance and rhetorical skills that were associated with the party’s leader. Moreover, in a series of notes that Lenin dictated to his secretary in December 1922, he excoriated Stalin for his “hastiness and administrative impulsiveness” in handling the conflict over the absorption of Georgia into the Soviet Union, indicating that he held him (and Feliks Dzerzhinskii) “politically responsible for this genuine Great Russian nationalistic campaign.” In a postscript dictated in early January, he added that “Stalin is too rude, and this fault … becomes unbearable in the office of General Secretary.” He thus advocated his removal from this position.

The Illness and Death of Lenin / Wikimedia Commons

Then again, in what is generally referred to as his “Testament,” Lenin was also critical of other leading Politbiuro members, including Trotsky who exhibited “excessive self-assurance” and “excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of affairs.” In any case, by the time Lenin’s notes were read to the Central Committee in May 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had formed a triumvirate, essentially an alliance against Trotsky, and managed to sidetrack the issue at the Thirteenth Party Congress later that month. Following the congress, the party’s top leaders polemicized in speeches and articles in the press over who was the most loyal Leninist. Trotsky, who had clashed repeatedly with Lenin before the revolution and had not joined the Bolsheviks until mid-1917, was at a distinct disadvantage in these exchanges. But in November 1924 he hit back, reminding the party faithful in an essay titled “The Lessons of October,” of Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s opposition to Lenin’s decision to launch the October 1917 insurrection.


Left: Grigory Zhoviev / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Lev Kamenev, by S. Tambi (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Party leaders at the time of Lenin’s death had already been conditioned by the struggle with the Workers’ Opposition to use ideological debates as instruments of political ambition. Stalin’s advocacy of “socialism in one country” proved a politically effective weapon against Trotsky who seemed by contrast to lack faith in the self-sufficiency of the Soviet Union. All the while, Stalin was bringing trusted supporters of “the party line” into the central apparatus and consolidating his control over provincial party appointments. Although Trotsky was to remain in the Politbiuro for nearly another three years, he was removed in January 1925 from one of his most powerful posts, president of the Revolutionary Military Council. With Trotsky’s star on the wane, the triumvirate collapsed, and by the end of 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev were voicing criticism of Stalin’s pretensions to leadership. Stalin’s reckoning with them would come in 1926 followed by his attack in 1928 against the “rightist deviation” of his former ally, Nikolai Bukharin.

Living Church

Patriarch Tikhon (1917) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

A cornerstone of the Bolshevik strategy against the Orthodox church was a plan to split the clergy. Schisms within the church were already evident before the revolution. They had formed along the predictable lines of liberal and conservative, young and old when debate on the reinstatement of the patriarchate took place in the months before the October Revolution, and continued when younger clergy did not share the hierarchy’s hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The fiasco of the famine relief effort exacerbated dissension, which finally came out in the open with the creation of new, or “Living Church” in the late summer of 1922.

Needed though such reforms might have been, they came at a moment of crisis, which deepened in October 1922, when the OGPU arrested and put the Patriarch Tikhon in prison, where he was to remain until June 26, 1923. The charges, described in a pamphlet by Andrei Vyshinskii (the future purge trial prosecutor), accused the Patriarch of being the focus of all religious opposition to the Bolsheviks, and of being the agent of foreign organizations, namely Russian Orthodox congregations abroad. With Tikhon absent and the church administration in disarray, the government pressed ahead with a number of laws and decrees directed against it, meanwhile pursuing a program of vicious anti-religious propaganda. Most damaging to the church was the instruction passed in April for the registration of all religious societies having more than fifty members. Effectively deprived of the right to congregate without registration, which could be denied at the discretion of the authorities, the church was placed fully under the power of the state.

The church was under attack on all fronts. Property confiscated, Tikhon imprisoned, his appointed deputy Metropolitan Agafangel of Yaroslavl exiled, and its administration in chaos, the church was taken under control by the adherents of the Living Church. They convened an All-Russian Church Council from April 29 to May 9, 1923, and began removing traditional clergy from posts of power. Eventually Tikhon was stripped of his office, undermining him completely, and leaving him to abjectly confess his sins against the revolution, referred to contemptuously now as “Citizen Belavin.” Anti-religious propagandists made hay from the chaos in the church. They mocked traditionalists for their refusal to change with the times, and mocked clergy of the Living Church when they tried to heal the wounds of the congregation in an August 1923 congress. When Tikhon died in 1924, the church was not allowed elect a new patriarch, and remained split throughout the 1920s and 1930s, precisely when it was facing its most brutal onslaught. Oddly though, the injustices reinvigorated the once mighty Orthodox Church. Distant from its flock (a weakness that had led to the Living Church reforms) the battered clergy had to re-forge ties with its congregants, who rallied to resist to confiscations in many places, including the village of Shuia. The Living Church fared worse, deeply discredited by its collaboration in the state campaign. It limped along for decades, finally put to rest in 1946. Most unfortunately, all reforms, including many that were desperately needed in the conservative church, were forever discredited.



Left: A NEPman visits the Tax Inspector, photo by A. Skaikhet (1930) / Soluz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii
Right: Tamara Lavrova, Moscow, photo by Aleksandr Grinberg (1924) / Russkoe Rolye

“They have coined a new word – NEPman,” wrote Maurice Hindus, an American journalist who frequently returned to Russia, his native land, in the 1920s, “and no person who has not visited Russia can appreciate how mean a word it has become in that country.” NEPmen were businessmen and women (NEPmenshi) who took advantage of the opportunities for private trade and small-scale manufacturing created by the New Economic Policy (NEP). Their entrepreneurial activities, indeed their very existence, were an affront to the Communist Party and its goal of building socialism in the USSR. Yet, so long as state commercial and cooperative institutions were incapable of meeting the demand for goods and services, NEPmen were (barely) tolerated. Often depicted as fat, greedy, and in certain renditions, Jewish, NEPmen quite literally embodied the contradictions of a policy whose aim was to build socialism with bourgeois hands.


Left: NEP girl, by Vladimir Lebedev (1922) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Sympathy, by Vladimir Kozlinskii (1926) / Moscow: Pravda

As such, NEPmen were subjected to a daunting array of taxes and other restrictions on their ability to conduct commerce. Beginning in late 1923 and extending well into 1924, what one foreign observer described as a “wave of terror” descended on NEPmen. Sparked by the aim of eliminating the middleman as a means of overcoming the price “scissors” between industrial and agricultural goods, the state reduced to a trickle credits and direct sales to NEPmen. This only succeeded in driving many traders underground and into more speculative lines of business. By 1925, largely as a result of the ascendance of Nikolai Bukharin’s more moderate line towards private trade, the pressure against NEPmen abated. Taxes and red tape to acquire trading licenses were reduced, and local officials were instructed not to harass those engaged in private trade. As a consequence, the number of private merchants and their volume of sales rebounded.


Left: NEP Types, by Iv. Maliutin (1922) / Moscow: Izd-Vo Pravda
Right: NEPmen, by Dmitrii Kardovskii (1924) / Leningrad: Avrora

But the leeway for NEPmen would not last for long. Once Stalin and his supporters gained the upper hand in the party, pressure against the private sector increased again, this time with redoubled force. Beginning in 1927 an all-out campaign to eliminate NEPmen was launched and by the end of the decade they had all but disappeared along with the New Economic Policy itself.

