An agit-train (Russian: ) was a locomotive engine with special auxiliary cars outfitted for propaganda purposes by the Bolshevik government of Soviet Russia during the time of the Russian Civil War, War Communism, and the New Economic Policy. Brightly painted and carrying on board a printing press, government complaint office, printed political leaflets and pamphlets, library books, and a mobile movie theater, agit-trains traveled the rails of Russia, Siberia, and the Ukraine in an attempt to inculcate the values and program of the new revolutionary government to a scattered and isolated peasantry.
Launched in August 1918, agit-trains -- and their close counterparts, the urban agit-streetcar (Russian: ) and the aquatic agit-boat (Russian: ?a) -- continued in limited use throughout the 1920s. The agit-train concept was revived during the years of World War II as a mechanism for the direct spread of information during a time when ordinary means of communication and government control structures between the center and the periphery had faltered.
During the Russian Civil War of 1918 to 1922, military operations across the vast Russian frontier tended to follow the thin network of rail lines interspersed throughout the country. The front line between the Red Army of the revolutionary Bolshevik regime and those of the so-called White movement of counterrevolutionary forces moved back and forth, with towns and districts moving from the control of one group to the other. The penetration of new Bolshevik government institutions and functionaries outside of major metropolitan areas was extremely weak.
From the start of the civil war, trains had previously been used to dispatch agitational speakers and printed propaganda materials to the front to shore up support for the revolutionary regime among the volunteers and conscripts of the Red Army and Red Army chief Leon Trotsky had gone so far as to set up his permanent headquarters aboard a railroad car to enable he and the general staff to move easily from one military hotspot to another.
In the summer of 1918 the Military Section of the Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets determined to expand the role of trains beyond that of the occasional distribution of leaflets, establishing a permanent "agit-train" (agitpoyezd) for the dedicated purpose of agitation and propaganda (agitprop), the V.I. Lenin. The train was first used on the Volga front on August 13, 1918.
The regime also made use of the brightly bedecked "agit-streetcar" (agittramvai) as a crowd-gathering device for outdoor dramatic performances in urban settings from 1918.
The initial effort of the V.I. Lenin was deemed by the Bolshevik government to be so successful that five additional agit-trains were immediately ordered to be created. This new fleet of agit-trains was put under the direction of a special commission established for that precise purpose in January 1919.
In addition to their obvious use as a tool for spreading of information and ideas favorable to the revolutionary regime, the agit-trains served as a mechanism for certain Soviet leaders to gain first-hand information about the situation in the country outside of its urban centers. Those participating in the activities of the agit-train October Revolution at various times included People's Commissar of Justice D. K. Kursky, People's Commissar of Health N. A. Semashko, People's Commissar of the Interior G. I. Petrovsky, and People's Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky.
The agit-trains also attracted the direct participation of Bolshevik political leaders. The best known of the agit-trains, the October Revolution, counted among its complement Mikhail Kalinin as its political commissar, who spent the bulk of the civil war years riding the rails -- with the train making a dozen trips in 1919 alone, each averaging about three weeks. Throughout the year the train followed the moving military front in an effort to bolster morale of the Red Army soldiers engaged in hostilities and to build support for the revolution in the towns and populated enclaves located just back of the skirmish lines.
Kalinin would emphasize his own peasant background when speaking to rural audiences, calling village meetings and inquiring about requisition payments and land redistribution -- sensitive matters of great concern to the poor farming- population. The negative effects of Soviet policy were explained as military necessities and passionate appeals were made to the peasantry to voluntarily participate in the grain requisition process to make food available to the starving and depopulating cities.
Official Soviet statistics -- likely inflated to some extent -- indicated that over the course of 1919 and 1920 agit-trains and agit-boats and activists riding bicycles visited 4,000 offices and factories, conducting 1,891 meetings and providing more than 1,000 lectures, and distributed about 1.5 million leaflets and newspapers. A total audience of more than 2 million was claimed for the cinematic presentations of the trains and boats during these years.
Agit-trains were frequently 16 to 18 cars in length. They were brightly colored, bearing flags with the cars brightly painted with slogans and political art. Leading Bolshevik artists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), El Lissitsky (1890-1941), and Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) were commissioned to paint car exteriors and their work was bold and memorable, albeit sometimes criticized as too abstract for a poorly educated and largely uncultured rural audience.
Each car featured a selection of political pamphlets, posters, and newspapers for distribution, and a small library. Trains also included a mobile darkroom for the development of photographs. A key element of the trains was a special film exhibition car, in which politically oriented movies could be shown. This represented for many peasants their first exposure to the medium of film and the experience could be compelling and effective, reaching a large audience with the simple message to support the new revolutionary government. During its first of operation the agit-train October Revolution conducted 430 free film showings, reaching an audience estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Inspired by the success of its agit-train program, in 1919 the same principle was applied to an aquatic vehicle, the steamer Krasnaia zvesda (Red Star). This vessel spent several months in 1919 and the summer of 1920 sailing up and down the Volga River, frequently docking and allowing the boarding of visitors. The Red Star presented more than 400 film shows during its two-year tenure, reaching more than half a million viewers.
As with the agit-trains, the Red Star included among its most active participants leaders from the highest levels of the Russian Communist Party, including V. M. Molotov as its political commisar and Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, a top official in the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment. Krupskaya later indicated that Lenin was "raring to go himself but he could not leave his work even for a moment."