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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.

Types of Propaganda in the USSR

With their stark simplicity and bold colours, propaganda posters reflect the officially approved history as it was experienced by its citizens. But, posters were just one vessel for getting the message out. Propaganda was an accepted part of everyday life in the USSR, and it came in many forms.

Soviet Propaganda in Books

Almost immediately after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communist Party brought the publishing industry to heel through the nationalisation of printing presses and publishing houses. The state required books to be approved before they could be published, and censorship ensured that only books which towed the official party line made it to bookstores. Many freethinking Soviet writers and scholars fled to Europe. Those that stayed were banished, imprisoned, and sometimes even executed. During The Great Purge, even works of Lenin were removed from libraries, while “textbooks were so frequently revised that students often had to do without them.”

Soviet Propaganda in Newspapers

Under Tsarist rule, censorship was widespread. The political newspaper, Pravda, was started on the 5th of May 1912, the anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. It served as the official mouthpiece of the Bolsheviks, and was closed down by the Tsarist government just two years later after changing its name eight times to avoid censorship laws and police harassment. After the October Revolution, the first law the Soviets passed on assuming power was to close down all newspapers that opposed their cause. All independent press ceased to operate by the following year. Pravda emerged as the leading newspaper in the Soviet Union, and it served as an organ of the CPSU for the next 80 years. 

Soviet Propaganda on the Radio

Like the publishing industry, control of the airwaves was handed to the state soon after the Bolshevik Revolution. Radio was considered particularly important given that the majority of the population was illiterate. The illiterate would be excluded from political discussion if the party message was only spread through the written word. Radios were rapidly installed in halls, factories and other communal areas where workers could listen to the latest news and propaganda of the day. 

During the Second World War, German Prisoners of War would be brought on the radio to assure their relatives back in Germany they were alive. The Soviet state would broadcast Communist propaganda between broadcasts. Back home, the state would jam the airwaves to prevent citizens from listening to political broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America and other western programs. 

Lenin, Palace of Culture, Kremenchug. Credit: Y. Nikiforov

Soviet Propaganda in Architecture, Statues & Mosaics

At the turn of the 20th century, mosaics were only found in churches and ancient history. But, they found an unlikely ally in the new communist state. Mosaics were “cheap in their materials but luxuriant in their extent”. They wouldn’t fade and could withstand freezing temperatures in winter. 

The walls of factories, schools, and bus stations were a cheap and ubiquitous blank canvas through which propagandist ideas pervaded. Mosaics were as important as any media outlet – maybe even more so – because they took political messages to people where they lived, worked and played. Like mosaics, statues and public buildings were products of their time; windows on the politics of the past. Read more.

Soviet Propaganda in Cinema

Just two years after the Russian Revolution, the world's first state-filmmaking school opened in Moscow. Film was egalitarian. It was for the masses. The state funded the creation of agitki - short educational films for the purpose of generating support for the Russian Revolution. These silent films were used as visual aids to accompany live lectures and speeches. They were broadcast in towns and villages across the USSR. For some Soviet citizens, agitki were the first time they saw moving pictures.

As cinema grew in popularity, agitki were broadcast in newly built theatres and projected on the side of propaganda trains. During the Great Patriotic War, newsreels were displayed in subway stations so even the poor would not be exempt from the reach and sway of propaganda. Censorship was everywhere, and any material that did not toe the official line was either edited, reshot, or shelved. Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein’s historic drama, Ivan the Terrible Part 2 was filmed in the mid 1940s, but was only released more than a decade later after Stalin’s death. 

Soviet Propaganda in Posters

In the wake of the 1917 revolution, Russia was in the process of freeing itself from the grasp of the Tsarist autocracy. Many artists voluntarily joined organisations like the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia which sprung up after the revolution. Propaganda posters were a reflection of a modern, industrial society. Art had no place in an artist’s studio, or even in a museum. Instead "the streets shall be our brushes, the squares our palettes”.

How Soviet Propaganda Posters were Produced

Many artists applied to join the Union of Artists of the USSR, but just a few were accepted. In order for your application to be considered, artists needed to have produced and exhibited artworks, and have a minimum of two recommendations from prominent artists. It was an exclusive club.

In every city, there was an artist cooperative which advertised new projects on a board. Artists created the first sketches in pencil in small format. They were then sent to the local Artist Advisory Board for approval. Once approved, the artist replicated them in colour and at full size, typically A2 or A3. After final approval, they were sent to be printed.

