The history of the USSR was full of political, scientific and cultural development and upheaval, strong propaganda of state needs and savage reprisals against dissidents. Of course these days it sounds terrible: to work more than you want to because of a government enforced five-year-plan; to believe sincerely that your Motherland is the greatest nation on Earth and all others are enemies with a 'slaveholding system'; to consider your Head of State as your own father; to not have any freedom of speech; to be on pain of death if you are not able to accept the political system of the country or have the right to express your own opinion.
The advantages of the modern democratic system over Soviet one is a contentious issue because fifty years ago crime rates were twelve times lower; there was more order, peace of mind, confidence in the future and lack of unemployment. On the other hand it's impossible to imagine present life without being able to travel abroad, cars for nearly every family, foreign consumer durables and the impossibility of earning extra income even when you have the potential to do it.
Some might say that it is more useful to study the history of a country with the help of photos and documentary films, but in my view they just reflect events of that time' not the spirit. The most popular tool of propaganda and control was poster art. It was present in all aspects of Soviet life. Posters had their own original style which is still recognizable today. Some of them are really amusing because of such patriotic, symbolic and naive images. But somehow their propagandistic aims nearly always attained success.
At the beginning I read different articles about the history of the USSR and created a small plan with six sections of development from the first days of USSR until disintegration. Later I started to look for posters and their descriptions. Each section has short notes describing historical events and information about posters of the definite period with their examples, artists, styles and subject matter.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded in 1922 and consisted of Russia and other surrounding countries. It had two main goals 'the creation of a free, strong union with common economic structures and a well consolidated state in case of war from either a German or American enemy.
The economic history of the USSR began with the New Economic Policy (NEP). Privatization became possible in agriculture and in retail trade. The NEP accomplished several of its goals' the opening of country stores and providing increases in levels of agriculture, craft and light industry. However, large-scale industry was still in a sad state.
In 1928 Stalin revoked the NEP and then approved a bill that initiated the first five-year plan. The goal was an economic upturn funded by the profits of agricultural industry. A Government monopoly over the foreign export of grain, gold, timber and fur helped to finance the five-year plan; new machinery started to be imported for new factories. Other resources of effectiveness were enthusiasm, the inspiration of youth and propaganda that stated five years of hard work would build the 'new Kingdom of Socialism'.
By 1930 Russia had become a center of military power and manufactured industry. It was the second most developed nation after the USA.
During this time Lenin's face (real name is Vladimir Ilich) became a symbol of state. In April, 1917 he organized the October Revolution and from that time till his last day (1924) he was the head of the Soviet Government. Lenin was the most popular image during the whole soviet era and was portrayed in a variety of ways. On early posters he was seen as a revolutionary-fighter or a revolutionary-prophet, but from the 1920s his portrayal became stronger and took on more characteristics of a leader. Lenin nearly became a symbol that was used to persuade the nation that it was developing in the right direction. Not so tall figure, a black suit, a peaked cap, and a small beard with little moustaches became the key elements of Lenin's portrayal and were recognizable for everybody.
Artists were portraying Lenin in a variety of different styles. D. Moor showed Lenin in the modern style with a 'symbolical torch'; Cheremnych and Deni showed Vladimir Lenin with big broom in a more humorous manner. But Sokolov provided the strongest portrayal of Lenin, which finally became canonical' a man in a black suit with his left hand out stretched in front of him.
Josef Stalin's role on posters started to rise in importance after Lenin's death and finally Vladimir's symbol receded into the background. Now Lenin's figure was mostly Stalin's 'confirmation' of allegiance to Soviet principles.
Film billboards of 20th Century have a reputable place in Soviet art development. At that time a lot of 'strong' movies had been produced which stimulated the aesthetic of film boards. Basic elements of poster art were clear construction and dynamic character with rich combinations of photos, images, graphic elements and textures. Rodchenko, Lavinskij and Prusakov used methods of photomontage, but brothers Stenbergs preferred image imitation to original photos. Movie advertisements such as 'Ironclad Potemkin' (9. Lavinskij, 1925) or 'Mother' (10. Bograd, no date) reflected the pulse of the country with their high enthusiasm and wishes for socialist change.
