The Soviet relics capturing the obsessions of an empire

Remarkable street signs dotted across the former USSR bring to life a faded era of communist power

Olivia Campbell
Saturday 06 June 2020 12:35
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Off all the legacies left behind by the USSR – a nation whose tumultuous existence created waves for more than seven decades – design is not one that jumps instantly to mind. On paper at least, rigid communist practises and the policing of cultural norms doesn’t sound like a recipe for artistic flair. However, the opposite is true – the Soviet Union birthed a remarkable era of creativity and innovation, much of which can still be found today.

Perhaps one of the most interesting examples are the street signs that pop up across the vast landscape of Russia – a monster territory which once spanned 6,200 miles, from inner Europe all the way to the far east. Beyond the obvious statues of Lenin and Stalin, intended to inspire good communists, these objects are vibrant examples of the all-encompassing propaganda machine designed to enforce the Soviet vision.

French photographer Jason Guilbeau has been using Google Street View to document these fading relics, spending months painstakingly scanning Russia and former territories. His findings have now been published in Soviet Signs and Street Relics.

The symbolism in these signs, an effective way of communicating communist ideology to the predominantly peasant population, are obvious. Huge hammers and sickles – representing solidarity between workforces – stand on hills and roadsides; tanks, fighter jets and ships allude to power and military superiority, while space-age designs suggest success in conquering the final frontier.

Agriculture is another motif – one that would have been obvious to the millions of peasants and farmers. The USSR remained largely agrarian and collectivisation was a key theme for propaganda. Wheat sheaves appear a lot, as do tractors, albeit usually suspended in the air.

“Relics of the Soviet Union have the power to transport us through time and space,” writes Clem Cecil, co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, in the book’s foreword. “These lonely markers defined the ideology and territory of an enormous empire. Their fundamental message was that space and time had been conquered.”

Indeed, there is something eerie about these street signs. Many are often sitting on the sides of roads, surrounded by desolate spaces; others remain obscured, either by nature or by buildings. They appear to be fading into the environment, their stories slowly lost to time.

You can buy ‘Soviet Signs and Street Relics’ here

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