Friday, April 25, 2008

Propaganda Design & Aesthetics: Soviet Retro Posters

24 April 2008
by Lars Hasvoll Bakke

One of the great aesthetic legacies of the Soviet Union is the great wealth of magnificent propaganda posters it left behind. In this post, I present some personal favorites.

With the coming of revolution in Russia in 1917, one of the great powers of the world turned abruptly into a regime that embodied ideas that were radically different from those of the established powers of the day. Accompanying a new outlook on politics and economy, there had to be renewal and change in other areas too, including the way the new state presented itself and its ideas.

The revolution coincided with a period of many radically different art forms in western culture, dada, futurism, constructivism, surrealism and so on. Especially in its early years, propaganda posters produced in Soviet Russia were influenced by such movements.

Though the more experimental looks eventually gave way to designs more akin to what could be seen in other western countries, Soviet propaganda still retained a look of its own, beyond the presence of cyrillic lettering.

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism
A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism - 1920

Lenin was known as a great orator, with a fiery style, well illustrated by his stance in this poster, pointing the way ahead. Two important elements of Soviet propaganda can be seen here, the red banner representing the revolution, and the smokestacks representing the industry that will take the new state into a bright future. The text is taken straight out of the introduction of Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto".

Beat the Whites with the red wedge
Beat the Whites with the red wedge - 1920

This famous piece by El Lissitzky shows the influence of the new avant garde modernist art movements on early Soviet propaganda. There is in fact a clear political message behind this design. When the revolution took place in Russia in 1917, it did not mean that the Soviet Union with its many components was immediatly formed. A civil war erupted between the communists, the reds, and the royalists supporting the old regime, the whites. With that in mind, this becomes a stylized battle plan for the communist victory, rather than just some abstract geometric design.

Work is essential, the rifle is near
Work is essential, the rifle is near - 1920

With the civil war still raging, there was no time to relax for the inhabitants of Soviet Russia. Another interesting poster, with a stylized, simple look that clearly conveys its message.

Glory be to the people's heroes from Potemkin
Glory be to the people's heroes from Potemkin - 1920s

The mutiny of the battleship Potemkin in 1905 was later viewed as part of the prologue to the revolution of 1917, and the event was greatly exploited for propaganda purposes, as seen in this very heroic looking poster. What made the Potemkin truly famous, not only in the Soviet Union but also abroad, was the movie "Battleship Potemkin" by Sergei Eisenstein, released in 1925, which is counted among the greatest film classics of all time.

Beware of the wheels!
Beware of the wheels! - 1926

With a look that makes you think of the black plague rather than traffic safety, this poster was designed to inform people of the great dangers of a relatively new transportation method that was spreading in Soviet cities; the tram.

Nowhere else but Mosselprom
Nowhere else but Mosselprom - 1925

Mosselprom was a big state run department store in Moscow, famous for its unusual advertisements. Constructivism, the art movement present in both the architecture of the Mosselprom building, and in the poster itself, originated in Russia in the years around and after the revolution. In recent times, Mosselprom has been relaunched, mainly as a poultry company, re-using much of the imagery created for the original Mosselprom.

Liberated woman – build up socialism!
Liberated woman – build up socialism! - 1926

Women's liberation was an important part of the Russian Revolution from its beginning, and boy, does this poster show it! With the confident, stern look of this female worker, there's no mistaking her ability and will to commit to the revolution. Magnificent!

To Defend USSR
To Defend USSR - 1930

Yet another example of the influence of the modern art movement on Soviet posters, this poster doesn't even try to look like something out of the real world, with it's red giant marching past, accompanied by little white airplanes that to me resemble the Canadian airplanes in "South Park".

The Zoo has received a big lot of new animals
The Zoo has received a big lot of new animals - 1930

Soviet posters were not all about factories and fighting the bourgeois. This funky poster goes on to explain in some detail all the fine facilities of the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Zoo.

Long live the mighty aviation of the socialism country
Long live the mighty aviation of the socialism country - 1939

The posters presented so far have for the most part been quite restricted in their content, devoted to a single subject with an accordingly simple look. This however, is nothing short of pompous. With a whole armada of airplanes flying above, the people of the Soviet Union are milling across the red square beneath in a massive march. The aircraft are nevertheless the central element, with the bright red central monoplane dominating the upper half of the poster.

Motherland is calling!
Motherland is calling! - 1941

With the launch of Operation Barbarossa by the Germans in June 1941, the Soviet Union entered World War II. Supposedly, the story behind this poster is that the wife of the artist, Irakli Toidze, ran into his studio screaming "War!" upon hearing the news on the radio. Irakli asked her to freeze her movement, and her posture is what is seen in the poster, though her great looks were allegedly toned down a lot for the poster. It was indeed published in the very early stages of the German attack and became iconic in Soviet imagery.

Defend Moscow!
Defend Moscow! - 1941

The German forces advanced rapidly in 1941 and soon threatened Moscow itself, which was one of Hitler's main goals for the invasion. This poster is a powerful call to arms, I assume it was used to raise the morale of the Soviet forces while facing an enemy which had in only a few months conquered the massive expanse of land from the present-day eastern border of Poland, all the way to Moscow. The fate of the city was decided in the bloody Battle of Moscow at the end of 1941, with a Soviet victory.

Keep your mouth shut!
Keep your mouth shut! - 1941

This theme can be found in just about any beligerent nation of World War II, such as the "Loose lips sink ships" poster of the United States.