Advertising of 20th Century had quite a dynamic development. During the NEP there was rising competition between private and state-run enterprises which was stimulating advertising graphic art. This propaganda had more political character than commercial. Majakovsij and Rodchenko were two eminent people with fresh ideas about constructivism. Their works had clear and legible constructions, pour palette and photos took a leading role. Key words stood out by the use of bright colors, a central position and large lettering. Letters also had decorative role and composed most part of the posters.
Artists Bajuskin and Bulanov were masters of traditional commercial posters. Their key tools were an abundance of beautiful goods, images of people who were interested in that production and socialistic symbolism. Posters were demonstrating the advantage of state brands over foreign ones.
By the middle of 20thCentury with the completion of the NEP, the role of the commercial poster decreased and the era of strong constructivism ended.
Other political propaganda of 20th period was educational propaganda. The state was in need of a literate population and the USSR's literacy rate was quite low. The key symbols of direction were torches, books, light, the sun, snakes and fetters. These demonstrated the success of culture and enlightenment over darkness and ignorance. The 'hero' of these posters was a book' source of knowledge and light and 'keeper' of the cultural legacy of the past. Other posters were 'calling' people to care about libraries and monuments of art, to restore schools and to visit special cultural-political events.
The Collectivization movement began in 1931' the amalgamation of small farms into the big common kolkhozes. The aim was the absolute submission of this industry to the state, allowing total state control of agriculture. This upheaval wasn't received with joy by the people and the process became forcible. Only in 1933 that bloody collectivization was finished. It also had a strong propaganda through posters like as 'Let's go to kolkhoz!' (19. Korableva, 1930) or 'Against the wealthy peasants!' (20. Shul'pin, 1928).
From the 1920s the countryside contained a lot of different political groups which opposed the government. Nearly all of them were thinking about a more democratic direction in the country's development and were presented as a 'symbol of internal enemy of 30th'.
This period was characterized by fear - people were too scared to even think in the wrong way. 'The Soviet regime can thus be seen to have waged war on its own people for several decades. The atmosphere of combat was heightened by the acute social upheaval of forced collectivization and industrialization, and by the fact that society was in any case on a permanent war footing due to fears of capitalist encirclement and aggression' (Lovell, S., 2009, p.39).
Mostly the aim of propaganda prompting struggle against the 'enemy' attempted to conceal government mistakes. Posters were dictating vigilance and the need to keep watch for foreign and internal enemies. Elites were accused of having connections with national-socialist Germany, which was supposedly trying to annihilate the Soviet economic and political system. They were seen as an anti-Soviet element which was destroying the country by sabotage and plunder of state property. Images of internal enemies were even more miserable and brutal than the terrible foreign enemies.
Foreign enemies were all capitalist countries. Deni, Keil' and Dolgorukov were depicting them with images of aggression, cruelty, hypocrisy, black tailcoats, klobuks or cassocks. Usually fascism was depicted by the swastika, snakes or as a beast-like monster. Fascist Italy and Germany became the most dangerous enemies and in 1932 another art group Kukryniksy (Kupriyanov, Krylov, Sokolov) created the well known poster 'Fifteen' (25. Kukryniksy, 1932) with the swastika symbol on a tailcoat, Cheremnyh showed the danger of war through the poster 'That knife will fall out of paws'? (26. Cheremnyh, 1938) and Karachencev depicted international opponents as enemies of their own people in posters such as 'Fascism' it's a starvation' (27. Karachencev, 1937). The sole purpose of this propaganda was to inspire fear of being under the control and submission of foreign powers.
In 1936 Stalin's Constitution was adopted. It had some democratic points: 'the rights to work, to education, to rest, to housing, to support in the case of sickness or old age' (Lovell, S., 2009, p.23), freedom of speech, press and political meetings. But in reality the country was an absolute dictatorship and all these rights were just theoretical. During this time posters were the key tools of propaganda and contained 'new' life principles with slogans in different languages.
The NEP was finished; the introduction of food stamps 'killed' the commercial inner poster. However foreign advertising was developing extremely fast. Studio with key artist Igumnov was working on new principles of advertising. It had a new tendency of exact reproduction of marketable goods with demonstrations of functionality and aesthetic. These posters had irreproachable images, decorative compositions and a wealth of connections associated with the object advertised.
