A postgraduate student of the University of Nottingham Laura Todd started her two months placement at the British Library on the 24th October, 2012. The placement is funded by CRCEES (Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies). Laura is working on the collections of Russian ephemera material of the late 1980s and the 1990s. The collections comprise election material of the Duma campaigns of 1993 and 1995, the Presidential campaign of 1996, local elections, alternative publications, etc. Laura has already found and learnt a lot of interesting things, and she will be documenting her research on these pages. Watch the space!
Welcome to my project blog. While I am at the British Library, I hope to publish plenty of blog posts to discuss my experiences of working with the collection of Russian ephemera, and also about some of the interesting issues which have been raised in the process! I welcome any comments or suggestions, and of course feedback, so please feel free to contact me on here or via email.
I hope you find something on here which will be of interest to you.
Disclaimer: Efforts have been made to contact the copyright holder. If you are the copyright holder and object to the publication of any of the material, please contact the site administrator.
Dating election posters
It is surprising how little actual information is provided on election posters. Their importance to the “here and now” of political campaigns provides a difficult task when trying to establish from which election material comes from. In the digital age, we are used to having a barrage of information provided for us on the internet; yet, when we are faced with identifying campaign election material from an era which pre-dates the dominance of the internet, there is actually very little to help us. This is even the case for the highly-documented elections of the 1990s in Russia. While leaflets and flyers are occasionally more helpful, often providing dates and other information, such as addresses and telephone numbers for the candidate’s team, larger campaign posters and flyers prove to be an interesting puzzle as they feature faces and statements, rather than details or dates.
As an example, I will use my experience of dating election posters from the Russian Presidential and Duma elections of the 1990s (namely the elections of 1993, 1995 and 1996). It may seem that this task would be fairly straightforward, especially considering that the candidates and the parties are listed extensively in literature and online. However, when it came to identifying the dates of election materials from the campaigns of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, it proved to be difficult to establish exactly what year the election campaign posters actually came from. This task was made more complicated by the fact that the LDPR was one of the first opposition parties to have been formed in post-Soviet Russia and has remained a prominent (though declining) presence in the politics of the country since 1991.
Therefore, this presents a specific challenge in trying to establish whether the posters are, firstly, from the Presidential or Duma election campaigns, and, secondly, what year they are from. The LDPR has taken part in every post-Soviet election and Zhirinovskii as the leader of the party, has taken part in every Presidential election. Furthermore, the party and its popularity is largely based on Zhirinovskii’s miniature ‘cult of personality’, meaning that his face and name play a central part in campaign material, whether it is for the Presidential or Duma elections. Thanks to the growth of the internet, establishing party propaganda from the post-2000 period is not as complicated and the party itself has established a very specific style for their newer material (based around a recognisable blue and yellow colour scheme). The 1990s and their reliance on short-lived and inexpensive printed material is a different story.
To return to my conundrum, in the collection of Russian ephemera at the British Library, there are several examples of campaign posters for the LDPR from the Duma elections of 1993 and 1995. The leaflets and posters are similar, as are the election manifestoes from each year. They are printed on similar materials and use similar fonts. There are several basic ways that the year of publication can be identified. Of course, newsletters and flyers published by the party are often dated or they feature the date of the election itself. Furthermore, databases, such as those created by Elena Strukova at the State Historical Public Library (http://www.shpl.ru/), provide as many examples as possible of election campaign matter from 1993 and 1995.
