Russia History Soviet USSR in Construction

USSR in Construction



Collection of eight issues of USSR in Construction, English language, good condition

1934 #1, 2, 4, 6, 7/8, 9 – 1936 #3 – 1949 #12 (Stalin special)

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The late 1920s and early 1930s were a time of radical changes in politics, economics and society. The developed nations were plunged into the Great Depression, overturning the daily lives of millions of people, making them reconsider their former views of the capitalist system and their own place in it.

While the West was in the throes of a financial crisis, the Soviet Union embarked on an ambitious programme of rapid industrialisation. The aim was to completely overhaul the national economy, transforming the USSR into a leading industrial power. In only a few years, no matter what the cost, the country had to undergo a process that had taken decades in Western nations.

The Soviet Union launched a grandiose scheme to build modern industries and infrastructure, but there was a catastrophic shortage of tools, technology and knowledge. The deficit could only be filled by importing equipment from the West and inviting foreign experts to Russia. But the USSR was the target of ongoing international trade embargoes and a diplomatic blockade. World business was in no hurry to collaborate with the Soviet Union, while the foreign press contributed to its negative image. The international recognition of the USSR was a long way off.

Faced with these problems, the Soviet Union decided to publish a magazine aimed at foreign readers, describing the achievements and positive changes taking place in the USSR – and, indirectly, demonstrating the advantages of the socialist system. In summer 1929, the editors of Our Achievements, headed by Maxim Gorky, suggested issuing an illustrated supplement. The first test issue of the new publication, called USSR in Construction (SSSR na stroike), appeared in December 1929.

USSR in Construction soon eclipsed its predecessor. The new magazine was completely unlike any other periodical of that time: it was published in Russian, English, French, German and Spanish and consisted almost entirely of photographs, accompanied by captions and short essays. The texts were written by such nationally acclaimed journalists as Mikhail Koltsov and Isaac Babel. The printing was of the highest standard.

The pictures were taken by leading contemporary photographers. Mark Markov-Grinberg was responsible for the shots of the construction of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station – one of the symbols of Soviet industrialisation and the subject of the fourth issue of the magazine for 1930. He also took the photographs of famous writers (Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland and George Bernard Shaw, who received a free subscription to USSR in Construction), miners (Alexei Stakhanov and Nikita Izotov) and pilots (Valery Chkalov, Valentina Grizodubova and Paulina Osipenko).

The main device for creating illustrations was photomontage. Previously unimaginable images and collages were created with the help of scissors, glue and a boundless fantasy. One of the finest masters of this form of magazine art was John Heartfield – the anglicised name of German artist and printer Helmut Herzfeld, who developed his photomontages after the First World War. As a member of the German Communist Party, he eagerly accepted the offer to work for a Soviet magazine. In 1931, Heartfield moved to Russia, where he immediately began applying his artistic methods.

John Heartfield’s photomontages were a combination of photography, drawing and text. The aim of the latter was to be concise and expressive – something achieved with great success in the new magazine.

Heartfield’s main creed was symbolism. All magazine issues that he worked on (1931–32) were distinctly individual. Heartfield created the famous photo of a tractor and camel, which acquired immortality in Russian literature, thanks to Ilf and Petrov’s satirical novel The Golden Calf. Taken on the Turkestan-Siberian Railway Line, linking Central Asia with Siberia, this was the perfect image of the old meeting the new.

Another famous name was El Lissitzky. Whereas Heartfield was the father of photomontage, Lissitzky worked in a different line, which would now be described as design. After graduating from the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt in 1914, he worked for the Architectural Bureau in Moscow. Following the revolution, he helped to organise exhibitions of modern art. During the Civil War, Lissitzky was famous for his Suprematist designs, which combined perfectly with the agitprop poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky. One of his most celebrated works was the poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

In the 1920s, El Lissitzky developed a style of his own called “Prouns,” which were later definitive in his work for USSR in Construction. The word was the abbreviation for a compositional exercise known as “project for the confirmation of the new” (proekt utverzhdeniya novogo). The artist himself defined his Prouns as a “new symmetry for real artistic construction.” They were a unique synthesis of Suprematism and Constructivism – which could no longer exist on their own in the 1930s, following the clampdown on avant-garde art. The Prouns were the basis for designs of Soviet skyscrapers, pavilions, palaces and cinemas.

By the mid-1920s, El Lissitzky was an acknowledged master of design. He held a one-man show in Berlin and freely travelled abroad. He even went to Switzerland for medical treatment – an unheard of luxury for a Soviet citizen. In 1928, Lissitzky designed the Soviet pavilion at the International Press Exhibition in Cologne. This success was largely responsible for the subsequent invitation to collaborate with USSR in Construction. Lissitzky occupied one of the key posts at the magazine, and several highly distinguished issues came out under his sole editorship.