Ideological and film posters were printed on the best printing presses with high-quality paper. Health and safety posters, and other lesser subjects were printed on lower quality paper using pre-revolution printing presses. Posters were designed to be disposable. Most were thrown away when the movie or movement was over. The illustrations were just an aid to communicate a message. They weren’t valued for their artistic merit at the time. The few that survived were peeled off walls or taken from theatre lobbies by collectors. Most of them ended up in basements where water, termites and time destroyed them. Read more.

The Evolution of Soviet Propaganda Posters

Soviet propaganda posters are children of their age, reflecting the politics of their time. Their legacy is intertwined with the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and they can be broken into six distinct phases.

1. Birth of a Communist State (1917-1921)

It was a life and death struggle for the Bolsheviks and their ideology. After the October Revolution, Bolshevik rule was not universally accepted. Russia was in a state of political flux and civil war broke out. The Bolshevik Red Army led by Lenin fought against the loosely allied White Army (backed by the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Japan), which favoured a monarchy, capitalism and democracy.

The early Soviet propaganda poster was everywhere. More than 3,600 designs were created in just a few years. The aesthetic that emerged was Constructivism. It was defined by asymmetrical composition, a striking departure from before. Artists treated typography as a visual element in and of itself. It communicated, engaged and entertained. Typefaces were readable, but they didn’t just sit on a page. Artists like El Lissitsky would regularly manipulate type and its placement to emphasise a message. Words were kaleidoscopic, with dynamic rhythmic designs and were symbolic machine-age modernity. 

2. New Economic Policy (1921-1927)

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, there was a period of recovery and relative freedom. In a surprising turn-around, the state reversed the nationalisation of all industries. New Economic Policy, proposed by Lenin, was an economic system which allowed for a degree of free market - subject to state oversight of-course. Individuals once again were allowed to own small and medium sized businesses.

As the government embraced cinema as the best means of propaganda, young, talented artists like Alexander Rodchenko, the Stenberg brothers, and Semyon Semyonov created dynamic, experimental advertising posters. Papered on street corners, these avant garde Constructivist styled posters had vivid colours and arresting imagery which matched the spirit of famous Soviet films like Battleship Potemkin, In Spring, and In Punishment.

3. Five-Year-Plans (1928-1937)

The industrialisation of the Soviet economy was Stalin’s top priority. By his own admittance, the Soviet Union was “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 transformation of the Soviet economy from predominantly agriculture to an industrial one. 

The transformation took place in the form of Five-Year-Plans. The state launched thirteen Five-Year-Plans over the next 65 years. Upon commencement of the first plan, millions of citizens worked around the clock to build hundreds of factories, power stations, dams, canals, railways and metro stations. The first posters that were produced to promote the plans were emblematic of the time, jarring photomontages with echoes of Constructivism. As Stalin tightened his grip on the arts in the 1930s, the designs retreated from avant-garde, with Social Realism designs taking their place.

4. The Great Patriotic War (1939 - 1945)

In August 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement between the two superpowers. Less than two years later, when Hilter broke the pact by invading the USSR in June 1941, artists joined in the fight, in their own way. The state-run Telegraphic Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) commissioned artists to create thousands of propaganda posters designs which were printed by the millions. The posters were designed to encourage patriotism in the Soviet citizen. “Powerful in message and image, the posters are filled with caustic caricatures of the German invaders and heroic representations of Soviet Union soldiers and supporters of the Soviet regime.”

5. The Cold War (1946-1984)

After the Second World War, Stalin focused on the USSR’s recovery through rigorous economic programs, monumental megaprojects made possible by prisoner labour from Gulags, projecting soft power in the Eastern Bloc satellite states, developing an atomic bomb and exploring new worlds through the Soviet space program. In art, Social Realism was the sole artistic style of the USSR, characterised by a lot of red. 

The death of Stalin was quickly followed by the death of Socialist Realism during the Thaw Era. But, art still remained a tool of the state. The new leader of the USSR, Khrushev, focused on consolidating his power, internal economic development and peaceful coexistence with the West. As economic growth faltered during the Era of Stagnation, Leonid Brezhnev and his successors maintained the status quo, while art did the opposite. While their messages were often dreary and sombre, the artworks themselves were vibrant, bright and free from Social Realism.

6. Echoes of a Dying State (1985 - 1991)

Gorbachov’s rule was the swan call of the Soviet Union. The policy of Glasnost ushered in an era of transparency whereby Soviet citizens were able to publicly and openly discuss the shortcomings of the Soviet state. On market reform, the policy of Perestroika aimed to make production more responsive to consumer needs through a decentralised and privatised economy.

