The War Years
by Ian Greenwood
9th of March 2015
In October 1941 an eight-year old boy, Rodion Shchedrin, went to the window of his flat in Mitnaya Street, Moscow. He could smell burning, and was surprised to see charred scraps of paper floating up from the building opposite. The building was the Goznak works, home of the official producers of banknotes and postage stamps. Rodion watched as they incinerated the contents of their safes.
Moscow had been under threat since Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion, began on June 22nd 1941. By October many heavy industry factories had been transplanted in their entirety towards safety in the Urals. It is fairly safe to assume that the printing, manufacturing and distribution of Soviet postage stamps went with them, although the small detail above (from Shchedrin’s autobiography) is the closest this writer has come to establishing what happened – unsurprisingly Goznak today is coy about its exact movements at a time when desperate flight was the order of the day.
Of course, the Soviet military machine had already been in action. Two years earlier it had marched unimpeded towards Poland, taking the opportunity in doing so of cementing control over areas of the USSR which still harboured fierce hatred at Stalin’s Holodomor – the deliberate starving to death of millions of Ukrainians so that Russia might export grain to finance massive industrial expansion. Within six months a set of stamps appeared featuring the joyful inhabitants of that area welcoming the Red Army, come to relieve them of the pernicious influence of neighbouring Poland. Ivan Ivanovich Dubasov, newly-returned after a five year absence, had his first real opportunity to dispel any lingering notions of counter-revolutionary modernism to which his more adventurous designs may have given rise. It also established a style that was to serve him well in the years of the Great Patriotic War – a ‘social realism’ based on actual photographs or on suitably dramatic artistic reconstructions.
The propagandist value of these particular images reaches even to the catalogue compilers at Stanley Gibbons, who have always claimed them as depicting the ‘occupation of Eastern Poland’. The British may look at it that way, but what the Russian words say is ‘liberation of the brotherly peoples of western Ukraine and western Belarus’. Almost, but perhaps not quite, the same thing.
The next military adventure was less straightforward. It resulted in some sharp shocks for the Red Army after its ignominious tussle with the Finns in what became known as the ‘Winter War’. The exposure of military frailty (not to mention the ruthless expulsion of the entire Karelian population of eastern Finland from their homeland) was naturally forgotten when, a year later, Dubasov offered a traditional design to mark the anniversary of the resultant Karelo-Finnish Republic. There’s a hint of Scandinavian forest in there, but smiling soldiers and grateful peasants are notable for their absence.
The success of this incursion nevertheless concealed profound weaknesses in the Red Army’s organisation. When the German panzer divisions rolled across the Vistula on June 22nd 1941, the Soviet high command (who had chosen to ignore several warnings) was so taken by surprise that huge areas of Russia were lost within days and the country placed on immediate emergency footing. Back in Moscow, now threatened, conventional stamp issues featuring the painter Surikov, the writer Lermontov, and the Lenin Museum (the latter two by Dubasov) would have been in preparation well before then, but now stamp production virtually ceased. Along with the munitions factories, the tank and plane builders, the research and development laboratories and who knows what else, Goznak was on the move, ensuring its banknotes and coins and medals were produced a thousand miles to the east, safe from the impending onslaught.
A single stamp exhorting people to “Be a hero!” was rushed out in August. By December Dubasov had designed a similar stamp (left) insisting that “At the call of the Great Leader Comrade Stalin, the sons of the people of the Soviet fatherland join the People’s Militia”. January saw his design celebrating a medieval Central Asian mystic – it may well have been prepared before June 22nd – and that was it. Between the invasion and the resumption of serious propagandist issues eighteen months later in November 1942, Goznak issued just four stamps.
What instructions (if any) the People’s Commissar for Communications, Ivan Peresypkin, was given by the hard-pressed GKO (the State Committee for the Defence of the USSR); what orders he passed down to Goznak’s Head Artist; what personnel had to relocate from Moscow to Kazan, or Perm, or distant Sverdlovsk; what importance anyone attached to postage stamps while the massive industrial recovery which ultimately sealed the invader’s fate was grinding into action – these questions can only be asked here, and perhaps they cannot now be answered. Let us imagine instead, for we know the result, that during the months of 1942 a stamp-issuing policy was formulated, carried out by Ivan Dubasov and his team of artists, and produced and distributed far from the battlegrounds of Operation Barbarossa.
