Tag Archives: Russia

Porcelain Propaganda

I’m thinking about Russia this week for two reasons. In a year of big historical anniversaries, we have now arrived at the centenary of the Russian Revolution–which I must say is not getting much play here, or even in Russia apparently! Regardless of how it turned out in the end, this was an extremely consequential event, almost right up there with Luther’s revolutionary Reformation, which has received some serious commemoration across the globe. It is always interesting to me what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. I’m also thinking about Russia now, because of an event this week sponsored by the Pickering House featuring Ambassador Emeritus Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (under President George H.W. Bush) and Russia (under President Clinton). The title of Ambassador Pickering’s Thursday night talk is Russia and the United States: Marriage, Separation, Divorce? , which sounds very timely indeed. I have to admit that I’m thinking about Russia for a third, much more materialistic reason too: I recently came upon a trove of porcelain propaganda plates from the first decade of the Soviet Union, and I’m obsessed with both the images and the idea of these “vessels”. The idea is so contradictory: porcelain and propaganda? Porcelain is for the elite, propaganda for the masses: why should these two things ever come together? Apparently there is a utilitarian reason: in the years after the Revolution and Civil War, shortages were great and opportunities for projection were few, but when the new government took over the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory it found a ready supply of blank porcelain plates. Russian artists were mobilized to adorn these “canvases” with revolutionary symbols and slogans, a dramatic departure from the Factory’s previous designs: hammers and sickles rather than gilded flowers. The designs are all so striking: some are symbolic, some folkloric, some futuristic, all vivid. Here are a few examples from the Hermitage, which is opening an exhibition next month titled The Voice of the Time. Soviet Porcelain: Art and Propaganda.

PP Red Man Hermitage

PP Red Genius “Red Man” with “All Power to the Soviets” banner, Mikhail Adamovich and Maria Kirillova, 1921; “Red Genius” with the slogan “We will Emblazon the World with the Third International”, Alisa Golenkina, 1920.

PP Star

PP Large Star with a Shief

PP Eat“The Star”, Mikhail Adamovich, 1921; “Large Star with Sheaf “, Nina Zander, Sergey Chekhonin and L.Vychegzhanin, 1921; “Who Does Not Work, Neither Will He Eat”, Maria Lebedeva, 1920.

PP Stir

PP Cup and Saucer
“Stir” Cup & Saucer, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, 1920;  “A Hammer, Sickle, and Gear Wheel” Cup & Saucer, Victor Rilde, 1921-22.

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Soviet Scenery

Despite all the unsettling things about the Sochi Olympics (“urban renewal”, intolerance, dead dogs, slushy snow), I’ve been trying to watch the events pretty consistently–especially skiing and speed skating, which I really enjoy. In general, I prefer the Winter Olympics to the Summer (watching swimming is boring), but there are several things that are really bothering me about these particular games. Actually the first thing is more general than specific: NBC’s coverage, which always annoys me–and they have broadcast the Olympics for as long as I can remember. In prime time, there are far too many commercials, personal stories, and muttering commentators, and not enough consistent coverage of single events–except, of course, figure skating and ice dancing, which I’m not convinced is even a sport (if we have ice dancing in the Winter Olympics shouldn’t we have other types of dancing in the Summer games?)  And by the time I tune in, I know much of what has already happened anyway–this strikes me as an odd way to broadcast a global event in this internet age. The second thing that troubles me about Sochi is its subtropical climate: I still don’t understand why (besides Putin’s will) we are having the Winter games in a city with an average winter temperature of 52 degrees. The mild temperatures and fog seem to have affected the events and the athletes in myriad ways, and obviously Russia has many more winter-appropriate locations.

But what troubles me most of all about these games is the increasing dissonance between the activities in Sochi and what is happening to the north–in the same general Black Sea region–in Ukraine. The juxtaposition between the ringing cattle bells in Sochi and blood in the streets of Kiev is striking, all the more so because of the relative physical proximity and recent historical context. I had been planning to feature some mid-century Winter Olympics posters here, but instead I’m going for posters issued by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency, which beckoned tourists to Ukraine and its surrounding regions just a few years after (or even during?) the dreadful Soviet-induced Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33, which caused the death of over 6 million people (the estimates of mortality vary widely according to source). Such striking, cheerful graphic images: dissonance indeed.

PicMonkey Collage

Soviet Poster Armenia

Soviet Poster Georgia

Soviet Poster Caucusus

Soviet Hunting Poster BPL

Soviet Poster Winter BPL

Soviet Intourist posters from the 1930s from Radio Free Europe; the “See USSR” exhibit at the Gallery of Russian Arts and Design, London; and the Boston Public Library.


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