It’s remarkable how a graphic style that emerged 100 years ago from a backdrop of political turmoil, seismic societal shifts, and radical ideologies can still feel as aesthetically visceral today as then. The 1917 October Revolution in Russia ushered in many changes; and perhaps the only of those to not have fallen out of favor is its distinct graphic style. The clear lines, abstracted shapes, bold palettes, and photomontages of the era have made revolution era graphics a perennially popular design touchstone, and have become an intrinsic part of the fabric of our countercultural visual lexicon.

In a nutshell, the revolution saw the incumbent Czarist regime overthrown, and replaced with the Bolsheviks’ communist state, led by Vladimir Lenin. By 1918, civil war broke out and raged for several years as the “Reds” fought the counterrevolutionary “Whites”, who were eventually overthrown by their rivals, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed in 1922.

After Lenin’s death in 1924 he was replaced by Joseph Stalin, who became gradually more controlling of his citizens and party, and led the Great Purge from 1934-39 in which millions of members of his party, government, armed forces, and intelligentsia were imprisoned, exiled, or executed if he deemed them “enemies of the working class.” Russia also suffered a vast famine in the early 1930s following Stalin’s upheavals in agriculture and food production.

However, the early days of Soviet rule were characterized by hope and idealism. The Russian people had seen the power of uprising against historical precedents, and the new regime was formed in the name of making a fairer and more just society.

This duality is just part of the story behind what’s made Russian revolution graphic design so continually compelling. No other political movement has captured the visual imagination like it, and the era produced some of the most forward-thinking and original concepts in graphics, art, and architecture of the 20th century: El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko’s painterly geometries; the architectural visions of Nikolay Ladovsky, Nikolay Sokolov, the Vesnin brothers, and Konstantin Melnikov; the photomontages of Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina. Their impact has been clear in graphic design since, whether in the 1970s celebrations of the Russian avant-garde (spearheaded by the Hayward Gallery’s 1971 show Art in Revolution), to the campy geometric costumes and choreography of 1980s performance artists like Klaus Nomi, to Neville Brody’s designs for The Face magazine, to contemporary album sleeve designs—Franz Ferdinand’s cover for You Could Have It So Much Better is an almost direct facsimile of Rodchenko’s portrait of Russian writer and muse Lilya Brik.

The revolution arrived at a time when the power of graphic design was being harnessed by brands, governments, and political movements globally in the name of ideological persuasion. The Soviet government was keenly aware of this, and brought in some of the most visionary creative minds to aid its own ambitions. Their work has shaped how we have experienced politics and society ever since.

This rich and urgent period of creativity is being honored by a slew of art and design exhibitions in 2017, marking the revolution’s centenary, at sites including MoMA in New York, London’s Royal Academy, The British Library, Tate Modern, and Hermitage Amsterdam, to name a few.

Gustav Klutsis, Architectural Study, 1920-1921

The curator of the Romanovs and Revolution exhibition at Amsterdam’s Hermitage museum, Vincent Boele, was keen to demonstrate the contrasts in pre- and post-revolution aesthetics in St. Petersburg.

“Before then, St. Petersburg was a a city as luxurious as Berlin, London, Paris, or Vienna, and that’s what we wanted to depict: you could buy anything, you could go to all kinds of churches,” he says. “The events that followed were a huge contrast to this luxurious city.”

For Boele, the graphics of the time are particularly relevant to his Dutch audience. “In The Netherlands we’ve always liked clear lines and clarity in graphic design,” he says. “The Russians gave new ways of expressing this and it really appealed to Dutch graphic designers like Piet Zwart and artists like Mondrian. Very soon after these things were being produced in Russia you were seeing similar designs elsewhere.”

Red Army poster, courtesy of the British Library

Eszter Steierhoffer, the curator of Imagine Moscow at London’s Design Museum, is effusive about the revolution’s stance as “an heroic moment in architectural and design history.” She’s keen to demonstrate that such designs weren’t merely propaganda tools, but displayed a new kind of idealism imagined through graphic imagery and public space. “The designers tried to create literally a blueprint for society, and find the most appropriate spaces to reform design itself,” she explains. “It’s not quite as black and white as people might think.”

The shades of gray she hints at are born of the Soviet government’s understanding of the power of design not to just promote politics, but to become political themselves. The Constructivist philosophy, which originated before the revolution in 1913, emphasized the role of art and design in social and public life, and a whole new crisp, geometrically informed graphic language soon came into play through poster designs, pamphlets, and even homeware and textiles. Creative disciplines were merging in new ways, too: Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Popova all worked successfully across art, design, and architecture; while Nikolay Sokolov started out as a graphic artist, designing posters and magazines, before turning to architecture.