However, this is sometimes insufficient as there are numerous examples and an internet search will only take you so far; therefore, other methods can and must be used. Firstly, regardless of the similarity of the messages put forth by the LDPR during their election campaigns, the slogans are slightly different or rather they evolve over time. In 1993, the LDPR preferred to simply write “голосуйте за список ЛДПР” or “голосуйте так”, with very little other information, other than to write Zhirinovskii’s name and a telephone number. In 1995 (and in the Presidential elections of 1996), Zhirinovskii, and therefore the LDPR, had a very clear campaign slogan, “я подниму Россию с колен”. While they maintained their use of the simplistic, “голосуйте за ЛДПР” on smaller flyers and leaflets, there is a clear difference in the coherence of the message and type of campaign materials. Furthermore, in 1995, there is a lot of reference to the Bulletin Number of the party (which in that year was No. 33) and the variety of campaign materials has grown. For example, there were the usual flyers and posters depicting Zhirinovskii, but there are also bumper stickers and campaign newspapers, all very clearly parading the number 33.
However, all in all, this has not produced entirely positive results and, in fact, I have found that my research into the date of origin of the posters can not be concluded to be 100 per cent certain. While it is possible to guess the election campaign, there is a need for in-depth research into the posters before this can be considered exact. As an example of the reasons behind this uncertainty, I will use the example of one of the LDPR’s slogans (usually useful for identifying the year of the campaign), “Я никому не позволю обижать русских!” After various searches, I discovered that this slogan has been quoted at various times between 1994 and 2011, meaning that I cannot reliably link it to any specific date or election campaign. However, it is known that a poster featuring this slogan was used in the 1996 Presidential elections. Furthermore, the idea of “raising Russia from its knees” (used by the LDPR in 1995 and 1996) is now very widely used in Russian political rhetoric and seems to be more frequently linked to the rhetoric of United Russia, rather than to Zhirinovskii.
While the case of the LDPR is not an exhaustive example of the trials and tribulations of identifying the dating of election materials, it does illustrate some interesting points about election materials which are often considered. This especially concerns the atmosphere in which these materials are produced. They are released at a time when people will surely recognise most of the faces and slogans, and they are above all intended to have a time limit placed upon them. Yet, as in the case of Zhirinovskii, they are also intended to create a lasting narrative for the political movement they represent. However, when it comes to identifying the year which these materials come from, it is clear how short-lived the physical manifestations of a campaign are intended to be, which presents problems for those working in archives. However, if all else fails, it is possible to date them according to the glossiness of the leaflet, the size of the moustache or the colour of the politicians hair.
The Song of the Borya Vestnik
Whilst sorting through the ephemera, I came across a fantastic satire of Gorky’s revolutionary poem, the Song of the Storm Petrel (in Russian: Песня о Буревестнике, 1901). The modern remake, entitled “Песня о Боре вестнике”, refers to the Russian President, Boris “Borya” Yeltsin and models itself on Gorky’s poem, weaving a satirical tale of the political struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev during perestroika. This re-make of Gorky’s poem was written by the dissident writer Sasha Bogdanov and published in 1989 in a special edition of his newspaper Antisovietskaia Pravda.
In 1989, Sasha Bogdanov and his two publications, Ya, ty i nashe chuvstvo gorbachevizma and Antisovietskaia Pravda, were considered to be prominent publications in dissident circles. In 1991, Bogdanov left Russia and immigrated firstly to Israel, before settling in Germany. He has recently returned to Russia after this period of living abroad and continues to speak out against the present and past regime (you can visit his blog here: http://sasha-bogdanov.livejournal.com/1216392.html).
Below is the transcribed text of Pesnya o Borye vestnike from Anti-Sovietskaia Pravda:
Песня о Боре вестнике!
На победу Перестройки
Горби массы собирает.
Между массами и Горби
гордо реет Боря вестник
черной мельнице подобный.
То в мешке с моста бросаясь,
то стрелой летя на Запад, он мычит…И массы
слышат радость в смелом рыке Бори.
В этом рыке – жажда власти.
Силу гнева, пламя страсти и уверенность в победе
слышат массы в рыке-мыке Бори.
Массы стонут перед Борей. Стоныт, мечутся
над Борей. Не хотят бороться массы с пьянством
И обкомы тоже стонут.
Им, обкомам, недоступно
неформалы их пугают.
