10 Interesting Propaganda Posters from Russia’s Civil War

From life-size posters to propaganda trains, the Soviets and anti-Bolshevik White Armies employed propaganda images to urge the Russian masses to fight capitalism, religion, or terror.

Jul 8, 2024By Grace Ehrman, MA European History, BA Russian Language

propaganda posters russia civil war


During the Russian Civil War, the Soviets and anti-Bolsheviks employed explosive and apocalyptic propaganda to engage the largely illiterate Russian masses and convince them to embrace Bolshevik ideology or fight the Soviets.


Red and white riders, dragons, capitalist and religious symbols, and heroic workers charged across propaganda posters painted on boxcars or tossed from agitprop trains. Soviet propaganda images featured an avant-garde style, while White propaganda used Romanticism, Impressionism, realism, symbolism, and caricature. Propaganda posters carried a message or ideology to change beliefs and drive political results.


Why Propaganda Played a Crucial Role in the Russian Civil War

Glory to Victorious Red Army Soldier by Dmitri Stakhiekich Moor, 1920. Source: New York Public Library


The Russian Revolution of 1917 divided Russia into antagonistic spheres: the Bolsheviks versus class enemies, the proletariat versus the expropriators, the individual versus the collective, and the abolished past versus the Soviet future.


From utopian ideals to realism and symbolism, the Soviets and the anti-Soviets grasped visual media’s power to change public opinion. The Soviets created a new, militant iconography to peddle the revolution, transform Communist ideas into accessible public art, and spread ideology among the masses. Controversially and effectively, Soviet propaganda also popularized the 1918 orthography reform, which revolutionized and updated the Russian alphabet. In contrast, White Army propaganda used symbolic, religious, and realistic motifs to highlight the practical results of Bolshevik terror and to resist Soviet power.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


During the Civil War, printing presses churned out heroic images and animalized caricatures to manipulate public opinion. While the Reds often employed avant-garde art, White propaganda combined realism with symbolism and Impressionism. Each side used caricatures to dehumanize their enemies, portray their social origins or activities in a negative light, and secure support in the apocalyptic struggle for Russia’s future.


1. The Bolshevik (1920)

The Bolshevik by Boris Mikhaylovich Kustodiev, 1920. Source: Hoover Institution Library & Archives


In this image, a giant worker wearing a fur hat and a quilted coat strides through the city streets. He trails a blood-red revolutionary banner behind him. Armed crowds pour through the streets after him, symbolizing the Bolshevik narrative of a popular revolution ignited by the proletariat. He looks just like the people around him, a simple Russian man of the people.


The worker tramps with purpose. His stern gaze fixes on his goal. The simple title, Bolshevik, emphasizes the role of workers in the rise of the USSR. Only the domed Russian Orthodox church looming ahead blocks his progress. The church symbolizes religion as the “opiate of the people” and the last bastion of tsarism. The Soviet worker’s gaze and purposeful stride indicate that the church will not stop the Soviets’ decisive power.


2. The People’s Uprising (1920)

The People’s Uprising, 1920. Source: Washington State University Library


This May Day revolutionary graphic poster shows peasants and workers striding triumphantly into a new red dawn.


They wield scythes, shovels, and sickles as the weapons of manual labor celebrated in Soviet imagery. They move, unstoppable, over toppled crowns, double-headed imperial eagles, and barrels of gold coins representing the old Tsarist order. Around them, crowds carry crimson banners topped with Soviet stars. Here, the proletariat wields ultimate political power.


The People’s Uprising banner references the collective via the 1917 Decree on Land that abolished private property, redistributed landowners’ estates, and nationalized land, industries, forests, rivers, mines, livestock, and agricultural implements for communal use.


3. For One Russia (1919)

For One Russia, 1919. Source: Hoover Institution Library & Archives


An existential fight for good and evil dominates this anti-Bolshevik poster created by the Volunteer Army at the height of the civil war.


A White Army knight, dressed in medieval Russian armor and mounted on a pale horse, battles a red dragon (representing the Bolsheviks). The red dragon coils around Moscow’s golden church domes and Kremlin walls. The knight’s face focuses on the dragon’s gaping jaws, coiled and scaled body, and sharp claws poised to destroy him. Symbols of Armageddon and salvation are common in anti-Soviet posters. The text implies that the Bolsheviks will engulf the Russian land in a snake-like ring unless Russia saves itself.