But, it was too little, too late. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Artists no longer had to work for the state. Some began holding small exhibitions in their apartments. These exhibitions mainly attracted other artists and relatives. Posters of the period broke from the past, both in their aesthetic and subject matter.  Primary themes focus on alcoholism, drug addiction, economic restructuring and disarmament.

Themes of Soviet Propaganda Posters

Depending on their intended purpose, Soviet propaganda posters were designed to evoke emotion, be it heroism, pride or anxiety. A common theme throughout was the depiction of the ideal citizen - ruled by intellectualism and discipline rather than emotion and impulse. Equality and sacrifice were core to the socialist way of life. Below, we give context to a few of the main themes of Soviet propaganda posters. 

Soviet Space Propaganda Posters

Space was the dramatic arena for an ideological struggle between Communism and Capitalism. The USSR understood the power of the image and the Space Race was one of the central motifs of Soviet propaganda posters. Cosmonauts like Yuri Gagarin were a common feature in Soviet propaganda posters.

New designs were often released to celebrate anniversaries or new technological breakthroughs. In them, cosmonauts were depicted as explorers of new worlds, looking boldly back at the viewer. Space was the dramatic arena for an ideological struggle between Communism and Capitalism. The most famous Soviet artists like A. Lemeshchenko and V. Viktorov created some of the most famous posters of the era which are potent reminders of the stratospheric ambitions of the Soviet regime. Read more.

Soviet Environment Propaganda Posters

The Soviet Union was proactive about environmental protection. In the 1890s, ‘Zapovednik’ – essentially nature sanctuaries – had been established across the USSR. Intended to be kept ‘forever wild’, access by the public was restricted in order to protect sites of particular natural or cultural heritage.

But despite this promising approach to public policy, the USSR still saw one of the worst ecological disasters of the 20th century. In the 1960’s, prisoners and volunteers diverted water from the The Aral Sea, the fourth largest lake in the world, to build over 20,000 miles of irrigation canals. By 2007, it had shrunk to 10% of its original size. These vibrant colourful posters reflect the spirit of openness in acknowledging the problem, while doing little to address the cause. Read more.

Soviet Health Propaganda Posters

In the USSR, healthcare was especially important. The population needed to be strong, healthy and productive. Armies of people were needed to work on farms and produce machinery so that the Socialist utopia could be realised. 

The Soviets led the world when it came to healthcare. Shortly after the 1917 revolution, the new ruling Communist party created a fully public centralised healthcare system. It was the first in the world. Over the next two years, the USSR Ministry of Health published more than 13 million pieces of public health literature. Bright colours and striking graphics were a common theme of healthcare posters which were developed in the hopes of communicating to an often illiterate population. Read more.

Soviet Youth Propaganda Posters

Tying a red handkerchief around your neck was a source of pride in the USSR. On public holidays, millions of Soviet children would march down wide avenues in sprawling parades, singing patriotic songs and saluting banners of Lenin. Young Pioneers were the Soviet answer to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, but they were much more political.

Membership was voluntary. But it was considered a rite of passage by parents and children alike. Millions of children would spend months learning anthems and bylaws by heart before attending a solemn oath swearing ceremony at their regional Pioneers Palace. With striking colours and simple slogans, posters show Young Pioneers raising animals, protecting the environment, and helping the elderly. Read more.

Soviet War & Peace Propaganda Posters

The USSR and the USA both considered the other to be the aggressor. During the Second War War, Soviet artists created thousands of poster designs, while millions of which were reproduced and added into circulation. After the great patriotic war, the Soviet Union sponsored peace movements including the World Peace Council, the World Federation of Trade Unions, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, the International Union of Students, Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation, Christian Peace Conference, and Women's International Democratic Federation. 

Soviet artists regularly created posters that advocated for the peaceful exploration of outer space or peace to the children of the world. With their stark simplicity and bold colours, peace propaganda posters were a part of the texture of everyday life in the Soviet Union, and reflect the official Soviet position as the peaceful superpower. Read more.

Soviet Theatre Posters

Theatre was controlled by the state in the USSR. It wasn’t just entertainment, it was an education. Theatre was used to teach the audience to think and read between the lines. The characters portrayed were common Soviet citizens, while the ideas conveyed were based on honesty, modesty, and the common good. Posters which advertised plays and theatre productions are often characterised by bright colours and hidden symbolism.

Soviet Women Propaganda Posters

The USSR was the first country in the world to give women the same marital rights as their husbands. Women played a significant and extraordinary role in the USSR. They were expected to not only fulfil their domestic duties but also to take up arms, respond to the needs of the nation and defend their homeland.

