Media, propaganda, and religion

State control of mass media and propaganda


  • Lenin viewed the press and media as central to advancing in the revolution and ensuring the Communists kept control of power.
  • Prior to the revolution, Lenin had announced to close down Bourgeois newspapers but un-did this to retain control.
  • Russian government established control over the press with the following:
    • Decree on the Press in November 1917
      • Gave the government the emergency power to close down any newspapers which supported counter revolution.
    • Creating a state monopoly of advertising in November 1917.
      • Ensured only the government could publish adverts.
    • Nationalising the Petrograd Telegraph Agency in November 1917.
      • Gave the government control of electronic means of communication
    • Establishing a Revolutionary Tribunal of the Press in January 1918.
      • Power to censor press.
      • Journalists and editors who committed crimes could be punished by the Cheka.
      • Cheka empowered to impose fines or prison sentences.
    • Established the All Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA), solely responsible for distributing news.
  • Initially, Lenin only closed down papers that supported the Tsar or the Provisional Government.
    • This changed to outlawing opposition Socialist newspapers
  • By 1921, the Communists had shut down 2000 newspapers.
    • 575 printing presses.
    • Control of the press was also important during Civil War.
  • As a consequence of these policies, the Communist newspaper “Pravda”, was a lot higher in circulation than any other newspaper.
    • Best selling publication in the Soviet Union.


Early Propaganda:

Initial Cult of Lenin:

  • Lenin did not approve of his image being used in media.
  • Cult of Lenin was an example of a type of propaganda that emerged in the early Communist regime, that Lenin disapproved of.
  • Pictures of Lenin were a form of propaganda used to promote the government from the beginning of 1918.
  • Focus on Lenin increase in August 1918.
    • Following an Assassination attempt, Lenin was seen as this modern day Christ for surviving the attack.
  • Cult of personality grew, in spite of Lenin’s approval.
  • Senior communists believed that workers and peasants needed a strong leader.
  • Lenin’s photo associated with titles such as:
    • “Leader of the revolutionary Proletariat”
  • During 1919-1920, a new form of writing emerged that involved Lenin:
    • Depicted as a humane leader, a man who refused luxury, a visionary, and a man of great power.
  • Lenin was aware of these trends and was uncomfortable but understood the importance of them and allowed the Cult to grow.
    • Media and propaganda focus on Lenin, gave the revolution a face.
    • Someone, the population could look up to.


Cartoons and photomontage:

  • In the initial years of the revolution, the Soviet Government collaborated with avant-garde artists to produce posters promoting revolution.
  • Many featured Lenin.
    • A spectre is haunting Europe- the spectre of Communism.
    • An early poster which showed a grim and determined Lenin standing in front of a red banner and pointing to the West.
    • Klutsis used photomontage to create posters advertising Lenin’s plans.


Media and the NEP:

  • Lenin’s press censorship regime continued throughout the civil war.
    • Victory in Civil War did lead not to increased press freedom.
    • Dzerzhinsky introduced Glavit, a new organisation, designed to overlook the censorship regime.
  • Glavlit censorship worked on the following grounds:
    • GPU put in charge of policing every publication available in the USSR.
    • New professional censors employed
    • All books were investigated for anti-Communist bias.
    • GPU compiled a list of banned books.
  • Soviet libraries purged of politically dangerous books.
  • “Book gulags” introduced to hold books which were banned.

Stalin’s Media:

  • Under Stalin, censorship tightened further.
  • In the 1930’s, works of revolutionaries: Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky were purged from Soviet libraries.
  • Lenin’s own works edits to remove complimentary statements about Stalin’s political opponents.
  • Stalin’s work edits to remove any indication that he had previously been close to those he had purged.
  • Soviet history rewritten to emphasises the role of Stalin during the revolution.
  • From 1928, Glavit controlled access to economic data.
  • Restrictions put in place to limit “bad news”
    • Soviet media forbidden from publishing stories about disasters, suicides, industrial accidents, even bad weather blocked.
  • Soviet Union was a place of good.
  • Only reports of saboteurs were the only “bad news” available for people to view.
  • Stalin always given credit for works during the regime.


