Social Advertising in Stalinist Times

Contrary to popular stereotype, the majority of advertising in Stalin’s USSR were associated not with party and ideological propaganda, but rather with what we might today call ‘social advertising’. If during Tsarist times, ‘education of the populace’ was a role of the church, in the Soviet Union, this role was taken by the state, and the extent of educational works were magnified manifold: it was necessary to create a consciousness in the ‘new man’, to form a new way of life, a new quotidian, and to eliminate illiteracy.

Many directions of social enlightenment were first begun in early Soviet period. For example, in 1930 already there were anti-smoking posters.

Nicotine is poison! (One drop of nicotine kills a small animal. A person who smokes will, over 30 years, consume 200,000 cigarettes, or 160 kg of tobacco, which contains 800gm of nicotine)

And the posters already look completely professional, not only in the artistic but also in the informational sphere. Below is another poster from 1930:

Smoking is costly and dangerous for health and life.

As far as I am concerned, we don’t have nearly enough of such posters as the wonderful ‘Our ultimatum to adults‘ (1930):

Our ultimatum to adults! Adults – don’t spread tobacco fumes into the air we breathe; don’t set us a bad example by sucking on cigarettes; before you preach the ills of smoking, give it up yourselves!

‘Do not set us a bad example by sucking on cigarettes!’

It was probably in the USSR of 1930 that the first large-scale anti-smoking campaign was initiated, as indicated by the following poster which dates from the same year:

It is forbidden to smoke here… But I smoke.

Although ‘dry laws’ were abolished in 1924, there continued to be relentless campaigns against alcoholism in the USSR. (Below is a poster from 1929.)

There’s a play on words here. The ‘o’ in Sport gives strength’ while the ‘i’ in Spirt (spirit) gives death.

 Poster by N. Deni, 1930:

No point kidding with the drunk / He needs to be beaten / Culturally / severely / in fury, angrily / beaten every day / every step of the way / no breath should be granted the enemy.

From 1930, ‘What can be bought for kids at the cost of 1 litre of vodka‘:

Another social ill fought vigorously by soviet social advertising was prostitution. This was considered a legacy of exploitative society, requiring total eradication. But the problem was not that easily solved. The poster below is from 1929:

One of the issues faced by the Soviet regime was the emancipation of women, their conversion to active participants in the construction of the new order. Many works were dedicated to this theme. Here is one from the 1920s, ‘Woman – Learn to read and write!

Oh dear, mum, if you could read and write, you could have taught me!

From the 1920s, ‘Down with kitchen slavery!

It is possible that the USSR was the first country in the world to seriously turn attention to the problem of sexual harassment. Here is K. Rotov’s ‘Away with molesters of women‘:

In the 1930s appeared the first posters promoting the traffic code. Here is ‘Disobey the law – risk your life‘ (1930s):

Besides addressing the “negatives”, i.e. the evils of anti-social behavior, social advertising was distributed on a large scale to assert positive behaviours. It primarily promoted a healthy lifestyle as the most important attribute of the new Soviet society.

The struggle against poor sanitation at the time was very serious. Below is ‘Wash your hands after work and before eating‘, 1931.

Have a wash after work‘ (1932):

In the 1930s, one of the ideals of Soviet life was the garden city.

The duty of every worker is to bring sanitation to every house and every street.

In the USSR, there was enormous attention towards the development and propaganda of physical education and sport. Here is Alexander Deyneka’s 1933 poster ‘To work, to build, and not to whine’:

… you may not be an athlete, but you can certainly be fit

Here is A. Kokorekin, ‘Be ready’ (1934):

Be ready for work and defence.

Many of these posters are highly artistic works, almost masterpieces. My favourite is the following poster from 1947 by L. Golovanov:

And this – a total masterpiece: V. Koretsky, ‘Train!’ (1951):

If you want to be like me, train!

In the early post-war years appeared the first posters for mass tourism. Here is one from 1947, ‘Be a tourist on the weekend‘:

Be a tourist‘ (1949):

Be a tourist! Travel around your native country!

A special focus of social advertising in Stalin’s USSR was to entice the youth into new technologies and prestigious professions. The most prestigious, of course, was aviation. Here is G. Klyutsis’ ‘Youth – get in the planes‘:

At the same time, advertising morally encouraged people into the difficult, noble professions. Below is ‘Fame and honour to village doctors‘ (1948):

Perhaps it was pleasant for people in these professions to see such posters. Here is V. Koretsky, ‘Glory to the teacher‘ (1949):

One of the most ambitious projects of the Stalinist USSR was the so-called ‘cultural revolution’: the complete eradication in the shortest possible time of illiteracy (which had been 75% of the population in Tsarist times), the construction of an enormous network of libraries, clubs, cinemas, radio stations, the opening of new schools, institutes and universities. This huge work was reflected in poster art. Here is ‘Everyone to the library‘ (1929):

Every farm hand, peasant and poor man should become a reader at the library.

