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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Capitalists Cash In on Soviet Poster Art

VedomostiPavel Snopkov and his two partners publish Cold War-era propaganda posters for future generations from a courthouse basement.
Thanks to the Kontakt-Kultura publishing house, Russians are once again hanging Soviet propaganda on their walls.

But neither political indoctrination nor profit is the goal of the small family business, which has spent the past six years rummaging through state libraries and archives, digging out the best examples of Soviet and pre-revolutionary poster art and digitally restoring and republishing them in all their original kitschy glory.

"Our plan is to publish while we're still alive, while we still have access to the libraries, while we still remember the material," said Alexander Shklyaruk, Kontakt-Kultura's publisher and a veteran of the art world.

"We want to publish all of this material, and then the next generation can do what they like with it."

Shklyaruk and his two partners -- Alexander Snopkov, a retired permafrost lecturer who founded the company in 1988, and Snopkov's son, Pavel -- run the business from the basement of a red brick, pre-revolutionary courthouse just off Tsvetnoi Bulvar.

The elder Snopkov, a collector of first-edition books and posters, founded the Kontakt-Kultura cooperative in 1988 to organize auctions, exhibitions and the occasional publishing projects. But it was more than a decade later, in 1999, that the company began to focus on poster reprints.

The decision was partly inspired by the success of a batch of reprints of Grigory Shagal's 1931 poster "Down with kitchen slavery!" in which a liberated housewife throws open a door onto the bright new world of socialism while her colleague, still washing clothes in the foreground, looks on. The posters were released around Women's Day in 1997 and sold out quickly.

While Shklyaruk and the Snopkovs' poster project began on a "giant, Soviet scale" with a number of weighty poster collections published with the Russian State Library, it is their themed sets and their postcards, retailing at about 300 rubles and 10 rubles respectively, that have brought Soviet poster art back into fashion.

"This undoubtedly attracted the youth to us," Shklyaruk said. Sales have grown consistently since the launch of the poster line in 2000. In the first six months of this year, the company sold more than a quarter-million posters and postcards.

From Bolsheviks bayoneting portly landowners to stylish advertisements for Astrakhan caviar and critical perestroika-era posters, the Snopkovs and Shklyaruk have unearthed and published in total roughly 1,500 posters of the half-million gathering dust in the country's archives.

"People asked me if we'd bought Panorama," Shklyaruk joked, referring to the state publishing house that carried out the Central Committee's propaganda orders. Panorama ceased production in the early '90s when funding dried up.

According to Snopkov, the eternal themes of vigilance and drinking are consistently popular. One of the latest collections "Vice, get out!" is a best seller.

"A one-night stand may flash like lightning," warns one poster under a picture of a wilting pink rose, "but tomorrow, perhaps, there will be illness and hospital."

Another recommends that citizens abstain from drinking methylated spirits, since "it is sufficient to drink a small glass to go blind or even die."

Many of the labor-themed posters find their way to office walls and filing cabinets. "Work is boring," explained Snopkov. "It's all about computers and money. But these posters definitely have a positive psychological effect."

Snopkov added that siloviki, or those who work for the government's defense and security agencies, are particularly fond of the Cold War posters that warn incautious citizens against engaging in careless talk with shady, monocle-wearing types.

But to think that the artists went about their work completely poker-faced would be wrong. They were aware of the limitations of their medium and tried to liven things up with in-jokes, painting their family and friends into the posters.

"This is what gives them their humanity," Shklyaruk said.

In one famous Cold-War work of 1954, the artist Viktor Koretsky painted fellow poster artist Nikolai Dolgorukov as the citizen engaging in careless talk.

As well as provoking an ironic chuckle at a rose-tinted vision of a world where hearty workers beckon from the wheat fields and factories and peasant women pore over the works of John Reed in their spare time, Snopkov firmly believes that the posters play an educational role as well.

"We've never had a very good understanding of our own history, especially now and especially young people," he said sitting under a picture from the '60s in which a rosy-faced cook humbly accepts the applause of a table of restaurant guests. "Earn praise!" the poster advises.

"If someone thinks to have a look at the date when the poster was made, then this is already making them think about what was happening at the time."

Very few of the artists are alive today. The generation of poster artists died out in the 1960s and '70s. Kontakt-Kultura pays between 18 percent and and 20 percent in royalties to their descendants or to the Russian Authors Association.

While Kontakt-Kultura's profits are sufficient to allow them to continue publishing and producing their mainstream poster and postcard sets, the proceeds do not stretch to financing their own, larger publishing projects, for which outside help is required.

The company has worked on a number of projects with City Hall's publishing committee and has published a weighty volume of 300 film posters with the Academy of Cinema. And Anatoly Chubais placed an order for a set of electrical energy-themed posters to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his company UES.

Though the posters are a huge hit with tourists, Snopkov said he has no plans to export. "Occasionally we hear about our posters being sold in London, New York or Paris, but for now our priority is Russia," he said. "There's a Japanese web site selling our posters, but we didn't set it up."

And there's work enough in Russia.

The generation of archivists and curators in museums and libraries that know the material first-hand are dying out. "In literally five years' time, this will all be much harder. A new generation will come along that knows nothing and this information will be lost. So we are rushing. We use every opportunity."