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Emptying the Dustbin

An amazing collection of images from what can now be called Russia's Soviet period.

Book Cover Now that the dreary and dismal Bolshevik autocracy has been replaced by a colorful and freewheeling capitalist oligarchy, the artifacts and residue of the Soviet years are likely to be viewed more as a de-clawed feline or venom-less viper than echoes of plague years—or, in capitalism’s ultimate triumph, as collectible commodities.

British graphic designer and design historian David King is reputed to own one of the world’s most comprehensive (his publisher refers to it as “preeminent”) collections of Russian tchotchkes, numbering over a quarter million photographs, graphics, newspapers, magazine covers, and ceramics. His compendium, Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (Abrahms) draws heavily from that source, including about 550 well-reproduced images from his own archive.

King began his collection in 1970 when in Moscow on assignment for his position as the London Times art editor (“I found Soviet place names indescribably romantic”), and his long-standing familiarity with the material makes for sparse and useful commentary:
The stories of some of the men and women who saw their early revolutionary struggles transformed into almost unspeakable tragedy are recorded here, alongside hundreds of examples of indelible images created by the designers, artists, and photographers who shaped the iconography of the first workers’ state.
Thus more than two-thirds of this 350-page book is devoted to that fertile artistic period whose imagery and typography was much admired by artists and designers of that period. Unfortunately, Lenin was not an admirer, thus innovation and creativity were paved over by a creed of state-monitored Stalinist Socialist Realism.

King has previously published The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, and so there is a judicious inclusion of a host of “before and after” official photographs, altered to remove Stalin’s purged opponents. The Soviets under Stalin may not have invented the dustbin of history, but they most certainly made good use of it.

This is an amazing and powerful book—many of the images have not previously been in the public domain, and King’s feel for the material allows this book to be organized (as in the difference between a librarian and art historian) in a way that frees it from a tedious and commonplace chronology and presents it in a fresh and compelling way.
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