Images from the defunct Soviet Union are familiar to anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of 20th-century history. The graphically stunning posters of a heroic Lenin and Stalin urging workers with outstretched arms to reach higher are as much a part of the visual history of the century as that photo of Che Guevara that adorns the T-shirts of the hip.
But thanks to the fact they were produced in a communist state where every aspect of life was tightly controlled by an all-seeing government, the evolution of the content and style of Soviet propaganda mirrors the history of the USSR itself, from the 1917 revolution that shook the world to the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this fall.
David King, a British writer, photographer and collector, has spent a lifetime gathering one of the world's most admired collections of Russian posters, photographs and graphics, and he has now packed some of the most telling ones into a glorious new full-colour visual history of the USSR.
King's books takes readers from the dying moments of the tsar's reign and the 1917 revolution, through the Civil War that consolidated Lenin's power, and on to the death of Stalin in 1953. (He doesn't cover the years after Stalin's death, declaring them to be "dull and sluggish on the visual front.")
Many of the more than 500 images have never been seen before. Over several decades, King visited bookstores in European and North American cities searching for anything related to Russia and the Soviet regime. He also visited the homes of former Soviet communist officials, as well as the family of Leon Trotsky in Mexico, and he combed through archives in Russia.
He tells gripping stories in his introduction of finding old photographs lying forgotten on the basement floor of one bookstore, and of crawling through a cramped room in a Moscow apartment that the tenant had turned into a library of Soviet material from the 1920s and '30s. "Eventually I managed to squeeze in," writes King. "Floor to ceiling; books. Row after row, shelf upon shelf of Russian avant-garde paperbacks, heavy Stalinist photographic albums, huge runs of newspapers, magazines and literary journals from the 20s and 30s."
King, an avowed socialist, is clearly a fan of Lenin and Trotsky, the men who led the 1917 revolution and dreamed of creating a workers' paradise. Most of the book is dedicated to the years they were in power, and to the flourishing of avant-garde arts and culture in Russia in the first 10 years after the ouster of the tsar.
As much as he admires Lenin, King detests the "mediocrity" that was Stalin, "with his moods, his deformed hands, his yellowed teeth, his pockmarked skin and his foul manners." It was the paranoia and jealousy of Stalin that turned the burgeoning police state that Lenin and Trotsky began into the full-fledged murderocracy (a.k.a. Stalinism) that is the USSR's only political legacy.
King's collection of photos, including never-before-seen mugshots of the doomed defendants of Stalin's laughable Moscow Show Trials, demonstrate clearly what Russia became once Lenin was gone. Trotsky was banished and then hunted down and assassinated by a Stalin agent in Mexico City in 1940. Brilliant artists and writers, talented soldiers and dedicated politicians who dared to question Stalin, or who did nothing more than interrupt him while speaking, were arrested, tortured and either executed or sent to the Gulag. Others met the same fate simply because Stalin became jealous of their accomplishments.
See the images from the book
Against the backdrop of this absurd political terror was the genocidal starvation of millions of Russians at the hands of Stalin's failed agricultural policies. The horrors of the Second World War and the siege of Leningrad are also graphically documented.
There is little very text in the book, other than the introduction and the captions that accompany the images (many of which are full-page or on two-page spreads). But there is much information in the captions, and they are written in such as way as to serve as a chronological narrative of the history of the first 30 years of the Soviet Union. Every page brings readers to new visual vantage points on what is one of the most compelling political journeys in history.
"The stories of some of the men and women who saw their early revolutionary struggles transformed into almost unspeakable tragedy are recorded here, alongside hundreds of examples of indelible images created by the designers, artists and photographers who shaped the iconography of the first workers' state," King writes.
"Much of this work, highly-skilled but often anonymous, is little known or long forgotten. In Stalin's Russia, the applause could still be ringing in a person's ears as they faced the firing squad."