4. Cossack, Who Are You With? (1919 & 1920)

LEFT: “Cossack, Who are you with? With us or with them?” by Dmitri Stakhievich Moor, 1920. Source: Rhode Island School of Design; RIGHT: Cossack, You Only Have One Path” by Dmitri Stakhievich Moor, 1919. Source: Harold M. Fleming Papers, New York Public Library


From the first days of the revolution, the Soviets aimed massive propaganda efforts at the Cossacks to attract them to the Bolshevik cause. The “Cossack Question” centered around whether the Cossacks would cast their vote for the Bolsheviks or whether their large military force would threaten Soviet power.


The first propaganda poster asks, “Cossack, Who Are You With? With Us or With Them?” It depicts a Don Cossack wearing signature red-striped trousers tucked into leather boots. He carries a Cossack lance with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He stands between confident, armed workers, peasants, and Red Army soldiers, and a horde of anti-Soviet enemies caricatured as fat capitalists, generals, and Kuban Cossacks wielding sabers. For the viewer, the enemy is clear. While the Cossack looks undecided, his gaze inclines towards the Soviets.


In the second propaganda poster, the Soviets answer the question. Based on Victor Vasnetsov’s famous painting, Knight at the Crossroads, this image shows a Cossack on horseback at a crossroads decision. He can join the obese and inhuman hordes of capitalists, industrialists, and White Army officers, or he can follow the natural path of the people to Communism.


5. Literacy Is the Path to Communism (1920)

Literacy is the Path to Communism, 1920. Source: New York Public Library


In this image, a fiery red-winged horse, representing a Communist Pegasus, gallops through a sky on fire. Soviet posters often depicted Red Army horses as powerful, muscular, heroic beasts leading their riders to victory. The horseman holds an open book and carries a flaming torch over his head to symbolize enlightenment.


The Soviets placed a high value on literacy. A person who could read could access the avalanche of written propaganda posters, newspapers, and leaflets churned out by Bolshevik printing presses housed in trains and village soviets (councils).


To create a new “Soviet Man,” the Soviets used cultural propaganda, literacy campaigns, and early childhood education in Communist Party ideas to ensure loyalty to the collective rather than family, religious, ethnic, or regional identities. They used visual propaganda with colorful images and simple, clear phrases to reach Russians who could not read or write.


6. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920)

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky, 1920. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts


During the Russian Civil War, the Soviets controlled Petrograd and established Moscow as the capital for the first time in 300 years. Pushed to the south, the Volunteer Army launched an unsuccessful campaign to take Moscow in 1919. Later that autumn, the Northwestern Army almost recaptured the former capital in the Battle of Petrograd.


Meanwhile, several anti-Bolshevik forces established regional governments, such as the Omsk Government and the Kuban Cossack Rada in Ekaterinodar. Each government sought to consolidate territorial control against the Soviets or to create a separate state and unite with revolutionary Ukraine. These military and nationalistic efforts drove the Soviets to ramp up propaganda efforts and War Communism.


This Soviet propaganda poster depicts the struggle for Russian territory. It shows a red wedge (representing communism) driving straight into the heart of a white ball (representing the anti-Bolsheviks) and knocking it off the map.


7. How the Bolsheviks Take Charge in Cossack Stanitsas (c. 1918-1920)

How the Bolsheviks Punish Villages, c. 1918-1920. Source: New York Public Library


Like most ordinary Russians, questions of bread, peace, and land also occupied the Cossacks’ minds. At first, many young Cossacks, disillusioned by World War I, supported the Bolsheviks. Recognizing the threat and potential the Cossacks had as mobile equestrian units, Trotsky fought hard to convince them to support Soviet power.


As Soviet soldiers confiscated grain, burned Cossack villages, and conducted class warfare via extrajudicial shootings, early ambivalence or support for the Bolsheviks often turned into resistance. In 1919, the Don Cossack village of Vyoshenskaia erupted in a popular uprising against the Bolsheviks. In the Caucasus, as the Bolsheviks executed thousands of Cossacks and civilians, a wave of neutral Kuban Cossack villages joined the White Army.


