Soivet-Era Temperance: Just Say “Nyet”

Editor’s Note: Today marks the second in a series of guest posts by art historian Tamás Sajo, designer at Studioloum Press.  Last week he led us through the Gorbrachev-era’s homage to the lubok, “With Joint Forces Against Drunkenness”; this week we take a slightly different turn, examining iconic anti-alcohol images from mid-century that have been re-purposed in a contemporary campaign against Coca-Cola, long known as the beverage of choice  for a new imperialism. 

Both mass alcoholism and the fight against it were integral parts of everyday life in the Soviet Union, from its formation until its dissolution. For much of the 19th century, Russians’ per-capita alcohol consumption was among the lowest in Europe, and even this consumption was strictly controlled by rural and urban communities as well as the intensively working temperance societies. After the beginning of the forced industrialization introduced by Communism, millions of villagers poured into the cities and, liberated from the control of the community and with access to various sources of cheap alcohol, quickly established a culture of permanent drunkenness–drinking that aimed at a rapid unconsciousness.

The Soviet state on the one hand supported this as an instrument for draining off social tensions: Stalin in 1930, at the beginning of monumental industrialization, wrote to President of the Council of People’s Commissars Molotov demanding “the greatest expansion of vodka production possible for the sake of a real and serious defense of our country.” On the other hand, the state clearly saw that this level of alcohol consumption would lead to a drastic reduction in lifetime (male life expectancy had fallen to 47 by the 1990s) and that, due to the early decomposition of families it would significantly stunt Russia’s birthrate.  Since both of these would reduce the Soviet Union’s competitiveness in the race between the two world systems, from time to time the government tried to roll consumption back with anti-alcohol campaigns. At the same time the government was all too aware that it  could not renounce the revenues from the alcohol monopoly:at the beginning of Communism alcohol taxes meant a whole quarter of the state budget; their falling during Gorbachev’s 1985 anti-alcohol campaign contributed significantly to the decline of Soviet economy.

In the coming weeks I will outline some important stages of this story on the basis of Russian and American literature in this series prepared for Points. From the temperance unions of Tsarist Russia to the alcohol ban of early Communism, through the campaign of 1929-30 and its periodical renewals after Stalin’s death in 1953 to Gorbachev’s “dry law”, we will examine each time a group of publications to see how they tried to curb the “green snake” of alcoholism.

The most spectacular visual manifestation of the anti-alcohol campaigns were undoubtedly the posters, of which about a hundred have survived from the period between 1920 and 1990. Most of them became iconic, and continue to affect if not the alcohol consumption, at least the visual culture of contemporary Russians. This is what I would like to illustrate in this introductory post with twelve examples, mainly from the 1950s, whose paraphrases were used in 2009 in a calendar published by the largest Russian kvass producer, Deka of Novgorod. This calendar was not composed against alcohol, but rather against Coca-Cola, the main rival of Deka in the Russian market– that rivalry is apparent in that Deka calls their most popular kvass “NiKola,”  which on the one hand is a widespread Russian male name, but on the other hand means “not Cola” or “anti-Cola.”

Building its advertisement campaign on the seventy years strong visual tradition, Deka can reasonably expect that every viewer will recognize the authority of the original posters behind the modern images. Below I publish all the pages of the calendar, side by side with the original posters.

January: “Beat!” (on the original poster: “Beat the enemy of the cultural revolution!”) Perhaps it is no chance that the series starts with this ukaz (command), easy to remember and to realize in any circumstances.  It has been a favorite slogan of Soviet agitprop since as early as the Civil War, as attested to by the Constructivist poster by El Lisitsky from 1919: “With a red wedge BEAT the white ones!…”

…or by this leaflet in verse from 1941: “For the Soviet home land/Beat the German beast/Beat with bayonet, beat with grenade /Beat with what you want, but kill him!”

The slogan on this poster of a temperance campaign can be also easily interpreted as diametrically opposed to the social injunction “Пей!” (“Drink!”).  NiKola has modified this archetype by somewhat transforming the shape of the bottle to the resemblance of… can you see what I see?