Consumer magazines:

  • Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, magazines were encouraged to publish letters of the readers.
  • However, rather than praising the accomplishments of socialism, the letters often exposed long term, economic issues of the USSR.
  • In magazines, consumers often complained about the scarcity of consumer goods
  • Readers complained about male alcoholism, inequalities in the house relating to childcare and housework, even domestic violence.

Soviet cinema and television:

  • Soviet cinema changed under Khrushchev as part of a broader cultural thaw or liberalisation.
  • Many of the films focused on traditional themes such as the soviet victory in WW2.
    • And the Communist victory during the Civil  War.
  • Television also took off during Khrushchev’s rule.
    • Between 1960-1964, Soviet television was successful in supporting the Communist regime.
    • Played a major role in celebrating the Soviet Union’s success in the Space race.
    • In 1961 millions of people tuned into watch a five hour programme celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s space voyage.
  • Under Brezhnev, film and TV culture changed.
    • Kept traditional elements such as success in World War Two.
    • However during the same period, there were more films dealing with the working people’s lives.
    • Soviet film makers tended to focus on citizens in luxurious apartments, causing a spike in desire for consumer goods and fashion.
  • Brezhnev attempted to use television for his own good.
    • Partially successful:
    • Government were able to keep tight control of what was being broadcasted about the War in Afghanistan.
  • Transmission of Brezhnev’s speeches were at full and he was the centre of a great deal of domestic media coverage.
    • However, by 1970, this tactic backfired, the camera’s showed Brezhnev as an old man who was clearly physically incapable.
      • Unable to make speeches.
      • Became confused mid sentence.
      • Difficulty walking.
    • Television voice-overs praised Brezhnev but still, viewers could see his physical incapacity for themselves.
  • Under Brezhnev, Soviet leaders also lost control of the print media.
    • KGB continued to police political publications.
      • Work of dissidents.
  • Western magazines became more publicly available in Soviet cities.
    • Consumer magazines like vogue.

Conclusion of Media and propaganda:

  • Essential part of Lenin’s vision for taking control of power.
  • Soviet Media control was very effective.
  • Soviet Media turned Lenin into the hero of the revolution.
  • Under Stalin, propaganda focused on the USSR’s godlike leader.
    • Hero with strong accomplishments
  • Under Khrushchev, consumerism rose with magazines from the West becoming more readily available as well as a black market for these magazines.
    • Increasing emphasis on the ordinary people.
    • TV showed ordinary people in space.
    • Ordinary people working on collective farms.
  • TV exposed Brezhnev for who he really was:
    • Old and fraile.
    • Western magazines revealed how poor the USSR was in contrast to the West.

Personality Cults:

Cult of Stalin:

  • Much more extensive than the Cult of Lenin.

Purpose of the cult:

  • Served a specific political purpose.
  • Firstly, emphasises Stalin’s legitimacy to take ownership over the Communist Party.
    • Stalin was fit to rule because he was carrying on Lenin’s work.
    • Cult created a figure that the Soviet citizens could trust and respect.
    • Dissatisfaction with certain aspects of Soviet life could be blamed on local leaders whilst Stalin could be trusted with control to creating a better Russia.

Myth of Two Leaders:

  • Stalin’s cult was supported by the myth of two leaders.
  • Myth led Soviet people to believe that the October revolution, victory in the Civil War and the foundations of the USSR had been masterminded by the duumvirate between Stalin and Lenin.
  • Myth required Soviet history to be rewritten to place Stalin at the centre of events and remove Trotsky and other leaders from the image.
    • Achieve by:
      • Publication in 1938 of two histories of the Communist Party. Both of which edited by Stalin.
      • Socialist Realist paintings which were created to show Stalin and Lenin working closely together.
      • Altering photos, removed Trotsky out of images of him with Lenin.

Lenin’s heir

  • Cult of Stalin implied that Stalin was continuing the works of Lenin.
  • Painters used techniques to show that Stalin was Lenin’s true heir.
  • Gustav Klutsis’ photomontages use a technique to show a row of figures from Marx through to Lenin and Stalin.
    • Implying that Stalin is the latest of revolutionary leaders.


