Mask media: Soviet Kazakh health posters from the 1970s

Mask media: Soviet Kazakh health posters from the 1970s

25 February 2021

The first posters to appear in UK workplaces at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic gave simple advice in neat blue and white: wash your hands and catch sneezes in tissues. What perturbed some was the opening claim, that “the government and NHS are well prepared to deal with this virus”. Hasn’t years of cuts left the NHS struggling, ripe for dismantlement? Don’t worry about it: hand washing will stop our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

There was something Soviet about the advice, which presented as fact a statement we knew to be untrue. If it were the late 1920s, the poster might have read: “We will deliver the five-year plan in three years” — a message equally detached from reality.

Vladimir S. Tverdokhlebov’s posters for the Kazakh Red Cross from the 1970s offer an offbeat aesthetic for public safety. Humour, floral imagery, and a playful use of layout counter the cynicism of the time, medicine for the weary then and now.

Born in the Krasnodar region in 1937, Tverdokhlebov trained in Leningrad before moving to Almaty, where there were no poster artists or specialists in the genre. His style differed from that of earlier artists, such as Dmitry Moor with his red and propagandistic: “Have You Signed Up as a Volunteer?” When red is used, it is for the symbol of the Red Cross, an organisation whose commission he had pitched for and won against fierce competition. And yet, Tverdokhlebov’s work was never dismissed for not being communist enough.

A far cry from prosaic NHS posters, the layout of “Remember, Flu Is Contagious”, which frames the female nurse between two empty beds, makes a stark point: when working amongst the sick, frontline workers are placed at risk. Though the Russian language is given precedence in the layout (designed to be read left to right) Tverdokhlebov makes the nurse Kazakh and provides Kazakh text too. The blue gauze of the mask is a network of links, which brings to mind the communicability of flu, and the red cross emblem is placed, quite literally, over the nurse’s mouth.

In a story that casts today’s dire lack of PPE in a new light, Anara, Tverdokhlebov’s daughter, remembers how “at school we learnt how to make these masks. Medical professionals would receive a 10-metre strip of gauze each year, from which they were expected to make their own masks. This material was not available in the shops, so people would sell off the leftovers to people who needed it for making wine.”

In Tverdokhlebov’s poster work for the state, he took the prescribed and often trite Party messages given in the brief and presented them in playful ways. “For the Last Time” is an anti-drinking poster with a simple if not naive message. In designing the poster, Tverdokhlebov had to navigate a stereotype, of Russians as heavy drinkers, in what was meant to be a health advice poster for the USSR. The iconic Soviet anti-drinking poster “No to Alcohol” by Viktor Ivanovich Govorkov realistically depicts a Russian man refusing a shot of vodka. For Tverdokhlebov, this was problematic. In contrast, Tverdokhlebov’s drinker is a cartoon, with arms coming out of his stomach and a hollow mouth. The artist deliberately chose cartoon faces over realistic depiction to eschew national stereotypes. Tverdokhlebov has always championed diversity in his visual portrayal of the USSR. In this case, he presents alcoholism as a problem that may affect us all.

Though prestigious, the Kazakh Red Cross commission would have paid Tverdokhlebov as little as 75 roubles per poster (just enough money then to live on for a month), so he had to work fast. The process was straightforward. He would be given a brief by the Red Cross which included the text for the poster and where it was to be displayed, for instance, in a factory or hospital. Then, he would take an A3 sheet of cardboard and draw 10 possible designs in pencil. Once one of them had been approved, he would be awarded the commission and begin work. Though print runs were around 30,000 for each poster, many of which were reprinted over a period of a few years, Tverdokhlebov was occasionally unable to save a copy.

Thankfully his daughter, Anara, has created an online archive of the posters that do remain. When she put the Red Cross posters on Instagram in March 2020 she received DMs from people surprised by their relevance to today’s pandemic, or that her father — who was best-known for his mosaics, fountains, stained glass, reliefs, and gorgeous wool tapestries — had done poster work at all. Dennis Keen, founder of Monumental Almaty, has long celebrated Tverdokhlebov’s legacy as a Monumental artist.

Poster commissions gave Tverdokhlebov a space for experimentation. Testimony to this are his posters for the Pioneers (a national version of the scout movement in the UK), made between 1970-75, which were commissioned for the Baltics. For this commission, artists sent in drafts and the winner was selected by a panel of judges. Though the three republics were notoriously sceptical of overt communist imagery, a trauma caused by the history of Soviet mass deportations and state terror, the poster was accepted and displayed across the three states. A boy in a red neckerchief forms part of a tree, with branches which are reminiscent of the Olympic rings. The neckerchief also recalls a bird coming to nest, building a notion that the young Soviet is one with nature. Another poster shows a hand holding a baby bird against a patterned backdrop. The message reads: “Protect nature, it’s the source of health”. Tverdokhlebov aimed for highly decorative, eye-catching, and enduring imagery, so it’s no surprise that he was winner of the All-Soviet Poster competition in 1976. In fact, many of his posters still stand out today. Compared to the NHS’s pamphlets, the bird poster is less a public health poster than a powerful life lesson that speaks beyond its time.

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