Аппаратчик робко прячет
тело жирное на Съездах
Только гордый Боря вестник
реет смело и свободно
над седым от Раи Мишей.
Скоро грянет Боря
Пусть сильнее грянет Боря!
The poem mimics the revolutionary style and rhythm of Gorky’s original, matching its familiar lines, but manipulating phrases to fit with the present context and highlighting the contrast between the Gorky’s revolutionary spirit and the cynicism of the contemporary attempts at revolutionising society. The name of the satirical poem itself is an excellent reworking of the original title, swapping “burye” for “Borya”, making it instantly recognisable for anyone who is familiar with Soviet history. However, the imagery that the title suggests also conjures up comical scenes in the readers minds. Instead of the image of the proud storm petrel, soaring over the rough seas of growing revolutionary feeling, the reader is left with an image of a bumbling Boris Yeltsin, with his drunken antics and suspected alcoholism, soaring not on the currents of revolution, but rather on a combination of luck and the rising dissatisfaction of the general population with the Communist regime, indicated by Bogadanov’s reference to the neformaly (N.B. by this point, Yeltsin had made a speech in the US, where he apparently seemed to be drunk; in turn, this incident filtered through to Russia, where a story on it was printed in Pravda as proof of his unsuitability as a leader).
The contrast between the proud and fighting words of the revolutionary original and their loss of significance in the present chaos brings ridicule to the characters in the modern remake. The writer mocks both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. While Yeltsin is mock-affectionately referred to as Borya, Gorbachev’s nickname “Gorbi” has become synonymous with his popularity as a great reformer in the West, a popularity which is here a source of mockery when compared to his less-than-affectionate treatment in Russia. Yet, Bogdanov does not look on Yeltsin favourably. Perhaps one of my favourite lines from Bogdanov’s poem is, “То в мешке с моста бросаясь”, referring to one of the biggest farces of the Yeltsin-Gorbachev struggle, when Yeltsin mysteriously fell from a bridge on September 28, 1989. While Yeltsin claims he was pushed by his political enemies (or he was rather, as Bogdanov puts it more dramatically, thrown from the bridge in a sack), his opponents maintained that he fell whilst in a drunken stupor. It is still not certain what the true story is, but it pretty accurately sums up the absurd proceedings which were taking place in Russian politics at the time.
You can see the original text of Gorky’s poem here
Do you want the past or the future? – Yeltsin’s 1996 presidential election campaign
The unexpected success of Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential elections is one of the most stunning of all the victories that Yeltsin exacted over the communists during his political life. In the months leading up to the election, Yeltsin’s approval rating was unbelievably low (some estimated it dropped to as little as 8%). This fact left many people wondering how he went on to win the Presidential election in the second round, trouncing his hugely popular rival, the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Gennadii Zyuganov, by a margin of 13%. While I acknowledge the importance of political manoeuvring during the campaign (i.e. the limiting of the CPRF’s access to mainstream media, the striking of bargains with other candidates and so forth), I want to use one of the items from the ephemera collection to illustrate the visual side of the campaign which Yeltsin was running. This piece of ephemera is the famous campaign poster from 1996, featuring the slogan, “Верю, Люблю, Надеюсь”.
As previously mentioned, although Yeltsin’s popularity was extremely low in the run-up to the election, he was, by various means, able to present the Presidential contest as a two-horse race; a kind of second referendum on whether they wanted to keep communism or not.
However, the decision to fashion the election as a choice between communism and progress, proved to be the most effective of Yeltsin’s campaigning techniques. The poster I wish to talk about embodies this campaign strategy. As Sergei Kara-Murza points out, the choice of “I believe, I love, I hope” have several different connotations. For example Kara-Murza writes that, “I believe” feeds off the idea of faith, in the religious sense; “I love” harnesses a sense of normality, all of us loves or searches for love; and “I hope”, suggests that, in spite of all the inflation, corruption, losses, criminality and warfare, it is still possible to keep hoping for better times.