Such a policy was not to apply to military field post – with more than 7 million men and women under arms and on home soil the source of by far the most postal traffic. Between battles, soldiers wrote letters on ordinary pieces of paper and then folded it in a special way, to make a little triangle. As a Rostov veteran remembers, “Such letters did not require a postage stamp and an envelope, of which there was always a shortage. It was delivered free of charge. Each military unit had a postman, who walked through the trenches and collected the letters. In the four years of the war, the Soviet post delivered over 6 billion triangles to and from the front.”
For civilians the ten sets of stamps in the year following November 1942 – a year that effectively saw a decisive turn of the tide in Russia’s favour – included seven that were unashamed propaganda, designed to inspire with a mixture of heroism, tragedy, and determined solidarity against the foe. Dubasov himself illustrated the pitiful tales of Shura Chekalin and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, both captured, subjected to dreadful treatment and executed by the Germans after acts of desperate bravery.
Rising from his sickbed, the teenage partisan Chekalin hurls a grenade at approaching soldiers – in vain, as it fails to explode. On a mission to sabotage a German unit, 18-year old Zoya is seized and faces the ruthless bayonets of her captors. (Gruesome photographs of the hanged girl were circulated to drive home the point. They may have been circulated by both sides.) These and other such acts of resistance are illustrated in the November 1942 set designated ‘War Heroes’ – the first of three issues commemorating those who had already given their lives in the struggle. This public lionisation of fallen heroes was a notable feature of Soviet propaganda: one such, the self-sacrificing airman Captain Gastello, was even given his own theme music, a jaunty march you may hear on a popular video-sharing website today! (It will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Soviet politics that every one of the heroic narratives used on these stamps was duly discredited in the post-Stalin era.)
Dubasov’s designs are heavily peopled, emotionally charged, full of action. When they are not illustrating actual scenes, they imagine typical military activity: partisans attacking a derailed train, nurses carrying a wounded soldier from a battle, a three-man bazooka section, entrenched infantry resisting oncoming panzers.
Three Dubasov designs from 1943
These images excite and inspire – as much as anything else they are a recruiting tool for youngsters, and foreshadow innumerable illustrations in post-war adventure books and comics for boys. In these designs – Dubasov by now had a team of artists producing similar material – words and numerals are tucked away in corners, borders narrowed and slogans kept to a minimum. The narrative image is all.
Throughout the summer of 1942, when these issues were presumably planned and designed, the Soviet military machine was frantically re-arming, while German troops moved inexorably towards the precious oilfields of the Caucasus. Leningrad was ruthlessly besieged and Moscow permanently threatened. In September, von Paulus’s Sixth Army arrived at Stalingrad on the Volga, with direct orders to take the city – the jewel in the crown, as Hitler saw it, to be seized at all costs because it was literally Stalin’s city, and the key to victory in the south.
But even then the tide was beginning to turn. Leningrad would stand firm, Moscow could not be taken, and the Wehrmacht was stretched along its thousand-mile front to breaking point. “We reckoned on about 200 enemy divisions,” wrote General Halder in August. “Now we have already counted 360.” As the decisive battle for Stalingrad began, so the Red Army was massing in the north and centre. Ni shagu nazad! was Stalin’s famous Order no.227 – “Not one step back!”
Those inhabitants of Stalingrad who chose or were forced to stay while the four-month battle for its future raged were unlikely, one imagines, to appreciate the simultaneous issues later designated as ‘War Episodes’, one in photo-gravure, the other typographed, and appearing piecemeal while the fate of the Soviet Union was in the balance. Eight of the ten stamps incorporated dutiful slogans such as “Death to the German Invader!” or “All for the Front! All for Victory!” For some reason, whether by happenstance or by choice, the two that did not were by the Head Artist himself. His designs are notable for their similar visual structure, and for the sense of depth they achieve: the signallers (left) calling in the artillery fire seen in the distance, and the partisans (above right) attacking a derailed train.