The Soviets responded with a violent punitive policy called Decossackization (raskazichivaniye). This radical and ruthless campaign stripped the Cossacks of weapons and symbols of ethnic, cultural, or military identity. It banned wearing traditional uniforms such as red-striped trousers and the Kuban Cossack cherkesska. During this extermination, internment, and deportation process, thousands of Cossack men, women, and children died or disappeared in labor camps.


This Volunteer Army poster shows an elderly Cossack man, barefoot and stripped to his white shirt, standing in a Cossack stanitsa (village) yard. His coat and boots lie on the ground, a common action before execution. A Bolshevik commissar holds a pistol to his head. In the background, two Red Army soldiers pillage grain and livestock. A third carries a bag to a waiting wagon. On the doorstep, a child clings to a crying woman.


For Russian and Cossack villages, grain or animal requisitions and disruptions in the agricultural process often meant starvation. In 1921-1922, widespread famine stalked the country, resulting in an estimated 5 to 10 million deaths.


8. Russia Crucified (1919)

Reproduction of Russia Crucified by a Russian soldier in the army of General Denikin, 1919. Source: Library of Congress


Anti-Bolshevik propaganda often relied on religious symbols, apocalyptic images, and realistic representations of burning villages and people killed by the Bolsheviks to reach their audience.


In this image, a peasant woman wearing a kokoshnik headdress represents a human incarnation of the Motherland. She is bound to a cross and flanked by a grinning Red Army soldier, a Bolshevik sailor, and Leon Trotsky. Imps dance like demonic minions around her. Her tragic face and bound body indicate Mother Russia’s inability to save herself from her enemies.


The Bolsheviks’ war on religion escalated in the second year of the war. Despite their efforts to purge the land of any vestiges of Russian Orthodox religion, Soviet propaganda posters often included iconographic images and designs.


9. One Must Work, The Rifle is Right Here (1920-1921)

One Must Work, The Rifle is Right Here by Vladimir Vasilyevish Lebedev, 1920-1921. Source: Library of Congress


When the defeated anti-Bolshevik forces escaped via Crimea and Siberia in 1920, the Soviets faced the final task of routing out remaining enemies and building a new socialist state.


This Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) poster by Vladimir Lebedev uses simple color blocks and geometric figures to appeal to everyday Russians. A worker uses a saw while his rifle stands ready nearby. The image promotes social consciousness amid economic reconstruction. It shows the uneasy transition from war to peace and reminds Soviet citizens that the revolution is far from over. Soviet citizens still had to watch for threats lurking in a bourgeois face, accent, or name.


Soviet posters from this period often used simple slogans, puns, and crude expressions to satirize class enemies. ROSTA posters hung in the public gaze in market squares, shop windows, and train stations.


10. A New Soviet Birth (1925)

Rozhdestvo by Dmitri Stakhievich Moor, 1925. Source: New York Public Library


Officially, the Russian Civil War ended in 1920. Unofficially, Soviet punitive detachments stamped out the last pockets of resistance among White and Green partisans during the 1920s.


This final Soviet poster portrays the triumph of the revolution. It compares the old religious and cultural Christmas celebrations with a USSR characterized by workers, peasants, and soldiers hailing a glorious future. It represents the completion of the revolution and contrasts the past, associated with capitalism, corruption, enslavement, and religion, with a modern proletarian paradise.


During the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin argued, “Art belongs to the people.” Soviet propaganda ensured that the people believed it. Even with the revolution secured, this poster demonstrates how the Soviets would continue to see enemies of the state everywhere in the coming years.

Author Image

By Grace EhrmanMA European History, BA Russian LanguageGrace is a historian and Late Tsarist and Russian Civil War artifacts enthusiast. Her thesis explored the unrecognized Kuban Cossack state, grassroots anti-Soviet resistance, and connection to agrarian revolutionary movements in Ukraine. She holds a Master of Arts in Modern European History from Liberty University with a specialization in Imperial Russia, the Russian Revolution, World War I and II, and the Cold War. Her research interests include intelligence, autonomy, and resistance. She earned her BA in Russian linguistics. She is a member of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the American Historical Association.