Missing Murals: The Legacy of Soviet Mosaics

Dnipro Railway Station, Ukraine. Credit: Y. Nikiforov
Dnipro Railway Station, Ukraine. Credit: Y. Nikiforov

Art was an important means of spreading the ideological message of communism. The walls of factories, schools, and bus stations were a cheap and ubiquitous blank canvas through which propagandist ideas pervaded. Mosaics were as important as any media outlet – maybe even more so – because they took political messages to people where they lived, worked and played.  Some of them survive, but most are crumbling in plain view. Their legacy is intertwined with the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

Mosaics and Metro Stations

At the turn of the 20th century, mosaics were only found in churches and ancient history. But, they found an unlikely ally in the new communist state. Public transit for the masses was one of the cornerstones of communist ideology. In the 1930s, automobile production was limited in favour of building new metro systems. Mosaics were “cheap in their materials but luxuriant in their extent”. They wouldn’t fade and could withstand freezing temperatures in winter. Famous figurative painters like Aleksandr Deyneka were employed to create ornate mosaics for the walls and ceilings of Moscow’s newly built metro stations. With its soaring arches and elaborate chandeliers, the Mayakovskaya metro station also used mosaics to depict what Soviet citizens might have seen when gazing towards the heavens: airplanes and parachutists, CCCP flags waving gently in the breeze and other scenes of Soviet ideology. 

Their rise was as quick as their demise. In the wake of Stalin’s death and the apocalyptic housing crisis created by the Second World War, the period of ornamentation came to an end. The Soviet Union’s new premier Nikita Khrushchev implemented a policy to eliminate “unnecessary extravagance in architecture”. Buildings that were already being built had their originally planned decoration stripped from the proposals. Their designs were standardised and reduced to functional architecture. Mosaics all but disappeared from the public view. Any which featured Stalin likeness were covered up or destroyed. Khrushshev’s de-Stalinization program removed references to the dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, through forced collectivisation, imprisonment in the Gulag, and party purges. Mosaics featuring Lenin feared slightly better. 

Lenin, Palace of Culture, Kremenchug. Credit: Y. Nikiforov
Lenin, Palace of Culture, Kremenchug. Credit: Y. Nikiforov

The Rebirth of Monumental Mosaics

After 20 years of austerity and rebuilding, mosaics began to appear again in the late 60s. It was the height of the Cold War, and the state used art to stoke nationalist and patriotic fervour. Many new public buildings automatically had 5% of their budget earmarked for ‘artistic elements’. Production plants, factories and collective farms often commissioned large scale mosaic panels for the inner and outer walls of buildings or workers' housing. The state-run Union of Artists - which controlled all aspects of artistic life, right down to the distribution of paint brushes - would commission local artists to design them. Many artists saw mosaics as a way to supplement their income, still they weren’t considered real art. The state would pay artists as much as 10X the average monthly salary for a simple bus stop mosaic. 

The mosaics of the late 60s and 70s broke from the refined neoclassical style of earlier works.  The biggest difference between the mosaics of the early 20th century and the 70s was that images of Lenin, Stalin and other communist symbols were rarely seen. What emerged were mosaics which traded exclusively in the imagery of an imagined future. Monumental mosaics which covered the entire sides of apartment buildings took inspiration from the cosmos, with “vaulting, plunging and soaring bodies bursting into real space”. Their vibrant and dynamic style were an opportunity for artists to create the promised socialist utopia.

Many were tailored to the culture, language, and history of each republic. In Ukraine, mosaics often included ship building and steel industry, while in Georgia they depicted Soviet stories of military victories, space achievements, and their heroes of labour. Often positioned on prominent public buildings, the typical motifs were workers or families. Ethical diversity only included when asked, friendship of the peoples. Reflect the state’s belief, Women are depicted as equals, even among the more demanding physical jobs. 

Berehynya theater wall, Ukraine. Credit: Y. Nikiforov
Berehynya theater wall, Ukraine. Credit: Y. Nikiforov

Vanishing Mosaics and their Legacy 

The official art of the Soviet state, mosaics projected images, ideas or symbols that spoke to the heart of the communist manifesto. For the most part, they were ignored. Citizens treated them as state commissioned propaganda, not worthy of their attention. The Western world also ignored them because of their state-sponsored association. “They were rejected in favour of work by dissident poets and authors, underground conceptual artists, and censored visionary film-makers.”  

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the property and power grab that came next, public spaces, factories and other industrial buildings were privatised. Out of the public view, mosaics were covered by billboards or simply left to the elements. Countries like Ukraine and Georgia instituted decommunization laws mandating the removal from public space of any Soviet symbols or imagery. The book: Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics documents many of these masterpiece which are being lost to history. The photos in this blog are from that book, and you can buy it here.  Shop our propaganda posters below or explore the collection here.


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