Other issues of the magazine were edited by another famous representative of Constructivism and pioneer of design – Alexander Rodchenko. During the revolution, he worked on a synthesis of architecture, painting and sculpture. He later taught at the legendary Higher Art and Technical Studios (VKhUTEMAS), before replacing Wassily Kandinsky as director of the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow. Rodchenko experimented with both colour and space, creating three-dimensional pictures of various configurations. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he engaged in agitprop art.

Alexander Rodchenko began working for USSR in Construction in 1933, collaborating with the magazine right up until the outbreak of war in 1941. Like Heartfield’s method, his style of polygraphic Constructivism was based on photomontage. Rodchenko, however, introduced his own unique vision. The main aspect of his method was contrasting light and shade, which was extremely effective when depicting various units and mechanisms. One issue in 1933 published his photographs of a gas generator and turbine, which looked remarkably similar to the simple blueprints of these objects – except that, in Rodchenko’s works, the lines of soulless mechanisms were always aesthetic.

Another of Alexander Rodchenko’s methods was compositional perspective. This approach was known as the “Rodchenko perspective” – even in the period when the artist fell into official disfavour. With the help of this method, he created striking images of endless fields, overturned subsoil and electric power cables. Despite the aforementioned criticism and even prohibition of individual works in the mid-1930s, Rodchenko’s pictures continued to be reproduced in the magazine. In this way, USSR in Construction was an important creative outlet for the talented innovator.

Alexander Rodchenko came up with the idea of special jubilee issues, celebrating Communist Party congresses or republican anniversaries. One was published in honour of the flight of the enormous Maxim Gorky aircraft. The edition marking the XVII Communist Party Congress, hailed as the “congress of victors,” was wrapped in fabric from the USSR balloon, which had recently broken the world altitude record. A gramophone record was also included. In 1935, an “aviation” issue came out in an aluminium cover. The drawings in the copy celebrating the jubilee of the Georgian SSR in 1936 were printed with gold leaf.

USSR in Construction was not, of course, intended for the general public. It was aimed primarily at members of the Soviet government and the Western elite. An expensive publication, it was not freely circulated inside the country. The foreign print runs numbered three or four thousand copies – incomparable to such other illustrated magazines as Ogonyok. To employ modern parlance, USSR in Construction was more like a “monthly report.” The most interesting sections were the diagrams showing the production of the leading “troika” of consumer goods in the Soviet Union – bicycles, clocks and phonographs – and the statistics for gold mining in the second half of the 1930s.

The female theme was covered separately in the magazine. Alexander Rodchenko’s wife, Varvara Stepanova, worked in this sphere. Besides artistic contributions, she also edited the publication.

Photo-reportage occupied a prominent place in USSR in Construction. The magazine reproduced works of photojournalism by such famous masters as Arkady Shaikhet and Mark Alpert. The latter chronicled the construction of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, the Great Fergana Canal and the laying of new railway lines. Alpert’s main theme was the purest forms of industrialisation. The distinguishing features of his works were a deep perspective, contrasting figures in the foreground and background, and a combination of industrial and natural landscapes.

Mark Alpert closely followed the process and various stages of construction – first the foundation pit, then the supporting constructions and scaffolding, and finally the new blast furnace or tower. He was also a master at conveying the uniqueness of each individual person. As a result, Alpert was commissioned to photograph the Soviet leadership. In his photos, each member of the government came out the way that he wanted to see himself. Alpert later took a famous photograph that is now regarded as one of the emblems of the Second World War – a commander leading his battalion into attack.

The German invasion of 1941 brought an end to the period of artistic experiments. Even if the resources could have been found, there was no longer any readership, as the magazine could not reach occupied Europe. Publication was halted for eight years.

The last twelve issues came out in 1949. The penultimate edition covered the construction of the “Seven Sisters” – a group of Moscow skyscrapers designed in the Stalinist style (a new university building, two administrative buildings, two hotels and two housing complexes on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and Uprising Square). Depicted in the magazine still surrounded by scaffolding, they soon visibly changed the face of Moscow.

The decisive shift towards the Stalinist style changed the face of the entire country after the war. The time of experiments and often revolutionary innovations was over. Publication of USSR in Construction also came to a halt. The magazine was replaced by Soviet Union, which came out in nineteen languages. But this was an entirely different publication.

The issues of the first decade were more than just documents of a complex and enthralling chapter in the history of one of the world’s leading nations. Struggling against the many prohibitions placed on art in the Soviet Union, a galaxy of brilliant masters found an outlet for its talents on the pages of the magazine, applying their genius in the realm of photo documentation and design. A revolutionary publication combining elements of Socialist Realism with photomontage, USSR in Construction is rightfully considered one of the most exciting graphic projects of the twentieth century.

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