In 1925 food-cards had been abrogated and commercial advertising started to return. But as there was not any competition in the USSR, posters had mostly an informative character with demonstrations of new production. Selenskij created a branded style of bakery goods, using an image of a cheerful baker; other artists were using different characters such as exotic penguins, white bears, fishes, pigs and etc. But the main peculiarity was the representation of customers' rosy children, smoking peasants and beautiful ladies.
In the 20s and 30s film billboards were experiencing a crisis because of tighten in government control. Posters were starting to acquire a political meaning. Once cinema could produce sound the characters received individuality and a central place. These innovations changed billboards. The leading character had a key position and the background became more realistic as shown in the film. Through posters, viewers were recognizing the mood and genre of a movie by 'lively description' and realistic colors.
One of the most famous artists of this development was Pimenov, who produced bright and unusual posters for the films 'New Gulliver' and 'Dumpling'. A more traditional style was being used by the brilliant portrait-painter Bel'skij. Numerous posters became such recognizable symbols due to his special ability to catch the most important moment of the film and have it copied to paper, such as 'Chapaev' (38. Bel'skij, 1935).
Towards the 1940s posters were starting to lose their aesthetic appeal; they were becoming more lifelike and boring.
Photomontage art of the early 1930s was developing thanks to fast industrialization. New methods of imaging were needed, ones that could be more objective and documental, with new technical tools, on the same level as socialist industry and without old aesthetic principles; in other words' photomontage.
Klucis was able to create many well-known political posters using photo montage in the 1930s. He described his style as non-uniformly scaled with contrasts of color and form. Generally he was using photo without original background on the active colors. A lot of other artists were working in the same direction such as Sen'kin, Kulagin and Pinus. They created a strong 'reflection' of their epoch. Photomontage demonstrated documental fact and metaphorical graphic language; it was concretizing and glorifying the symbol of the socialist man, who built new factories and made new plans.
The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) started on 22nd June 1941. Germany, without warning, attacked the USSR. The initial German attack was so strong the Red Army was not able to cope. Millions of Soviet soldiers were either killed or taken prisoner during the first year. By November 1941 the Germans had blockaded Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and had started to move towards Moscow. In the middle of November they were 25-30km from Moscow. By May 1942 German forces occupied most of the USSRs coal fields, its most valuable agricultural. At the same moment they were storming Leningrad so they could control the Volga, one of the key means of transportation in the USSR.
All these failures had wounded the nation's courage and faith in the future. Now propaganda posters had some difficult tasks' the mobilization and inspiration of people to the war, information, purpose and moral support. First posters showed the hero coming forward for military service. These fighters were on the first plan, in big sizes with the integrated look of hero - courageous, stern, emotional and decisive. The most popular posters were: 'Motherland is calling you!' (43. Toidze, 1941) with the image of a fearless woman in a symbolic red dress and 'Our forces are uncountable!' depicting elderly soldiers (44. Koreckij, 1941).
Kukryniksy and Kokorekin mostly depicted the German enemy with wild animals, snakes, angry solders and swastikas, symbols with a more aggressive character than before. Now they were killers and tyrants with blood-stained bayonets.
The slogans 'All things are for the front!' and 'Women of Leningrad, let's help the Front, let's help our Red Army to fight the enemy!' characterized work away from the front lines. One well-known poster, 'Don't talk!' (48. Vatolina, 1941) provoked high vigilance. The retreat of the Soviet Army inspired the following characters' captive women, children and old people calling for salvation. Authors of the best works were painters and graphic artists due to the detailing of natural scenery and the deepening of character's image.
In 1943 the Soviet Army gained an important victory over its opponent. This victory was a crucial turning point and in January 1944 the Soviet army lifted the blockade of Leningrad. In 1944 Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldavia, Karelia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Norway were freed and this provided new inspiration for posters. They were becoming more satirical, scoffing at fascism and presenting the superiority of Soviet Army. Themes of liberation of the Motherland and later of Europe became popular.
In 1945 the Soviet army, with help from partisans and local companies, freed Budapest and Prague. From that moment artists were starting to concentrate on Hitler rather than on German soldiers. They were showing him in a satiric manner with the event of Soviet Victory.