However, it is possible to delve further into their implied meaning and the choices that the Yeltsin PR team has made. Firstly, aside from the slogan, the posters themselves are the image of sobriety and seriousness. The British Library collection has a set of three posters, all in the most sombre of grey colour schemes, featuring solemn black-and-white images of a select cross-section of Russian society – elderly veterans with their wives, satisfied female workers with their boss and cute children wearing traditional costumes. The lack of colour suggests that Yeltsin will not be distracted from his believing, loving and hoping; as well as trying to impress on the voters that the incumbent President took his task very seriously. Furthermore, he does not appear in any of the images himself, perhaps trying to trick people in to not voting for him as such, but rather voting for their fellow Russians.
Back to the slogan, Kara-Murza is right in his suggested interpretation, but the religious symbolism can be taken further. Firstly, and most clearly, the slogan is directly linked to the three famous Orthodox sister-martyrs, Vera, Nadezhda and Liubov’. While the legend of these sisters is generally something of a cliché, the political party “Женщины России/ Women of Russia” also ran their campaign in the 1993 Duma elections using a reference to the sisters, but updating it to, “вера в человека…надежда на семью…любовь к России”. The message is clear, and the reference to the Orthodox faith is another way of re-iterating the difference between Yeltsin and the communists. The evocation of Orthodoxy would have been popular in a society which was re-discovering its national religion (there are indisputable links between national identity and Orthodoxy in Russia, as will be illustrated later in my series of blogs). Furthermore, the object of Yeltsin’s faith, love and hope remains unidentified, and the use of the first-person singular encourages a sense of self-identification with these sentiments.
While this is only a small example of Yeltsin’s wider campaign strategy, these posters were very important at the time and much-discussed. They still provide a visual interpretation of the PR that was being used, and also feeds into the wider impression that Yeltsin had of him self at that time, as a kind of tsar/patriarch who was a man of the nation. The analysis of this slogan also feeds discussion of the other types of campaign slogans which were used, many of which I hope to discuss in future blog posts.
The final count?
So after three days of intense concentration and a little bit of frustration, I have managed to count how many items are in the ephemera collection (give or take a few rogue ones). So far, it has 1003 items, many of which are tiny bits of paper, all of which have a habit of disappearing from where they are meant to be and turning up in some completely different pile unrelated to them. They have taught me a valuable lesson. This lesson is that, no matter how much attention I think I have paid, small bits of paper have a mind of their own.
In particular, the items of a certain General Sterligov have proved particularly troublesome. Firstly, as it was in the Zhirinovsky/LDPR case, I have no actual way of telling when these little bits of paper are from. Sterligov’s right-wing movement, under the slogan, “The Russians are coming”, was active throughout the whole of the 1990s, but mainly in the earlier part of the decade. The leaflets of Sterligov have turned up in the most unlikely of places, including in election material relating to the Crimea and inside a samizdat journal from 1989. Needless to say, they didn’t belong there and have been placed in their rightful home.
Anyway, I think the ephemera are safely piled up and counted … at least…I hope they are. Most importantly, I am slightly taken aback by the sheer scope of the collection. From Yeltsin’s Presidential campaign posters, to Zhirinovsky bumper stickers; from satirical cartoons to ballot papers giving people the right to decide the fate of the USSR. The collection is truly an amazing physical representation of the historic events which took place between 1987 and 1999. While the tiny, and not so tiny, pieces of paper might not seem at all connected, they are. This is in the sense that, while time has told us that the transition from a communist to a democratic state has been far from perfect, the fact that this ephemera, in all its varying forms, exists at all is a real sign of the changes that have taken place in Russia and the other states of the former USSR. Even if they personally have caused me all sorts of trouble.
Zyuganov and neo-communist nationalism
To continue on from my previous blog post on Yeltsin’s campaign poster, I decided it would be best to put it into perspective, by looking at Zyuganov’s campaign material from the 1996 Presidential election. Examining this material more closely is interesting because it illustrates how this particular election caused the two candidates to change their rhetoric, in order to attract as many voters as possible.
