Information Graphics in Action: Russian Agitational Postcards 1900–1960

The postcard originated in the middle of the XIX century and went through the development path together with the poster, following stylistic changes in the schedule along with it, simultaneously solving various social, cultural, and economic problems. One of the functions of the postcard, as well as the poster, was agitation and propaganda, in some cases carried out with the help of information graphics. Both forms were widely used in various propaganda campaigns that took place in the twentieth century in the Soviet Union.

Fig. 1. Agitational postcard “The Austrian went to Radziwill and got on a woman ‘s pitchfork” (K. Malevich, text V. Mayakovsky. Publ. “Segodniashnii Lubok” (“Today’s Lubok”), Moscow, 1914)

At the end of the XIX century in Russia, there was an explosive growth in the number and assortment of printed graphics. This was due, first of all, to the development of the domestic printing industry, and secondly, to the emergence and widespread use of color printing technologies. Among them are open letters or postcards.

In Russia, illustrated postcards began to be printed in 1895, and in a short time, they became part of the cultural life of the country. The postcards showed views of cities and landscapes, demonstrated important events that took place in the state and society, printed stories from the life of ordinary people, and portraits of public figures. They reproduced paintings by famous masters, book illustrations for fairy tales, folk splints, etc.

Like the poster, the postcard almost immediately became a carrier of advertising information. During its manufacture, the image was reduced and the font inscriptions were adapted, which was a simple matter. Many enterprises and companies have used this small graphic form to promote goods and services or to strengthen their image.

One of the typical examples is the advertising of the Singer company specializing in sewing equipment which also published art postcards with drawings by famous Russian and European artists. In a series of art postcards entitled “Russian Proverbs in Faces” (1905), scenes from folklife were presented in the manner of a lubok, accompanied by humorous proverbs and the presence of an image of a sewing machine and a trademark of the Singer company.

Another function of the postcard was agitation and propaganda, which was facilitated by socio-political changes in the public life of Russia in the early twentieth century, which turned it into an information platform. “A useful format, a large edition, and the possibility of mass distribution have made the postcard an indispensable means of propaganda and a news information source” [1].

The first examples relate to the period of the Russian-Japanese War of 1904–1905. The variety of the plot allows us to talk about the birth of a new medium for the promotion of ideas, slogans, and appeals. In addition to battle scenes, the military postcards also featured caricature sketches in the spirit of the Russian splint. We will see the continuation of this in Kazimir Malevich and Dmitry Moore in 1914 (Fig. 1). The images of epic heroes were sufficiently presented, such as the postcard “In the Far East”, Nicholas Roerich showed images of Russian warriors and Japanese samurai in traditional national armor. This technique will be widely used in the propaganda graphics of the First World War, by Viktor Vasnetsov or Konstantin Korovin.

The Russian propaganda postcard of the initial period of the First World War became an effective new tool in the arsenal of agitators and propagandists when combined with the debut of visual statistics. But diagrams on postcards appeared earlier in the “Russia in Numbers” series based on the materials of Ivan Ozerov from his “Atlas of Charts on Economic Issues” (1908–1909).

In addition to bar and pie charts, multi-colored postcards also contained figure diagrams based on the proportional change of images depending on the values represented. Colorful images of teapots and coffee pots, ears, and rolls of fabrics showed the average per capita consumption of tea and coffee, wheat yield, and textile production in various countries (Fig. 2–3). The authors of these miniatures were guided by similar diagrams of Adolf Marks as well as the “Universal Geographical and Statistical Pocket Atlas” of the Austrian cartographer Anton Hickmann. The Russian reader could get acquainted with it in four editions (1900, 1903, 1908, 1915).

Fig. 2. Isostatistical postcard “Average per Capita Consumption of Tea in the Major Countries over the Years 1899–1903” from the series “Russia in Numbers” (Publ. of the Trading house Eckel and Kalakh, Moscow, 1908
Fig. 3. Isostatistical postcard “Wheat Yield in Bushels per Acre” from the series “Russia in Numbers” (Publ. of the Trading house Ekkel and Kalakh, Moscow, 1908)

The beginning of the World War initiated the introduction of visual statistics into the propaganda policy of the state. In 1914, Mamontov’s printing house printed a series of open letters showing proportional ratios of the territory, population and economic potential of the belligerent states (Fig. 4). The black-and-white postcards “Army of the Belligerent Powers”, “Space of the Belligerent Powers”, “Population of the Belligerent Powers”, “Number of Horses of the Belligerent Powers”, “Grain Reserves of the Belligerent Powers” clearly show the absolute advantage of the Russian Empire over the opposing side: Germany and Austria-Hungary. Superiority was demonstrated by the dominant image of a Russian soldier, a horse, a sheaf of wheat, etc.