At this time posters and festive leaflets using decorative styles were glorifying the army by depicting soldiers with medals, smiles and joy. These were new types of poster' posters of the victorious soldier.
In April 1945 Berlin was seized and Germany signed a treaty of unconditional surrender and war in Europe ceased. This Victory was gained with incredible losses for the USSR.
After the Great War, traditional suspicion of European activities returned. In 1948 Stalin was trying to dislodge his old allies from West Berlin and the USA started to send a great deal of financial and military support to Western Europe. In 1949 NATO was created, in response to the Soviet Union's unification of Eastern Europe through the 'Warsaw pact'. This was the beginning of the 'Cold war'.
The symbol of the enemy returned to posters. But now the enemy was America, NATO and Western Europe. America was depicted with satiric caricatures. Other enemies were represented with dark colors, contrasting the bright colors used to represent the USSR. Artists presented the capitalist world as a place of unemployment, inhumanity and aggression.
Other groups of posters composed the idea of a two sided struggle. The idea was that the 'struggle' against American militarists belonged to all workers, women and children. Another theme to represent the American military presence in Europe was the double-face. Symbols of the American enemy were still present in 1980s but had lost the same expressiveness and accuracy as shown in earlier depictions. Another important form of propaganda was that of friendship with other communist countries, especially with China.
Advertising in the 50s and 60s was forgotten for ten years - during and after the Great War. After abrogation of food tickets in 1947 was started program of reduction of prices. Agriculture and industry were reinstated, shops were filled with new goods and advertising posters eventually returned.
Artists presented new products which were useful, nutritious and reasonably priced; such as semi-finished products, frozen vegetables, juices and tinned food. But at the same time the advertising of more affluent products such as caviar, crab meat, chocolate, exotic fruits, jams, vines and particularly champagne was quite popular. For the background artists were using images of beautiful tableware, art accessories and furniture. All these images represented a new era of a peaceful life, fast development and new values. Cosmetics, perfume, hats, men's clothing (ties, shoes, suits) and household appliances found key places on posters.
Another development in advertising was posters with images of a product and a person. One of the best examples is the poster 'This soap is foaming really well'? (66. D. Janovskij, 1952) showing a young, happy smiling man using soap. These posters were showing happy daily life, bright streets and beach resorts. Advertising was becoming more aesthetic and rich than it ever was before but lacked humor, paradox and original ideas.
Many different events took place between the end of the Great War (1945) and Stalin's death (1953): the start of the 'cold war', the struggle with dissent and the apotheosis of Stalin's figure. However another side of this period was connected to the euphoria of Victory, to socialist optimism, the revival of the country, the opening up of new lands and the building of new overflow weir and hydroelectric power plants. All these antagonisms were showing through the agitation posters of the late Stalinist epoch.
They presented different aspects of life, such as the restoration of the country, soldiers forming new lives after war, agricultural works and daily duties. Posters had a rich decorative style using monumental and grand symbols of Victory. Stalin's symbol reached its highest point of popularity only after the Great War as the great strategist of communist construction and native father of his people.
'The death of Stalin in 1953 required an update on the Soviet Union's historical trajectory. Stalin was denounced by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1956, which meant that current leaders could not rely on the authority of their predecessor...? (Lovell, S., 2009, p.24). His '...decision to expose Stalin's crimes against his own party in a 'secret speech' to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 brought a renewed crisis of historical memory. ... The solution ... was to return to Lenin' (Lovell, S., 2009, p.32).
After this event a 'Thaw' began' the improvement of domestic and foreign political relationships. Millions of prisoners were released, the names of great cultural figures were recalled to mind, banned books were published, films and performance were reflecting new reality without strict government control' it was a start of normal independent life.
Inner liberalization's (1954-1964) reanimation started from cinematography. Now film had two main directions' prosaic, concerned with everyday life and poetic, dealing with extreme situations and allegories. Thanks to prosaic movies, artists began to show people with original beauty and moral values which belonged to the contemporary period. Posters presented images of landscapes, unoriginal color, new methods of deep portrait image and texture combinations in a pictorial manner.
