Great Expectations Red in Black and White Home page
Curator: Alex Ward, Department of Design and Architecture
On view March 17 - June 30, 2004

In the 1990's Merrill C. Berman, New York, donated a unique collection of ROSTA Window posters to the Israel Museum, which is the largest museum collection of them outside Russia. The collection contains 64 series consisting of ca, 600 individual pieces, made between November 1920 and November 1920. They were produced by the Russian Telegraphic Agency, abbreviated 'ROSTA,' established by a government decree in September 1918 by bringing together the old Petrograd Telegraphic Agency and the newly formed Press Bureau, an appendage of the people's Commissars of the Government, which had been purged of anti-Bolshevik sympathizers. Visually stunning, with rhyming texts mainly composed by the Futurist poet Vladimir Myakowsky these hand stenciled posters produced on cheap newsprint reflected the events unfolding daily during the formative years of Soviet Russia under Lenin.


The onset of the First World War in 1914 brought about untold disaster for the Russian population, and especially the peasants, who suffered greatly from hunger and disease. The industrial and social fabric of the country was further devastated during the Civil War, which broke out immediately after the October Revolution in 1917. Since the transport infrastructure was delapidated and there was a shortage of paper ROSTA relied on its telegram system to relay state decrees and relevant information to special ROSTA Window communities, who then wrote the texts and created suitable images for the now famous ROSTA Windows. Where speed was of the utmost essence to keep abreast with the latest news and to keep it fresh and immediate the ROSTA Windows became a highly effective propaganda machine. Generally, ROSTA posters were hung the morning after receiving reports, and in special cicumstances put up on the same day, sometimes as fast as forty minutes. They were put up in kiosks, railway stations, market places and occasionally in empty shop windows, hence their name 'Okna ROSTA' - ROSTA Window. They were the trumpet call of the Bolsheviks and Myakowsky wrote of them later ' that was a fantastic thing. It meant a nation of 150 million being served by hand a small group of painters. It meant news being sent by telegram, immediately translated into posters, decrees into couplets.It meant the Red Army men looking at posters before battle and going to fight not with a prayer but with a slogan on their lips.'

The ROSTA Windows was a collective effort carried out by writers, artists, and stencillers. The first centre was in Moscow, and the main artists were Vladimir Mayakowsky, Mikhail Cheremymkh, and Ivan Maliutin. Mayakovsky was the most dominant figure there and besides producing images he was responsible for up to 90% of the written texts. The earliest copies of the Moscow ROSTA Windows were produced as a 'one-off' and from time to time were copied by hand; but by 1920 they were being duplicated by means of hand-cut stencils, an efficient way to produce many copies cheaply. By early 1921 ROSTA Windows appeared under the auspicies of 'Glavpolitprovest,' a committeee for political education attached to the People's Commissariat for Enlightment, and the posters of this period were marked by the initials 'GPP' . Since the ROSTA Windows were designed in a comic strip format it meant that each frame could be individually produced, and when the right number of frames were completed they were glued onto a backing paper in the proper sequence to their final size, which varied from 90cm to 220cm in height and 70cm to 222cm in width. The total production of the Moscow ROSTA over the whole period came to ca, 1,600 of ROSTA Windows, including duplications and unnumbered issues, and since each poster was duplicated 150 times and having an average of 8 individual frames the Moscow ROSTA commune alone produced over 2 million individual frames. The most important places after Moscow was in Petrograd, Vitebsk, and Odessa.

Through the ROSTA Windows the Bolsheviks attempted to build up a class-based solidarity movement by addressing the population in the colloquial speech of the working-class. The language, like the images, was crude with rhyming slang and puns inter-mixed with a rich vocabularly of violence. Satire was used freely to portray the class enemies as grotesque and unsavory. Considering the enormous task at hand it is understandable that over time a number of conventions were established, for example, standard colour coding and distinct simple images so the illiterate masses could easily pick out the Red Soldier/Worker; the various enemies of the regime, such as the capitalist dressed in his black suite or the Foreign Generals, the Poles usually in Green and yellow and the French in Blue. The artists also devised particular motifs which were then freely used by others, for example, the use of the raven as a sign of disaster, first used by Chermnykh, and the standard form of the peasant in cap, blouse and striped trousers first pioneered by Myakovsky.

During the early part of the Civil War military themes were dominant but by the end of the 1920's economic and cultural topics rapidly came to the fore since it was now a time of social and economic reconstruction. The ROSTA posters is a world full of hunger and disease and menazing enemies that could bring about ruin. Many of the posters in this collection deal with the new Food Tax introduced by the New Economic Policy (NEP), solliciting support from the population in rebuilding the economy through loyalty, self-discipline, sacrifice, and to aid famine relief in the Volga. Another role of the ROSTA Windows was to explain the new regulations of daily life and how to help the Red Army. Inorder to improve industrial productivity the Bolsheviks played on the moral duty and work ethic of the labour force, linking the workers freeing themselves from the chains of capitalist abuse. Of course, not everything went to plan and so the Windows also dealt with crime and punishment. The new Soviet regime also extolled their successes of 'before' and 'after' the October Revolution. Foreign policy and international relationships focused on conflicts and diplomatic tensions with Poland, France and Germany whilst others propounded the International Socialist revolution proclaiming that the 'Workers of the World' should unite together against Western Capitalism. The Red Army and Red worker is always shown to be stronger in the face of adversity.


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