Simple things like a block of soap and some boiled water were all a Soviet soul needed to prevent a cataclysm, the visual materials shown before bedtime and glued all around the city etching instructions for resilience into memory
As Noviy God (the Russian New Years’ celebration) came and passed, I found myself trying to analyze the year that has been.
New Years’ is the holiday when I always feel most strongly connected to my Soviet roots. I recall the last days of 2019, when my mother pulled out her phone and began reading up on what the Chinese zodiac of 2020 would bring. Reading the Russian text aloud in a skeptic tone over a cutting board covered with ingredients for the traditional olivye salad, she noted that the Year of the Rat would be one filled with tribulations, but ones we would make the most out of.
The Soviet Union, and the Communist Revolution for that matter, nurtured a profound tradition of using visual art in the face of oncoming trouble. Dating to the earliest years of the State, propaganda was used not just as a method of recruitment, but also as a mode of education in which simplicity, catchiness and solemn messaging intertwined with near-unforgettable imagery. As my mother put it, “Even the stupidest could understand what was going on.”
The tradition of using posters as a form of messaging to the people was born during the earliest stages of Soviet power. In the midst of the Russian Revolution, the Tsarist telegraph agency was seized by the Bolsheviks and transformed into the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) which would communicate directly with the Soviet people. Eventually, the ROSTA was reformed into the TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union), which still operates today under the Russian government. ROSTA and TASS would produce thousands of pieces of visual communication throughout their years of operation, but even more significant were the groups of artists who actively participated in creating the messages.
A Soviet soldier dies of dysentery
Agitprop (the Russian abbreviation for agitation propaganda) was first transformed into a medium by the artists of the Okna ROSTA collective, who used an original stenciling method that allowed for quick reproduction. Russian historians note that the Okna ROSTA group, which was made up of poets and artists, strongly believed in restoring the national economy, strengthening literacy, and upholding a new socialist culture. Okna, which translates to English as ‘windows’ (and rosta, ‘growth’), refers to the way in which the propaganda was displayed: glued into large display windows throughout city streets.
The Soviet Union was born with multiple problems on its hands. Poverty and inequality reigned throughout Tsarist Russia, making low standards of education (mainly – illiteracy), famine, and poor living conditions the status quo for the peasant class. Along with liberation, certain standards of life had to be fixed to create the ‘the new Russian’.
Disinformation also meant illness spread quickly in disadvantaged areas – records show diseases such as dysentery, typhus, syphilis, and cholera claiming the lives of many Russians in the early years of the USSR’s rule. Actions needed to be taken in order to rehabilitate and standardize the Soviet person’s health, life span, and outwardly projected image.
The “New Soviet Man” (or, Woman) was an ideological framework conceived by Communist sociologists, wherein the Soviet citizen would be healthy (ideologically and physically) and exist within a ‘sphere of culture’ (kul’tura) which would directly promote State policies. In this case, and in the case of poets and artists like the Okna ROSTA group, culture, the Socialist peoples, and ideology were classified as one and the same. Trotsky himself wrote about the “higher social biologic type” – wherein the Soviet person was advanced not only in their societal standing and cultural positioning, but in their personal health as well.
But enough of the agitprop. Thirty years after the dissolution of the USSR, all of this redness and blaring trumpets in the form of wedges have somehow leaked into my life. The memory of life behind the Iron Curtain is something that I live with, despite having been born in the ‘enemy land’. The communication agencies of those times were focused on re-education and the implementation of a socialist culture. The only thing that was known for certain back then was that posters would be made, and the people would collectivize to fight whatever trouble that would arise. Maybe it was intended for the images they produced to leave an imprint on the minds of Soviet citizens and their children. Freud discussed human memory in comparison to the unique invention of the Wunderblock (a “mystic writing pad”); despite the infinite writing and erasing on the top layer of the pad, each mark is left for eternity on the bedrock of one’s psyche.
Like any other child of Odessan origin, it often feels like a knee-jerk instinct to mention where my family is from. The streets in Odessa are wide, flanked by Milanese-style buildings and canopied with Acacia trees. The Black Sea is regarded as the holiest body of water in the world. Upon discussion of the city with a friend from St. Petersburg, the term “provincial” was used to describe my ancestral homeland; I am not sure I will ever get over this offensive terminology. Odessans who leave Odessa simply never forget it, constantly bringing up memories from the place. And in the same sense, when Odessans are reminded of pandemics, they instantly refer to the cholera epidemic of 1970.
My parents were both children when cholera hit Odessa. It was the peak of summer vacation, when relatives from other cities flooded over to get suntans and eat rachki (little prawns) or kukuruza (corn on the cob) on the beach. This cholera strain, which was new at the time, turned the beautiful Odessan summer into one rife with anecdotes, like my paternal grandmother throwing chocolates over a tall quarantine-zone fence to a St. Petersburgian aunt.
News of the epidemic was locked within the confines of the city. As if Odessa wasn’t closed off enough from the Western world, the Soviet authorities shut down the port and instigated a mass, multiple-month-long treatment campaign.
After much questioning of my parents’ remembrances, I was disappointed to discover that not much was ingrained in their memories when it came to the details of agitprop that hung around their locales. I will have to give them a free pass for this one because they were too busy living life rent-free. The posters, which were still being distributed in the 1970s, were displayed in street windows or long corridors, and even decorated the pages of personal calendars. By the mid century, slogans became less harsh as the darkest materials were shown to people much earlier. The work of planting the seeds of ideology carried out in the first half of the decade. Soviet people had already accepted the standards set in place through agendas aiming to construct a new nation. I think my parents’ forgetfulness can be attributed instead to the subconscious space inherited agitprop already took up in their minds.
