The promised posts on Herzen are still in preparation, but in the meantime, a few recent features on Soviet design have reminded me that their poster art wasn’t an isolated phenomenon (incidentally, good sites for Soviet posters keep cropping up – I found this French one after I published my four short links post). Favourite of all is:
1. Soviet fabrics, 1920s-1930s, via The Retronaut. Some truly beautiful pieces here, with both pictorial and abstract designs containing typical motifs of construction and agriculture as well as massed ranks of workers and sportsmen. I like this five-year plan design, combining tractors, factories and mines:
Some of these fabrics really counter the usual view of the Soviet Union as the ultimate in drabness, but I wonder how much of this type of stuff actually got made. There were lots of brilliant design ideas around in the 1920s in particular, aimed at transforming everyday life, but an awful lot of them, it seems, never got further than the drawing board. But I think these are fabulous nevertheless.
2. From the sublime to the ridiculous, with adverts for Soviet groceries from English Russia. Appetizing, eh? Food packaging never received quite the same attention of other (more aspirational?) areas of Soviet life, but there are some typical examples here, including a few that sparked off an unexpected bout of nostalgia…
3. I have far fewer nostalgic feelings about Soviet cigarettes (again from English Russia), doubtless because I have smoked far too many of them in my time. But you can’t deny the quality of some of the package designs. That alone should tell you something about the relative importance of eating and smoking in Soviet culture, but if you’re still unconvinced, this article from Russian Life gives plentiful background on the Russian smoking epidemic. Dieselpunks also has some good Soviet cigarette posters.
Connoisseurs will have noticed the big omission from the English Russia collection: the classic Belomorkanal design:
First produced to celebrate the opening of the White Sea Canal – built by slave labourers provided by the Gulag – and containing without doubt the most vile cigarettes known to mankind (’5th class’ tobacco, the packets proudly proclaim), with a cardboard tube that seems to have the opposite effect of a filter, smoking these things is an experience I would not recommend to anyone. There was always that depressing point in the night when everybody had run out of decent cigarettes and there was only a packet of Belomorkanal left, and you knew very well that eventually you’d end up having one, and you knew beforehand how much you’d regret it… Possibly the best thing about giving up smoking is knowing that I will never taste Belomorkanal again. But the longevity of the brand is quite remarkable, and I can’t help admiring those babushki who still puff away on them, if not with a look of enjoyment, then at least without the appearance that they’re overdosing on toxic chemicals.
4. Finally, this review of Made in Russia: unsung icons of Soviet design on brainpickings brought back memories of a few gems, including the dialless telephone, and the collapsible communal drinking cup, ‘a telescopic beacon of hope in an icky world of strangers’ germs.’