The Art of TASS, the Soviet Union’s Stencil-Powered Propaganda Powerhouse

Every dictator needs a propaganda machine to keep their regime popular. Political propaganda arguably reached its zenith during the troubled years of World War II and one of the frontrunners of this ministry of misinformation was the Soviet Union.

Unlike the production-line printed posters of Nazi Germany, Great Britain and Fascist Italy, the USSR made use of a dizzying array of craftsmen, technicians, artists and writers to manually crank out striking and sophisticated glorifications of Stalin, denunciations of Hitler and appeals to socialist values. And they did most of it by hand in a specialist studio run by TASS, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union.

Here’s what it takes to make your mark in the field of alternative facts.

1. Catch Up With the News

Once you get to your desk at TASS’s in-house art studio read through the official reports and directives from Moscow’s numerous ministries to get abreast of current affairs. Stalin’s speeches are also approved fodder for artistic inspiration

2. Start Planning the Layout

Stalin desires ‘windows’ – stencilled comic strips that became popular during the Civil War – and posters, which are typically in the heroic Socialist realist style. The first panel might lampoon the enemies of the people while the latter reflects the true glory of the USSR. Each project has a two-man team at least, with one poet to finesse the message.

3. Seek Approval

A good idea might not be so good if it doesn’t toe the party line. Before work can begin, each project must be scrutinised by a representative of the People’s Commissariat of Education to ensure that it’s thoroughly on-message.

4. Cut the Stencils

For the ‘windows’ between 12 and 65 stencils are then cut to make up the individual elements. Unlike printed posters, windows could vary in size and intricacy as they were pieced together from multiple sheets of paper and put up in shop windows. There was also no restriction on the number of colours used.

5. Onto the Production Line

An assembly line of workers run spring into action: the stencil is put in place, one painter gives it a splash of his or her colour, another stencil comes down, another painter adds his or her paints, text cutters add their stencils and so on as the pages are passed from workstation to workstation.

“Sons of all nations of the Soviet Union are going to battle for the Soviet fatherland. Long Live the Red Army, the army of brotherhood and friendship of the peoples of the USSR!” Image courtesy of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law

6. Picking up the Pace

With one eye on the clock, three shifts of workers turn out between 50 and 1,500 copies of each poster a day. Each one is produced by hand. It’s quicker than lithographic printing because if there’s one thing the Soviet Union isn’t shy of its manpower.

7. The Big Reveal

Between 12 and 20 individual sheets of paper are stuck together, revealing a single gargantuan image that could be as big as twelve feet tall. The finished product is a masterpiece – painted by hand there’s greater variety in shades of colour and detail than would be possible in a printed poster.

8. And One to Keep

A run of smaller, postcard-sized and flyers lithographs are printed using the same design. They have flatter colours and less texture, but they’re far easier to transport across country to the far-flung reaches of the red empire. Some designs are later outsourced to studios like Gopolitizdat, Sotrudnik, and Iskusstvo to print en masse.

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