As Russia marks the 20th anniversary of both the failed communist putsch to overthrow Gorbachev and, more notably, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chicago is in the midst of its “Soviet Arts Experience”: a 16-month-long artistic celebration of arts created “under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union.” Featuring music, dance, literature, theater, and visual arts, the Soviet Arts Experience is a festive orgy of Soviet culture.
One of the highlights of this extravaganza was the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit of Soviet propaganda posters from the WWII era, “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–1945.” During the opening days of the exhibit I went with a Russian ex-pat friend to take in these towering pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.
As we slowly worked our way through the exhibit, which features over 150 stenciled and painted posters, my friend’s mood became more introspective and solemn. He stood reverent before many works—studying, searching, and occasionally muttering something in Russian to himself.
Designed to be displayed in shop windows and storefronts to rouse citizens’ spirit of solidarity, the simple brilliance of the TASS posters are their direct, often visceral, appeal to the citizen’s responsibility to his historical forbears; his responsibility to his comrades and country and his responsibility to a victorious communist future. The posters gave citizens a concrete purpose for which to live, work, and fight.
Towards the end of the exhibit, we arrived at a large poster praising the Soviet youth as the bright future of the Soviet Union. Titled "Glory to the Soviet Youth!", the poster portrays cheery young people standing before Soviet flags, gazing and smiling into the distance, the future.
“That was the promise,” my friend whispered, stone-faced. “Growing up we had hope, even in the 80s. We knew things weren’t perfect—there were problems. But I had a good childhood. I went to school. We always had what we needed. And we had a dacha outside Moscow where we would go for weekends and during the summer to swim, hike, hunt, and pick berries—it was beautiful. It’s like the people said in the documentary My Perestroika—many of the problems came after ’89. But, still, we never really experienced glory.”
After the exhibit we headed to Russian Tea Time. We drank plenty of vodka, ate some borscht and vareniky, and discussed my friend’s upcoming trip to Russia. While he was excited to see his family and visit Moscow, he was less excited about what contemporary Russia had—or hadn’t—become. Why, I ask. “False promises, corruption, crazy consumerism…all of it. It’s just not the same.”
He paused and took a shot of vodka. “But at least the women are still beautiful."