How a story about a Soviet dictator, propaganda and a colourful cult of personality took the publishing world by storm.

With more than 1,000 instantly downloadable, free titles with intriguing names like The Bible in Buffalo Country and Consolidated Goldfields in Australia, you’d be hard pressed to be one of ANU Press’ most popular publications.  

Enter a book about a man with a moustache: The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953.  

In 2021 alone, the book by Dr Anita Pisch had a record 76,000 downloads to October, taking the title to more than 265,000 downloads since its publication in 2016.

The e-book’s popularity is almost as long-lived as its key protagonist’s legacy, with the title consistently ranking in the top 10 downloaded books from the world’s largest online free press since 2017.  

Why this book?

And why posters? Perhaps the latter helps explain the former.

In the book, the first study of its kind, Pisch paints a picture of how Stalin’s image became the central figure in Soviet propaganda.

No wall too big, no claim too bold — there was the Georgian looming large over all.

‘The captain of the Soviet Union leads us from victory to victory!’, Boris Efimov, 1933, Izogiz (Moscow, Leningrad), 62 x 94 cm, edn 200,000. Source: Russian State Library

As the book’s description notes, from parades to paintings and statues to monumental architecture “touched up images of an omniscient Stalin appeared everywhere”. And yes, there were posters … lots and lots of posters.  

This is hardly surprising.  

According to the book, from the beginning of the Soviet regime posters were the main game when it came to getting your message to a sprawling population across the USSR.  

“The persona created for Stalin in propaganda posters reflects how the state saw itself or, at the very least, how it wished to appear in the eyes of the people,” notes Pisch. 

More than 130 posters are brought to vivid life in the book, recreated in full colour, with Pisch also delving deep into archives of libraries and museums across Russia to unearth hundreds of previously unpublished examples as well.  

But, don’t be swayed by the promise of the colourful propaganda. For posters are just stories after all. And here is possibly why the book is so popular. It’s a damn fascinating story.  

Source: Russian State Library

As Pisch notes in her study: “The ‘Stalin’ who was celebrated in posters bore but scant resemblance to the man Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, whose humble origins, criminal past, penchant for violent solutions and unprepossessing appearance made him an unlikely recipient of uncritical charismatic adulation.”  

Yet the propaganda worked, propping up the image of a man who would go on to be idolised as “the wise Teacher, the Father of the nation, the great Warrior and military strategist, and the Saviour of first the Russian land, and then the whole world”.  

How that happened? You will have to download the book to find out. 

Which leaves only one question really: who is downloading it (and conversely, why haven’t you)?  

From the data, most downloads have come from the United States, followed by Australia and the United Kingdom. It’s also reached readers in Albania, Fiji and the United Arab Emirates. In Russia, it’s already garnered more than 6,000 downloads.  

Who knows? Perhaps, it’s reached Stalin’s successors and someone has put it in front of Putin — as long as he hasn’t switched off the Internet.

Top image: ‘Long live the great invincible banner of Marx–Engels–Lenin–Stalin!’, Vladislav Pravdin & Zoia Pravdina, 1938, Iskusstvo (Moscow, Leningrad), 62 x 94 cm, edn 100,000. Source: Russian State Library 

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