In order to understand the older generation exposed to these “seeds”, I talked to my best friend’s grandmother, Raya. Raya is a child of World War II. Born in a small Belarussian town, she moved to Minsk at the age of 6 and in the 1980s, immigrated with her husband and daughter to the Chicago area. As I found out, Raya’s memory of her experiences in the USSR is very sharp. Mass illness surrounded Raya’s early childhood: polio, tuberculosis, and scarlet fever propelled mantras about hand-washing to be drilled into the minds of children by way of posters, children’s books, and pictures of bacteria under a microscope on palms.
In 1970, Raya and her husband, Mark, traveled to Odessa for a summer vacation. She still remembers this intensely frightening time. The couple experienced 40 days of Odessan entrapment, during which their weights plummeted due to lack of funds and access to food disinfectant. The Soviet authorities would shoot at the tires of any cars trying to leave the city. Fruits and vegetables were diligently washed with boiled water and then peeled.
The illness was never outwardly and openly referred to as cholera by the authorities, who dubbed it simply as a ‘gastro-intestinal illness’. It’s not insignificant that in the 1970s, the USSR was shifting their foreign policy to adapt to the Cold War strategies of the era. The State wanted to become a superpower in world medicine and thus, rejoined the World Health Organization.
After the cholera outbreak in Odessa, my mother wholly abandoned drinking from the communal sparkling water machines (with one glass cup for all). And after immigrating, long before COVID-19, she would use Clorox wipes to disinfect her entire row on airplanes.
In an effort to further expand on experiences outside of my family’s own, I asked a namesake of mine to comment. Svetlana, who was born and raised in Nikolayev, Ukraine and immigrated to Northern Israel in the ‘90s described a health-related poster from her memory in which a Red Army soldier calls the Soviet people to action. Svetlana tells me, her keyboard clicking on the other end of the line as she scours the internet for an image of the poster, “You know, the government was just so full of fear… there was no trust in them. That’s why people took things into their own hands to fight disease.” She later sent me the poster she had described; it was from the early 20th century, with no clear Bolshevik in sight.
Dr. Victor Novack, Head of the Research Authority at Soroka University Medical Center and its epidemiology unit currently fighting COVID-19, explained to me that Russians understand and experience pandemics, and international cataclysms, differently. According to his statistical studies, and to my chagrin, it is not just visual culture which impacts perceptions, but also an ethnically-rooted resilience. The doctor theorized that Russians are among the communities with the lowest coronavirus infection rates in Israel and may owe more to general cold nature as a people, one that causes members to naturally maintain physical distance from others.
Dr. Novack is originally from Moscow and immigrated to Israel at the age of 19. Even after forty years in Israel, he claims there are certain things regarding personal hygiene, illness, and the Soviet people that remain deeply ingrained in his consciousness. The Moscow underground of those years, characterized by a specific perfume attributed to once-a-week access to bathing, left an indelible mark on his mind.
A view of the interior of the Mayakovskaya station of the Moscow subway system, 1985
Nonetheless, I felt that during my conversation with this professor of medicine, one who views the human as a physical mass to be examined, the validity of my visual-cultural perspective gained one small win. Although he rejected my claims of a visual culture’s importance in the former USSR, he alluded to the stain of Soviet propaganda on the Russian-speaking psyche by mentioning ‘Moydodyr’, a poem by Korney Chukovsky:
The washbasin runs out
And it shakes its head:
Oh, you filthy, oh you dirty,
Unclean little piggy!
You are blacker than a chimney-sweeper,
Take a good look at yourself:
I am Moydodyr the Great,
I’m the leader of all washbasins
And commander of the sponges!
If I come to stomp my foot,
Calling out for all my soldiers,
All the washbasins would fly in
And would crowd this little room.
Let us all wash, and splash,
In the bathtub, in the bathhouse,
Always and everywhere –
Eternal glory to water!
Moydodyr (literally translated as “to wash something until it has holes”) was first published in a Soviet children’s magazine in 1923. The poem became highly popular among the Soviet public as it was later adapted into two animated films released in 1939 and 1954. This tale kindly stuck to the minds of the older generation, including Raya, who excitedly recalled the ideological cartoon, and extended to my own experience as a post-Soviet child, as well. The 1954 version, in which a freakish and dictatorial washbasin chases down a brown-haired boy who ultimately becomes a blonde after washing the dirt off, seems like the cleanest piece of agitprop there can be.
It could be that simple things like a block of soap and some boiled water were all a Soviet soul needed to prevent a cataclysm. Visual materials shown before bedtime and glued all around the city etching instructions for resilience into memory. I can see the parallels between the State’s discourse and its visual vocabulary regarding hygiene and health more clearly now. Imagery of such kind was normalized amongst the people with the effort to create an ideologically and physically healthy Soviet citizen imbued with kul’tura. The public’s health managed to be maintained through an interesting and intense visual culture, imagery was often paired with catchy slogans that did not fear to scare citizens for the purpose of curbing disease. As the years went on, progress in mediums demanded for visual culture to adapt to the times and create new material.
Soviet society was famously, and in many ways unjustly so, closed shut behind the Iron Curtain. What managed to sprout out of this system was a certain visual path, with a highly thought-out and considered culture, that helped guide so many people through the unknown. More than a year has gone by since our realities flipped completely; we sit inside almost trapped behind the borders of our houses and other politicized processes take over our decisions. I wonder what we will be able to remember and internalize about the visual propaganda we are being fed in these times.