No escape from the people’s revenge!
No escape from the people’s revenge! - 1941

During Operation Barbarossa, Soviet civilians started operating as guerilla warriors behind German lines. With burning houses and a gallow in the background, these incredibly grim militiamen and women have a look to them that leaves little doubt that the poster is correct in its claim.

Everything for the Victory - Women of USSR for the Front
Everything for the Victory - Women of USSR for the Front - 1942

Quite a few posters of this kind can be found from the war years, emphasizing the importance of non-combatants for the war effort. Simple, uncluttered and with a clear focus on its theme makes leaves no room for misunderstanding, which I suppose is much of the point of propaganda posters.

To The West
To The West - 1943

By late 1943, the Soviet Union were pushing the Germans back on all fronts, illustrated in this comic book-like poster. In the upper left corner can be seen a sign in german saying "Nach osten" ("To the east"), a reference to the german term "Drang nach osten" ("Drive to the east"), the idea of a german desire to expand eastwards, which could be said to have its roots in the middle ages, and was most powerfully exemplified with the german invasion of the Soviet Union. In 1943 however, the tables were turning with the german drive checked, and the Soviet Union now driving westwards instead.

Great Stalin is a flag of the USSR's friendship
Great Stalin is a flag of the USSR's friendship - Unknown year

From its forming in 1922, the Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic state, and peaceful, respectful cooperation between the Russian majority and the various minorities living primarily in the borderlands of the country was maintained as very important, at least in theory. Here we see the great Stalin receiving flowers from what to my eyes looks like grateful Azerbaijani, showing their happy co-existance within the Soviet Union.

No! - Unknown year

Alcholism has been and still is a great problem in Russia. From the view of an industrial society were maintaining and improving efficiency in the factories and farms, alcoholism was a huge drain, ruining the productivity of the state. For the college student, a spoof version of this poster is occasionally available at eBay with the man happily accepting a drink instead of turning it down.

Smoke cigarettes
Smoke cigarettes - 1950

While the problems associated with alcoholism were readily apparent, by 1950, the dangers of smoking were not as well known. Since the Soviet Union did in fact have an industry producing cigarettes, it also needed to have someone consume them, and thus, posters such as this came about. Since all cigarettes were produced by the state, this poster did not need to advertise for a specific brand, promoting smoking in general was enough.

The way to prosperity!
The way to prosperity! - Unknown year

This poster really epitomizes the look cultivated by Stalin in posters promoting his greatness. It's a look of a kind, wise man, always with a calm, reassuring smile on his face. In some posters, you can see him greeting adoring children, in others he's smoking his pipe, with the very smoke rooting out capitalists and infiltrators from Soviet society. He was the subject of a cult-of-personality, instigated by himself, and during his reign, his likeness was never far away.

We will not allow this to happen again!
We will not allow this to happen again! - 1950's

With Stalin's death in 1953, the reaction to his regime came swiftly, and many of his supporters were persecuted. Here we see Stalin as a towering building, entirely made out of prison cells, a reference to the widespread imprisonings carried out by Stalin. The viewpoint of this poster, seen from the bottom looking upwards is effective in enhancing the impression of the old premier as some kind of evil giant.

Break virgin lands!
Break virgin lands! - 1954

It was Nikita Khrushchev who came to power after Stalin's death. One of his big domestic project was the Virgin Lands campaign, promoting the breaking of vast areas of new farmlands in northern Kazakhstan. Posters showing the effectivity of the Soviet Union's mechanized farming is a commonly found theme in old Soviet propaganda.

Come along with us to the new lands!
Come along with us to the new lands! - 1954

The breaking of new land of course required much manpower, something posters like this one was aimed at recruiting. And many hundreds of thousands did indeed leave their homes to settle down in these "new lands", but many also only stayed for a single harvest, and left again. The virgin lands campaign was a big success in its first year, but eventually came to be seen as an ecological disaster, turning vast areas of fertile land into steppe due to poor farming techniques.

People and army are one!
People and army are one! - Unknown year

In my mind, this is pretty much the stereotype of a Soviet propaganda poster. It's got the three central occupations represented; peasant, worker and soldier, all under the shining red star of the revolution, working in unity to drive the Soviet Union forward. This poster is nothing short of brilliant, supremely confident looking, with bright and powerful colours.

You behave!
You behave! - Unknown year

The stereotypical yankee capitalist is a common figure in propaganda posters. Here, he's trying to set fire to and bomb the Soviet Union, but a vigilant (and rather handsome) Soviet soldier is keeping watch. With the attitude of the soldier and the slogan, this poster gives a sense that the capitalists are nothing more than mischiveous little juveniles.

Road of a Talent - Road to Talent
Road of a Talent - Road to Talent - Unknown year

A popular format for showing the evils of capitalism is comparing the situation of the US and the USSR. While in the United States (as seen on the left), the talented violinist is left on his own, wandering the streets at night, his twin in the Soviet Union is embraced by state and society, and has his talent promoted.

USSR is a mighty sports power!
USSR is a mighty sports power! - 1962

The cold war wasn't all about building nuclear bombs and sattelites. Prestige and power could also be found elsewhere, and the Soviet Union put a big effort into their athletes. Bright, fresh colours to enhance the wholesome figure of this determined sportsman!

Lenin - 1970

With its stark simplicity and highly restrained use of colours, this makes you think of modern day street artists such as the (in)famous Banksy. In form with all Soviet Propaganda, the "hero" of this poster is big, strong and focused on the importance of his task, even as menial as this might seem.