In a nutshell, during his campaign, Zyuganov decided to pursue not only the communist voters, but also the nationalist voters, as this is where his team considered it would be easiest for him to soak up votes from. Using an analysis of the results from the 1995 Duma elections, Zyuganov’s team worked out that the communist and nationalist vote came to 53.3% of the total seats in the parliament; this share of the votes had increased by approximately ten per cent since the last Duma elections in 1993, leading the ideologists to falsely believe that if Zyuganov pursued the nationalist vote, he would most certainly win.
However, I am not interested so much in providing a full story of the failures of the Zyuganov campaign. Instead, I want to look at how the rhetoric of nationalism was used in Zyuganov’s campaign materials, especially looking at some of his very clear deviations from the usual party line, which broadly adhered to Marxist-Leninism. Yitzhak Brudny notes that, in the period leading up to the 1996 Presidential election, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) had effectively split into two parts. One part adhered to the ideals of Marxist-Leninism and still rued Gorbachev-era reforms; the other half was increasingly leaning to neo-communist nationalism (like that seen practiced by the Socialist Party of Serbia in the 1990s). This is clear why the election campaign material from the 1996 Presidential election was so different to previous materials produced by the party. In particular, the KPRF’s attitude to religion in their election manifestoes had completely transformed and was at odds with the Marxist-Leninist teaching on religion; Lenin, for example, supported the idea that religion was the opium of the masses and stressed that every socialist is an atheist.
However, Zyuganov broke with this tradition in his 1996 Presidential election campaign and campaigned under the banner of the “national-patriotic forces”, changing his campaign slogan from the KPRF’s “труд-народовластие-социализм” to “Россия-Родина-Народ”. To reflect further on this shift, I will use some examples from Zyuganov’s campaign materials in the ephemera collection which illustrate a deviation from the atheist norm, while keeping the usual rhetoric about capitalist culture. For example, one manifesto states that, “нынешняя власть уродует души наших детей отравой потребительства, разврата и насилия” and the same leaflet also goes on to warn that, ‘Наша исконная вера – православие – опутана сетями бесовских сект.” While comments on the destructiveness of consumerist culture can be both communist and nationalist (the inference is always that consumerist culture is a by-product of Western culture), the statement has strong nationalist appeal. While Zyuganov does not seem to have overtly come out against religion in his previous campaigns, the idea that a communist would refer to Orthodoxy as “our native faith” would have been unthinkable in the past, as it is at complete odds with the underpinning of communist beliefs. This example shows how Zyuganov had disengaged his Marxist-Leninist roots and tried to engage with nationalist voters and neo-communist nationalists to boost his support base. While Yeltsin tried to present the Presidential campaign as a race to prevent the return of communism, Zyuganov alternatively presented it as a way to save Russia and return her to her past greatness.
Caricatures and the Cold War
This blog post will take a slightly different route than my previous ones. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve mainly been working on the collection of materials from the 1990s, but I’ve had the chance over the last couple of days to look at some of the other items from the Russian ephemera collection. Of particular interest to me are a collection of Cold War-era posters, published between 1962 and 1971. While they clearly don’t represent the cross-section of posters produced during this period, I found them intriguing because there is much less attention paid to Cold War-era posters, than to those created in the immediate post-Revolutionary period and during the Great Patriotic War. Without a doubt, these latter two eras were probably the most prolific time for producing propaganda posters, as this is when active propagandising was most necessary. However, printed propaganda did not die in the Soviet Union with the increase of other forms of mass media. As time has shown, with the increase in accessibility to film and television media, propaganda moved to these formats also, but the ambiguity of certain films allowed room for subtle anti-Soviet digs as well. As O. Savostiuk and B. Uspenskii write in Sovetskii Khudozhnik’s 1984 collection, The Soviet Political Poster, “The Party sees the poster as an important ideological weapon” and the poster is preferred for its “clarity and accessibility of form, its vivacity and authentic national character, and the relative simplicity of preparing large numbers for circulation.”