The turning of the tide came with the encirclement and capture of the remnants of the Sixth Army. Stalingrad had held out, and from February 1943 the Germans were in retreat. There was still much to be done before the Red Army could claim victory, and the process of driving the Wehrmacht back whence they came was a long and bitter one. The flow of propagandist stamps, naturally, did not cease, but now more traditional issues joined them: commemorations of the explorer Vitus Bering and the writer Maxim Gorky, both undertaken by Dubasov. The latter is interesting. It shows a portrait, an autograph and a seabird over the waves – a reference, which Russian lovers of literature would have spotted, to his 1901 prose-poem ‘Song of the Stormy Petrel’. A couple of verses (translated here into Hiawatha-like verse) will serve to complement this stamp nicely:
High above the silvery ocean / winds are gathering the storm-clouds,
and between the clouds and ocean / proudly wheels the Stormy Petrel,
like a streak of sable lightning.
Now his wing the wave caresses, / now he rises like an arrow,
cleaving clouds and crying fiercely, / while the clouds detect a rapture
in the bird's courageous crying.
In that crying sounds a craving / for the tempest! Sounds the flaming
of his passion, of his anger, / of his confidence in triumph.
Forty years on, it was the passion, the anger, the confidence in triumph, as much as the men and matériel, that did for the Germans in 1943 and 1944.
Ivan Dubasov must have been a lover of literature – in years to come he would repeatedly choose literary anniversaries for his own designs. A favourite was the remarkable Vladimir Mayakovsky – poet, playwright, artist, designer, actor, director and even film star. Such wide-ranging talent, in one so young, attracted not just the admiration of many intellectuals, but also the interest of men who liked neither his bourgeois avant-gardism nor more importantly his propensity for criticising the Bolshevik state. In 1930, at the age of 36, Mayakovsky was found dead, shot through the heart. It was given out that he had committed suicide.
Stalin, the target of some of his satire, officially reinstated his reputation in 1935. Dubasov had already designed a Mayakovsky set in 1940, ten years after his death; three years later he did another, to commemorate his birth in 1893. The wartime set dutifully features soldiers on a tank and half a dozen warplanes heading inexorably west (or to the left, at least) to victory. It also has a text, set in rather small writing, which is actually the final verse from the 1928 poem ‘Lozungi rifmi’. It would appear to be a celebration of the noble Soviet cause, and concludes with the stirring words “The Red Army... our strength. Our Red Army... glory!”
So far, so patriotic and unexceptional. And yet... we remember Dubasov’s early designs, with their echoes of avant-garde Russian art, and his unexplained absence for five years in the 1930s. Is there a hint of sympathy for the rebel in Dubasov's design? The title of the poem from which these words are taken translates as ‘Slogan Rhymes’, which aptly describes its disjointed, short, sharp lines – a list of slogans indeed, to be read with what - unquestioning approval? Or something more ironic? The sardonic, sideways look the poet gives us in the chosen portrait seems to ask, “Do you really believe in this?” No doubt Dubasov welcomed the Red Army’s triumphs as much as any Russian, but you may think that this was not all he was doing in the Mayakovsky design.
Dubasov’s team of artists during the exile from Moscow – whether they worked in-house or from home – was different from those he had used before the German invasion. There were sixteen in all, only one of whom had designed prior to 1941. Work must have been hectic or conditions in some way prohibitive to require that number of men, but Soviet success at the Front eventually eased the load. From the beginning of 1944 Dubasov retained only three designers for the eighteen remaining wartime sets.
His own final contributions were celebratory. He used plenty of colour for ‘Red Army Victories’, in which his picture of the Red Flag being raised on the Reichstag features the pleasing slogan “Cleanse the Home of the Fascist Beast!”. In the most successful illustration a Soviet infantry platoon attacks a burning panzer, while in the ruins of her home a mother kneels over her slain daughter and her young son turns to gesture furiously at the enemy. A second set (below) issued in the same month (April 1945) is more formal but no less dramatic and seems to rewind key moments in the struggle: a T-34 smashes through what may be the ruins of Berlin; earlier, grateful villagers welcome the liberators; and finally, a desperate cavalryman, his horse shot from under him, hurls his last grenade at the oncoming foe – the slogan, naturally, Ni shagu nazad! – “Not a step back!”
In the final part of this article, a more settled period at Goznak sees Dubasov return to some of his favourite subjects before easing gradually into a well-earned retirement.