Funny games in the “new-old” Russia
When I first arrived in Moscow in April 1995, there were few advertisements in the streets. The citizens of the “new-old” Russia hadn’t experienced the impact of this peculiar side effect of capitalism -publicity- for almost a century but they were certainly used to propaganda, a former distant relative.
These two pages belong to the same ad: love, male erection, physical strength and wireless communication appear at the same level.
During the early decades of the Soviet regime they had consumed vast quantities of an exquisite cocktail consisting of propaganda and art. This mixture has ever since been coveted by museums, galleries and collectors. Some of that sophisticated agit-prop art still was visible when I was living in Moscow, on murals five storey-high painted on party walls. Its main subject was mainly work and the workers.
Russians -or I’d rather say the heirs of the Soviet regime whatever their present day nationality- knew little or next to nothing about the publicity industry related to consumption. To a certain extent their minds were “untapped”, “untouched” by this phenomenon, and had been kept away -as well as their needs- from this manipulation with which we in the West are so familiar. Compared to Soviet propaganda -related not to consumption but to ideology and to art-, publicity seemed to them a happy event. Furthermore, most thought it was a token of innocence and truth, a “real” truth if compared to the already experienced “dubious truth” of propaganda.
It isn’t easy to explain in a few lines nor to understand the changes that the Soviet Republic of Russia -later the Russian Federation- was undergoing at that moment. But one thing was clear to me in relation to the ads I could see then: there were constant cultural references and whatever the subject of the ads, they were always elaborated in a very cultured, sophisticated if not intellectual manner.
Art was -and still is- very frequently present in Russian publicity. Sophisticated reflections about its social and political role together with the commitment of artists has been one of the main nineteenth century “Russian” contributions to the history of art. In the wake of the ideological oeuvres of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and of the Utopian socialists many Russians elaborated a fine vision of what art should be. Of course, we are talking about an art committed to the improvement of humankind; an art with a social and educational role that became in itself both a tradition and a commitment to break tradition. Until the end of the nineteenth century Russia was, let’s not forget it, a feudal country with more than two thirds of its population enslaved; if not all, that would explain this powerful stream for educational consciousness. Therefore, many artistic and creative endeavours were taken as a way for the privileged to show the reality of the country and to contribute to its improvement and change.
And so, during the perestroika Russians could see ads in the streets for the first time in a century. Furthermore, they could watch ads too on TV, for the first time ever, intertwined with more and more Western blockbusters and series. Russians might not have been used to publicity and TV series, but they were certainly accustomed to excellent levels of acting. Even the shabbiest of TV ads – for butter, toilet paper, tampons, yogurts, cold cuts or the cheese La vache qui rit– were played for a brief period by the finest actresses and actors in the country. One could easily watch one’s favourite Hamlet, the best Ivan the terrible or Segismundo, Irina Arkádina or Macbeth selling coffee, rice oats or margarine with a precise and convincing gesture and intonation. I remember very well those ads in the 90’ because one could enjoy entrancingly long camera shots – up to three to five minutes long or more, without interruption!…those ads made indeed an extraordinary impact on all audiences. A few years later ads were not the same. Shall I say that they were more banal, more and more expectable?
Banality is a lack of originality, a lack of intelligent stimuli, and we are all in touch with it wether we like it or not. It allows us to rest or to stop thinking and to channel effortlessly many of our wishes. There is as well what I would call “witty banality”. Its goal is always the same: to make you buy, but it still posses an echo of culture and art that makes it the freest of the opiums, whose consumption is not forbidden anymore in Russia. I am sure that now many Russians have found their methadone treatment against the addiction to publicity as they found it for propaganda. The poet Anna Akhmatova used to say that “the best way to forget is to see everyday”. But publicity is a funny game and behaves in a different way: the more you look at it the more you might remember it, willingly or not. It’s not that Akhmatova hadn’t read Sigmund Freud or didn’t know about the subconscious, it’s that publicity is the only true exception to that golden rule. Therefore its multibillion dollar business.