Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A traveling design show toured the U.S. 25 years ago to shed light on Soviet city life under a failing but reforming government.
Even in the final years of the Soviet Union, the day-to-day life of an average person in the communist state remained a mystery to curious Americans. In 1989, a poster show helped fill in the gaps.
In the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to acknowledge the country’s economic limitations and poor living standards, ushering in economic reforms (“perestroika”) and government openness (“glasnost”). A new era of relative transparency meant acknowledging the ills of urban life, including housing shortages, pollution, and low birthrates. The Soviet government, as it always did, used posters to share their new message. But this time, the posters also made their way into the United States.
Poster Art of the Soviet Union: A Window Into Soviet Life, was assembled by the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in 1989. After closing in 1990, the show made its way to AIGA chapters around the country from Seattle to Atlanta.
It was put together by Ron Miriello, a founding board member of AIGA San Diego. Through a former professor of his, Miriello was able to coordinate with Oleg Savostiuk, the secretary general of the Union of Soviet Artists at the time. Savostiuk secured authorization to have the posters exhibited, curated the show, and personally appeared at its opening.
“There was a giddy excitement about the West getting to know Russia as a friend rather than a foe,” says Miriello. “Today, in the era of Putin, we might look back on this time as a lost opportunity.”
The posters, which tackle politics as well as social and artistic issues, were all designed between 1986 and 1989 by union members. Their message was revolutionary. Steven Heller describes them in the exhibit catalogue as “a dangerous step for this behemoth nation” and “not just examples of excellence in design, but… evidence of great social upheaval.”
A handful of the 75 posters from the show (which can be seen at SovietPosterShow.com) tackle issues dealing with life in the typical Soviet city. The designs fit the message of an old regime trying to reform itself, a “combination of posters that are supporting the status quo, and posters that are expressing individuality, defiance, and opening of culture to the West,” says Miriello.
The collection has been in storage since the end of its tour in 1992. Miriello is now looking for universities and museums who may want to put them on exhibit as a way of understanding a place that, in its past and current form, maintains an aura of mystery to Americans.
“It’s easy to look at these images and try to interpret their visuals and their typography,” says Miriello. “But essentially, it is still a country and subject matter shaded in darkness.”
All posters courtesy Ron Miriello and the Soviet Poster Show.