March 01, 2011

Poetry to Sweeten the Sale

Before the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky ever began writing verse, he was a painter, a fact visible in the striking visual quality of his poems on the page. After the 1917 Revolution, Mayakovsky turned his energy to projects that engaged both his poetic and painterly talents, by working feverishly on ROSTA posters to convey news and enliven Petrograd’s empty shop windows. In 1923 he began an important collaboration with the Constructivist artist Aleksandr Rodchenko on an advertising campaign for Mosselprom, the state-run Moscow Food Stores. They called their firm reklam-konstruktor (Ad-Constructor); together they designed posters, packaging, and signs, with Mayakovsky providing witty, rhyming captions for Rodchenko’s bold graphics. The slogan net nigde krome kak v Mosselprome (“Nowhere else but at the Moscow Food Stores”) became as familiar to Russian consumers as jingles like “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent” did to my generation of Americans.

The New Economic Policy (NEP), which Lenin instituted in 1921 in response to the economic devastations of the Revolution and Civil War, allowed for limited private enterprise (see page 19). But the NEP also meant that the state-run stores, previously fully subsidized, now had to operate at a profit. Rodchenko’s and Mayakovsky’s work for Mosselprom was complicated by the lack of identifying brand names or trademarks on most of the products, which fell under the purview of the government. The artists had to make their advertisements and packaging eye-catching enough to compete with jazzier products from private concerns. Yet the problems Rodchenko and Mayakovsky faced in working for Mosselprom were not limited to design. In the new socialist society, education — “Enlightenment” in Soviet terminology — was supposed to take precedence over aesthetics. So Rodchenko and Mayakovsky used their design work to agitate.

It is often difficult to gauge design as an ideological tool, but at the least, mass production served as an effective form of public inculcation, even for products not generally associated with political or social causes. Additionally, the mass production of goods and the effort to distribute them widely represented a kind of democratization, even in socialist Russia: for the first time, luxury goods like candy were available to everyone, not just the moneyed classes.

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