Instead of describing each poster in detail (even though I would love to, there are 11 in total in the collection), I’m going to discuss some of the recurring themes which I noted in some of the later posters (particularly those from between 1965 and 1971), when the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union on the international stage was really at its peak. The propaganda during this period is focussed on the proxy wars being fought by both sides, although obviously the Soviet propaganda fixates on the US’ role in the wars of Indochina.
Perhaps one thing that fascinated me the most about these posters is the way that the artists have contrasted caricatures and Socialist Realism to denote the difference between enemies and foes. The habit of caricaturing in Soviet began early on, with the most notable examples being those of Hitler in the WWII-era posters, drawn by artists such as the Kukryniksy. However, this practice of caricaturing really makes the Cold War-era posters stick out from the previous examples of Soviet visual propaganda. There is a clearer delineation of who is friend and who is foe in these posters using caricatures, purely because the caricatures really came into their own during this period (previously the posters had been influenced by artist movements such as the avant-garde and also by the lubok style). In the collection of posters, the enemies (invariably Americans and Israelis) are not portrayed in a Socialist Realist style, which is reserved for the friends of the Soviet Union and for victims of what the Soviets perceived as US aggression. Instead the caricatures are constructed on exaggerated stereotypes; there are examples of fat-cat bankers, cigar-chewing G.I s and West Germans donning the uniform of the Nazis.
Another interesting metaphor which developed during the Cold War was the depiction of the US as a vulture. The symbol is stark; a scavenger, the vulture hovers over carcasses of the dead (including on battlefields) waiting to feed off the destruction. While there are no literal carcasses in the Soviet posters, the inference is clear; the US is gorging itself on the victims of its proxy, capitalist wars. This is made even clearer by the fact that the vulture usually wears the helmet of a US G.I, stamped with a dollar sign. Another trait of the vulture is its broad wings, which are useful for sheltering its equally blood-thirsty allies. One poster sees German troops (wearing the aforementioned Nazi uniforms) and Israelis huddling under the wings of the vulture of American imperialism, carrying a variety of weapons and leg chains.
The dollar sign itself is also hugely prominent in these Cold War-era posters. It represents both capitalism and the perception that the US, with its vast wealth, is able to purchase foot-soldiers (via NATO) and even the loyalty of countries themselves. It also reflects on one of the long-standing obsessions of Soviet visual propaganda – rival economies. The posters in the British Library are not only dedicated to warfare, but also mock the slow economies of the US, the FGR and England. When the caricatures of these countries appear, their currency symbol is sure to follow. It is also interesting that the rouble has no kind of prominent international symbol, such as the dollar or the pound. Then again, the Soviets were trying to mark that their power was measured on manpower, and not their ability to buy it. Currency symbols are another metaphor for the supericiality of capitalism.
While the effect of these posters is undoubtedly as comical as they are propagandist, some of the cartoons remain quite menacing. Even within this style of caricaturing, the cartoons are not always figures of amusement. The caricatures of bankers are particularly sinister; they gaze out from the posters with slitted eyes and monstrous disfigurations (one banker appears to have some form of tentacles). Furthermore, the cartoons mark a period where visual propaganda moved away from pure representations of the achievements of the Soviet society, and began to actively portray an exaggerated representation of what was the alternative to communism – the carnivalesque ups-and-downs of capitalism.
“Pop Magazine” and the influx of Western culture
I’m going to return to the 1990s now after my brief trip to the Cold War and talk a little bit about publishing during the early 1990s, especially the publishing of new magazines and newspapers. The Russian ephemera collection has a number of samizdat and other publications from the late 1980s and early 1990s; many of which are dedicated to the discussion of popular music, both domestic and foreign. One of the best examples of the new freedom from censorship during this period is a copy of the music magazine, “Pop Magazine” from 1992. Although it is not possible to find much information on the publication of the magazine, how many issues it produced, or what kind of numbers were circulated, the magazine is interesting because of its unusual focus on pop music, as opposed to rock music.
