Soviet Posters, by Maria Lafont and‎ Sergo Grigorian

Republished in the year of the Soviet Union’s centenary, the self-explanatory Soviet Posters (2014, reissued 2022) is a compilation of 22 examples, printed on good quality paper, which can be pulled out and framed.  They are drawn from the Sergo Grigorian Collection, billing itself as ‘the world’s largest publicly accessible private collection of the best Soviet political posters,’ and this is one of several spin-off books the archive has produced.  The short introduction and captions on the back of each poster were written by Moscow-born Maria Lafont.  Some of the posters are well-known (we begin with El Lissitzky’s ultra-virile Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge*), others, especially the later ones when there was a fall-off in graphic quality, less so.

The earliest date from 1919 and the latest from 1980.  However, chronological coverage is patchy, perhaps partly determined by the contents of Grigorian’s collection, with its focus on ‘the best’, or a certain romanticism attached to the pre-Stalin output, which accounts for a large proportion of the total.  There are only a handful produced after the Great Patriotic War, and the 1970s is entirely absent.  The weirdly-named Sacerdotalism is Hiding the Preparation of Intervention. Let’s Strengthen the Forces of the USSR is dated 1931 but it shows a caricature priest under long gun barrels bearing a swastika, illustrating two perceived threats to the regime, surely dating it to after 1933.

Despite the title, the emphasis is Russian, with few references to other Soviet republics.  The exception is Ukraine, and Russian bias is on display, as in the caption accompanying a 1930 poster.  It states, ‘The disruption caused by collectivisation would eventually lead to the Great Famine in Ukraine from 1932-1933,’ implying it was an unforeseen consequence of the implementation of socialist policies rather than the deliberate policy of genocide the Holodomor is now generally recognised (outside Russia) to have been.

Similarly, Metallurgy (1931) is ostensibly about Ukraine, but the focus again is on Russia.  Coloured in blue and yellow, the poster, produced as part of an effort to recruit workers, celebrates Ukraine’s acccelerating industrialisation during the first Five-Year Plan.  Sadly, names such as Zaporizhia and Mariupol, mentioned in the caption, have a different resonance now.  But Lafont goes on to say that production was important because Russia was in competition with the West.  This view of Ukraine as a resource to serve Russia’s needs is deeply embedded.

Lafont emphasises the key role of posters in a society that was largely illiterate in 1917, and their importance right up until perestroika in 1985 when, she says, their propaganda function became obsolete.  By then, one suspects, general cynicism had greatly undermined their powers of persuasion anyway.  Whatever one’s view of the society which produced them, there is no denying their ability to evoke their times, and depict the gradual destruction of the hopes of 1917.

*Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge has a nostalgic significance for me.  I once had a cheap single-sheet calendar, produced by the International Marxist Group in its Red Weekly days, with it as the top half.  When the year concluded I cut off the calendar part and kept the poster, pinned to the wall, for many years.


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