Graphic design of the time evolved from more decorative, traditional Russian style into imagery created to be as arresting and legible as possible for a mass audience. This bold, simple visual language placed the viewer front and center, and designers actively considered practicalities like the speed at which people would walk past an image, the width of the street, and how well it was lit. A key innovation was the widespread use of photomontage, particularly after the death of Lenin. Elena Sudakova, director and principal curator of London’s Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, explains that there were so few images of Lenin available that designers were forced to “recreate” his image through multiplying a single photograph.

“The state took the idea of visual language very seriously,” says Sudakova. “They believed that with the birth of a new state people needed a new language, and so a new visual language. That gave avant-garde artists a new freedom. Unfortunately it didn’t last long, but it was so influential.”

Front cover of first Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago. Courtesy of the British Library .

While advertising and film posters were already becoming an established medium, the infancy of graphic design as a primary communication tool is hinted at through a recurrent motif in Russian posters: a depiction of someone shouting their message, often through a megaphone. It’s as though designers were looking for a way to render traditional verbal and aural communications into a 2-D format, proving that imagery can shout just as effectively as an individual, and to a greater number.

With the new Russian republic spanning 11 different time zones and many remote regions, a key focus for these graphics was to fight widespread illiteracy in the years following the Bolshevik revolution. Maxim Lituak’s 1925 poster Citizens… Listen and take notice that there is a library in every dining car, delineates the Soviet solution to try and educate through its train network.

What’s so striking about designs like these is how modern they feel, and also the fact that “the ideas they were grappling with at the time are the issues we’re still addressing today: the nature of communication, globalization, gender politics, body politics, the representation of power,” as Steierhoffer puts it. A new aesthetic language that began with the Constructivists had suddenly collided with a widespread sense of optimism about a new regime. This marriage of two decisive moments is what made the designs so impactful, according to Katya Rogatchevskaia, lead curator of the British Library’s Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths.

“It was almost lucky for the state that a change in artistic style coincided with a society starting from scratch,” she says. “The energy in the hope that people put into the new Communist state helped the artists, and in turn the energy of the artists’ work helped the state. I think we can still feel that energy.”

Design, art, and architecture were questioning traditional attitudes, presenting new models for communal living, mechanization, mass communication, and the role of women in society. There was a huge drive to emancipate women from their inherited domestic roles, leveling the gender divide in issues like cooking, cleaning, and childcare. It seems startlingly progressive, and while these unrealized Communist ideals would have certainly banished gender inequalities, they were geared towards getting more women in the workforce working for the state, one of the cornerstones of the republic’s new economic model.

In 1932 the government commissioned an illustration album called Women in the Construction of the USSR, which was designed to show women as newly liberated through education, work, and the effects of communal living in Soviet society. According to the state’s leaders, they had opened up new possibilities for “self definition” for the Soviet woman, and made her “the most liberated woman in the world.” Ultimately, leaders looked to propagate the idea that allegiance to the state was more important than focusing on institutions like family, marriage, and religion.

One product of this drive for equality was the emergence of some highly influential work by female designers. Vera Gitsevich, for instance, was pioneering in her use of photomontage, while Valentina Kulagina became central to the Constructivist movement, producing numerous poster, book, and exhibition designs, sometimes alone and sometimes with her husband (and former tutor at state-run art school VKhUTEMAS), Gustav Klutsis. Among her talented Russian avant-garde peers were Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova, Aleksandra Ekster, Varvara Stepanova, Lyubov Popova, and  Maria Bri Bein, who created distant, painterly poster designs including the 1939 poster Long live the equal woman of the USSR. The image shows a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers and casting her vote. Created while Stalin was firmly in power, her image reveals the double standards that soon came into play when in 1935 the leader felt that socialism had been achieved, after which women became less important to industrial production. From then on, women were depicted less as industrious workers and increasingly placed back in more traditional roles as wives and mothers.

Under the new Soviet government, the role of men was being reimagined just as much as that of women, as the designs of the time attest. Perhaps the most blatant presentation of Soviet ideals of the “new man” as embracing a sort of mechanical perfection is in El Lissitzky’s designs for Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. The production initially used actors when it debuted in 1913, but these were later replaced with mechanical puppets that echoed the Soviet drive to model its citizens into efficient products of the revolution.

So what is it about the Russian revolution era graphic style that’s made it so enduring? “There’s a sense of nostalgia, but it looks to the future,” says Steierhoffer. “Before the revolution, artists were working with the bourgeoisie so they wanted to talk about the legacy of the past. Then after the Bolshevik revolution there was a drastic break and they looked to the future. Today, we still have a nostalgia for a future that we can’t see.”