The Crisis in Russia
Public Domain Books
The Propaganda Trains
When I crossed the Russian front in October, 1919, the first thing I noticed in peasants’ cottages, in the villages, in the little town where I took the railway to Moscow, in every railway station along the line, was the elaborate pictorial propaganda concerned with the war. There were posters showing Denizen standing straddle over Russia’s coal, while the factory chimneys were smokeless and the engines idle in the yards, with the simplest wording to show why it was necessary to beat Denizen in order to get coal; there were posters illustrating the treatment of the peasants by the Whites; posters against desertion, posters illustrating the Russian struggle against the rest of the world, showing a workman, a peasant, a sailor and a soldier fighting in self-defence against an enormous Capitalistic Hydra. There were also-and this I took as a sign of what might be-posters encouraging the sowing of corn, and posters explaining in simple pictures improved methods of agriculture. Our own recruiting propaganda during the war,
good as that was, was never developed to such a point of excellence, and knowing the general slowness with which the Russian centre reacts on its periphery, I was amazed not only at the actual posters, but at their efficient distribution thus far from Moscow.
I have had an opportunity of seeing two of the propaganda trains, the object of which is to reduce the size of Russia politically by bringing Moscow to the front and to the out of the way districts, and so to lessen the difficulty of obtaining that general unity of purpose which it is the object of propaganda to produce. The fact that there is some hope that in the near future the whole of this apparatus may be turned over to the propaganda of industry makes it perhaps worth while to describe these trains in detail.
Russia, for purposes of this internal propaganda, is divided into five sections, and each section has its own train, prepared for the particular political needs of the section it serves, bearing its own name, carrying its regular crew-a propaganda unit, as corporate as the crew of a ship. The five trains at present in existence are the “Lenin,” the “Sverdlov,” the “October Revolution,” the “Red East," which is now in Turkestan, and the “Red Cossack,” which, ready to start for Rostov and the Don, was standing, in the sidings at the Kursk station, together with the “Lenin," returned for refitting and painting.
Burov, the organizer of these trains, a ruddy, enthusiastic little man in patched leather coat and breeches, took a party of foreigners-a Swede, a Norwegian, two Czechs, a German and myself to visit his trains, together with Radek, in the hope that Radek would induce Lenin to visit them, in which case Lenin would be kinematographed for the delight of the villagers, and possibly the Central Committee would, if Lenin were interested, lend them more lively support.
We walked along the “Lenin” first, at Burov’s special request. Burov, it seems, has only recently escaped from what he considered a bitter affliction due to the Department of Proletarian Culture, who, in the beginning, for the
decoration of his trains, had delivered him bound hand and foot to a number of Futurists. For that reason he wanted us to see the “Lenin” first, in order that we might compare it with the result of his emancipation, the “Red Cossack,” painted when the artists “had been brought under proper control.” The “Lenin” had been painted a year and a half ago, when, as fading hoarding in the streets of Moscow still testify, revolutionary art was dominated by the Futurist movement. Every carriage is decorated with most striking but not very comprehensible pictures in the brightest colors, and the proletariat was called upon to enjoy what the pre-revolutionary artistic public had for the most part failed to understand. Its pictures are “art for art’s sake,” and cannot have done more than astonish, and perhaps terrify, the peasants and the workmen of the country towns who had the luck to see them. The “Red Cossack” is quite different. As Burov put it with deep satisfaction, “At first we were in the artists’ hands, and now the artists are in our hands,” a sentence suggesting the most horrible possibilities of official art under socialism, although, of course, bad art flourishes pretty well even under other systems.
I inquired exactly how Burov and his friends kept the artists in the right way, and received the fullest explanation. The political section of the organization works out the main idea and aim for each picture, which covers the whole side of a wagon. This idea is then submitted to a “collective” of artists, who are jointly responsible for its realization in paint. The artists compete with each other for a prize which is awarded for the best design, the judges being the artists themselves. It is the art of the poster, art with a purpose of the most definite kind. The result is sometimes amusing, interesting, startling, but, whatever else it does, hammers home a plain idea.
