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Viktor Govorkov – The Propaganda of Soviet Poster Art / writing / viktor-govorkov-the-propaganda-of-soviet-poster-art

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ESSAY: Viktor Govorkov – “Shining a Lamp” on a Master Soviet Propagandist

by Mike Simpson /

Soviet poster propaganda after WWI was a constructivist dominated design period, with bold reds and blacks and strong emphasis on thick lines, bold sans-serif type and geometric forms. Later design in the USSR moved toward Socialist Realism and the accurate rendering of people, places and objects. Early thematic content included defending the newly established state and the encouragement of enlistment for the armed forces. Over the decades the content would diversify and become rich with allusion and more complex meaning. General poster and propaganda themes included: families, children, the benevolence of Soviet leadership and the threat from foreigners / capitalism, the space race, arms race and quest for athletic / Olympic supremacy, and other manifestations of the Cold War rivalry with the United States. Of particular interest in the exploration of the work of artists such as Viktor Govorkov is the tendency to motifs of the unity of workers / value of hard work, for all strata of society, from the collective farm to the industrialized factory.

The posters were printed in the hundreds of thousands and provided a means to propagate the ideologies of Lenin, Stalin, the communist ruling party, and abstract ideas and subjects of a generally positive nature. Posters by Viktor Govorkov, the partnership of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and ad-man Alexander Rodchenko (famous for, among a prodigious output, a series of posters promoting Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” movie), and other artist and designers of the period were disseminated everywhere: offices, schools, factories, transit systems, public squares and homes.

In the broad scheme Soviet posters were designed to maintain power and persuade the masses through well-designed graphic illustrations and memorable slogans. On many levels they attained a sophistication that permeates design sensibilities today and the collective psyche of the modern world. The Soviets devoted huge resources to developing areas like technology, sport, cinema and propaganda. Often the purpose of propaganda was to encourage specific action or shape general attitudes or morale (workers, soldiers).


Click to open a high-res version of this poster in a lightbox.

Viktor Govorkov designed posters in the Soviet Union during a middle period of design, after the Bolsheviks had assumed power and defeated the White Army and before the onset of the Cold War. His major work was during the pre and post-World War II decades of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In the 1933 poster entitled “Here’s Your Lamp, Comrade Engineer,” the worker shoulders a tool or weapon. In the lower left corner there are small illustrations of a coal mine and workers. The rest of the text, at the bottom of the poster, reads: “It’s a matter of honour for Soviet specialists to share their knowledge and experience with socialist industry (workers). From the office to the mine, on the site.”

The man is young and strong, and bears no obvious emotion—the prototypical hero or male worker/soldier. The visual form is a high contrast hand-drawn social realist image with a suggestion of the classic heroically-proportioned bogatyr found in Russian literature. [1] The bogatyr was a muscled, larger-than-life heroic figure in centuries old Russian folk tales who could only be defeated in death. Interestingly in the Govorkov poster, this “superman” of the mines precedes by only two years the establishment of the enduring “stakhanovite,” a term born from the 1935 coal-mine accomplishments of a man named Alexei Stakhanov who increased his daily productivity and amazed Communist officials. [2]

The illustration draws its power from the confrontational direct gaze of the protagonist who stares out through the image at the viewer. Though this technique appeared in Britain as early as 1915 (see the “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” poster by Savile Lumley), until the 1930s this style was largely absent from Soviet propaganda other than Red Army recruitment posters.  Previously the Russian direct gaze was found only in photographs or Orthodox Church religious icons.

Though, like all posters in the USSR, the citizenry are being reminded of the general concepts of equality and the necessity for cooperative work toward a common socialist goal, the poster speaks directly to engineers and indirectly to other professionals, including scientists, who had been arrested, convicted, and in some cases, executed under charges of treason in preceding years. At this point the Bolshevik revolution was firmly established and the communists were looking forward – Stalin was drafting his five-year economic plans and realized that persecution of professionals had discouraged a much-needed development and recruitment of capable specialists, both foreign and domestic, to carry forth ambitious works (skyscraper construction, the Moscow subway system).

For all the heroic implications it is the subtle religious aspects which are most fascinating. The glowing halo-like hood is an allusion to religion, and the colors, like all Soviet posters, include yellows and fiery oranges, similar to the reds, yellows and golds that dominate religious icons. A lamp is a source of light and generally a symbol of enlightenment, knowledge or abstract ideas like hope. Most compelling of all is the notion that in employing the direct gaze and making an appeal to the nations’ engineers, Stalin is speaking himself through the guise of the young worker, and in part, acting as “Stalin the Redeemer.” [3] Govorkov drafted perhaps one of the most sophisticated and complex posters in the history of communist propaganda based on elements of the folkloric hero, the sturdy, hard-working soldier/worker (the drill balanced on the soldiers shoulder is gun-like), and deftly incorporated allusions to religious imagery and the image of Stalin as benign state leader, requesting the continued support of the professional class, and encouraging engineers to heed “the call.”


Mike_portrait__Circle-cut_500px_stairs-light_DSC0101by Mike Simpson, 2009

This essay was published in 2013 in the writing portfolio of Mike Simpson at

Design Portfolio:

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About Viktor Govorkov


“Viktor Ivanovich Govorkov was born in Vladivostok, and studied at the VKhUTEIN art institute in Moscow from 1926-1930.

Viktor Ivanovich Govorkov was born in Vladivostok, and studied at the VKhUTEIN art institute in Moscow from 1926-1930 under the professors Gerasimov, Moor, and Favorsky.

His first exhibition was in 1931, and he immediately started working in the poster genre, where he was one one the leading artists in the Soviet Union during the 1940s and 1950s.

He was awarded the title Honoured artist (Заслуженный художник РСФСР) in 1971.”

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Bibliography and Endnotes

Bonnell. Victoria E. Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1997

Bonnell. Victoria E. Making Workers Soviet: power, class, and identity
Editors: Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Ronald Grigor Suny
Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Alspaugh, Amy. “The Integration of Folk Culture and Bolshevik Ideals in Soviet Visual Propaganda” October 20, 2009

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“Poster Boys (and Girls)”, October 20, 2009
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“Gamborg Gallery”, October 20, 2009
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[1] Alspaugh, Amy. “The Integration of Folk Culture and Bolshevik Ideals in Soviet Visual Propaganda” October 20, 2009: 33. < >

[2] Alspaugh, Amy. “The Integration of Folk Culture and Bolshevik Ideals in Soviet Visual Propaganda” October 20, 2009: 32.< >

[3] “Stalin the Redeemer” idea by my friend and translator Irina Simpson (nee Semyinina)

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This essay by Mike Simpson © copyright 2009

Published via “” – a portfolio and CV site.