In 1989, an exhibition of 75 posters never before seen outside of the Soviet Union not only helped put rare Russian graphic design in the public eye, but it also helped launch AIGA’s San Diego chapter. As one of its founders, I can vouch for the fact that we were a passionate group that didn’t shy away from big ideas. Situated almost 3,000 miles from national headquarters in New York, we were eager to stick a pin in the southwestern-most point of AIGA’s map. Poster Art of the Soviet Union: A Window Into Soviet Life was presented in conjunction with Treasures of the Soviet Union, a three-week citywide arts festival held in 1989. Today, these posters provide a profound look back at life in the former Soviet Union.
As author and design historian Steve Heller wrote in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, “This Window Into Soviet Life signifies another revolution as significant as the one of 1917. The democratic sentiments… emblazoned on some of the posters and implied in all the others is a dangerous step for this behemoth nation and its new courageous leaders. These posters are not just examples of excellence in design, but are evidence of great social upheaval. As I admire these images, I hope that history will not repeat itself, and that these posters will not become the artifacts of a betrayed revolution.”
At that time in the late 80s, securing the posters and getting them to San Diego was an ambitious undertaking and very timely. Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were waning. Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, initiated radical decentralization policies known as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his second term as president of the United States. In his famous “Tear down this wall!” speech on June 12, 1987, Reagan called for Gorbachev to open the Berlin Wall. In November 1989, while our exhibition was underway, the barrier that had divided East and West Berlin since 1961 was opened and people were allowed to pass freely.
This was before email and the internet when it helped to know somebody who knew somebody. Ron Miriello, who spearheaded the project as exhibition chair, reached out to his former professor, Philip Risbeck, head of the graphic design program at Colorado State University. Risbeck, himself a poster designer, offered to serve as liaison to Oleg Savostiuk, secretary of the Union of Soviet Artists, with whom he had judged international poster competitions. After months of uncertainty, Miriello received a call from Risbeck saying that the posters had shipped two months earlier. Savostiuk collected and curated the posters, all of which were designed from 1986–1989 by union members.
After a year of intense planning, fundraising, and behind the scenes negotiations, 108 posters packed in a wooden crate covered in Cyrillic lettering finally arrived from Moscow. There was just enough time for the posters to be translated, photographed, and framed before the opening at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Both Risbeck and Savostiuk came to the opening, and extended a symbolic hand of friendship between designers of the previously estranged superpowers.
The posters reveal “the diversity and exuberance absent from Soviet design for many decades,” wrote Heller. Imagery ranged from realistic paintings, photographs, and cartoon renderings to highly graphic and stylized interpretations. Text was set in Cyrillic, primarily in sans serif typefaces with scattered instances of serif and decorative display types as well as hand-drawn lettering. All of the posters were printed in color by offset lithography and ranged from spot color to four-color process with red, not surprisingly, being favored. Intention was at times patriotic and celebratory, straightforward and informative, and sometimes critical.
The 75 posters were organized into three distinct categories as shown here: political themes, social issues, and the arts and were seen by as many as 15,000 visitors. After it closed on January 7, 1990, the framed posters were packed in crates for a two-year tour that traveled to AIGA chapters in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle, Jacksonville, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta. When the posters returned to San Diego they were placed in storage until 2014 when Miriello acquired the collection in an effort to keep the posters together. Now his goal is to once again provide contemporary audiences with a unique angle into a dramatic time in Soviet history and the role graphic design played in communicating the new policies of glasnost and perestroika while also documenting the results of a country in the process of redefining itself.
Thinking back on Heller’s 1989 catalog essay, I asked him what he thought now, 26 years later. “Sadly, history has given Vladmir Putin to the Russian people. Maybe it was inevitable. But also inevitable is the fact that designers and artists will continue to protest attacks on their freedom.”