CLINTON — A revolution, to succeed, requires imagination and energy. A dictatorship, to endure, requires their suppression. These sadly parallel truths have no clearer demonstration than the course of Soviet visual culture. During the 1920s, film, photography, and graphic design were as radical in the Soviet Union as the political ideology — and vastly more influential. All too soon artistic ferment gave way to conservatism and fear, then careerism and kitsch. Actually, considering the rote drabness of Soviet-era fine and applied art, kitsch rather flatters.
The 53 posters in “Darker Shades of Red: Official Soviet Propaganda From the Cold War” are from the four decades following World War II. They make plain just how distant a memory those first heady years had become. The show, which runs at the Museum of Russian Icons through Aug. 30, also includes several dozen examples of agitprop ephemera, ranging from medals and pins to banners and children’s books. A Sputnik music box, from 1957, is so charming it is (you’ll pardon the expression) out of this world.
The posters are as inept at advocacy as they are at art. A two-panel cartoon from 1970 — “These Generous Kopecks and Rubles Led the Boy to This!” — suggests that indulgent grandparents are leading to the dissipation of Soviet children. Huh? A poster from 1981 (1981!) uses rhetoric and imagery that were already obsolete a half century earlier: “Here is the wisdom of a bright future: Our train, fly forward!/ Their horse squeaks and cannot move on wasted steam.” No, it can’t — that wasted steam will get you every time — and a sclerotic system can’t produce anything other than sclerotic messages, sclerotically executed.
Yet out of such grindingly tired graphic design emerges fascinating social history. Here is a unique window on Soviet life. The sheer unreality of how authorities wanted it to be seen suggests just how bankrupt the system was.
There are things in “Darker Shades of Red” one might expect — cosmonauts, attacks on alcohol abuse, an indomitable-looking Fidel Castro, a no-less-indomitable-looking Lenin. There are also things one would not. A border guard has the bulging-balloon body of a figure by Fernando Botero. Coincidence or homage? What about the vaguely Pop-looking Marx in a 1978 poster? A cowboy riding an equine H-bomb recalls Slim Pickens’s bucking-bronco exit in “Dr. Strangelove.” A poster singles out polluters for criticism. As for the elongated fellow from 1986 in “After Work, To the Stadium!,” his wasp waist, cheery expression, and bell bottoms easily match — and maybe exceed — the goofiness of the poster’s title.
The first image to greet visitors is a portrait of Stalin, from around 1950. Shown at his most Uncle Joe avuncular, the great man gazes off in the middle distance — at the shining socialist future, presumably. A trio of famous forebears in the background look off in the same direction. The text reads, “Hail to the Great and Undefeated Banner of Marx-Engels-Lenin!”
Image, words, message — the whole package — it’s all so . . . inert. Propaganda can be predictable. Propaganda can be simplistic. Propaganda can be derivative. In fact, propaganda is probably most effective when it’s predictable, simplistic, and derivative. Those qualities make it reassuring (an unspoken end of propaganda) as well as rousing. It shares those qualities with pornography — and, as with pornography, inertness is death to propaganda.
The similarity doesn’t end there. Both propaganda and pornography flirt with the ridiculous: Excess is the path to success. But if either becomes outright ridiculous, the jig is up. So the idea of a poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of Soviet border security is bad enough. Giving that poster the title “Glory to Our Border Patrol Soldiers, the Keen Guardians of the Soviet Borders 1921-1946” is worse. Worst of all, though, is the schlubby-mannequin look of the two guards. This isn’t the artificiality of socialist realism. This is the artificiality of socialist self-parody.
Not that we in the West should feel superior. It’s true that capitalist propaganda — it’s called advertising — has always been done with much more skill and verve. But is that necessarily a good thing? “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them,” Lenin famously declared. He was wrong, of course. We’re selling it to ourselves.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.