The softening of the political regime after Stalin's death didn't change governmental methods of development much. After the 22nd party congress the new aim was to build a communist society within twenty years. Khrushchev believed sincerely in the 'creation' of a new person, one who would combine intellectual wealth, moral cleanliness and physical perfection; through measures such as the cancellation of taxes and the substitution of the police with volunteers. It was the final unsuccessful attempt to build communism and the violent occupation of Czechoslovakia killed off any expectations for a humane form of socialism.
In 1964 L.I. Brezhnev came to power. As the new head of state he carried on with old forms of development. But the earlier planned economic performance of industry was reduced, the pricing system was changed and nearly all Khrushchev 's innovations were abolished.
The Government stopped and forgot all planed reforms after the 'Prague spring' (1968). Thereby the USSR missed a great scientific and technical step towards progress. It fell behind most of Europe. Stability was artificially stimulated as exports of petroleum and gas were paid for by the import of cereal crops, machinery and consumer products.
The party and state were tainted with criminality; dissidents were under strict control, this being justified as a 'nipping in the bud' of any steps towards unwanted reform. Social unrest was rising because of economic deficits and poor housing.
In 1979 the government stated a new purpose for political propaganda; the improvement of production quality, high working efficiency, costs saving and discipline. Work was the source of the economic, political and military power of the country and this theme was most important. Artists inspired people to enter new work competitions and project development but only for short periods.
They set out to remind people about patriotism, old values of enthusiasm and selflessness through the color red and figures of farriers and builders. Suddenly, they lost the strong impulse and inspiration of earlier periods. The economic model of the 80s was dying.
Politics of 'relaxation' were introduced in May, 1972. Brezhnev sought a military-strategic agreement with the USA and Europe. Nixon was the first US President to officially visit the USSR. During his visit the two powers reached an agreement that limited nuclear weapons and looked towards economic collaboration. At the Helsinki Conference of 32 European countries, USA and Canada, treaties were signed concerning economic, political and humane relationships between East and West.
But all sides did not comply with the contract's provisions and were continuing to arm. In the inner situation all 'soviet intellectuals' started to file a protest according to the Human Rights Act (Helsinki). The idea of 'restructuring' (perestroika) emerged.
In December, 1979 the war in Afghanistan began with an offensive launched by the Soviet army. The Soviet motive for invasion was to prevent civil disorder and Afghan moves towards independent democracy and Islamic-fundamentalism. The soviet government also was scared that Afghanistan's situation could be an influence on other countries who shared the Islamic religion' Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Over the next years many Russian soldiers were wounded and killed and some didn't receive any pension from the government. A popular poster of this time is 'I returned back, mummy...' (Tentin Y., 1989).
Pakistan, Iran, China and the USA in particular were helping Afghanistan resist Russia and eventually the war finished; The Soviet army withdrew from the country.
Posters of agriculture in the 50s and 60s reflected plans and dreams, but not results. Over this period the country was in crisis. Posters agitated towards hard work and the development of farms. Their main characters smiled and their backgrounds showed booming collective farms instead of the real broken farms that existed.
The Development of virgin and long-fallow lands in Kazakhstan, Siberia and Ural aimed to solve the grain problem. Firstly agitation was aimed at the young with calls to move to virgin lands. Artists were using patriotic images of the prolongation of father's deal. Koreckij and his art group created a lot of posters taking this direction, using heroic and historically large-scale moods (as during the Great War).These new themes needed innovation of compositions, style and identity using emotions such as sincerity, truthfulness and persuasiveness.
After this there was focus on another agricultural issue' corn. N.S. Khrushchev made a decision that corn should be grown everywhere. This direction produced different genres of poster' humoristic, serious and sometimes monumental. The theme had a strong connection with animal husbandry like on posters 'Corn is the source of the growth of animal husbandry!' (82. Golovanov, 1958).
The second series of posters dealt with sport. Sport was always one of the most important components of state propaganda. Sometimes posters were used for instruction and information but mostly they were presenting sport's political aspects' cultural parks, competitions, organization of sport sections etc.
The image of a sportsman is an image of the active worker, the builder of socialism and the motherland's protector. Posters called people to bring up a new healthy generation, to be the first in the world, to take up sport instead of hard drinking and idleness. Artists were showing people in sport and easy wear instead of work clothes; posters had new conceptions of body image motion, beauty and plasticity; it was shown as a necessary spectrum of family life.