They used the same technique on the February page: in the original, the proletarian with a severe look struck with his hammer bearing the inscription “Cultural Revolution” on a bottle of alcohol. His successor apparently finds it much more delightful to destroy a bottle with an unspecified content but a characteristic shape. If, that is, this image is about destroying at all… because the slogan “долбанем” signifies both “We strike on it!” and “We drink it out!”

(As a little help, on every page of the calendar there appears a running footer with the slogan of NiKola: “Квас – не Кола, пей НиКолу!” or “Kvass is No Cola. Drink NiKola!”)

March: “Not even a drop!” – Because of its landscape format, I have placed the original poster under its NiKola version, leaving some space to include, as a parallel of the gesture, V. I. Govorkov’s iconic “Nyet!” poster (1954), the herald of the temperance campaigns re-launched after Stalin’s death.

The prototype of April’s calendar page also could only fit horizontally below. The original bears the authentic Soviet slogan: “Alcoholism is the way to the degradation of personality.” The degrading force on the calendar page, however, can be so clearly seen that it was superfluous to name it, so the slogan is simplified to: “The way to degradation!”

May: “The dealer is the worst enemy!”

June: “Still not too late – stop it!”

July: “The sad end.” This image recalls a fashionable movement song of the period: “Sun never shines into the window of the prison…”

August: “Allez, up!”

September: “On such an unstable basis/no matter how firmly you stand,/you will surely ruin your life!” I guess that the text must be a quotation, although I have not found an original. If you know the source, tell it!

October:  “Alcohol is the enemy of mind,” announced the original poster. The new one omitted “alcohol,” for everyone can see with his own eyes what the true enemy of mind is.

November: “To the trash with the vices!” The old version also added: “We decidedly break with the remnants of the past.” This second slogan has been obviously omitted from the new image, since it receives its visual and rhetorical legitimacy from the past.

December: “We will oppress it!” What? The old image makes it clear: “Drinking!” On the new one the head of the snake speaks for itself. But the original poster, probably made in the 1950s, is itself a visual crosstalk, in dialogue with a famous agitprop poster from the 1930s: “We eradicate the spies and subversive elements, the Trockist and Bukharinist agents of Fascism!”

We have left for the end the cover of the calendar. On this, in fact, the enemy himself unexpectedly appears, directing to us the decisive question: “Chemicals or life?”

What’s that?! What on earth is the source of slough himself, Uncle Sam, doing on a calendar of such a profound patriotic spirit?

The genial motif of the First World War Anglo-American recruiting poster was used by, among others, the Russians in the civil war of 1917-1921, both by the Whites and the Reds. Understandably, it was not the two White versions below, but the Red one, designed in 1920 by Dmitry Moor (“Did you sign up to volunteer?”) which has become just as iconic in the Soviet Union as the original version has in the United States, so much that during the Great Patriotic War Moor redesigned it with the caption “How do you support the front?”

This is why Gorbachev’s temperance campaign of 1985 resorted to its persuasive power, with the slogan “Say no to drinking!” And this one gave birth to the popular anti-temperance poster by Gleb Androsov asking point-blank the eternal question of Russian alcoholists: “Do you respect me? [because if so, then you drink with me.]”

Just as during the Great Patriotic War the Soviet army learned step by step the German war technology and then turned it against the Fascist beast, so here is the “challenging” motif of the American recruiting posters–which in the meantime has become profoundly Russian– turned against a new invader in beverage form by NiKola, proudly standing up for life against chemistry.  In war, as in love, there is no law.

2 thoughts on “Soivet-Era Temperance: Just Say “Nyet””

  1. I really enjoyed this piece, especially the amazing visual component. I was also interested to learn what a huge percentage of early Soviet revenue came from the alcohol monopoly – reminded me a lot of China’s enormous revenues from its own cigarette monopoly (which provides around 10% of the GDP, I believe). Seems like it would be an interesting research project to study how Communist states harnessed licit drug monopolies in this way.

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