Fig. 4. Agitational postcard “Number of Horses of the Belligerent Powers” (Association “Tipografiya A. I. Mamontov”, Moscow, 1914)
Fig. 5. Agitational postcard “The Armed Forces of the Belligerent Powers” (Partnership “Gramotnost”, Moscow, 1914)

In fact and in content, similar postcards were produced at the beginning of the war by other publishing houses. For example, the series “The Armed Forces of the Belligerent Powers” was published by the printing house of the partnership “Gramotnost” (“Literacy”) and was printed lithographically in two colors (Fig. 5). It should be noted that pictorial statistics were practically not found in the pre-revolutionary poster. An exception is the advertising poster of Mutual Zemstvo Insurance Company of Kostroma province (1915).

After the October Revolution of 1917, the center of gravity of agitation and propaganda was transferred to the poster, which became the main graphic tool of influence. According to Polonsky, “having received a development that Europe and overseas countries did not know, the revolutionary poster is a picturesque monument, the like of which no epoch has left” [2]. The propaganda postcard of those years was closely adjacent to the poster, was its reduced copy. The plots were devoted to the fateful moments of that era and were based on very specific calls to fight. The slogans of the Civil War in Russia did not require the availability of statistical data supporting the ideological message. Therefore, propaganda isostatistics in posters and postcards of the early 1920s are extremely rare.

Data visualization began to be in demand in the 1920 at the beginning of widespread industrialization. During the industrialization of the USSR, posters of the first five-year plans began to be filled with charts of planned indicators, maps of future construction projects of socialism, diagrams of railways and canals. The propaganda message combined graphics, photographs, photomontage and charts as a visual representation of the facts. Such famous constructivist artists as Gustav Klutsis (photomontage posters), El Lisitsky (exhibition design), Alexander Rodchenko (magazine illustrations) and others worked in this genre. But the postcards, pictorial statistics appear quite independently. This was due to the specifics of this type of printed matter, its accessibility to the general population and the relative cheapness of production. However, the limited format and quality of printing dictated a more compact visual message based only on graphics, and not on photographs or photomontage.

In 1927–1934, the People’s Commissariat of Postal service and Telegraph issued a series of advertising and propaganda postcards (Fig. 6–7). The goal was to make workers widely aware of the achievements of the USSR in the socio-political and economic life of the country, the tasks facing the first five-year plan, and the situation in the world.  These messages were mixed with advertisements of goods and services and the topics were completely different such as the assistance to prisoners of capital and victims of fascism, calls to join the ranks of public organizations such as the Red Cross, and, of course, the slogan “Strengthen the Defense of the Country.” Advertised were toothpaste and powder, Soviet perfumes, a trip along the Volga and the Caucasus from an Intourist, rubber boots and tires, mineral water, and property insurance.

Fig. 6. Agitational postcard “Will Provide a Good Harvest of Sugar Beet” (Publ. of the People’s Commissariat of Postal service and Telegraph, Moscow, 1931)
Fig. 7. Agitational postcard “Will Increase the Yield of Flax and Hemp by Introducing Mineral Fertilizers into the Soil” (Publ. of the People’s Commissariat of Postal service and Telegraph, Moscow, 1931)

At the same time, in general, the popularity of infographics is increasing, due to the introduction of the Viennese method of pictorial statistics. In 1931, in Lenizogiz, the Department of Fine Statistics published a set of 72 postcards-posters “To Catch up and Surpass the Leading Capitalist Countries in Technical and Economic Affairs in 10 Years.” (Fig. 8). These postcards were mostly original and did not have corresponding posters. But some plots were originally presented in the form of separate large-format charts sheets (37 x 54 sm) — the album with the same name was published in 1931 [3]. They contained statistical data of the first five-year plan (1928–1932) in various areas of the Soviet economy, society and culture.

Fig. 8. Isostatistical agitational postcard “The Sugar Production in the USSR” from the series “To Catch up and Surpass the Leading Capitalist Countries in Technical and Economic Affairs in 10 Years” (Ogiz, Izogiz, Moscow, Leningrad, 1931)
Fig. 9. Isostatistical agitational postcard “The Growth of Productivity in the USSR” (Lenizogiz, Leningrad, 1934)

On most of the postcards, illustrations served as a background for pictorial statistics, made both according to the Vienna method and using domestic original developments such as the method of illustrated film strips by Ivan Ivanitsky.  These postcards were supposed to give an account of the achievements of the country, but “not in dry and boring figures in the form of columns and tables, but in the form of figurative or pictorial charts that could interest every working person of the Soviet Union and a foreign worker” [4]. For this, the text was printed on the back in Russian, English, and German.

Fig. 10. Isostatistical agitational poster “Imperialists are Preparing an Attack from the Sea” (N. Kochergin, Lenizogiz, Leningrad, 1932)

The postcards were in demand by the reader. This was facilitated by a successful and accessible format, detailed images and a colorful background. It is no accident that the series withstood a reissue, and in 1934 the next work of Lenizogiz artists was published. It was a series of color postcards dedicated to the second five-year plan (Fig. 9). Compared to previous issues, the charts have become more expressive. They are no longer so suppressed by the background image. The illustrated tapes were replaced with a thin scale axis to improve the composition.

