Soviet Science

Images from the Collection of Aimee Brown Price and Monroe Price

All images from the Collection of Aimée Brown Price and Monroe Price, New York, NY. Photographed by Gregory Tobias.

Comrades! . . . Our people put it this way: Will there be meat to eat, or not? Will there be milk or not? Will there be decent pairs of pants? This isn’t ideology, of course, but what good does it do if everyone is ideologically correct but goes around without trousers? — N. S. Khrushchev

In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality ushered in a brief period of liberalization known as the “Thaw.” That same year the Moscow Union of Soviet Artists founded the publishing house Agit­­plakat, which produced posters that satirized the country’s economic and social problems in tune with the leader’s new political program. The Agitplakat posters relied on sharp humor to draw the eye of the common Soviet citizen, by then desensitized to the verbal and visual sameness of Stalinist propaganda. Imposing in size, the posters hung in strategic locations in plants, factories, collective farms, and schools and on specially designated street stands. By pairing caricature with witty verse these posters pointed an accusatory finger at the inadequate management, over-bureaucratization, and pervasive industrial inefficiency that had paralyzed the Soviet economy. Khrushchev’s program for societal betterment—concerned with counteracting chronic food and basic consumer-good shortages—touted the chemical industry as the engine of innovation. Chemistry would fuel agricultural productivity and resuscitate commodity production, both trampled by Stalin’s obsessive development of heavy industry and the military-industrial complex. Yet Khrushchev’s view of chemistry—apparent in the posters—fluctuated between a nearly blind reliance on synthetic products and a strong suspicion of chemical modernization. His vacillations echoed the dynamic that defined his volatile leadership.

The promotion of agricultural reform was one of the themes in the Agitplakat posters. Khrushchev sought to ameliorate the poor conditions and inefficient practices of collective farming, where workers lacked fertilizers and modern machinery. Chemistry was seen as a quick answer to chronic, nationwide food scarcity (especially of milk, meat, fruits, and vegetables) and to administrative pressures to fulfill preplanned and frequently unrealistically high food-production quotas.

The development of the chemical industry in the Soviet Union did lead to a greater variety of consumer goods trickling in greater numbers into the commodity-starved Soviet market. As a Soviet journalist marveled at the time, “The strongest machine parts and the finest female underwear, moldings and warm ‘wool,’ water pipes and toys, bathtubs and fertilizers—an enormous and incalculable amount of useful, needed, and cheap things—that is what the chemical industry is capable of yielding forth.” And yet, as evident in the posters, the relative cheapness of synthetic materials sacrificed quality for quantity, turning chemistry into an object of criticism and laughter. Despite its ambivalent position, chemistry stood at the heart of Khrushchev’s endeavors to elevate the Soviet standard of living and refurbish people’s faith in Communist ideology.

"Don’t think that the problem of livestock feeds will disappear once we develop the chemical industry—that with the help of chemistry you’ll be able to get finished food products right out of the test tube, in the form of, let’s say, sausages." — N. S. Khrushchev

Vasilii Fomichev, Synthetic Proteins

Vasilii Fomichev, Synthetic Proteins, 1964. Gouache on paper.

Synthetic Proteins

He twiddles thumbs all afternoon:
“Chemistry will be here soon—

Right from test tubes it will conjure
For each of us a yummy dinner.

And on the farm, for all our needs,
Chemistry will cook up feeds.”

No! All by themselves goods never come,
It’s by our labor they are won!

By M. Vladimov

The artist conveys an important, if skeptical, Soviet message: chemistry in agriculture is not the sole answer to the issue of low productivity; rather, hard work is. In this context chemical industry embodies a dubious shortcut unworthy of the industrious ethos of a socialist society. The imagined “synthetic proteins” (located in the bucket), personify a fantastical hybrid forced onto the farmer by the chemist as a quick panacea to all agricultural woes. The poster implicitly accuses chemists of an esoteric wizardry whose loftiness is divorced from real-life problems and practice.

 

Nikolai Denisovskii, Lyrical Songs on Chemical Themes

Nikolai Denisovskii, Lyrical Songs on Chemical Themes, 1958. Gouache on paper.

Lyrical Songs on Chemical Themes

Come join us as quickly as you may.
Be fearless: dance the night away!
For nothing’s stronger, more fantastic
Than footwear that is made of plastic.

As soon as we got to the show
A pretty girl was made to know:
Your dress is truly quite aesthetic
Even though it is synthetic.

A wonder material for real—
Its features should be understood:
It’s just as hard as steel
And just as light as wood.

You won’t find in the world as a whole
Linens of a purer snow-white
Although we must confess by right
They’re manufactured out of coal.

By V. Granov and M. Pustynin

The four lyrical songs simultaneously laugh at and laud the contributions of chemistry to the light and heavy industries. On the one hand, chemistry allows for variety in consumer goods—represented by the multiple textile patterns. Chemical products also supply key materials for manufacturing machine parts. On the other hand, the introduction of plastics is scorned as a step toward inferior quality, mockingly affirmed through the poetic celebration of the absurd plastic shoes of the female dancer and of the synthetic dress. Chemistry, along with the entire scientific establishment for which it stands, is accused of fooling the eye while evading real solutions to the systemic problems of product shortages and uniformity. After all, the culprit cannot be the malfunctioning command system: any blame is shifted to chemistry.

