The history of a Soviet poster
The Slavonic specialist explains the background of one of the exhibits.
Shown on the right is one of the two posters on display in the current Library exhibition A Soviet Design for Life : the Catherine Cooke Collection of 20th-Century Russian Architecture and Design. It is one of many early posters which Catherine collected: a 1925 production showing, in still vibrant colours, a march past a statue of Lenin. Its title, 'Hail the international proletariat revolution!', is taken from the most prominent banner carried by the marchers. The other banners are very much of their time; one refers to the fight against illiteracy, another proclaims 'Look to the country!' which refers to the post-Civil War drive to ensure that the Revolution took hold in the countryside as well as in the towns. This is emphasised by the four figures in the forefront. Two peasants, in red, are paired with their urban worker counterparts in white.
Although the poster is full of detail, it lacks the identity of its artist. The only clue is three initials - MUP or, at a stretch, MUT in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. These, I assumed, stood for the artist's first name, patronymic, and surname, but I couldn't be certain of their order. Having chosen to use the poster in the exhibition, I was determined to track the artist's name down. After a trawl through lists of artists, however, I came up with nothing. This was some months before the exhibition opened. Some time later, when the opening was only a few weeks off, I was writing the captions for the exhibits and decided that I must try again. This time, a name in a list looked possible - Maksim Vladimirovich Ushakov-Poskochin. The initials would therefore be his first name and surnames, without his patronymic. Internet searches didn't help find much of his work for me to compare the poster to. One other poster came up, and although this was done at the same time and also on the town/countryside subject, there were no initials and the composition was quite different. However, the name was definitely a match, and the style of brushstrokes seemed familiar.
When I tried to find out more about the artist, I found a lot of material posted by someone on a slightly random website - a Russian antiques forum. The more I read, the greater my interest grew. Ushakov-Poskochin was born in 1893 and worked as an artist primarily on book illustrations. Arrested in 1941, he died in the Gulag system in 1943. The material I was reading was quoted from a book written by his son - and the person who was quoting it was his son in turn, ie the artist's grandson. I signed up to the forum and sent Andrei Ushakov, the grandson, a message explaining my interest.
Andrei explained that his father, still alive at 89, would be able to identify the authorship of the poster if it were indeed by his father. On Andrei's request, I sent photos of the poster. A day later, Andrei replied. Not only could he confirm, from his father, that it was his grandfather's work, but he also attached a photo - of the original watercolour sketch for the poster. Identical in many respects, the sketch and the finished poster differ most noticeably in one. The place that is taken in the poster by a statue of Lenin is, in the sketch, a puppet-bourgeois dangling over a cauldron of fire. 'The First of May is a nail in the grave of the bourgeoisie' says one banner.
Andrei and his father had never seen the finished poster. After his arrest, Maksim Vladimirovich Ushakov-Poskochin's work was forgotten. His son and grandson are thrilled that the poster will be part of the exhibition and have given their permission to use its image and that of the sketch. They are only delighted at the opportunity for their father and grandfather's name and work to be better known, and we are very pleased that the story of the poster and its author has already been publicised by the Guardian in the article linked to here. In the exhibition, a print-out of the watercolour sketch stands next to the final poster.
The UL is sending a full colour facsimile copy of the poster to Andrei and his father. Andrei has sent his father's book, which I will be honoured to add to the Library's collection. Its record will be linked to from this article.