SOVIET SIGNS (Metropolis Magazine, and collected in A DECADE OF DESIGN)

I was staring at a sign somewhere in the Moscow subway when I had this realization: the USSR is a typeface. The World's Largest Country, the Russian Empire, the Second World, the Communist Threat: all were conveyed in those stolid block letters. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is hard to picture beyond the archetypal image of Moscow's Red Square: the impregnable fortress, the secular cathedral, and the vast pedestrian space. This image came with me to the Soviet Union, and it had as much bearing on what I saw of life there as a type style does on the meaning of a sentence.

In the fall of 1990 my friend Tom Freisem and I bicycled 1,200 miles through three republics of the Soviet Union: south from Moscow in the Republic of Russia, to Kiev and Odessa in the eastern Ukraine, through Moldavia, to Lvov in the western Ukraine, continuing across Poland and on to Berlin. Due to oddities of timing and connections, we were probably the first and perhaps the only foreign cycle-tourist to travel through and exit the Soviet Union without official itinerary or escort.  For five weeks, moving freely at ground level, we passed through industrial cities, primitive villages, and empty farmlands. Across this wide-reaching landscape were the ubiquitous signs, slogans, images, and icons of the Communist Party, a weird mix of propaganda, public art, and practical signage.

In Moscow and other big cities along our route, vestiges of a richer history remain. Beautiful old buildings echo other European capitals and house museums, opera, and theater. Famous names on streets, statues and parks evoke a wealth of literary tradition. In these cities, the socialist icons blend in scale and weight with the monumental architecture of the fortresses and cathedrals; the 100-foot Lenin posters on the Kremlin walls, like the fifteenth-century Kremlin itself, were tourist attractions.

Outside the old city centers little remains of the traditional aesthetics that connect this vast federation with its religious heritage and with European and other ethnic cultures. Here the socialist slogans and logos are more serious, if more incongruous. Where the churches have been demolished, the great houses sacked, and the farms collectivized, these public images are eye-catching but disconcerting.

Every collective farm, administrative district, and neighborhood has some large sign or structure marking it. Most incorporate the hammer-and-sickle icon with images of what the region produces: agriculture, textiles, and machinery. The graphic pieces themselves are aggressive and self-important modern-looking sculptures attempting to inspire modernity in chicken farms (bird factory is the Russian term), airports, and towns.

Every main street is called Ulitsa Lenina (Lenin Street), and there is a statue of Lenin, in one of three familiar positions, in every town square. This is where Tom and I would stand around, if the town had no hotel, until our high-tech bikes and Clowns from Mars outfits drew a crowd.

In the village of Nenashevo, the local Communist boss showed up first, a squat balding man in a suit who told us to catch the train to the next city. But peasant women passing by took our side, shaking hunches of carrots at the People's Deputy: "What's the problem? Help these boys!" A man with a thick mustache listened in, and then gestured for us to follow. In his two-room flat, he made us rice soup and left to stay with friends so we'd have space.

Around the towns we saw slogans and billboards: "We will follow Lenin's teachings.” "USSR-Fruit of the World. "The Party: the mind, purity, and conscience of our time." Unlike the natives, we weren't numb to these messages. Initially we translated all the signs, trying to understand what they had to do with this country.

The slogans are accompanied by idealized images of the Soviet people: clean-cut, somber-faced, two-dimensional men and women stare with calm and empty resolve from the billboards and signs. Toiling beneath these heroic images, the real people here are insignificant outsiders. Ghosts of an ideal society haunt the countryside, mocking the population with a vision of how they should work and look accordins to some socialist formula.

The USSR--sprawling across II time zones, with 15 republics, 20 autonomous regions, and more than 100 ethnic groups--has almost nothing to draw on to unite its people, not even language.  It is so large and diverse that it can be held together only by the 5 million-strong Red Army--and by symbols. Soviet public imagery attempts to be a unifying national aesthetic.

The effect of the individual pieces means less than their collective presence. Their message is dishearteningly pervasive, the all-embrace of the central government. Beyond the style of the signs and the sense of the slogans is an aesthetic of conformity itself that extends to the ways and means of everyday life. When a citizen pays the same 38 kopecks for a ground-pork patty in any of the identical cafeterias, all called "Cafeteria," that stretch from the Baltics to the Sea of Japan, there is no obvious power operating on him. But in that price--determined by some distant Central Committee, scribbled on a handbill, figured on a wooden abacus--is all the meanness of the long Russian day.