Agitational postcards of the early 1930s became an integral part of the propaganda campaign of socialist construction in the country. The peak of their publication falls at the stage of the formation of infographics as a type of communicative design and the formation of the Soviet propaganda style. At the same time, the isostatistical poster, which was born in Lenizogiz and combined a figure chart and elements of a graphic message, was released in a much smaller range of topics (Fig. 10). Thus, in the early 1930s, we can see the predominance of postcards in Soviet agitation and propaganda, as the most accessible and mass tool for conveying information to the masses. Together with the isostatistical poster, chart albums, and isostatistical exhibitions, they played a role in promoting the formation of a new society.

The post-war postcard turned to pictorial statistics only sporadically. These were poster solutions adapted to a smaller format. The well-known propaganda posters of Nikolai Dolgorukov, Vasily Elkin, Leonid Ushakov containing elements of information graphics were simply duplicated in the small form of open letters (Fig. 10). The series of postcards “Let’s Fulfill and Over-fulfill the New Five-year Plan” released by the publishing house “Sovetskaya Kniga” (“Soviet Book”) in 1946 was formed exactly like this.

The changes concerned font inscriptions, the proportions of symbols, and their location. The color scheme of the work also partially changed. The format of the postcard imposed certain printing restrictions on the resolution of illustrations. Therefore, they became less clear and expressive compared to the original poster images.

Postcards were also issued with a simpler image. On the model of the early 1930s, postcards with calls for the implementation of the new Stalin five-year plan went into the series. On the front side, along with the lined part, there were images of workers and peasants, reinforced with figurative charts on production topics (Fig. 12). Printing was carried out in two colors, for example, crimson with green or red with blue. The reverse side of the card remained free for writing.

Fig. 11. Isostatistical agitational postcard “Will Provide further Growth of Agricultural Mechanization” of the series “Let’s Fulfill and Over-fulfill the New Five-year Plan” (N. Dolgorukov, Publ. “Sovetskaya Kniga”, Moscow, 1946)
Fig. 12. Agitational postcard “For 127 Million Grains a Year!” (Moscow, 1946–1947)

In the 1950s and 1960s, the isostatistical postcard lost its relevance in Soviet agitation and propaganda in favor of a more slogan-based approach: “Will Increase Coal Production by 24%”, “Steel Production Growth by 1.2 Times”, “Will Grow 75 Million Heads of Cattle”. These are the appeals that migrated from the materials of party congresses into a poster, brochure, postcard, and postage stamp.

The artist no longer had the task to visualize these changes in comparison with the past by showing the dynamics of progress. As their ideological zeal began to fade, it was only necessary to depict the data as documentation rather than a provocation. The elaborate illustrations faded into the background, such as those seen on the postcards of artist Konstantin Ivanov from the series “Control Indicators of the Development of the National Economy of the USSR for 1959–1965” (Fig. 13) It was published by the publishing house “Sovetskij Hudozhnik” (“Soviet Artist”) in 1959. The dominant numerical data and the background object of its application allow you to do with only two colors: red and black.

Fig. 13. Agitational postcard “Coal. To Ensure Production of 600–612 Million Tons in 1965” from the series “Control Indicators of the Development of the National Economy of the USSR for 1959–1965” (K. Ivanov, Publ. “Sovetskij Hudozhnik”, Moscow, 1959)

A postcard can be considered as a source of information on history and culture. This document of the epoch can become a source for research of a stylistic, artistic, and design nature. Considering such a small graphic form in agitation and propaganda, we can conclude that the elements of infographics begin to be present in the postcard from the beginning of the 20th-century. In comparison with a poster of a similar purpose, the agitational isostatistical postcard became most widespread during the formation of the Soviet propaganda style in infographics in the first half of the 1930s and has been losing its significance since the 1950s.


1. Belko T. V., Beschastnov N. P. Evolyuciya «otkrytki» («otkrytogo pis’ma») v Rossii v kontekste istoricheskih sobytij XX v. (Evolution of “postcards” (“open letters”) in Russia in the context of historical events of the 20th century). Bulletin of Slavic Cultures, 2019, vol. 53, pp. 240–257. (in Russ.).

2. Polonsky V. P. Russkij revolyucionnyj plakat (Russian revolutionary poster). Moscow: State Publ., 1925. (in Russ.).

3. Ivanitsky I. P. Izobrazitel’naia statistika i venskii metod (Pictorial Statistics and the Vienna Method). Moscow-Leningrad: OGIZ-IZOGIZ, 1932. (in Russ.).

4. Dognat’ i peregnat’ v tekhniko-ekonomicheskom otnoshenii peredovye kapitalisticheskie strany v 10 let (To catch up and surpass the leading capitalist countries in technical and economic affairs in 10 years).  Ivanitsky I. P., ed. Moscow-Leningrad: OGIZ-IZOGIZ, 1931. (in Russ.).

Author profile

Dr. of Art, Professor at St. Petersburg State University of Industrial Technology and Design and at Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. Author of several monographs, including publications on infographics: “Pictorial statistics. Introduction to Infographics” (2012), “Project Basics of Infographics” (2016), “Russian Infographics” (2018), more than 80 articles in periodicals.