  • Cult of Stalin turned Stalin into a celebrated figure.
  • Known as the Vozhd – or The Leader.
    • Has no legal significance like a prime minister who are limited by law.
  • Stalin’s birthday became a celebrated event.


  • Stalin Cult changed following World War Two.
    • From 1945, Stalin’s role as Generalissimo or War leader, became the focus of Soviet propaganda.
  • Stalin preferred the title of Marshal, he still used to it reflect his increasing emphasis on Stalin as a military figure.
  • Before WW2, Stalin was presented as a revolutionary and a thinker.
    • After WW2, as Generalissimo, he was presented as a military genius.
      • The man who defeated Hitler.
  • Before WW2, wore green military top.
    • Following WW2, he designed his own, white uniform.
    • Military rank of Generalissimo was created specifically for him.

Cults of personality under Khrushchev:

  • After Stalin’s death, cults were a lot less powerful.
  • Khrushchev criticised Stalin’s cult and then formed two of his own.
  • Khrushchev revived Lenin’s cult and focused on making Lenin’s name live on
    • Lenin depicted as fun and humane.
    • A person who loved children and family.
  • In many ways, Khrushchev’s Lenin resembled Khrushchev himself.
  • Purpose of the Cult was to move away from Stalinism.
  • Secondly, by 1958, Khrushchev created his own cult:
  • According to Soviet propaganda, Khrushchev was:
    • A disciple of Lenin, completing the task that Lenin began.
    • Responsible for new success such as the Soviet Space race programme and the Virgin Lands Scheme success.
    • A respected statesman who negotiated with the US president as an equal
    • A hero of WW2.
    • An authority on literature, art, science, industry and agriculture.
    • Great reformer who was perfecting the Soviet system.
  • Khrushchev’s cult became more problematic in the early 1960’s
  • By associating himself so strongly with the Virgin Lands scheme, when it failed, he was associated with failure.
  • Claims of expertise unraveled when the disastrous results of the Corn campaign were released.
  • Embarrassing foreign policy climb downs and his failure to deliver on his highly optimistic promises about out producing the USA led to a collapse in strength of the Cult.


Cult of Brezhnev:

  • Brezhnev’s cult of personality was a shadow of Stalin’s.
  • Brezhnev took a cult for pragmatic reasons.
  • By 1964, a cult for any leader had been established as a key feature of Soviet politics.
  • Brezhnev’s cult had four key features:
    • A great Leninist.
      • Even though Brezhnev hadn’t personally know Lenin, he claimed to be continuing his works.
      • Particularly claiming to continue the policy for world peace
    • A military hero:
      • Brezhnev attempted to present himself as a military leader and he stressed his military prowess in WW2.
      • Promoted to Marshall of the Red Army and received 60 medals.
    • Dedicated to ensuring world peace:
      • Brezhnev stressed his foreign policy success in developing detente with the USA.
    • A true man of the people:
      • Brezhnev biographies talked of a man with humble origins, worked as an engineer in the steel industry.
  • Brezhnev created his image through public festivals marking important anniversaries, such as the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution
    • Brezhnev’s major birthdays.
    • Anniversaries of World War Two in 1965 and 1975
  • However, Cult of Brezhnev was counterproductive.
  • Mocked for his claims of greatness.
  • Veterans of World War Two resented the inflation of Brezhnev’s role in the war.
  • Young people who were fully aware of the scale of the Soviet Military did not believe his claims for World Peace.
  • Lavish lifestyle of Brezhnev’s family, ruined his claims to be the man of the people.
    • Where Stalin was feared and respected, Brezhnev cult was not plausible and filled with jokes and humility.


Communism and religion:


Marxism and religion:

  • Lenin and most Marxist revolutionaries of that period, believed that Marx was an enemy of religion.
  • Marx famously claimed that religion was an ‘Opium of the masses’
  • Therefore Lenin and other Marxist radicals believed that their revolution would liberate working people from capitalist exploitation and from the delusion of religion.
  • Lenin was also very critical of the Russian Orthodox Church as it was affiliated with the Tsar in Russia.
  • Church was an extremely wealthy organisation.
    • Some Russian Orthodox priests led lives of high privilege while working people were poor.
  • New Communist government was suspicious of organised religion for two reasons:
    • Stood for values that opposed Communist values.
    • Religious groups were organisations that were independent of the Communist Government and therefore could become opposition to Lenin.
  • For these reasons, successful Communist Governments opposed religious groups in the USSR, including Russian Orthodox Church and Islam.


