Train Blogging: Political Propaganda of the Past

The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University just finished up a three and a half month exhibit called, “Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons.”  Although I did not get a chance to view the gallery myself, I have seen a plethora of advertisements for it and likely a good chunk of the exhibit. The posters and cartoons themselves are all in Russian so I can’t understand a single word they are saying. By viewing the pictures though, you can infer pretty well the message the poster is trying to send.

To a Westerner, more specifically a generation x’er and older, it paints a familiar picture of the old Communist state of the Soviet Union.  As an individual born at the tail end of the Cold War, I find the posters and cartoons to be quite funny. Every time I look at them I imagine funny caption bubbles.

Not growing up during the Cold War and being immersed in the paranoia of Communism works as an advantage and disadvantage to me. There’s an all too common notion amongst us that with the benefit of hindsight, we would all act in a different manner.  It is safe to say that this is the case when it comes to Western views of the USSR. That entire situation stemmed more from a military stand point than a political one.  I think the US saw the expansion of Soviet Russia and their ever increasing military presence around the globe as more dangerous than the idea that Communism was going to politically enslave people.

With the recent death of Kim Jong Il, the question of how Communism is viewed in the modern day seems to have answered itself. People do not seem to feel threatened by it anymore. Outside of North Korea, Kim Jong Il was viewed as a heinous dictator brutally abusing his authority. At the same time though, there was little fanfare surrounding his death in comparison to other villains like Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.

Communism simply does not have the same fear attached to it that it did even as recently as 20 years ago. Imagine what the public reaction would have been like had the United States successfully assassinated Fidel Castro in the 1960’s.  I reckon it would have put the Osama celebrations to shame.

What used to arouse feelings of fear and danger have now been replaces by curiosity. What exactly was it about Soviet political posters and cartoons that instilled a curious sensation instead of an apprehensive one?  I believe it is an understanding of the institution of Communism that allows us to remove the fear of it and actually study it and even view its propaganda from an artistic point of view.  It makes me wonder whether we will see a similar exhibit 20 years from now surrounding the portrayal of Islam as a political entity.

In theory it seems backwards that we fear something and then try to understand it without bias. At the same time though it makes perfect sense. When an issue or idea seems threatening to us, our initial reaction is not to try and understand it. Most of the time we raise our guards and create defense mechanisms against it.  Out of this grows misconceptions of what the threat actually is and often times ideas are confused with actualities. 

It isn’t until we look back at the situation until we can truly assess why it progressed the way it did. With Communism it wasn’t so much that the system itself led to a severe denial of human rights and poor living conditions. It is more that the system lends itself to authoritarian type figures who will establish methods to ensure a long interrupted reign of power.

Does this mean humans are inherently prone to oppression? Maybe, it does mean though that we have a tendency to be defensive against the unknown as opposed to studying it and understanding it. Usually it takes a long period of time before we can truly look at an issue through a non-biased point of view.

Unfortunately this leaves society stuck between a rock and a hard place.