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When Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, one of his first actions was to curtail the consumption of alcohol. The “On Measures to Overcome Drinking, Alcoholism and to Eradicate Bootlegged Alcohol” directive issued on May 7, 1985 was supported by a massive graphics campaign, with posters warning of the dangers of drink for home, health, and job.
“Hastily conceived and lacking sufficient planning or preparation, it was an attempt by the government to cut through a historic Gordian knot of social issues with little consideration for the consequences,” writes Alexei Plutser-Sarno in Alcohol: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters, out April 25 from Fuel. In conjunction with the publication, a selection of posters are on view through April 13 at Pushkin House in London.
The book features a large collection of previously unpublished visuals from the 1960s to ’80s, but concentrates on the era of the “Gorbachev campaign.” They’re preceded by a cover animated by a lenticular image of a bottle being poured into the waiting glass that serves as a man’s head, a pickle speared on a fork in his other hand. Like previous publications by Fuel, the design and publishing duo of Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, it’s a lovingly crafted tribute to an obscure artistic genre, following their explorations on such topics as Soviet space dogs and Soviet bus stops.
The anti-alcohol posters are diverse in their graphics, some illustrated, some collaged, some popping with clever visual metaphors, like bottle-shaped scissors slicing a man out of his family photograph. Green snakes symbolizing alcoholism are wrestled with, and bottles entrap drunks, who often turned to “surrogate” alcohols. These included colognes (perfumes, mouthwashes, air fresheners, etc.), chemicals (varnishes, polishes, drain cleaners, and so on), and pharmacy medication. Much as Prohibition in the United States did little to stop drinking, with bootlegging, mobs, and bathtub gin, in the Soviet Union you could still purchase alcohol at all hours, including at “drunk corners” and from cab drivers. One poster from 1985 laments, “He used to be a driver. Now he’s a profiteer.”
As Plutser-Sarno explores in his book essays, the impact on the economy of the Soviet Union was harsh, with not enough other consumer goods to fill the void in spending, accompanied by a destruction of the vineyards that to this day have “never been fully re-established.” He notes that an even “more absurd Party decision mandated the censorship of scenes of wine-drinking within works of art,” thus blocking in the late 1980s performances of Verdi’s opera La Traviata and Beethoven’s boozy Twenty-Five Scottish Songs.
Most ironically of all, drinking actually increased. “The results of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign were the disintegration of the country’s economy and the mass drinking that followed,” Plutser-Sarno states. “According to official statistics alone, consumption of spirits in Russia grew by 233% between 1988 and 1998. If the consumption of bootlegged and surrogate alcohol is taken into account, the figure is much higher.”