Here is ‘A good library for every Soviet village‘ (1935):

The book – our true helper on the Bolshevik path to a culturally rich and prosperous collective farm life. (The man’s got a Sholokhov, but note the book the woman’s reading – scintillating stuff! Stalin on Lenin (!))

There was promotion of high standards of service. Here is a poster from 1948:

We will cater culturally to every visitor!

By the way, it was found that even under capitalism, high standards of service did not appear by themselves, and needed to be inculcated.

There was the promotion of social activism and participation in various socially useful productive works. Here is ‘Join the volunteer fire service‘ (1952):

And, finally, social advertising in the Stalinist USSR promoted even such eternal and classless values and concepts such as ‘family honour’. Here is a poster by V. Govorkov (1949):

This is only a brief overview of some of the directions of social advertising in Stalin’s Soviet Union; an introduction to this huge subject. Of course, real life was quite far from beautiful posters; Soviet society under Stalin faced massive repression and years of hunger. But still these examples of social advertising demonstrate the main directions of state policy, its ideals, values and attentions. There is much that today’s world can learn from it.

[Translated from Социальная реклама в сталинском СССР, Visual History on LiveJournal, Feb 11, 2013.]

Women in Russian Poster Art

[This is a loose translation of N. I. Baburina, S. N. Artamonova, ‘Women in Russian Poster Art of the Early XX Century‘, 27 March 2009.]

The image of woman, who gives life to mankind, has occupied from ancient times an important place in the iconography of illustrative art. It manifests itself in the images of the Madonna and the Mother Goddess – the most important representation in painting, sculpture and iconography from the very earliest times to this day. The appearance of women formed the basis for a variety of symbolic images, representing science and art, politics and nature.

The art of print advertising, emerging in the latter half of the 19th century, sought its own ideals, heroes and symbols. The symbol of ‘poster art’ (under which name the concept entered artistic life) could be a female image hearkening back to antiquity (as in the work of Elizaveta Kekushev) or a contemporary one (as visualised by S. Solomko). Examples of both were displayed at the International Exhibition of Poster Art, held in Russia in 1897-1898. It is symptomatic that the theme of feminity, one of the earliest themes adopted by the new genre, was picked up by female artists.

The key to the success of advertising stems, naturally, from its appeal. To reflect this quality, the best posters often are obliged to have female characters. The image of women in poster art is multifaceted and multilayered, and a simplistic attempt to identify it is doomed to failure. The woman in the poster is the propagandist, and her face directly addresses the audience, who then assess the goods on offer or judge the film or play. Simultaneously her other role is that of representing the female customer, demonstrating the role of customer, visitor, reader, in short, the character that uses the offered information and buys the product. The female image could represent social or political or commercial phenomenon, serving as a symbol or sign of a company or a registered trade mark.

The question arises – how much does the woman in the poster, and indeed in advertising, correspond to a realistic image of contemporary womanhood? After all, in contrast to easel painting, poster art is the art of exaggeration. What drives it is flattery; to flatter, the poster should instigate sympathies in the audience such that the audience sees itself in the poster, not as in a simple mirror, but with a twist, as though in a magic mirror, where some features are sharp and exaggerated, while others are displayed in an unexpected perspective.

The active process of forming a Russian poster art coincided with the establishment of the modernist style in the country. The new style influenced the figurative modes of the budding new genre of poster art, and, of course, the depiction of the female image in the poster. Modernism lent it an unusualness, an attractiveness and trendiness that conformed to the requirement of the ‘magic’ mirror.

An early version of the homespun modernism, the neo-Russian style rooted in the pre-Peter (the Great) Russia, enriched the iconography of ‘poster art’ with grand images of women in beautiful traditional dresses.

Patriotic and nationalistic symbols of the neo-Russian style were transformed in the advertising poster into a specific attractive quality of goods and services. The Russian woman in the folk costume represented a poster-ideal of national beauty and often personified the country itself.

