Sunday, 31 January 2010

Preserving the aesthetic without the repression?

Maxim Zhukov, formerly typographic coordinator for the United Nations, contributed this piece to the ATypI forum about nostalgia for the brands and designs of the Soviet era:

‘ “A number of scholars/commentators are talking about the growing nostalgia in Russia for the Soviet era. Old Soviet brands (from cigarettes to canned goods) are being resuscitated; advertisers play on this; a “Soviet-style” theme restaurant has opened in Moscow; etc. As I understand it, similar things are happening in Poland, Slovenia, East Germany, and elsewhere. My concern is with Russia. Do you see this trend for Soviet nostalgia reflected in Russian typography over the past several years?” – Brian Bennett

You are correct. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is certainly there, and has been for quite a while. Whether it is growing, I don’t know. It’s just that it seems to affect – to various degrees – many spheres of life in Russia: political, economic, social, cultural, etc. Since the number of people who remember from their own experience what Soviet life was like is rapidly shrinking, the myths and legends abound; they become more elaborate and fairy-tale-like, often bordering on the extravagant and outrageous.

I am sure that nostalgia takes various forms in Russia and in the former vassal nations of the USSR. There are many reasons for that; I am not going to dwell on them: I am no political scientist. The renewal of the old Soviet brands is indeed highly visible. It is interesting that the ‘name’ brands directly related to the Soviet period, such as Kirov [see also here], Krasnyi Oktiabr', Leningrad, and the like obviously help sales.

One of the best examples is the ever-popular super-fatty ice cream called ‘48 kopecks’ – that was the price of a block in the Soviet times. It now sells for about one hundred times that much: now that’s what I call nostalgia.

Often, Soviet nostalgia comes with a wink. Many members of ATypI, Russian and non-Russian, know of a Soviet-themed restaurant in Moscow called Petrovich. Yes, the standard Soviet fare is served there, with gusto. The restaurant owes its existence to the wicked inspiration of Andrei Bilzho, the creator of a popular cartoon character Petrovich, a clumsy ‘Homo Sovieticus’. One of the most appealing features of that ‘enterprise of public alimentation’ is its unique collection of Soviet cultural artifacts. Petrovich is not the only Soviet-themed restaurant in Russia, but it is the oldest (est. 1997) and is likely to be the best in its class.


The public craving for Soviet-style products naturally calls for matching graphic design. And rest assured that the offer conveniently matches the demand. The typographic tools are there. Many fonts offered by ParaType, the premier Russian digital type foundry, are actually revivals of the Soviet designs (e.g., Bannikova, Kuzanyan, Bazhanov, New Standard, Svetlana, Kudryashev, Kudryashev Sans, Lazurski, Telingater Display, Journal, New Journal, etc.), or of the older, pre-1917 typefaces that were still in use in the Soviet times (e.g., Academy, Black Grotesk, Elizabeth, Literaturnaya, etc.).

Oh, one more link.’

M. Z.

Details of the book illustrated above. The text is set in Literaturnaya, which Maxim reminded me was criticized by Allen Hutt: ‘The survival of this De Vinne-style type, from the worst design period of old Imperial Germany, in the premier Socialist country in the latter part of the twentieth century, is a typographical phenomenon as unique as it is deplorable.’ ‘A revolution in Russian typography’, Penrose Annual,Volume 61, 1968

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