The “Pop Magazine” in the collection is a representation of what was seen to be the end of the rock-era and the new ability for access to foreign music styles. If in the past, people worshipped Tsoi and Grebenshchikov, the influx of Western culture lead to an increase in exposure to Western pop culture in the early 1990s; a tradition that has pretty much continued until the present day. The edition of “Pop Magazine” in the British Library collection is No. 7 from 1992 and features articles on the Western pop artists, Madonna, Sinead O’Connor and Michael Jackson, as well as many more; the artists featured are a world away from the poetic traditions of Soviet-era rock music. The magazine is full of vivid, American-style graphics with balloon fonts and funky drawings to liven up the pictures and text.
When compared to other materials in the collection, which also includes newspapers on popular music in the late Soviet and post-Soviet period, the magazine is stylistically very different and reflects a shift towards the rising consumerist culture. Furthermore, it is bound like a magazine, instead of being made into a newspaper or a simpler format. This way of publishing it represents the magazine’s desire to look like and feel like a Western publication; this also reflects on its purpose and relationship with the changing historical context. The magazine is filled with glowing articles and descriptions of Western artists, through the reprinting of interviews, gossip and quotes from Western sources. On the other hand, Russian artists are given only a small section at the back of the magazine, suggesting they are less important somehow.
Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the magazine, which clearly underlines the changes that were taking place in post-Soviet media, is the back page of the magazine. This page features calls both for new correspondents and for financial backing from outside sources. The back page also suggests, “А здесь могла быть ваша реклама!!!”, introducing the new business of advertising spaces in media and private ownership and investment into media sources.
As a document, it shows the changing nature of media in the post-Soviet period and is an example of how publishers were trying to adapt to the new free-market capitalism of the 1990s. It is representative of both the freedom that the period introduced, but it also illustrated how the dynamics of the mass media changed. Music publications could no longer rely on and be limited by the State; they were also subject to the volatile nature of capitalism with its emphasis on owners and profit-making. I’ve not yet been able to find out whether “Pop Magazine” found the financial backers and advertising that it needed to keep publishing. It would be interesting to know how they fared!
Posters during perestroika
My final blog post will be a brief continuation on the theme of under-rated Soviet propaganda posters. In my last few weeks at the British Library, I was introduced to the collection of Soviet posters from 1986-1991, which can be found under shelf mark HS.85/19(1-3) in the British Library catalogue. As with the posters from the Cold War, there is very little to be found discussing posters from the perestroika-era. Undoubtedly, it is because everyone was so stunned by the overwhelming changes being made to the political system that propaganda posters seemed to be somewhat insignificant. However, posters were still produced, and while some of them maintained the style of Soviet propaganda that we know well, perestroika is written all over the others. This post will look at how perestroika changed the way that posters depicted environmental disasters.
One of the major things I noticed about this group of posters was the attention paid to environmental issues during the late 80s and early 90s. Many of the posters are dedicated to hot environmental issues, such as the drying-up of the Aral Sea and the pollution of water by waste from factories. Issues of water purity and maintenance were high on the propaganda list of priorities during this time. I found this amazing considering that, not only did previous Soviet propaganda posters not place huge emphasis on issues such as the environment, but also because the posters are distinctly negative about the effects that the USSR’s beloved heavy industry was having on the natural world.
The “Plakat” publishing house, which was attached to the Central Committee of the CPSU, produced a large number of posters related to the environment during this time. While this wasn’t the first time such posters were being produced (for example the V&A Museum in London, amongst others, possesses a poster on the environment from 1976 ), events such as the drying of the Aral Sea and other water sources in the 1980s have become natural disasters synonymous with glasnost and the perestroika period. Films, such as the hugely-popular Igla/The Needle (dir. Rashid Nugmanov, 1988), starring the rock star-campaigner Viktor Tsoi, featured a disturbing scene filmed at the Aral Sea, where the characters wander around the parched wasteland and abandoned ships of what used to be a mighty lake.