Unlike painting and graphic arts, a woman in the advertisement of the past is always associated with modernity: a princess promotes a Singer sewing machine – the artist vividly improves the attraction of the well-known German company via a young Russian noblewoman standing against a background of a modern map of Russia. Combined in a single image are elements of the past and present, a potent mix that elicits a sense of intrigue, surprise and shock.

Along with the images that have arrived in the genre from the depths of the past, the pre-Revolutionary advertising poster was dominated by images of womanhood typified by the France-based work of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. This woman was mysterious with loosely wavy hair, resembled a mermaid or a goddess, a symbol of felinity, an allegory, a symbol endowed with traits of contemporary womanhood.

This image had much in common with the poetry of Symbolism, the mystical imagery of film, theatrical spectaculars, with book and magazine illustrations, and therefore easily absorbed allegorical meaning and content (see, for example, ‘Theatre of miniatures’ by I. Shkolnik, or ‘Autumn of Woman’ by an unknown painter).

The very same image in a commercial context served to refine the most trivial of quotidian items – pasta, soap, bulbs. The artists required a heightened sense of proportion, compositional skill and inventiveness, so that the association didn’t appear strange and strained. (See ‘A.M. Zhukov – St Petersburg – Moscow – Nizhny Novgorod . Soap.’ By an unknown artist.)

Nevertheless, ‘magic mirrors’ advertising everyday objects often manifested itself in exotic female faces and costumes. Notions of ‘colonial’ goods were associated with women living in nearby and far-off lands – Ukrainian, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish women in exotic clothes and situated in fantastical interiors and landscapes. The female domination of the Russian poster extended not only back across the centuries but also across the breadth of space and territory.

When an author wanted to bring the female image closer to reality, he would translate it into a number of aesthetics, utilising humour, satire, hyperbole, metaphor and decorative techniques. So, for example, you can see the woman in the advert for ‘Central Garage’ in a fashion magazine: she is associated with the humorous comparison of horse and car, the contrasting symbols of ancient and modern Russia. Or, you can see the aristocratic woman, ‘breathing perfume and mist’, promoting the parfumerie ‘Empress’. Or, you can see the peasant girl in a bright festive costume inviting you to the All-Russia exhibition of sheep-breeding in the poster by A. Komarov.

In some cases you can see portraits of realistic prototypes and real faces. Thus you find Lyubov Gritsenko, third daughter of Pavel Tretyakov, future wife of Leon Bakst, appear in his poster art devoted to the Red Cross of the Community of St Eugenia.

Consider the portrait sheet of the outstanding Russian painter Valentin Serov. Commissioned to advertise Russian ballets in Paris, he captured the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova in the ballet ‘La Sylphide’. The poster was so successful that for the next Diaghilev season, the French artist Jean Cocteau, basing himself on Serov’s work, created a poster of the other prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theatre, Tamara Karsavina. Many other women appeared on film posters; indeed film poster art incorporated elements of literature, graphic art and films themselves, in a kind of ‘synthesis of the small’, a vivid expression of the culture of the age, both ‘high art’ and kitsch. There appeared graphic images of different literary and stylistic directions, including the mystical, mysterious, and the symbolic. (See M. Kalmanson’s ‘Abyss’.)

And if in the commercial poster one found references to the storied Swan Princess, in film posters one found the spider-woman, the vampire, the woman-serpent, the bloodsucking woman beast.

In the ‘magic mirror’ of the advertising poster, the female image operated under the rules of kitsch, often ‘polluted’ by exoticism. Primitive in design and colour scheme, the “beauties” nevertheless met the tastes of a certain class of society and demonstrated an obvious social and commercial imperative.

Before the First World War, a woman in a poster depicted manifold aspects of a private life. The objective world of the commercial advertisement engendered an idea of her quotidian life: announcements of books, magazines, theatre, films, of culture and leisure. You could learn a bit about her participation in social life, for example, charity. But once the military action began, the poster was commandeered to the service of the political sphere. Now the circle of female personifications expanded and their characters were enriched. The task of motivating the soldiers and the populace fell onto the feminised image of the motherland. S. Vinogradov illustrated this with a middle-aged noblewoman, lamenting at the walls of the Kremlin.

Simultaneously, however, with this reference to the historical tradition appear contemporary images. These are not abstract, but very real: Sisters of Mercy lovingly portrayed by Abram Arkhipov; women workers in red kerchiefs machining shells and participating in demonstrations; ladies collecting donations for the wounded and war orphans.

The poster marched alongside the historical process: women pushed into public life, and as they protested against famine and war, they also found a place for themselves in the poster art of the new politics.