Recuperation of the USSR: Soviet Art and Advertising in the Russian Federation

Today is the 99th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s been 25 years since the Soviet Union was torn apart by the oligarchs and bureaucrats.

We’re still living in the shadow of the destruction of the USSR.

And no where is that more obvious than in the advertisements available all throughout modern Russia.

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The legacy of the Soviet Union lives on in many ways in the post-Soviet space. From political and cultural configurations to modern discourse on the past. In its own way, the post-Soviet space is going through its own Vergangenheitsbewältigung (history-overcoming) – but this has reached a fever-pitch in Russia in the past few years.

Part of this process, it seems to me, includes reappropriating pieces of the past in order to either make sense of it or transform it.

Whether we choose to try to disseminate information or merely to manipulate it, the past stands as a blank page upon which we reveal our understandings. Since 1991, the blank page of the Soviet Union has been particularly attractive to countless propagandists.

I am undoubtedly one of them.

Despite spending years of my life in modern Russia, I have admittedly only been West of the Ural Mountains. However, in the few cities I have visited, the use of Soviet symbols and aesthetics have been ubiquitous.

The use of Soviet vocabulary and concepts is everywhere: “peace” and “victory” have been

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“Books in all branches of knowledge” -Soviet Propaganda (1925)

effortlessly reappropriated for the Russian Federation. Especially in Putin’s era of renewed pride in Russia.

There are also attempts at reconstructing the constellations of the history that are officially sanctioned, while devaluing the points of history that are a bit messier. For example, the state holiday of November 7th (the day of the Bolshevik Revolution) no longer exists.

The Bolshevik Revolution plays differently in the collective memory than does the Soviet era.

I’ve heard countless people list off the best rulers of Russia as: Peter, Catherine, Nicholas, Stalin, and Putin.

Ideologically speaking, these faces may seem absurd to connect. Monarchism, Socialism, Capitalism don’t seem like reconcilable systems of thought. However, these five heads of the same demon do represent one important thing: strength.

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“Buy cheaper!” -Advertisement for pharmacies (2015)

They represent strength. It’s a fact of history that under these leaders, Russia has sometimes been its weakest. But here, perception is more important than facts.

Today, “peace” and “victory” ring as hollow as ever with a collapsing ruble, militarization (and although it doesn’t get talked about in Western media, this is a response to NATO, not the other way around), and contracting economy. It’s difficult to imagine Russia reaching the status of Superpower once again.

In this situation, it’s easy to recollect some of the positive aspects of the Soviet Union. Seemingly lower prices, access to healthcare and education, and the greater dream of a better world.

This, of course, is ripe for the recuperation of radical early Soviet propaganda to become meaninglessly mundane in the modern capitalist superstructure.

Through reinterpreting, reorganizing, and reimagining the historical space, capitalism has successfully utilized the period in which it was most challenged. No longer do we see a woman shouting for all branches of knowledge to be published and accessible. Today, we see the same aesthetic, but the message has changed.

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“Fitness: Peace! Sport! May!” -Advertisement for a fitness club (2016)

In the photo above (one that I took on a bumpy marshrutka, so I apologize for the blurriness), the most interesting thing to me is the blending of themes and time periods in order to create this advertisement.

The first thing that we notice is the woman playing the same role as the woman in the 1925 propaganda poster. However, the photo is no longer centered on her face, but includes her body down to her waste. She’s standing in a feminine pose, with her left hand on her hip, and is clearly wearing makeup. With her shirt tied at her midriff, she is far more sexualized, if we could say that the woman in the propaganda poster is sexualized at all.

Undoubtedly, this modern poster has no interest in feminism (unlike the Soviet Union of the 1920s).

Behind her, the ribbon of St. George waves and billows majestically into the background. These ribbons are particularly noteworthy, because they also connect Tsarist Russia through the Soviet era and on to today. In fact, the popular use of these ribbons began in response to Ukrainian nationalism, thereby boosting Russian nationalism.

Finally, the word-choice stands out.

“Peace” was one of the most central words of the dominant Soviet lexicon. One of the most common streets in every city is Проспект Мира (Avenue of Peace).

“Sport” was obviously highly-valued during the USSR (and still is). And, of course, the advertisement is for a sports/health club, so that word is not so fascinating.

“May”, however, out to catch our eye whenever we’re talking about history (especially Russian history). May 1st, traditionally-called May Day, was the day of the biggest labor union protests and strikes around the world. May Day protests were outlawed under the Russian monarchy and weren’t openly celebrated until after the February Revolution in 1917.

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“To work on a bike!” -Advertisement for ‘Ride-to-Work Day’ in Moscow (2016)

May also came to encompass a whole spectrum of meaning after 1945. May came to mean the victory of Stalinist USSR over Hitlerist Germany in World War II. The Soviet Union was one of the countries most devastated by the war and the victory was to be used endlessly in propaganda up to today. Putin has successfully completed the circle.

May 1st can’t even hold a candle to Victory Day on May 9th in Russia.

And this is total capitalist recuperation of the socialist enterprise.

Indeed, businesses today often play on Soviet symbols or language to insinuate that they’ve got lower prices or that the quality of their products is high. Is anything more absurd than modern “USSR”-brand ice cream?

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Mickey Mouse being impaled by a robot offers some truly deep insight into capitalism.

The post-modern, diet, feel-good capitalism is pervasive in Russia as well.

By using a character from a Soviet children’s cartoon (Gena, the crocodile), we’re able to integrate the Soviet characters from a certain ideological context and place them into the post-modern landscape of competing images and aesthetics.

We have a new May holiday! Ride-to-Work Day in Moscow! Oh, how swell!

Indeed, May 20th was a wonderful day, for we got to watch stupid fat old Zhirinovsky ride his stupid bike in the stupid rain.

The farce of capitalism is everywhere. We just have to open our eyes.

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