Show Hide image

Abandoned dreams

<strong>Red Star Over Russia: a Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin<

David King is, rather quietly, a very important designer. He made his name in the 1960s and 1970s on the Sunday Times Magazine, the first major colour supplement. There, he used an updated adaptation of 1920s modernism, all clear blocks of text and colour, sans serifs, empty space - to lay out some justly famous works of photojournalism. He also lent his talents to activism, as designer of the red-and-yellow arrow logo for the Anti-Nazi League, one of Britain's few instantly recognisable political symbols.

Around the same time, King assembled a vast archive on the Soviet Union which soon found its way into book form. Trotsky: a Photographic Biography began by trying to find images of this once poorly documented revolutionary, proving that "there were more photos of Trotsky than of Marilyn Monroe". The Commissar Vanishes was a "before and after" compilation of photographs retouched by the Stalinists, and the recent Ordinary Citizens a chilling catalogue of mugshots from Stalin's purges.

Yet, for design enthusiasts, King's great contribution has been in leasing out his collection of Soviet posters, magazines and proclamations to Tate Modern. For the past few years a shifting wall display there has been devoted to the cataclysmic meetings of politics and aesthetics in this now-defunct country's early years. Red Star Over Russia finally pulls these ephemera together in an enormous book. In a short introduction King offers some alternately melancholic and hilarious anecdotes about how he found some of this historically invaluable tat: spied upon in 1970s Moscow, watching previously unimaginable fights on the Metro three decades later and, most memorably, receiving a porcelain Trotsky mug from a Communist Party leader who had previously told him in no uncertain terms that he owned no Trotsky material - in exchange for enough money to keep the Morning Star going.

The new book is a chronological archive of a period through its discarded, mass-produced matter. Although most of it is now so rare as to give it retrospective value, it is almost all meant to serve a very definite purpose and be thrown away - shoddy handbills that proclaimed the October Revolution, creased and rotting photos, utilitarian posters put up in factories for a couple of months. This is a materialist history through a people's detritus.

By running from 1917 to Stalin's death in 1953, Red Star Over Russia charts a promise and its brutal betrayal. Today we remember mainly the latter, but here the dream of a new society is equally vivid. King shows many posters, almost all for the Bolsheviks (with a couple of exceptions, such as a grotesquely anti-Semitic poster for the "White armies" of the civil war). The Bolsheviks could do kitsch as well as any other movement, and there are rosy-cheeked peasant girls and musclebound workers all present and correct - but also posters for which supposedly recherché artistic movements such as cubism and futurism are adapted into works that are immediate in their impact without patronising the (often illiterate) viewer. Many photographs depict the workers, whose state this supposedly was, in the years of revolution and civil war. They are a curious lot, with their moustaches and shabby uniforms, often looking askance at the camera, but there is an overwhelming sense of a people stepping confidently into history, making their betrayal all the more poignant.

There are many sly or shocking juxtapositions - glamorous, futuristic film posters and clunky folk art, official portraits and samizdat photos, a beautiful constructivist city of the future below a psychotic typographic poster warning against "class aliens and hostile elements, degenerates, opportunists, double-dealers, careerists, bureaucrats, self-seekers and morally decayed persons". The tension between the promise and its betrayal becomes especially sharp at the turn of the 1930s, when the five-year plans were advertised by the Soviet avant-garde at its wild, technocratic peak, as in El Lissitzky's "unstoppable" frieze for the 1928 Cologne "Pressa" exhibition, this at the exact point where the Soviet bureaucracy perfects a grotesque edifice of slave labour and compulsory jollity.

The second, under-remarked-upon element of Soviet aesthetics marks much of Red Star. An illegally taken photograph of an NKVD Gulag is shocking, not for its bleakness, but for the cut-outs of grinning secret policemen, its portraits of kindly yet stern leaders, its tinselly decorations. The flipside is the mugshots of the defendants in Stalin's show trials. In the most unnerving of them, Grigory Zinoviev, former chairman of the Communist International, has the most extraordinary expression on his face. No doubt having recently been tortured, he glowers at the camera, seethingly angry, yet somehow mordant and unsurprised. Red Star Over Russia refreshingly avoids fashionable fatalism about the allegedly inevitable betrayal of all revolutions, but, at the end, it is Zinoviev's face that haunts you.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression