Metaphors of Soviet Propaganda. Life After Death

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Metaphor of propaganda is not a fairy tail personage who helps you in any case. Rather it is a personage of drama. And this drama has a name - “Macbeth”. Metaphor of propaganda is not your reliable friend, it is a witch.  It acts like amphibological “Fear not, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane”. 

One of the most popular articles about metaphor is “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It begins: “Metaphor is for most people device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary than ordinary language”.  Today one could say: “Metaphor is for most linguists device of the manipulation with public opinion - rather ordinary than extraordinary matter”. It is considered that our unconscious belief in metaphor determines our cognitive strategies and social behavior. But if we really want to understand the nature of metaphorical manipulation, we should consider the case more carefully. Particularly, we should understand how a metaphor loses its cognitive power and role of a social guide. And finally what would happen with metaphor after it stops to play its role and, consequently, it stops to serve its master.

Let me at first speak about metaphors we no longer live by and then about second return of soviet metaphors.

So Metaphors We No Longer Live By

There is one trivial fact which few people take into consideration. In totalitarian state the passive participants of propaganda are involved in its promotional activities.  This fact radically changes our view on automatic perception of metaphor. In totalitarian state each man involved in social life must support the propaganda. He must use its statements and expressions in any appearances in public space. In addition, he  must closely watch propaganda symbols in all his texts, no matter their topic or genre.

First of all, it is relevant for authors. If you write a poem or article for encyclopedia you must include common places of the propaganda in your text.  It exploded the common system of genres and transformed it into a kind of epideyktic, sacramental eloquence and notably gives dictionaries an air of medieval preaching or books for children.  I had discovered some parallels between medieval “Physiologist” and soviet dictionaries.

It is clear that not all authors and scientists did it free-willingly. It is clear too that this practice stimulates criticism and stops automatical digestion of the metaphorical concepts.

Authors were not the only ones. In addition to ordinary newspapers there were “wall newspapers” created by employees. In addition to “wall newspapers” there was so cold “politinformation”. To give information was a declared aim of “politinformation”. But the real aim was to control speakers. “Politinformation” based on newspapers was practiced even at school. In addition to  “politinformation” there were meeting speeches. Meetings especially in Stalin's period went on for extraordinary long time, and prolonged working day until late night.  Skipping the meetings was prohibited, refusing to give a speech was questionable.   On such meetings all problems were focused on locus communi of propaganda. In early soviet period I. Ilf end E. Petrov satiricly described how a speech about a new tram led to accusation against Lord Chamberlain.

The whole population worked at Metaphor Factory. The situation caused some criticism. At least the metaphors were used as a material for ambivalent jokes. For instance in the USSR considering west economy, the metaphor of rot (ГНИЕНИЕ) was used: rotten west (ГНИЛОЙ ЗАПАД).  But in 70th whole population of the USSR knew that products made in the west were better than soviet ones. And in unofficial speech the metaphor sounded as joke. “Is it soviet production or is it produced in rotten West?” But association “west – rotten” (ЗАПАД — ГНИЛОЙ) still remained. And some people who used this joke could agree that West is rotten in moral aspect or in long terms. Some people didn’t math the metaphor with reality at all. And I suppose it was the mass reaction. But some people began to meditate about economic situation and about rough propaganda as well.

The second example is a Lenin phrase “Socialism is the soviet power plus electrification”.  Almost each soviet citizen repeated “Soviet power is socialism minus electrification” especially when there were problems with providing energy. The joke seems to be innocent. But it shows how the incredibly intensive quotation of the metaphor caused decline in its efficiency.

The following examples show the main factor preserves metaphors from early death.  It is the close connection between tenor and vehicle may be phonetic and phenomenological. The first can be illustrated by example ЕЖОВ И ЕЖОВЫЕ РУКАВИЦЫ. N.I. Ejov  was the main figure in terror 1937. The name  Ejov based on the word E0j “hedgehog”. There is a Russian idiom “gloves from hedgehog” (iron fist). Metaphor was used in aim to give “right” picture of terror: Ejov fastens enemies of soviet power in iron fist. This metaphor was visualized on political cartons. But such a phonetic connection was not typical.

Another example is blast furnace.

On the one hand, blast furnace was an allegory of the melting of the old life and smelting of new one. On the other hand, the blast furnace was the real part of the real transformation of life. Such relations in mathematics are qualified as homomorphism, in Byzantine theology and in literary theory as symbol. In particular, such metaphors built the ground of soviet metaphor system. It is particulate theme in the history of metaphor.  But in highly active propaganda  and with time this type of metaphor lost its power too.

Let’s return to metaphor ЕЖОВЫЕ РУКАВИЦЫ (iron fist; literally — gloves from hedgehog).  An amplification of metaphor in allegory manner was common. One spoke: Ejov squeezes a viper (СДАВИЛ ГАДИНУ). Victims were interpreted as viper, snake. A participator of meeting must speak about it.  He could say: Ejov squeezes this viper by his gloves from hedgehog so firmly, that brown claret flows from it (ЕЖОВ СВОИМИ ЕЖОВЫМИ РУКАВИЦАМИ ТАК СДАВИЛ ЭТУ ГАДИНУ, ЧТО ИЗ НЕЕ ПОТЕКЛА КОРИЧНЕВАЯ ЮШКА). This phrase is a real quotation according to bystander, who heard it at a school meeting.  It is clear that such exercises in eloquence did not contribute to unconscious assimilation of metaphor.  To this must be added sudden disappearance of Ejov from view. Even schoolboy understood that after this disappearance any mention about “Ejov gloves” was not desirable and also dangerous.