Revolutionary Manliness

Though the Komsomol was open to both sexes, male members outnumbered females eight to one throughout the 1920s. This was in part the result of the traditional exclusion of women from Russian politics, and parental or spousal forbiddance. In the eyes of many Soviet citizens, the Komsomol represented atheism, hooliganism, and sexual depravity, and men did not want their daughters and wives to have any part of it. For the most part, however, the Komsomol itself was to blame. Many cells, which were dominated by boys, disregarded girls despite leaders’ insistence that they devote special attention to them. Girls were faced with boys’ constant discouragement, discrimination, and harassment. As one girl put it: “To hell with the Komsomol! I’m not allowed to go to the cell. Every guy swarms around me and plays nasty tricks.”

Down with the Lowlifes, by Konstantin Rotov (1930) / Wikimedia Commons

The Komsomol gender problem, however, cannot be simply reduced to sexism, indifference and harassment. The difficulty was also that the ethos of a young communist was coded masculine. Even if a girl negotiated boys’ torments, her very femininity precluded her from becoming a true communist. In order to craft a “new everyday life” in the 1920s, young male communists denied all signs of the feminine in mannerism, dress, and emotions. The most visible symbols were the leather jacket; knee high leather boots, a Sam Brown belt, and a pistol. Indeed, one commentator noted that the “chador” of the so-called “pure blooded proletarian” included a whole assembly of fashion and attitude. Komsomols went around in dilapidated boots with permanently stuck on black dirt, a long, worn out leather jacket, living on dry crusts, and denying themselves rest, entertainment, and often food.” Emotions like sentimentality were rejected for a cold, hard demeanor. The ideal communist, according to a certain Nikolai Kartsev, was “serious, businesslike, showed disdain for all dancing and any gallantry, only sang revolutionary songs, dispersed in secluded pairs [having sex], didn’t attend village parties, and only hung out with “non-party” guys for political discussions and not for fun.”

Dandies (1927) / Komsomolskaia pravda

Despite his supposed stoic conduct, the young communist was also bombastic, pigheaded, and lived by his own rules. Swearing was a mark of proletarian stock and manliness. Often Komsomol speech was an “odorous assortment” borrowed from both the factory and criminal lexicons. The ability to spit out a string of curses was a feat of admiration and respect, a test of manhood, and a means of male bonding. By swearing, young men created a toxic environment for girls. Young communist speech was so offensive that sometimes girls avoided meetings to avoid the embarrassment of overheated conversations.

A Komsomol Dance (1926) / Komsomolskaia pravda

The Komsomol club was a breeding ground for masculine behavior. Clubs were filthy, girls were treated rudely, and drinking, card playing, pranks, and fighting were common forms of entertainment and bonding. Drink made some guys hotheaded, uncontrollable. The Komsomol style as an expression of masculinity was best seen in how girls who adopted it were treated. Girls struggling to fit in cast off their dresses, makeup, and other forms of feminine beauty for a more masculine style as statements of their revolutionary authenticity. However, to komsomol males, this gender bending was anathema. Even Nikolai Semashko, the People’s Commissar of Health, decried these masculine-women with “disheveled, frequently dirty hair, a cigarette between her lips (like a man), deliberately gruff manners (like a man) deliberately rude voice (like a man), etc.” as violations of nature itself. Girls were at pains to find a middle ground. On the one hand outward displays of femininity were considered ideologically taboo and threatened to distract sexually charged boys from Komsomol business. On the other, girls’ efforts to erase their femininity were met with scorn.

Scissors Crisis


Left: Leningrad Society for Linking the City and Village, by Boris Kustodiev (1925) / Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik
Right: Patronage Society (1924) / CollecRussia

The sundering of economic relations between town and country during the civil war continued to threaten the viability of the Soviet state after the Reds had achieved military victory. With little food and other agricultural produce reaching the cities, the urban population had dwindled. Correspondingly, the production of manufactured goods such as clothing and farm implements which might have induced peasants to produce surpluses for urban consumption plummeted. The New Economic Policy inaugurated in 1921 was dedicated essentially to reestablishing this link (smychka) on the basis of market relations. The state would regulate the exchange of commodities, and, via the Land Code issued in 1922, provide a legal framework for peasants’ land use. The smychka also had an important cultural and educational dimensions which were represented by the establishment of reading huts (izbachi) and other measures to promote literacy, the circulation of silent films in the villages, and the dispatch of agronomists to promote scientific farming and educate peasants in the advantages of soviet power.