Religious groups in the USSR:


Early campaign:

  • Lenin’s early religious policies reflected two different motives, the first Communist laws reflected commitment to legal equality of all people. regardless of their beliefs.
    • However at the same time, there was a terror campaign against the Orthodox Church.

Legal Reform:

  • The following decrees were announced by Lenin, and they defined the relationship between the state and religion:
    • October 1917 Decree on Land gave peasants the right to seize land belonging to the Church.
    • January 1918 Decree concerning Separation of Church and State, and of School and Church meant the Church lost its privileged position in society.
      • Church land and property were nationalised, state subsidies for Church were ended.
      • RE banned in schools.
    • 1922 Soviet Constitution guaranteed freedom of conscience for all Soviet people.
  • In practice, the religious freedom that Lenin opted to give to the people, was compromised by his actions through the measures he took.
    • Soviet courts lacked the power to force the government to obeying the law or respect citizens’ rights.

Church and the terror:

  • Lenin convinced that the Church was an enemy of the revolution, therefore used terror to try to undermine the Church.
  • In the first year of the revolution, the Church was terrorised:
    • November 1917, Archpriest Ivan Kochurov was murdered outside Petrograd.
    • In January 1918, Metropolitan Vladimir was tortured and shot in Kiev.
    • Orthodox priests in Moscow were massacred in January following a Church decree excommunicating the Bolsheviks.
  • More extreme measures were sanctioned in November 1918 when the Politburo issued a secret order to the Cheka sanctioning the mass execution of priests.
    • Within two years, most of the popular priests were dead.
  • Roman Catholic Priests were treated differently because they had been traditionally been a persecuted minority rather than being backed by the Tsar.
  • In addition to executions and deportations, the new government also used propaganda against the Church and seized Church property.
    • These two policies operated together during the 1921 famine.
  • Government policy towards Islam was contradictory, initially Communist forces used the Decree concerning separation of Church and State to justify taking land from ‘Waqfs’ the Islamic foundations and charities.
    • Quickly reversed as Waqfs funded schools in Muslim areas and the Communist leaders encouraged Muslims to join the Party.
    • No link between Islam and the Tsar.

Religion in the 1920’s

  • Communist policy regarding religion changed following the Civil War changed.
    • Mass execution stopped, as well as deportations and violence.

The Living Church:

  • One strategy used against the Orthodox Church was the establishment of the Living Church.
  • Claimed to be a reformed version of the old Orthodox Church, in which ordinary people have power.
  • Aided by the GPU, organised a national congress in April 1923, which deposed Patriarch Tikhon and introduced a new decentralised structure.
    • Part of a government backed strategy to split the Church.
      • Take away its central leader.
      • Weaken its national structure.
  • However the leader of the Living Church, the Archbishop Vedenskii, was not prepared to support the communist regime.
    • In 1923, he publicly debated science and religion.
    • Gained widespread support for his argument that science could not disprove the existence of God.
  • Overall, the Church was more successful but the Church split did not diminish church growth, nor faith in saints and miracles which continued through the 1920’s.


  • During the 1920’s, the Soviet Authorities initiated campaigns against Islamic groups.
  • Communists objected to islam for two main reasons:
    • Claimed that Islam encouraged ‘crimes based on custom’ especially those infringing women’s rights.
    • Secondly, they recognised that Islamic organisations had the loyalty of many people in the Caucasus and Central Asia., therefore the Communists wanted to destroy the religion in order to extend their own power.
  • In order to weaken Islam, the Communists:
    • Closed mosques, turning them into sports clubs and storage depots.
    • Discouraged pilgrimages.
    • Attacked Islamic shrines
    • Started campaigns against women wearing the chador, a dress which included a veil.
    • Opened anti-Islamic museums near recognised holy places.