Another big theme of the sport poster was The 80th Moscow Olympic Games. It had two main motives' the strengthening of friendship and the demonstration of harmonic personal development like on the poster 'Cultural program of the Olympic Games' (87. Volkova, Avvakumova, 1980) printed in different languages.
The theme of sport disappeared at the beginning of the restructuring period.
'If in the early Soviet period space travel had been in the realm of science fiction, by the time of the revamped party programme it was a reality. Yuri Gagarin's flight of 12 April 1961 turned him into the greatest Soviet icon of the post-Stalin era' (Lovell, S., 2009, p.24).
The first flight of cosmonaut Gagarin was shown on the numerous posters. Each master tried to show him in their own specific manner and as a symbol of the best humanistic ideas. The portrait of the first cosmonaut-woman Valentine Tereshkova was treated in the same way in the poster 'For the first time in the world' (90. Feklyaev, 1983). Poster art followed all steps of 'space history': extravehicular activity, the dispatch of spaceship to the Moon and Mars and combined flights of the international groups.
It also inspired a series of posters dealing with scientific achievement. This scientific breakthrough transformed the idea of a world revolution, progress and advantage of a socialist state system.
Later this theme became more and more common; the spaceship and rocket became symbols of progress without any romantic sense. In the 90s this theme started to fade from posters: Soviet cosmonautics stopped development and politics became most central theme of the poster.
In March, 1985 M. S. Gorbachev became the Head of the USSR and later President. His policies founded the beginning of 'perestrojka' (restructuring). 'This reform programme was supposed to revitalize the Soviet Union and give it a fresh push along the road to a bright future. ... Gorbachev spoke of instilling 'new thinking' and unleashing the 'human factor'? (Lovell, S., 2009, p.34). In the middle of the 80s the USSR started to disarm and increased its trust in foreign policy. But all these reforms didn't bring the required results and the country started to request a multi-party system.
As with the cinematography of the restructuring period, film billboards forgot about aesthetic norms and visualization of the film's images. The main tools of representation were conflict and contrast through abstract pop-art and shocking computer graphics. Outstanding artists like Majstrovskij, Karakashev and Bokser presented associative and metaphorical compositions.
Other old artists were also inspired to take a new direction. They had new shocking styles which didn't reflect the originality and content of movies. But they presented chaotic, uncertain, scary and fractured images of reality.
70% of country wanted to save the USSR, but disagreements developed within the state apparatus' especially between B. Yeltsin and M. Gorbachev. Later Belorussia, Ukraine and the Caucasus declared independence with Yeltsin's help. At the end of 1991 M. Gorbachev resigned and the USSR ceased to exist as an entity.
In conclusion I would say that in no other historical period was poster art so influential as in Soviet times. Art had a political and propagandistic character not a free one. But still artists worked hard, with enthusiasm; they played with graphic shapes, colors and letters; they put their whole soul into their creations and this was the main reason of their posters propagandistic success. To compare more recent posters with Soviet, I can't speak about progress. Old posters make me think about patriotism, past times, powerful national spirit and feeling of a happy life.
For me, a graphic designer, it was really interesting to study poster compositions: how background segued into a character's image; how photomontage and collage methods created such dynamic structures; how letters were combined on one posters without any images' just text; and how Soviet symbols were stylized into graphic elements.
These posters are rich with metaphors. Nearly every political poster has some metaphorical symbol' star, sun, snake, torch, knife, swastika, hammer, sickle ...Color also plays an important role: the comparison of the USSR's (red, white) and foreign countries' (black, dark green); knowledge (white, yellow) and illiteracy (black and other dark colors); reminding people about revolution and loss and the creation of a new country (a whole pallet of red color).
Soviet poster styles are also recognizable today. To us they look naive and quite absurd, but with some special spirit not seen in contemporary posters. Now they are used mostly for fashion or advertising purposes and of course are without any political or propagandistic message.
In my opinion, there wasn't any other nation in which the political poster was of such primary importance to the extent it was in the USSR. In numerous countries there were many talented artists but only in Soviet Union did they create posters that inspired feats of arms, hard work, and total dedication to the Motherland and firm belief in a happy future.