Left: A rural lending library, photo by Boris Ignatovich (1924) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Meeting of the Village Party Cell, by Efim Cheptsov (1924) / Leningrad: Avrora

Like the blades of a pair of scissors, the terms of trade between town and country began to diverge in1923 in favor of the mainly state-run industrial economy and at the expense of rural consumers. Basically, the reason for the “scissors crisis” of that year was that while agricultural production had rebounded quickly from the devastating famine of 1921-22, industrial infrastructure was relatively slow to recover from civil war-era neglect and destruction. Thus, whereas textile production — essential to providing cloth to mass consumers — was only 26 percent of the pre-war level in 1922, agriculture reached 75 percent. The problem was exacerbated by the syndicates, government disposal agencies, that demanded high prices for the manufactured goods over which they exercised near monopolistic control, and the fact that the state, as principal purchaser of bread grain, sought to buy at low prices.

The Peasant House (1925) / Moscow: Krasnia gazeta

By October 1923 when the crisis reached its peak, industrial prices were 276 percent of 1913 levels, while agricultural prices were only 89 percent. Put another way, industrial prices were three times higher, relative to agricultural prices, than they had been before the war. At this point, the state took vigorous action to force down prices of manufactures. Costs were reduced by cutting staffs in industry and the trade networks, the network of consumer cooperatives was expanded, and industrial trusts were compelled to unload warehoused stocks before obtaining credits. As a result of these measures as well as the success of the newly established People’s Commissariat of Trade in making inroads into areas previously dependent on NEPmen, the scissors began to close. By April 1924 the agricultural price index had risen slightly to 92 (1913=100) and the industrial index had fallen to 131.


Left: Literacy Improves Peasant Farming, by Varvara Stepanova (1924) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman
Right: Badge: Kul’tzmichki (1924) / CollecRussia

At this point, the issue became one of finding the optimum balance between industrial and agricultural prices. This fed into the state’s rationalization and economization campaigns in industry, and contributed to the struggle over workers’ employment, wages, and benefits.

Socialist Cinema

Poster for Battleship Potemkin, by Anton Lavinskii (1926) / Wikimedia Commons

The Bolsheviks, who considered their ideology the most modern of all political systems, liked to associate themselves with modern technologies. Airplanes, motor cars, radios, even fantastic schemes for rocket ships were all patronized by the Bolsheviks as they built their new society. Many of these enterprises were fanciful in a country that could barely provide citizens with the basics, yet there was one relatively new technology that could be used with practical effect to improve people’s live. This was the moving picture, the cinema, which Lenin dubbed “the most important of all the arts for us” in a conversation with Lunacharskii.

Poster for Life for a Life, starring William Hart / International Poster Gallery

The desire to exploit the young medium was frustrated by a variety of factors. The wartime film industry, which had flourished when the blockade removed western movies from the Russian market, ended up in exile when most directors, writers and actors sided against the Reds in the civil war. Funding was meager, and the film school founded by Lunacharskii had to operate with almost no funds, cameras or even film stock. Most films produced by the young Soviet film industry were rather crude documentary newsreels, advocating sanitation, or warning of the dangers of lice. These were no competition against western films, particularly exciting American movies, which flooded the Soviet market when it opened again with the conclusion of the civil war. Creative efforts from within the film school and elsewhere mounted a challenge, based on aesthetic experiments among avant-garde artists, and leading to furious debates on the nature of socialist film. Newsreel director Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), demanded a fact-based aesthetic in which documentary footage combined with agitational subtitles inspired a new consciousness in viewers. Lev Kuleshov, the leading teacher in the film school, noted the success of American stunt films, and encouraged his students to harness “eccentricity,” as stunts were called in Russian, to present the Bolshevik point of view. In contrast to Vertov, who insisted that film should record inherently socialist material, Kuleshov argued that raw footage has no inherent meaning, and only acquires that meaning when it is placed together with other film clips. It was the job of the director to select clips from a variety of sources, some even antagonistic to socialism, and to place them together to create the proper sense. He called the editing process montage. Young director Sergei Eisenstein (Eizenshtein in Russian) learned from both. He released two films in 1925,Strike and then the justly renowned Battleship Potemkin, that featured bold action sequences and radical editing to create a indisputably Bolshevik take on the Russian “revolution” of 1905. The famous action scenes of Potemkin, including the slaughter of innocent citizens on the grand steps of the Odessa Embankment, and the flight of the battleship through the midst of the Russian Fleet, contained original footage and footage from other sources, including German newsreels of the wartime period!