Women were encouraged to have as many children as possible, and ‘mother-heroines’ received medals if they had ten or more children. They were celebrated as equals in Soviet art, working alongside men in the fields and factories. Propaganda posters served a powerful purpose in engaging and encouraging women to work towards the Socialist utopia. Read more.

Soviet Safety Propaganda Posters

Industrialisation of the Soviet economy was one of Stalin’s top priorities. A modern, industrial USSR would have economic independence from capitalist countries. But, machines, electricity, hot iron, and sharp tools were a major threat for the new era workers. Poor safety standards and a largely illiterate population meant workplace accidents were commonplace.

The state commissioned artists to create visual and often violent safety posters for the walls of factories. Bright colours and striking graphics were a common theme of the posters which were developed in the hopes of communicating to an often illiterate population. Safety posters advised workers to wear safety glasses, not to touch live wires, and to avoid putting fingers in front of blades. Read more.

Soviet Sport Propaganda Posters

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 was heavily favoured to win gold again. Instead the U.S beat them in a stunning 4-3 upset. The USSR was humiliated. The stage was set for a rematch.

Moscow was beautified in preparation for the Games. Streets were repaved, buildings repainted and stores were stocked with international goods. A major international poster design competition was held to promote the games. Artists from 45 countries submitted more than 5,000 designs. The winning designs had bold colours, smiling athletes and powerful slogans. Read more.

Soviet Utopia Propaganda Posters

Soviet art traded exclusively in the imagery of an imagined future. Vibrant posters with messages of hope, unity and friendship provided encouragement to the everyday worker. Soviet artists had unabridged creative freedom as long as the future was bright. 

Soviet Tourism & Travel Advertising Posters

In 1929, Intourist was founded. It was the first travel company in the USSR. Intourist comes from the Russian words for foreign tourist, inostrannyj turist. Like its name, its purpose was to attract inbound tourism. It held a monopoly on tourism. A decade later, more than 10 million foreign tourists had visited the Soviet Union, and all of them had booked flights, accommodation, transportation and excursions through Intourist. 

Intourist advertising was organised by the All-Union Chamber of Commerce. Soviet designers were allowed to study poster designs from the west as Soviet styled propaganda wasn’t designed to attract foreign visitors as much as it was to inspire Soviet citizens to work harder. Competitions were held to find winning designs. Art Deco was the prevailing style of posters of the day, as they portrayed the Soviet Union as a glamorous and mysterious country to visit. Soviet Intourist advertising posters that were not known to the majority of Soviet citizens, as they were only displayed in foreign tourist offices or published as advertisements in American magazines. Bright, bold and elegant, the merging of Soviet art with the new influences of Art Deco, gave birth to a series of striking posters which presented the joys of travelling in the USSR - the first socialist country in the world.  Read more

Soviet Circus/Cyrk Posters

The circus was the peoples’ entertainment. In the USSR, the circus came to symbolise something more than just a fun family day out. Unlike the ballet (Russia’s other great cultural export), the circus was accessible. It was the art form of the proletariat, costing only a few dollars for a ticket. It was Communist.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, ‘The Moscow Circus’ – a loose collection of acts from across the USSR – rose to international attention. It became an emblem of the Soviet state and was used to covertly communicate the Communist ideology to audiences both at home and abroad. CYRK posters do the same thing – but not in the ways we might expect. Visually surreal and thematically subversive, their bright colours belie a darker take on life under Soviet rule. Read more.

Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda Posters

After the Bolsheviks Revolution, the official ideology of the Soviet state. The Bolsheviks nationalised church lands and made the registration of births, deaths, and marriages secular. The Decree on Separation of Church from State and School came into force in early 1918. It forbade religion from being taught in schools and removed the church’s status as a legal entity. 

Religion was deeply ingrained in Russian society. So, the state used education to turn children against their religious families. “One of the most important tasks of the proletarian state is to liberate children from the reactionary influence of their parents…we must see to it that the school assumes the offensive against religious propaganda in the home, so that from the very outset the children’s minds shall be rendered immune to all those religious fairy tales which many grown-ups continue to regard as truth.” While the separation decree also proclaimed the freedom of religion, the resulting Soviet propaganda posters of the day promoted radical secularism and an almost persecutory anti-religious agenda.

Soviet Lenin & Stalin Propaganda Posters

In the early 1920s, most Soviet propaganda posters showed Lenin and Stalin together. This was deliberate. Stalin weaponised his relationship with Lenin, despite Lenin recommending that he be removed from his position as the Communist Party’s secretary general. After Lenin’s death, the two figures eventually merged, and Stalin became the living embodiment of the famous revolutionary. 

