Mothers are revered in Russian culture, but were also made into political capital in Soviet times. There are two printed posters in the Nottingham collection which show two very different sides to their role in war. 'This mother urges her country’s sons to avenge the people’s suffering by joining up and killing the enemy. In essence, it is a recruitment poster. The other, in quite different style (Glory to Mother Heroines), celebrates her role in producing sons to defend the homeland.
In the poem, this older peasant mother, her face ravaged by war, demands that her son take vengeance. The image produces a heart-rending and terrible effect. In contrast to the relentlessly positive approach of the early phase of the war, the great suffering and loss of the Russian people was being publicly admitted by 1943.
It is August 1943. Russia had sustained huge losses on her eastern front in the battle for Stalingrad the previous winter. Leningrad was still under siege after two years, with a huge loss of life. The Russian army needed more men.
This blend of a recruitment poster with an acknowledgement of suffering Russia borrows from advertising and religious art. The Mother’s large hands are reminiscent of both. Mothers have the power to care and to command. Here one hand is over her heart and expresses her pain, and the other her defiant call to her son.
In icons, the virgin’s hands are similarly expressive gesturing in pain at the knowledge of what awaits her child, and as a comfort and summons to the viewer. We are all familiar with the dramatic gesture of Lord Kitchener in the British WWI poster “Your country needs you!”
This command is here transmitted through the power the Russian mother holds over her son, and into an expression of her need for vengeance. The Russian version is designed to play on the emotions.
See also the icon Sister-nurse.
Viktor Ivanov’s poster had a print run of 100,000, double that of other printed posters in the Nottingham Collection. It must have been a powerful image at this crucial point in the war, when Russia had to keep the tide turning in her own favour.
Ivanov has drawn every muscle in this woman’s face as if caught between the need for vengeance and the knowledge of the pain to come. Her dignity, despite her call is impressive; her suffering has been and will be private, her losses great. The landscape behind her to her right sketches in the destruction of the Russian homeland, while to her left the symbolic birch trees imply what is being lost.
Vera Inber was a member of one of the first generations of Russian women to receive a higher education. She survived the siege of Leningrad and documented the heroism of her fellow citizens. This printed poster shows the only example of her verse in the Nottingham collection. Its alternating weak and strong rhymes, the insistent, imperative tone and its vision of a blood-soaked enemy enlarge the poster’s visual violence.