Thus the picture on the side of one wagon is divided into two sections. On the left is a representation of the peasants and workmen of the Soviet Republic. Under it are the words, “Let us not find ourselves again...” and then, in gigantic lettering under the right-hand section of the picture, “... in the HEAVEN OF THE WHITES.” This heaven is
shown by an epauletted officer hitting a soldier in the face, as was done in the Tsar’s army and in at least one army of the counter revolutionaries, and workmen tied to stakes, as was done by the Whites in certain towns in the south. Then another wagon illustrating the methods of Tsardom, with a State vodka shop selling its wares to wretched folk, who, when drunk on the State vodka, are flogged by the State police. Then there is a wagon showing the different Cossacks-of the Don, Terek, Kuban, Ural-riding in pairs. The Cossack infantry is represented on the other side of this wagon. On another wagon is a very jolly picture of Stenka Razin in his boat with little old-fashioned brass cannon, rowing up the river. Underneath is written the words: “I attack only the rich, with the poor I divide everything.” On one side are the poor folk running from their huts to join him, on the other the rich folk firing at him from their castle. One wagon is treated purely decoratively, with a broad effective characteristically South Russian design, framing a huge inscription to the effect that the Cossacks need not fear that the Soviet Republic will interfere with their religion, since under its regime every man is to be free to believe exactly what he likes. Then there is an entertaining wagon, showing Kolchak sitting inside a fence in Siberia with a Red soldier on guard, Judenitch sitting in a little circle with a sign-post to show it is Esthonia, and Denikin running at full speed to the asylum indicated by another sign-post on which is the crescent of the Turkish Empire. Another lively picture shows the young Cossack girls learning to read, with a most realistic old Cossack woman telling them they had better not. But there is no point in describing every wagon. There are sixteen wagons in the “Red Cossack," and every one is painted all over on both sides.
The internal arrangements of the train are a sufficient proof that Russians are capable of organization if they set their minds to it. We went through it, wagon by wagon. One wagon contains a wireless telegraphy station capable of receiving news from such distant stations as those of Carnarvon or Lyons. Another is fitted up as a newspaper office, with a mechanical press capable of printing an edition of fifteen thousand daily, so that the district served by the train, however out of the way, gets its news simultaneously with Moscow, many days sometimes before the belated Izvestia
or Pravda finds its way to them. And with its latest news it gets its latest propaganda, and in order to get the one it cannot help getting the other. Next door to that there is a kinematograph wagon, with benches to seat about one hundred and fifty persons. But indoor performances are only given to children, who must come during the daytime, or in summer when the evenings are too light to permit an open air performance. In the ordinary way, at night, a great screen is fixed up in the open. There is a special hole cut in the side of the wagon, and through this the kinematograph throws its picture on the great screen outside, so that several thousands can see it at once. The enthusiastic Burov insisted on working through a couple of films for us, showing the Communists boy scouts in their country camps, children’s meetings in Petrograd, and the big demonstrations of last year in honor of the Third International. He was extremely disappointed that Radek, being in a hurry, refused to wait for a performance of “The Father and his Son,” a drama which, he assured us with tears in his eyes, was so thrilling that we should not regret being late for our appointments if we stayed to witness it. Another wagon is fitted up as an electric power-station, lighting the train, working the kinematograph and the printing machine,etc. Then there is a clean little kitchen and dining-room, where, before being kinematographed-a horrible experience when one is first quite seriously begged (of course by Burov) to assume an expression of intelligent interest-we had soup, a plate of meat and cabbage, and tea. Then there is a wagon bookshop, where, while customers buy books, a gramophone sings the revolutionary songs of Demian Bledny, or speaks with the eloquence ofTrotsky or the logic of Lenin. Other wagons are the living-rooms of the personnel, divided up according to their duties-political, military, instructional, and so forth. For the train has not merely an agitational purpose. It carries with it a staff to give advice to local authorities, to explain what has not been understood, and so in every way to bring the ideas of the Centre quickly to the backwoods of the Republic. It works also in the opposite direction, helping to make the voice of the backwoods heard at Moscow. This is illustrated by a painted pillar-box on one of the wagons, with a slot for letters, labelled, “For Complaits of Every Kind.” Anybody anywhere who has grievance, thinks he is being unfairly treated, or has a suggestion to make, can speak with the Centre in this way. When the train is on a voyage
telegrams announce its arrival beforehand, so that the local Soviets can make full use of its advantages, arranging meetings, kinematograph shows, lectures. It arrives, this amazing picture train, and proceeds to publish and distribute its newspapers, sell its books (the bookshop, they tell me, is literally stormed at every stopping place), send books and posters for forty versts on either side of the line with the motor-cars which it carries with it, and enliven the population with its kinematograph.
I doubt if a more effective instrument of propaganda has ever been devised. And in considering the question whether or no the Russians will be able after organizing their military defence to tackle with similar comparative success the much more difficult problem of industrial rebirth, the existence of such instruments, the use of such propaganda is a factor not to be neglected. In the spring of this year, when the civil war seemed to be ending, when there was a general belief that the Poles would accept the peace that Russia offered (they ignored this offer, advanced, took Kiev, were driven back to Warsaw, advanced again, and finally agreed to terms which they could have had in March without bloodshed any kind), two of these propaganda trains were already being repainted with a new purpose. It was hoped that in the near future all five trains would be explaining not the need to fight but the need to work. Undoubtedly, at the first possible moment, the whole machinery of agitation, of posters, of broadsheets and of trains, will be turned over to the task of explaining the Government’s plans for reconstruction, and the need for extraordinary concentration, now on transport, now on something else, that these plans involve.