Left: Film director Sergei Eisenstein, photo by Dmitrii Debabov (1926) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Advertisement for Kinoglaz, by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1924) / Moscow: Galart

Any claims to the leadership of Soviet film were disputed by adherents of a proletarian cinema based in the Proletkino Studio (where Eisenstein made Strike before leaving). Neither side could ignore the ever-present competition of American movies, which still dominated the box office. At the height of its success, hailed by critics around the world as a masterpiece, Potemkin was removed from most Moscow screens to make way for Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad, which was far more popular with Soviet audiences.

Socialist Legality

The Eye of the Proletariat, by Boris Efimov (1922) / Moscow: Pravda

As Marxists, the Bolsheviks understood the role of law as an instrument through which the bourgeois ruling class defined and defended its hegemony. The communist revolution, it was assumed, would destroy the capitalist state and its laws, leaving workers free to administer themselves without legal restraint. But the October Revolution had ushered in not communism but rather the beginning of a transitional period of undetermined length and character. Lenin, among others, was quick to realize that the new regime needed not only a repressive apparatus in the form of the Cheka, but also a legal structure capable of combating crimes against the workers’ state. Nevertheless, among the Bolsheviks this instrumentalist conception of the law continued to be challenged beyond the civil war by an “eliminationist,” anti-law view as well as by the extraordinary powers of the Cheka’s successors. Tensions between these different approaches and the blurring of the distinction between a formal legal structure embodied in the Commissariat of Justice (Narkomiust) and the court system on the one hand and the extra-judicial powers of the political police on the other would persist throughout the 1920s.

Petr Stuchka (1924) / Russia State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

On February 6, 1922 the All-Russian Executive Committee (TsIK) decreed the abolition of the Cheka and its replacement by a State Political Administration (GPU). Unlike its predecessor, the GPU did not have the authority to adjudicate and punish political offenders through administrative sentencing. However, supplementary legislation in August 1922 restored to the new political police agency the power to exile abroad and inside the country participants in “counterrevolutionary activity,” and these powers were further extended in the decree of TsIK’s Presidium of November 15, 1923 (ratified by TsIK on October 24, 1924) which established a Unified State Political Administration (OGPU). In the meantime, the TsIK also promulgated a Criminal Code for the RSFSR. The Code delineated crimes against the person (theft, robbery, assault, etc.) that were quite traditional in their conceptualization, but also what were defined as counterrevolutionary crimes, economic crimes (including speculation, that is, the “artificial raising of prices of products”), and crimes by officials of the state. These and the stipulated punishments were based on the three principles of analogy, judicial discretion, and class favoritism.

Comrade N.V. Krylenko (1926) / Moscow: Krasnaia gazeta

Of the three, class bias was the most controversial and was subjected to frequent modification. The fact, as reported by Pravda, that Moscow’s jails were filled with poor, unemployed people who had engaged in illegal trade to survive was an acute embarrassment and led to the expansion of the class bias principle in the Fundamental Principles of Criminal Legislation, issued in October 1924. However, almost immediately prominent voices, including that of Nikolai Bukharin, were raised against special leniency for workers who had committed crimes, and in 1927 the provision for discrimination by class was removed from both the Fundamental Principles and the Criminal Code. Even while these controversies persisted, Bolshevik legal theorists were anticipating the abolition of “bourgeois” notions of civil liberties and private property, and with them, the “withering away of the law.”