The posters also hint at what appears to be a wider war against bureaucrats during this period as the posters also contain pointed attacks on certain areas of the government that they see as being responsible for the mess – in this case, the Minvodkhoz (Ministerstvo melioratsii i vodnogo khoziaistvo), who initially instigated the damaging irrigation system in the 1960s. One of the posters shows a stork standing in a jar of water as a result of the Minvodkhoz effect (the caption reads “Dominvodkhodilis’”). Another refers ironically to the term melioratsiia in the full name of the Minvodkhoz, which is a term from the Latin term melioratio or “improvement”. On the latter poster a fish suffocates in a tiny bowl of water and the names of endangered lakes and rivers surround the fish, suggesting that the ministry’s actions are far from an improvement.
While these posters naturally only represent a small part of the posters being produced during that time, it is interesting to witness how they combined the attack on bureaucracy with an increasing discussion of social issues which came about during glasnost.
Some concluding thoughts
I thought I would write a brief post just to conclude my time at the British Library and to summarise the experience that I had during my time here.
Firstly, I have been amazed by the sheer array of items that the Library holds and this has illustrated both the wealth of knowledge that is available from such institutions, but also the challenges that are faced by curators and cataloguers. This is especially important with the changing types of media which need to be archived, and how to organise, catalogue and preserve these items for future use. The project that I worked on completely illustrated this. The items were individually of huge cultural importance and there were literally thousands of items to be sorted through. The task of deciding how to separate these items in order to make them accessible for Readers was a massive undertaking, let alone ensuring that everything belonged in their correct place.
This basic task of organisation presented some issues, which are not usually envisaged when working with traditional publishing forms. The earliest thing I realised is that ephemera items are literally ephemeral. In most cases, they are designed and function as small flashes in history, which are intended to end up crumpled in people’s pockets or in the bin. Much like when we are handed a leaflet for a protest or rally now, we do just that – put it on our pockets and forget about them. However, these leaflets, flyers and newspapers are important documentation of society during a specific period. Furthermore, almost none of them are dated or even contain much information as to work out who or what period they belong to.
This presented a unique problem in the Russian case. Such was the nature and chaos of political life during the late 1980s and 1990s that the items were all the more ephemeral. Thousands of people and groups were taking advantage of what would have been their first exposure to choice and also their first exposure to an audience.
However, as much as my life has been dominated by identifying where certain items belonged, there was information to be abstracted, summarised and incorporated into the catalogues. The best way to achieve this was by identifying particular names of people, groups and movements, and also by identifying whether the material referred to any larger events such as elections. If there was more detailed information, such as the name of publications, newspapers and newsletters, those could also be listed separately on the catalogue. This has proved particularly effective when dates aren’t visible, but a title might be useful for a researcher.
Finally, I think the placement has illustrated that there is a need to somehow disseminate knowledge that certain resources exist. Many of the items which I worked with are of historical importance and are hugely under-researched. By writing blogs and using social networks such as Twitter, it is possible to alert researchers to the existence of such materials and to expand their reach. While many people write widely on the events of the 1980s and 1990s, many people do not use primary sources for this information, such as the leaflets in the collection. Instead they turn to mainstream secondary sources, facts and figures, when a lot can and should be learned about the kinds of ephemeral material that were in circulation amongst people on the streets. Much can be learned not only from the text on items, but also from the design, font types, colour choices, printing processes and visual elements (especially photographs and illustrations) of these kinds of material. I hope that, in the future, researchers will begin to examine these individual items to ascertain how they were meant to be received and how they shaped the outcomes of the events during the late 1980s and 1990s in Russia.