Magazine

The Soviet Union Through European Eyes?

A look at post-Soviet imagery in Europe

Yelena Kilina

I remember it well: some time ago in England, while skimming through the pages of a history magazine, between stories about the Tudors and the War of the Roses, my eyes stopped on a spread with a blood-red background and a large portrait of Stalin. It was an article on the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Despite the fact that such a tragic topic would make you think more of paying tribute to all the victims, that flash red colour seemed to me, a native of the post-Soviet country of Kazakhstan, more ominous than mournful. In Kazakh media, you would rather see images of warriors who fought against fascism than a portrait of Stalin.

That was perhaps the first time I had the chance to look at the country I was born in from the other side of the Iron Curtain. This got me thinking about the drastic contrast between what I am used to accentuate in Soviet heritage and what mental images dominate in minds of those who often ground their opinions on external, non-endogenous, sources. And, more importantly, this brought me to a question: what do those sources tell us about the standpoints of those who once selected them?

Studying the second semester of the Euroculture master’s programme in Groningen offered me some material to compare how differently we may think about the country that no longer exists, but is still present in our social imaginaries. In fact, even during my first month in Groningen, here and there, I could not help but notice events related to the USSR or Russia! My Euroculture fellows can confirm that our first guest lecture was on Russian statehood memory politics and state TV.

While the lecture was purely academic, better examples of the visual representation of the USSR-related activities could be found outside of academia. For instance, while strolling the streets of Groningen, I saw a poster announcing that Hermitage Amsterdam was about to host an exhibition marking the centenary of the October Revolution or, even better, a student pub was inviting to a Soviet party (“In Soviet Russia party finds you!»).

Photo 1 Soviet party

Soviet Party Poster © Flatbar Selwerd II

Those events sounded too tempting to be missed! I was particularly curious about how the organisers of the party were going to recreate the atmosphere of the Soviet Union almost on the edge of Western Europe.

In the end, it was a time-machine kind of experience! Besides an amusing selection of Russian disco from the 90s (a bit late for the USSR though) and a bartender dressed in a bear costume (I got your point, yet it still seems a bit off-base), the walls of the small pub were covered with posters depicting atomic bombs and political slogans.

Photo 2 Atomic bombs

Poster from the walls of the pub © Yelena Kilina

If was only the bright smile of cosmonaut Gagarin, shining amid that “deadly love”, that gave me a feeling of being back in the U.S.S.R. Or at least the country which I knew through books, magazines and my countrymen’s memories.

Photo 3 Gagarin

Gagarin poster from the pub © Yelena Kilina

 

Since that moment, I have been taking photos of any signs, posters, books – in short, the visual culture – associated with the Soviet Union. 

Photo 4 Power to Soviets

The Hermitage Amsterdam: 1917 Romanovs and Revolution exhibition «All power to the Soviets!» © Yelena Kilina

Photo 6 Terror

The Dutch Resistance Museum; a poster for Terror and Arbitrariness in the Soviet Union exhibition.  © Yelena Kilina

Photo 7 KGB

A pub named KGB in the centre of Bratislava, Slovakia. © Yelena Kilina

As you can see, there is a certain pattern: all the same faces of Stalin and Lenin, the red colour and a heightened sense of anxiety – beware of the Soviet invasion! Perhaps, my perception of that era’s legacy is too biased, or perhaps it’s vice versa?

Just to put that in perspective, here is a photo of a mosaic in my hometown: broken lines and a bold combination of colours refer to the Russian avant-garde, you may also see a rocket on the right and the peaceful atom just below the rocket.

Photo 8.jpg

A mosaic in my hometown © Yelena Kilina

Another example of a Soviet mosaic was photographed at the railway station in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The right panel represents the happy builders of socialism, while the left one shows a family as a symbol of the friendship of peoples. Aww, have a look at the child in the mother’s arms: like father like son!

Photo 9.jpg

Soviet mosaic in Astana © Yelena Kilina

This snapshot is from the Minsk National airport. Although the photo was taken in August, the poster commemorates the 9th of May, Victory Day. No Stalin by the way, only the words «”I remember, I am proud of».

Photo 10

Victory Day poster at Minsk Airport © Yelena Kilina

And this photo I took a couple of days ago right at the university.

Photo 11

Poster for a Russian language tutor © Yelena Kilina

The choice of clichés the Russian tutor chose to draw attention to the ad may possibly tell us what Russians highlight in their culture themselves. The first dimension is inevitably cultural: Tolstoy’s most famous novel, War and Peace, and the so-called «sun of Russian poetry», Alexander Pushkin.

The second one affirms traditions, both Russian (a nesting doll and bast shoes) and a common one for many post-Soviet countries: a bowl of borsch and a very typical carpet.

Personally, I don’t really enjoy seeing vodka and «a young member of the lower class» in that picture, but that is just matter of taste.

As for Putin and a tank – maybe you could help me with ideas of where to place them? Does it make sense to you, or is it another lingering Soviet stereotype here? Let me know in the comments below what group/s you think we should categorise them into!

To be clear, I am not saying that Stalin and Lenin didn’t exist in the USSR, or that red is not a pretty colour. I’m not even saying that you should never make fun of stereotypes.

However, my point is that there is no need to be that predictable in replicating clichés once used for dividing Europe into two separate areas. The Soviet concept of the friendship of peoples didn’t go very far from the idea of a united Europe, and the Soviet women being portrayed as politically active members in the early 20th century art should not feel very foreign to those interested in the 4th wave of feminism today.

 

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