Union Treaty

All for One! (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Soviet Union was formally created on December 30, 1922 when the first Congress of Soviets of the USSR, consisting of members of the Tenth All-Russian Congress of Soviets and of congresses of soviets of the Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian Federated Republics approved a Declaration of Union and a Treaty of Union. Within the Declaration of Union particular attention should be paid to its justification, namely the inadequacy of the “isolated efforts of the separate Republics towards economic reconstruction” and the common struggle against “capitalist encirclement,” and to the use of familial metaphors to characterize relations among the Soviet peoples.


Left: Holiday of the Constitution, by Isaak Brodskii (1930) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Constitution of the USSR (1926) / Hoover Political Poster Database

What neither document reveals were the disputes that preceded them over the formula for integrating Ukraine, Belorussia, and the three Transcaucasian republics with the RSFSR. Stalin, Commissar of Nationalities, proposed that the non-Russian republics enter the RSFSR as autonomous republics. The leaders of the Georgian Communist Party, having earlier opposed the merger of the three Transcaucasian republics, were particularly critical of this idea for “autonomization.” They received rough treatment from Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze (like Stalin, a Georgian), but were supported by Lenin who was convalescing from the first of what would be a fatal series of strokes. The final version of the Treaty, like that of the Constitution, reflected party leaders’ sensitivities to fears of Russian domination within the new union but also their determination to create more centralized authority.


Left: Fundamental Law (Constitution) of the USSR (1924) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Fundamental Law (Constitution) of the Russian SSR / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Constitution was six months in the making. In January 1923 the presidium of the new All-Union Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) of the Soviets appointed a commission to produce a draft. Key decisions, however, were made by the party’s Politbiuro which presented them for approval at the twelfth congress in April 1923. The issue of national representation was resolved by the creation of a two-chamber Central Executive Committee: a Council of the Union consisting of members elected by the All-Union Congress in proportion to the population of each republic, and a Council of Nationalities containing five representatives from each union or autonomous republic and one from each autonomous region. The Constitution also delineated a tripartite classification of commissariats, essentially replicating the structure of the RSFSR and its constituent autonomous republics. Foreign affairs, foreign trade, military affairs, and state security were the exclusive domain of central authorities. Commissariats concerned with economic affairs existed at both central and republic levels, and a third set of six commissariats (Education, Health, Internal Affairs, Justice, Nationalities, and Social Welfare) were reserved for the republics and had no union counterpart. On July 6, 1923 the VTsIK approved the Constitution which came into effect immediately. It received formal confirmation by the second All-Union Congress of Soviets on January 13, 1924.

Workers’ Clubs

The Club is the School of the Community / Hoover Political Poster Database

A lineal descendant of the “people’s houses” established by philanthropic societies and the fledgling trade union movement in late Imperial Russia, the workers’ clubs of the Soviet era were intended to provide workers and their families with salutary recreation, and opportunities to improve themselves by exposure to Soviet values and culture. They also were sites of contestation over the definition of culture with respect to daily life (byt) and how to shape it. Debate over this question was at its most intense during the years of the New Economic Policy (NEP) when clubs competed for working-class patrons with commercially operated cafes, taverns, dance halls, theaters and cinemas, and when party leaders such as Trotsky weighed in with their views.

