Most of us have heard the Karl Marx description of religion as “the opium of the people,” yet we have little documentation of the designs behind the Russian Revolution’s drive to dissuade faith systems. Since the Soviet Union’s promotion of atheism was almost entirely targeted at those living within it, the posters, editorial illustrations, and other propaganda associated with it are largely unknown to Western designers.
That’s about to change with a new book published by Fuel, titled Godless Utopia, which presents images from early Soviet atheist magazines Godless and Godless at the Machine, as well as post-war posters by Communist Party publishers in order to show, in the words of Fuel, “an unsettling tour of atheist ideology in the USSR.” Many of these images are highly imaginative and almost surrealistic, featuring priests rubbing shoulders with cross-bearing colonial torturers, greedy mullahs, “a cyclopean Jehovah, and a crypto-fascist Jesus,” as well as Russian cosmonauts mocking God from space.
Fuel came across these images through working on previous Soviet-focused publications, including a book on the posters of the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign. “We’d read about anti-religious propaganda and seen some interesting images from the 1930s,” says Damon Murray, Fuel’s director and the designer of the book. “On the surface they appeared to be typical Soviet designs of the day, but when we investigated further we came across many more previously unseen images. These were much more disturbing and seemed to raise relevant questions about religious tolerance. We believed it was important to publish these images alongside the historical context in which they were produced.” Further investigation showed that the campaign lasted right to the end of the Soviet period.
In designing the book, Murray placed each image on its own page—a “simple approach to give them maximum impact”—which in turn informs the overall design. The text, an essay on the history of Soviet anti-religious propaganda by Roland Elliott Brown, runs through the left-hand pages of the book in order to aid reader navigation, while horizontal captions differentiate them from the rest of the text. The book design uses similar gilt edging to that “found on holy books, inverting it to suit the material inside,” he says. The cover was also designed using references from religious imagery, adapted from a number of posters contained in the book. “The ‘holy’ skeleton figure reaches for the hammer and sickle,” highlighted using gold foil, “almost like a sacred object itself,” says Murray. “A suggestion that Soviet Communism was an alternate religion: one that didn’t outlive competitors.”
The battle to create a “godless utopia” was inevitably one that was lost. “Inadvertently, this propaganda chronicles the failure of that crusade,” says Murray. “Beliefs were not changed and religion was not defeated. Ultimately, it is the legitimacy of Soviet Communism itself that collapsed.” Here, he talks us through five of the striking, often disturbing images used in the book.