 

Vasilii Fomichev, Chemists and 'Chemists'

Vasilii Fomichev, Chemists and "Chemists", 1959. Gouache on paper.

Chemists and "Chemists"

In serious chemistry great benefits we will find—
Through the seven-year plan it will bring us great riches.
But there is also a “chemistry” of a quite different kind,
That turns the people’s goods into poisonous mixes.

In concern for the Soviet people we must shine
The light of justice on all who brew moonshine!

By E. Levin

This poster celebrates chemistry as a wondrous force if properly harnessed. Reflecting the bipolar thinking of the cold war in general and Soviet culture in particular, the poster offers a positive and a negative. In the upper part of the poster a clean-cut and wholesome Soviet worker stands before an enviable bounty of goods—the fruits of the chemical industry—while his grotesque and intoxicated antagonist, a pseudo-chemist brewing moonshine in an anachronistic and absurdly complicated contraption, stays confined to the lower area. His chemical knowledge has been misapplied to the making of alcohol, one of the regime’s most hated scourges. While extolling the achievements of the Soviet chemical industry, the poster also communicates Khrushchev’s efforts to eradicate moonshine as part of his campaign to improve the moral behavior of a demoralized, post-Stalinist Soviet society.

 

Vasilii Fomichev, Good-for-Nothing

Vasilii Fomichev, Good-for-Nothing, undated, Gouache on paper.

Good-for-Nothing

A laggard lay down on the steps—
At this height he’s completely okay.
Why bother with further ascent?
When this level was reached yesterday?

He who does not seek improvement,
In our path just presents an impediment.

(Unidentified author)

As in Chemists and “Chemists,” this poster offers a success and a failure. The stairwell serves as both the stage for the narrative and an upward slope allegorizing the agricultural and economic achievements of the “planned” two-year increments marked on the railing. A recumbent, idle, and seemingly inebriated Soviet worker sprawls on the bottom steps, visually (and ideologically) contradicting the upward orientation of the Soviet staircase, along which a group of hard-working, upstanding farmers are reaching for the top. The good-for-nothing, however, is allowed to redeem his behavior: one of the farmers extends a hand urging him to leap up and join their ranks. This gesture metaphorically signals Khrushchev’s efforts to resuscitate the Soviet economy by creating incentives for—rather than condemning—farmers, whose earnings under Stalin had been abysmal. The prominence of the sheaf of corn at the top of the stairs celebrates one of Khrushchev’s well-meant but ill-judged agrarian campaigns—a large-scale, explosion of corn growing in a country that lacked cheap fertilizers, high-yielding hybrid varieties, adequate mechanization, and the right climatic conditions.

 

Vasilii Fomichev, Out of Touch

Vasilii Fomichev, Out of Touch, 1960. Gouache on paper.

Out of Touch
(Neither country nor city)

The department for the cultivation of bluebonnets
The department of billy-goat-milking
The department for the hybridization of bird-rabbits
The department for acclimatization of cows to stairwells

We’ve heard of a center for scientific inquiry
(It’s not the only one from life so far removed)
There they’ve wasted time for untold centuries
Carrying out experiments just like the ones above.

We can’t believe the results will be salutary
From experiments at this sort of laboratory.

(Unidentified author)

Out of Touch encapsulates the laughable and wasteful state of Soviet agriculture at a time when “scientific” inquiries carried out in state-funded research institutes were entirely divorced from the actual needs of people and industry. The poster mocks genetic science and its impractical politico-economic goals. It further alludes to the theories of Stalin’s leading agrobiologist, Trofim Lysenko, who championed the use of hybridization and subscribed to Lamarckism—the theory of inheritability of acquired characteristics—rather than to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The four pictorial vignettes correspond to four different research sectors, each headed by a scientist who seems entirely out of touch with reality, experimenting with such absurd enterprises as the hybridization of bird-rabbits and the milking of male goats.

“Certain architects have designed cowsheds of such luxury that the only thing missing is a mirror in front of each cow. This is irrational.” — N. S. Khrushchev

Vasilii Fomichev, Cowshed

Vasilii Fomichev, Cowshed, 1961. Gouache on paper.

Cowshed

“Based on a standardized design by Architect Excessive”

Karelian birch for stalls and posts
Feeding racks a la rococo . . .
Sister, milk from us will cost
Quite a bit for the kolkhoz*.

*A collective farm.

By B. Kovynev

Cowshed comically approaches issues of inefficiency and unreasonable spending in agriculture by lending a human voice to the two cow protagonists. The artist has humorously literalized Khrushchev’s quote (placed prominently above the image) on the irrational distribution of funding by painting an opulent, quasi-baroque cowshed. Engaged in an animated conversation, each comfortably ensconced in a luxurious stall made from expensive Karelian birch wood, the cows bemoan the sorry state of Soviet farming, thus voicing the concerns of farmers themselves. Despite the cowshed’s splendid architecture, the structure reveals subtle signs of decay, evident in the paint or plaster peeling off a column base and exposing the bricks underneath. This dissolution may be an allusion to de-Stalinization efforts encouraged under Khrushchev through a call for a more frank, functional, and transparent approach to both industrial and agricultural management.

Masha Kowell is writing her dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on Soviet propaganda posters from the Khrushchev era.

Liliana Milkova is the curator of academic programs at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College and holds a Ph.D. in history of art from the University of Pennsylvania.