Stalin's cult of personality was a prominent feature in Soviet popular culture, press, and television. Soviet press and artists presented Stalin as an all-powerful, all-knowing leader - the father of the Soviet people and a genius military strategist. Socialist Realism was the sole artistic style of the period, and there was little experimentation or variation. Posters of Lenin and Stalin were usually red, highly idealised and devoid of complex artistic meaning or interpretation.

Soviet Brotherhood & Fraternity Propaganda Posters

Maintaining a friendly and productive relationship between Moscow and other Communist countries was seen as crucial for the survival and advancement of socialism. While Men locking lips in public is a rare site today, it was once a gesture that symbolised the height of fraternal friendship. The socialist fraternal kiss was a special form of greeting between the leaders of Communist countries. The act demonstrated the special connection that exists between socialist countries, consisting of an embrace and a mutual kiss to the cheeks or in rarer cases to the mouth. 

Propaganda posters were an integral part of attesting to the world the close relationship between the Soviet Union and its friends. Posters often showed leaders and workers alike walking hand-in-hand, kissing, hugging and clutching each other. Read more.

Soviet Worker Propaganda Posters

International Workers' Day was a celebration of labourers and the working classes. May 1st was a major event in the USSR with military parades attended by the president in the capital city of Socialist countries. “Every city, town and village had compulsory workers parades, complete with balloons, flowers, flags, banners.”

The Communist sickle and hammer are commonplace in worker propaganda posters. Posters often showed workers celebrating milestones in productivity, advancements in their industry or holding banners which declared their alliance to socialism and the state..

The Spread of Soviet Propaganda Beyond the USSR

The leaders of the USSR knew that the Soviet Union had no future unless Communism continued to spread across the world. To that end, they allocated an estimated yearly propaganda abroad budget of $3.5 and $4 billion, which they put to use in influencing socialist-leaning countries through political and ideological mechanisms. In what was considered a highly successful campaign, the USSR spent more than $1 billion creating propaganda and supporting the formation of peace movements during the Vietnam War. The KGB funded peace congresses, youth festivals, women's movements and trade union movements around the world. It also started and spread rumours that AIDS was created by a US research centre, and that the CIA was involved in JFK’s assassination. 

Image Credit: FSB official photo of mass murderer and dad bod Putin

Propaganda after the Fall of the USSR

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, propaganda languished. A decade later as the world welcomed in a new millennium, a new leader emerged. Vladimir Putin saw the Soviet Union as the peak of Russian power and influence, and has sought to rebuild the empire of a bygone era through propaganda and fear.

Putin quickly put the nation's television and radio channels under the control of the state. He used the media to align himself in image and ideology to admired leaders like Stalin and Lenin. He is portrayed by the media as a hyper-masculine, decisive and patriotic leader, and is often photographed riding horses topless, leading endangered cranes on migration route in a hang glider, working out, or scuba diving and discovering an ancient greek urn. Like Stalin and Lenin, Putin plays the role of a strict but caring father figure to Russians.

Today, Putin’s popularity cult is also tied to the idea of rebuilding the Russian empire to the heights of its former glory. Putin uses this nostalgia to justify ongoing confrontations with the west, and more recently a war. Leaning on the memory of the Soviet Union's struggle against Nazism during WWII, Putin expertly uses propaganda to rally Russians around his unjustified and inhumane invasion of Ukraine. 

We stand on the right side of history, beside our comrades in Kyiv. But we go beyond lip-service. We've also put our money where our morals are. In 2021, Comrade Kyiv gave £1,439.80 to Human Rights Watch, an independent, non-profit NGO that exists to give voice to the oppressed and promote freedom and equality everywhere. Read more.

Builders, Heroes, Honour & Glory | Russia | 1979£1,250.00
List of all posters

Further Reading

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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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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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Abandoned Kyrgyzstan: Aalam-Ordo, the Centre of the Universe

Along the southern border of Issyk-Kul lake, Kyrgyzstan, two shining golden gates and 1,500 metre long wall shield a giant hundred hectare complex. I scaled the wall and on the other side, I discovered hundreds of abandoned yurts, an outdoor theatre and a handful of colourful peeling murals. ‘Aalam-Ordo’, which translates as ‘the centre of the universe’, now sits abandoned.

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Bulldozer Exhibition: The Degenerate Art of the USSR

On September 15, 1974, a group of twenty Soviet nonconformist artists gathered in a vacant lot in an urban forest on the outskirts of Moscow. But the authorities were ready. Almost immediately, more than 100 policemen armed with batons, three bulldozers, and a truck with a water cannon began to break up the exhibition. It was mayhem. Artists desperately tried to save their artworks as they were chased by authorities.

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