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Behind the Propaganda Poster: Political Games at the Soviet Olympic Games

The 1980 Moscow Olympics were a chance for the Soviet Union to outshine their Cold War rival. Just a few months earlier, the U.S had hosted the Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union ice hockey team had won gold at five of the last six Winter Games, and were heavily favoured to win again. Instead the U.S beat them in a stunning 4-3 upset. The USSR was humiliated. The stage was set for a rematch. 

The Policy Behind the Propaganda

Moscow was beautified in preparation for the Games. Streets were repaved, buildings repainted and stores were stocked with international newspapers and goods never seen before in the USSR. A major international poster design competition was held to promote the Games. Artists from 45 countries submitted more than 5,000 designs. Propaganda posters like the one above depicted proud Soviet athletes holding a banner with the words “Under the banner of Soviet Sports”. The winners had their designs printed and distributed by the Soviet publishing house Plakat, which was responsible for creating many of the propaganda posters at the time. 

The Games were as much an ideological contest as a beauty pageant. Tensions were rising between the two superpowers. A few months earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan to support the failing Communist government in Kabul. But the West wasn’t having any of it. U.S President Jimmy Carter began pushing for the United States team to boycott the games. His official announcement came in the form of an ultimatum on Meet the Press. Carter demanded that “the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan,” or he would insist that the Games “be moved from Moscow to an alternative site, or multiple sites, or postponed or cancelled.” The Soviets didn’t back down. The U.S wouldn’t be making an appearance at the Games. 

Opening ceremony at the 1980 Olympic Games: Credit: Unknown

Who Won Gold?

The games went ahead anyway. The Soviets played the role of an aggrieved party before a somewhat sympathetic international audience. The world was split in a very public arena. 64 countries, including Communist China, joined the United States in boycotting the Moscow Games. It was the largest Olympic boycott in history. Almost half of the countries who boycotted took part in an alternative competition in the U.S. But the results weren’t recognised by the Olympic Committee. 

The UK, France, Italy and the Netherlands were among a number of Western countries that did not observe the boycott. Many went but protested at the games by refusing to attend the opening ceremony or sent their athletes under the neutral Olympic flag. The absence of the boycotting countries was noticed. The level of competition was significantly lower than previous years. Most events had disappointing winning times. The Soviet and East German team won 127 out of 203 available gold medals, in the most lopsided medal count since the U.S. domination of the 1904 Games. In an act of retaliation, The USSR boycotted the following 1984 Olympics which took place in Los Angeles. 

The real winner was art. Some of the most striking Soviet propaganda posters ever produced stem from that poster design competition. We’re lucky to have a few in our collection. Shop our vintage Olympic posters below or explore the collection here.

Circus on Stage | Russia | 1970s£750.00
List of all posters

Further Reading

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The Ekranoplan - The Colossal Soviet-era Aquatic Plane that Never Was

With its short wingspan, the top-secret Soviet naval vessel would look more at home beneath the waves than above them. Classified as a ship by the International Maritime Organization, the 350-ton Lun-class Ekranoplan flew at speeds of 550 kilometres per hour, just a few metres above the waves. But just one was ever built.

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Soviet Intourist Travel Posters - How the USSR Used Art & Propaganda to Drive Tourism

Intourist held a monopoly on tourism in the USSR. As the only tourism agency in the Soviet Union, Intourist was responsible for attracting and accommodating all tourists. Like every other industry or ideal in the USSR, Intourist used propaganda to advance its agenda. Posters targeted western audiences. They portrayed the Soviet Union as a glamorous and exotic land rather than a country of labourers and peasants.

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The Definitive History of the Soviet Propaganda Poster

The Soviet Union used propaganda as a vehicle to disseminate communist ideology, promote the goals of the Communist Party and their own world view. After the Russian Revolution in 1918, the transformation of the Russian Empire into a socialist utopia required the retelling of history, the present and the future. Soviet propaganda posters have always kept pace with the times, and their legacy is intertwined with the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

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Art Factory: The Rise of Soviet Safety Posters in the Workplace

The industrialisation of the Soviet economy was Stalin’s top priority. By his own admittance, the Soviet Union is “fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed.” A modern, industrial USSR would have economic independence from capitalist countries. Industrialisation meant the fundamental transformation of the Soviet Union from a predominantly agricultural economy into a leading industrial one.

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