Soviet WWII Propaganda Posters at Chicago-Kent

If you’ve visited the research  office at the IIT Chicago-Kent Law Library, you may have noticed a trio of very large framed posters with Cyrillic text. These posters are just a small sample of the collection of World War II Soviet propaganda posters that Chicago-Kent received when we acquired the Library of International Relations (LIR), a special collection, in 1983.

A few of these have been on display in our library for years, but many more were rediscovered stuffed in a box in a storage room in 2006. The Chicago-Kent posters were identified just as the Art Institute of Chicago was finishing the restoration of a very similar collection. This led to Chicago-Kent playing a very small role in supporting the Art Institute’s wonderful exhibition in the summer of 2011.

Creation & Distribution

From 1941-1945, TASS (the official government news agency of Russia) didn’t have access to television or quick printing options to share information about the war. Instead, they depended on a collective of Soviet artists and poets who worked day and night to produce enormous posters created with hand-painted stencils.

The TASS  posters were displayed each day in shop windows around Moscow and many other cities, and are now known as the TASS Windows. They illustrated the latest news from the Front with vivid images and sharp language, creating an entertaining and effective way to keep everyone informed and focused on the war effort.

Margaret Bourke-White, best known as a pioneer in industrial and architectural photography, was also the first American female war photojournalist. She was visiting Russia at the outset of the war and included photos of the production process for the TASS Windows in her book Shooting the Russian War, published in 1942.

One of the most productive group of artists involved called themselves “The Kukriyniksi,” a combination of their individual names (Mikhail Kuprianov, Porfiri Krylov, and Nikolai Sokolov). They described their experience:

“We work more urgently and intensively than we used to. During the first months of the war we had to work in conditions that were new in comparison with those of pre-war days. Very often, after drawing the curtains of an evening, we would gather at the round table in Sokolov’s flat and start work all together. While we were drawing, Marshak would compose a caption in verse. It often happened that an air alert obliged us to leave our work and take up our posts as firemen on the roof or stairs.”

– from Soviet War News,  “Making Hitler Look Silly: Cartoons and Posters by the Soviet Artists Kukryniksi,” 1945, p.5

International Distribution

After their initial distribution, many of the TASS Window posters were reprinted in smaller versions and distributed widely. The same artists that worked on the TASS Windows also produced many other works, from small posters and leaflets to editorial cartoons published in newspapers and magazines.

By 1944, with the war front moving further from the production areas, 25% of all the Okna TASS printing was delivered to foreign countries. L.E. Kolesnikova said, “Every foreign-highly positioned visitor coming to our country felt indebted to bring back to his country a set of Окна ТАСС  posters.”1

Most of the 128 TASS posters in the Chicago-Kent collection are still folded. Also discovered with the TASS posters were a few of the original envelopes that were used to send posters to the Library of International Relations (LIR) in the 1940s. Each poster is individually numbered.

Local Collections

After I discovered a box of these posters in our library in very poor storage conditions, I set out to discover where they came from, how they were created and used, and how we could best use or exhibit them in our library.

The majority of Chicago-Kent’s posters are now in archival storage and are not available for display. Six posters are framed and hanging in the library – three in the reference offices and three on the 8th floor:

In 2006-2007, there was very little information available in English about these works. I reached out to any American collections that I could discover, from the Library of Congress to the Art Institute of Chicago, which had also recently rediscovered its collection in a hidden area.

The Art Institute’s collection of Soviet propaganda was buried behind a false wall to protect the director from accusations of Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era. The collection was rediscovered when the Art Institute expanded the coat rooms before the immensely popular Van Gogh and Gauguin exhibit in 2002.

Art Institute Exhibition

Art Institute Exhibit PosterFrom July 31 – October 23, 2011, the Art Institute of Chicago displayed many of their restored posters in an exhibit titled “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–1945”. The catalog from the Art Institute exhibition is the first major work in English to document the project.

Before the exhibit opened, a team of researchers and the exhibit curators from the Art Institute visited our campus to view our copies and compare the collections.

Emily Barney at contributor's dinnerThe Art Institute also invited our library director and researcher to visit the collection and see how the restorations were accomplished with painstaking work to unfold and restore the deteriorating paper and simple paint. Before the exhibit opened, we received an invitation to preview the show and meet other contributors at a dinner.

Chicago-Kent’s envelopes were included in the Art Institute exhibition to demonstrate the way both institutions received these artworks.

Envelopes on display at the Art Institute

Many of Chicago-Kent’s posters are identical to the Art Institute works, although we do have one miniature  quite unlike the large-scale stenciled posters. Included in the exhibition catalog, the Art Institute notes that the miniature is a rare example of a silk-screened poster, which one TASS head editor had recommended for price reduction and more flexible sizing.2

TASS No. 817 - Begone, My Horse Wagon!

Although the exhibit at the Art Institute is long gone, the website lives on, along with a poster search engine that provides captions and art information for the many posters they reviewed in the process of creating the exhibit and catalog:

Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters At Home and Abroad, 1941-1945


You can also find a small exhibit featuring images of other posters from the Chicago-Kent collection of TASS works here:

L.E. Kolesnikova , “Oкна ТАСС” : 1941/1945 : оружие Победы = “Okna TASS”: 1941/1945: oruzhie Pobedy. Moskva: Bratishka 2005 (p. 3). [Note that “Окна” or “Okna” is Russian for “Windows”.]

2 Zegers, Peter, Douglas W. Druick, and Konstantin Akinsha. Windows on the War: Soviet Tass Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2011.  (p. 142)