The people we saw were systematically impoverished; not lower class, but the only class--all poor. Their poverty seemed more exotic because they looked like us. Tom and I felt we'd stepped into a Brueghel painting: the horse carts and dirt tracks; the dark-faced workmen in heavy coats and old boots waiting in back rooms to beg or bribe vodka from restaurant matriarchs, old women swaddled in layers of dressas and sweaters.

The shabby concrete housing developments beyond the old centers are where most people live. In rural areas few houses have hot water or toilets. Towns might have a cinema, more likely just a video hall for dispensing American pop culture. Televisions are cheap in the Soviet Union; everyone has a TV and it's always on. We stayed in many homes where MTV inside only partly made up for the outhouses in back.

Olga, the young woman we stayed with in one Ukrainian village, took us to a Friday-night disco. In a small cinderblock community hall, still under construction, bundles of boys and bundles of girls stood around in their coats at the room's edges. In front, on ilie DJ's table, a disco ball was illuminated by a desk lamp. Olga was the center of attention for bringing us, but she was not as heroic as we, dancing to a popular song with these lyrics:

“American boy, American boy/Take me with you/Come soon, I can't wait/All the girls in the village will be jealous."

On the Arbat, a shopping street in Moscow, Soviet tourists pay to have their picture taken with huge Marlboro packs. In the apartment of a Soviet general and his beautiful daughter, AKAI, Marlboro, and Phillips decals were on the kitchen cabinets; empty Perrier bottles, lifted from Western restaurants, were displayed in his daughter's room. A family in the Ukraine had a Schlitz beer can in a glass cabinet alongside their china.

Of course, it's not the beer or the cigarettes or the mineral water the Soviets revere: it's the power of icons that represent the West. Capitalist symbols promise status, power, wealth, and beauty. The Western product is a package, the package is a logo, and the logos stand for everything they don't have: democracy, prosperity, up-to-dateness, and heroic individualism. Like fetishes, these objects somehow hold the magic they have seen on TV or heard on bootleg cassettes.

An older spiritual life exists, though much of it has been forced into hiding. We encountered it often: in the people's love of flowers, in lively bazaars, in candlelit chapels, in warm and welcoming homes, in the deep eyes and rough hands of babushkas, the hardworking grandmothers. These tireless old women, raising and blending their voices effortlessly in song in ruined and renovated churches across the land, are the keepers of Russia's love and mystical soul.

In contrast, Soviet socialism is a religion without love or beauty. Lenin, god of work, preaches that man is a machine. In the electronic age the paople are asked to worship the hammer and sickle, icons glorifying the most tedious labor. Its sacred texts and images-political slogans and logos-have kept the Party's power in sigbt long after its ideology was rejected by the people.

Religious icons have a long tradition in Russian art. Objects of veneration, these painted panels embody centuries of spiritual devotion. When the Communist Party supplanted the Orthodox Church, it usurped the forms of religious authority and subverted the traditional religious symbols to convey its own message. While most Russians now reject Communism's symbols, they continue to respond to the power of the icon: today the unfettered success of Marlboro, McDonald's, and Pepsi heralds tha process of trading East for West. At a time when the USSR is facing near-apocalyptic changes, symbols are easier to accept than the realities of such a conversion. This is Westernization on the cheap, modernization only because that's what the logos represent.

When we first rode out from Moscow, Tom and I had been intrigued by the weirdly anachronistic Soviet signs and depressed by Western commercial incursions. But after a few dozen ground-pork patties served on bent trays with dirty utensils, we understood the three-hour lines outside Moscow's McDonald's. And after five weeks of relentless roadside propaganda, we were ready to pull down some signs ourselves.

We had some satisfaction in Lvov, a city 45 miles east of the Polish border, where they recently tore Lenin down. A pile of rubble and twisted steel still littered the city's main square where a crowd had toppled the huge Lenin statue during a Ukrainian independence rally three months before. Above, on a large billboard, GLORY was all that was left of what must have read "GLORY TO THE COMMUNIST PARTY."

Elsewhere in Lvov, shoppers thronged the elegant, cobbled streets, waiting in long, sober lines for food, fabric, and vodka. Flowers were tied to the doors of the many locked churches.