Stalin, religion and terror:

  • Stalin often pragmatic when dealing with religion.
  • During the Collectivisation process, Stalin ordered the closure of many churches as they aided resistance against his policies.
  • Outside of Russia, Stalin set targets for the number of people from different ethnic groups he wanted purged.
  • In the Central Asian Republics, where Islam was the dominant religion, the NKVD attacked local priests and intellectuals.
  • The NKVD attacked local priests and intellectuals..
  • NKVD also attacked groups that had been set up to defend Islam in the 1920s from Soviet attacks.
  • Regardless of the attacks, Islam still survived in Sufi groups.

Religion and War:

  • During Second World War, Stalin made a pragmatic alliance with the Orthodox church.
  • One of his strategies for winning the War was to appeal to the patriotism of the Russian people to boost morale and inspire them to fight.
    • Russian Orthodox Church was linked with Russian National Identity.
      • Therefore as patriotism re-awoke, it was a natural instinct for Russians to look up to the Church.
    • The war was a time of continual crisis when all families faced losing loved ones.
      • Church provided comfort for bereaved families.
    • Soldiers also found comfort in the thought that God would welcome them into the heavens.


  • Early on in the War, Stalin reached an understanding with the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • The Russian Orthodox Church’s most senior figure urged Christians to  fight for the motherland.
    • Proclaiming Stalin as ‘ God’s chosen leader’
    • In return, the government changed its policy towards the church:
      • From War, the anti-religious propaganda ceased.
      • Communist publications such as Bezbozhnik were officially closed.
      • Stalin granted Metropolitan Sergey an official residence in Moscow
      • Stalin promised to end the censorship of religious magazines following the war.
      • Stalin promised that the Churches that had been closed by the Government would be reopened. 414 churches reopened during the final year of the War.
    • Church grew as a result of the easing of restrictions.


Khrushchev and religion:

  • Khrushchev’s major anti-religious campaign started in 1958. Included the following measures:
    • Churches reopened during World War Two were reclosed.
    • Anti-religious propaganda reintroduced.
    • Anti-religious magazines were reintroduced, for example, Science and Religion, was published regularly from 1960.
    • Roman Catholic monasteries were closed in 1959.
    • Orthodox converts were placed under surveillance.
    • Patrols refused to let believers have access to holy sites.
  • Khrushchev also used the Soviet space programme to attack religion.
    • Yuri Gagarin commented that having travelled up to the heavens, he found no God.
    • Valentina Tereshkova, as the first woman in space, also argued that her trip into space led to the victory of atheism.
  • Khrushchev’s campaigns targeted female believers as government figures showed that 2/3 of Orthodox Churchgoers were women and 80% of Protestant Christians were women.
  • Concerned that women were passing on religious beliefs to their children.
  • Therefore, from 1960, a propaganda campaign encouraged men to take the leading role in education of their children.
  • Aspects of Khrushchev’s campaign succeeded, for example, the KGB closed down thousands of Churches, reducing the number of Orthodox Church buildings from 8000-5000 from 1958-1964.
  • However, women continued to protect their religious freedoms.
  • Some marched to defend Islam and Christianity.
    • Others took their children out of schools in order to counter the anti-religious campaigns and propaganda.

Religion in the USSR, 1964-85:

  • Brezhnev ended Khrushchev’s overt campaign against religion.
  • Church closures stopped and so did poster campaigns/
  • Brezhnev advocated spreading atheism rather than attacking religious groups.
  • In 1968, he opened the Institute for Scientific Atheism which published articles in newspapers and advised teachers how to spread atheism in the classroom.
  • Brezhnev seeked allies in the Middle East, whilst other Soviet leaders described Islam as ‘Backwards and barbarian’
  • Under Brezhnev, the government started supporting anti-American Islamic groups.
    • As a consequence, in the late 1960’s, the government described Islam as: ‘progressive, anti-colonial and revolutionary creed’ that was compatible with socialism.
  • Brezhnev’s promotion of atheism did not lead to less people support religious groups.
  • No more churches or mosques closed.
  • 20% remained professing a religious faith.