The trade unions which sponsored the clubs confronted such issues as whether they should be restricted to the unions’ rank-and-file and family members or the entire population of the district in which the clubs were located; whether they should be segregated on the basis of age; whether performances in clubs by professional actors violated the commitment to the creative self-expression (samodeiatel’nost’) of workers; and whether club administrators should permit drinking, card playing, and other popular pastimes that did not conform to the more elevated and puritanical culture approved by Communist leaders but did raise revenue. Behind these practical and ideological concerns lay the fear that the revived bacillus of the “bourgeois” values of the “private” and the “personal” (read sexual) would overwhelm public life and the commitment to build Communism. In this sense, workers’ clubs were a microcosm of the ambiguities of NEP.

Kino-Theater, by Moisei Lerman (1928) / Soviet Utopian City Planning

As institutions for what Trotsky referred to as the “culturalization” of the masses, workers’ clubs proved an irresistible challenge to Soviet architects. In the forefront of designing clubs along constructivist lines was Konstantin Mel’nikov, the architect of the Soviet pavilion (in the form of a workers’ club) for the 1925 International Exposition of the Decorative Arts in Paris. Between 1927 and 1929, Mel’nikov carried out commissions from trade unions for seven workers’ clubs of which six were built. They are among the finest examples of Soviet modernist architecture, embodying the vision of clubs as “conductors and condensers of socialist culture.”

Young Communists

Always Prepared! The Next Shift Comes In (1924) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

Youth, according to Communist ideology, was destined to live under Communism. Unlike the older generation reared in capitalist society, the youth of the Soviet republic was free of exploitation and the taint of bourgeois values that went along with it. But the young needed guidance and, as Lenin said, “to study, study, and study.” The Communist Party ascribed to itself the role of guardian, but youth needed their own organization and leaders. This was what the Komsomol intended to provide. From its founding congress in October 1918 until 1924, the organization was formally known as the Russian Communist Union of Youth. Upon Lenin’s death, his name was added, and two years later, in 1926, it became the All-Union Leninist Communist Union of Youth. Meanwhile, the party established a similar organization for younger children in 1922, calling it the Pioneers.


Left: In the Pioneer Club, by N. Evgrafov (1925) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Komsomol Ticket (1925) / Russian Antiquity

In its early years, the Komsomol attracted many young people who had fought in the Red Army and closely identified with the goals of the October Revolution. Others who had been too young to see action during the civil war hoped to perpetuate or resurrect its militantly heroic atmosphere. A significant number gravitated towards support of Trotsky in the inner-party struggles of the mid-1920s. For still others, it was the activities sponsored by the Komsomol — dance and theater, gymnastics, choirs, reading circles, etc. — that drew them into the organization. Overwhelmingly urban-based in its first years, the Komsomol made a concerted effort to expand into the villages as part of the party’s campaign to “face the countryside.” As of 1926, some 60 percent of Komsomol members consisted of peasants. However, they amounted to only six percent of all Komsomol-aged peasant youth as compared to more than half of working-class youth. Students who, unlike workers and peasants, had to obtain the recommendation of two party or Komsomol members and endure a six-month candidacy period before admission nonetheless comprised a third substantial group. Overall membership which exceeded 400,000 by 1924, reached a million after the “Lenin Levy” recruitment drive of that year. By 1927 it stood at approximately two million.


Left: A Village School, by Arkadii Shaikhet (1928) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: To the Light and to Knowledge!, by M.Ia. (1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Komsomol members generally prided themselves on the purity of their commitment to building a Communist society. They were particularly hostile to manifestations of religious belief, practiced a kind of revolutionary asceticism that excluded drinking, pre-marital sex, affectations of dress or engagement in the “frivolous” activities of their peers, and chafed under the compromises with the bourgeoisie and kulaks that the New Economic Policy prescribed. Komsomol newspapers and journals such as Smena and Molodaia Gvardiia became known as venues for stories by Communist writers and articles on questions of daily life (byt). As was the case in the party, full-time Komsomol activists were required to uphold the party line, and were subjected to periodic oversight and purging. Many made careers for themselves by carrying out the dictates of their superiors in the party and over time killed the idealism that had infused the Komsomol during its early years.