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Godless Utopia or Imaginative Blasphemy? The Anti-Religious Posters of the Soviet Union

The previously unseen images that promoted atheism against the belief of religion as “the opium of the people”

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 this Russian Revolution 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.

Godless Utopia

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.

Godless Utopia

Fuel came across these images through working on previous Soviet-focused publications, including a book on the posters of the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign. “Wed 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.

Godless Utopia

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.

In the country of the ‘Lord God’, i.e. the United States, published in 1930 in Issue 17-18 of Godless at the Machine magazine

“Soviet propaganda painted the USSR as a racial utopia, frequently depicting religion and capitalism as the source of American race issues. The text at the bottom of the image reads: ‘The lynching of negroes: this is the most vile and completely disgusting manifestation of racial hatred arising from the soil of the Christian religion, exploitative and misanthropic to the core. For the bourgeois and the priests, lynching is the highest form of culture and Christian morality, an action pleasing to the Lord God.’”

The essence of his character is clear: / It operates on two levels. / Up above, he’s showing off his paper, / Down below, he’s true to Muhammad Poster, 1977

“The Russian Orthodox Church was the main focus of the propaganda campaign, but the USSR’s territory was vast and its religions many. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam were all were deemed threats to the Soviet system. In an interesting twist, a few years after this poster was made in 1989 (two years before the collapse of the USSR), Ayatollah Khomeini, having founded an Islamic state in Iran ten years earlier, wrote to Gorbachev to tell him communism was finished and that he should study Islam. The text on the newspaper reads, ‘Women’s Emancipation.’”

The Radio Tower, published in 1924 in Issue 9 of Godless at the Machine magazine

“Soviet architectural achievements were also a weapon in the propaganda war against religion. Here we see the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (the largest church in Russia, which was destroyed [on the order of Soviet Stalin] using explosives in 1931), dwarfed by the avant-garde Shukhov Radio Tower (built 1920-1922).

“The text (edited) at the bottom of the image reads: ‘Against the backdrop of thrumming hammers,  / The radio tower flexed its steel shoulders / And soared skywards into the blue. The tower rose up and gripped /  The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour* in its vice-like diagrid. / The church gazes discontentedly at the tower, / And its golden head seems to droop. The whistle for the evening shift / Speaks in daring tones at the factory gates.’”

THERE IS NO GOD! Poster, 1975, published in Soviet newspaper Izvestia in 1961.

“This poster shows an image of a cosmonaut searching for God while in orbit over the Earth, floating high above its churches. He emphatically declares ‘There is no God!’ to the Soviet population. Although Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space in April 1961, the most prominent cosmonaut-atheist was Gherman Titov, whose flight had followed in August that year. In 1962, he told the audience at the Seattle World’s Fair that he had seen no gods or angels in space, and that he believed in mankind’s strength and reason.

“In 1961, Soviet newspaper Izvestia wrote, ‘Yuri Gagarin really has given a terrible headache to believers! He flew right through the heavenly mansions and did not run into anyone: neither the Almighty, nor the Archangel Gabriel, nor the angels of heaven. It seems, then, that heaven is empty!’”

Kiss the icon: perhaps God will help you pass the exam! Poster, 1984

“Although the ferocity of the anti-religious campaign had eased towards the end of the Soviet Union, propaganda posters such as this were still being produced into the 1980s. The text is ironic, inferring that the West-loving (as evidenced by the Adidas logo on the sweater) student-believers would prefer to put their trust in God, rather than hard study. The text on the girl’s book reads ‘History lecture notes.’”

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