No one could harm totalitarian rhetoric. It was nonsense to argue with it. It was well supported by finance.  But it harmed itself. Considering extreme of totalitarianism we can speak about laboratory condition for rhetorical experiments. We see here extraordinary intensity. No advertising campaign could afford such intensity.

All arguments about the power of language from Sapir – Whorf hypothesis can be balanced by   two simple things: meta-language and experience. An attempt of total control like in Orwell utopia leads to awakening of language reflection, or meta-language. There is no language in which it is impossible to speak about language. Roman Jacobson named meta-language function as a basic one. Nobody could prevent dismantling any metaphor.   We say: metaphors control people. But we know they do not control authors of articles, Mr Lakoff and Mr Johnson dismantling metaphors.

One of manifestations of reflection is playing with language. Political metaphors quickly became a subject of such a play. Father of the nation Stalin self was a character of one: “We have not nation, we have father of the nation and enemies of the nation” (У НАС НЕТ НАРОДА, У НАС ЕСТЬ ОТЕЦ НАРОДА И ВРАГИ НАРОДА).   There was a formula in Khruschev period 'Catch up with and surpass the capitalist countries in production of meat, milk and butter” (ДОГОНИМ И ПЕРЕГОНИМ КАПИТАЛИСТИЧЕСКИЕ СТРАНЫ ПО ПРОИЗОДСТВУ МЯСА, МОЛОКА, МАСЛА).  There was a deficit of clothes in that period. “We will catch up with but will not surpass, not to be seen mooning” (ДОГНАТЬ  — ДОГОНИМ, ПЕРЕГНАТЬ — НЕ ПЕРЕГОНИМ: ГОЛЫЙ ЗАД БУДЕТ ВИДЕН). Nice athletic metaphor became farce.   Metaphor “lend a brotherly helping hand” (ПРОТЯНУТЬ РУКУ БРАТСКОЙ ПОМОЩИ) often hiding aggressive plans mentioned in a word play: We will lend them a helping hand and they will stretch their legs (in Russian = kick the bucket). МЫ ТАК ПРОТЯНЕМ ИМ РУКУ ПОМОЩИ, ЧТО ОНИ ПРОТЯНУТ НОГИ.

Experience is the second obstacle in the way of words. Buildings from limestone burn despite of “stone”, empty fuel tubs explode despite the “empty” (examples from B. Whorf). Experience is an extra-linguistic thing, but totalitarian rhetoric harmed itself here too. Propaganda’s penetration in all corners of life made the disconnect between propaganda and reality visible, leading to more linguistic reflection.  

Let me speak now about the second return of soviet metaphor

It seems to be paradoxic that the critical resistance to metaphor dicreased after ruining of propaganda machine.  This situation created favorable conditions for the perception of metaphor as concept. Automatism – a key factor of concept function – returned.

Having lost its cognitive power, soviet metaphors remain their presence in communication as idioms which associated with some words like “west – rotten west”, communism – “bright future of all mankind”. Jokes help to keep such idioms.  Good example is ГОЛОС ВРАГА  – enemy’s voice – was a typical idiom when one speaks about Voice of America or BBC. In the last soviet period and just after collapse of the USSR, the metaphor was used as a joke only. But not now!

Nevertheless, the communicative and cognitive functions in language are inseparable.   Transformed to the simple idiom, metaphor still possesses possibilities for associations, because common places and idioms determine amplification of topics in dialogs and monologs.  After the soviet period soviet metaphor system entered radioactive half-life.

Metaphors “rotten west” and “fangs of capitalism” repeatedly ridiculed in soviet society, not official of course.  Therefore, they remain as common places. Such expressions determine associations, suggesting development of the theme.  «West» — «rotten»,«capitalism» — «fangs». It is possible to use these common places to prove the opposite, but one is more likely to search for more facts to support metaphors.

It is not just a simple backward motion of the pendulum. It is a process interesting for linguistics studies: the expansion of ambivalent and eclectic zones in the language. Soviet common places still remain in communication, but do not help  with solidarity and do not cause any resistance.   Soviet metaphors can now be seen in the same category as other tried metaphors that contradict reality.  It is comfortable to us say “the sun goes down” and “in a certain sense” it is so. But to tell the true, the earth rotates around the sun.  Metaphors like “the sun goes down” have their niche, even though they don not penetrate any scientific text. Soviet metaphors do not have any niche.

Locus communi is no less important than concepts. Common places cultivate the communicative space, make communication easier and predictable. For example, conversation about weather can be used as a start of communication.  Totalitarian rhetoric used common places for building its own culture. Development of positive common places in totalitarian societies was stopped by absence of place for free public communication.   Friendly talks at kitchens (antique “feast”) can not substitute antique “agora”.   Metaphors we no longer live by is our communicative and partly cognitive dead load.  

Ideas of how metaphors shape our concepts are represented in hundreds of articles in our country only. But it is necessary to look at the other side of metaphor – a communicative side. This approach give a more objective picture of the “power of metaphors”.


The history of metaphor is instructive. There is no button that you can press to persuade anybody in anything. But when you press some buttons very often you could create a demon whose actions are far from your aims. This is why the influence of propaganda should be considered in long terms.   

And as appendix. Power of metaphors in propaganda decreases by visualization and nowadays we are living in the era of visuals. Strongest metaphors are those which have a metonomic component, like “blast furnace”. As the ability of a metonymy to resist criticism is much stronger than that of a metaphor, the new era of metonymy and prototypes is coming.