Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell (eds.): ALCOHOL: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters

Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell (eds.): ALCOHOL: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters

London: FUEL Publishing, 2017, ISBN: 9780993191152, 248 p.

Evgenia Trufanova
Alexei Plutser-Sarno; Venedikt Erofeev; Mikhail Gorbachev; poster art; propaganda; graphic design; anti-alcohol campaign; dry law.

ALCOHOL makes available a previously unpublished and under-researched body of posters produced and distributed as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s unsuccessful anti-alcohol campaign of the mid-1980s. Put together by the London-based independent graphic design and publishing company FUEL, this book seems to mark the beginning in the publisher’s new trajectory of interest: since the book’s release in 2017, FUEL has presented another collection of Soviet posters and visual artefacts, Godless Utopia, this time documenting instances of anti-religious propaganda prominent throughout the Soviet period. At the same time, it is consistent with FUEL’s larger (unnamed) series of publications that explores various Soviet and Russian visual texts often positioned at the margins of cultural studies.1 The release of the reviewed book was timed to coincide with the corresponding exhibition “ALCOHOL: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters,” curated and run by FUEL at the Pushkin House (Russian cultural centre in London) from 23 March to 13 April 2017, which may incline one to regard this book as an exhibition catalogue.2 Apart from the impressive selection of visual material – which includes not only posters but also matchbox labels, booklets, and book covers, newspaper and magazine cartoons – the book features two essays by Alexei Plutser-Sarno.

This name might sound familiar to those interested in Soviet or Russian visual culture and performance art, and rightly so. Not only had Alexei Plutser-Sarno published with FUEL before (in his 2007 Notes from Russia, he draws a portrait of the Russian everyday through his unique collection of anonymous street texts), he is also a famous artist, author, folklorist, and a member (although, at times identified as its leader and chief ideologist) of the controversial performance collective and street-art group, Voina [War], known for its politically charged happenings and pranks. In its early years, the collective served as a creative platform for Petr Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – the latter is one of the founders of Pussy Riot. The essays in ALCOHOL are only a fragment of the larger project the author had been working on since 1996 and which first resulted in a Russian-language publication “Ėntsiklopediia russkogo p’ianstva” [Encyclopedia of Russian Drinking] conceptualised as a 200-page commentary to the new 2011 edition3 of Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki. Novelist and translator Charlotte Hobson gave a talk on the place of alcohol in Erofeev’s work as part of the event season surrounding the original “ALCOHOL” exhibition, alongside a vodka tasting and a conversation on the medical effects of Gorbachev’s ‘dry law.’ Erofeev, indeed, becomes a consistent point of reference for Plutser-Sarno in his second essay for the book, “The Origins and Significance of Alcoholism in Russia.”

ALCOHOL opens with an essay which shares its title with the directive issued by Gorbachev on May 7, 1985, “On Measures to Overcome Drinking, Alcoholism and to Eradicate Bootlegged Alcohol.” Here, Plutser-Sarno focuses on the details of the anti-alcohol campaign and the effect it had on the economy and the drinking routine(s) in the Soviet Union. Citing sources like Gorbachev memoirs, party directives, national register of medicines, Soviet-era instruction manuals for operating hydraulic machinery, and perfume catalogues (which showcase some of the alcohol surrogates popular at the time) as well as including ‘anekdoty’ [jokes] popular at the time, Plutser-Sarno paints a detailed and grim picture of the total mutual misunderstanding between the state and its people (i.e. the goals and motivations of the state vs. the needs and expectations of the population) which proved to be damaging to the country’s large-scale industries as well as the health and general well-being of its citizens. Here, Plutser-Sarno mentions, among other things, the Party’s decision to cut drinking scenes out of a variety of artworks, ranging from films to opera performances. Incidentally, a similar initiative has been introduced on Russian state television in the recent years: a notice that warns the viewer about the scenes of alcohol consumption or smoking in the upcoming show has become commonplace; more recently, too, the bottles/cans and cigarettes ‘in action’ have been appearing on screen intentionally blurred.4 The ‘invisible’ problem is ever so urgent in real life. Despite the overall plunge in alcohol consumption in Russia, the level of unrecorded production of alcoholic beverages (such as samogon [moonshine] and surrogate alcohol) is still one of the highest in the world, which is confirmed by the frequent news reports on the instances of alcohol poisoning in various regions across the country.5

Contemporary anti-alcohol poster with a militant twist found on the streets of Khabarovsk. The poster reads: “Thank you, grandfather, for the victory! But the enemy has found a new way in: he poisons the grandsons with alcohol and kills them with tobacco!” (Courtesy of a close friend of mine; the picture was taken in the summer of 2019).

The second essay, “The Origins and Significance of Alcoholism in Russia. What and How Russians Drink,” is a rich compilation of alcohol-related proverbs, expressions, popular jokes, colloquialisms and euphemisms, song lyrics and literary references that all testify to the great cultural weight alcohol and drinking have had in the Russian-speaking regions but at the same time perpetuate the long-standing stereotype (once, perhaps, true) that Russians are the world’s heaviest drinkers. The text attempts, as designated in its title, to outline the reasons why excessive drinking (exclusively among men) in Russia has become routine as well as the various popular types of alcohol and the rituals associated with their consumption. It is important to keep in mind that Plutser-Sarno’s methodology in approaching the phenomenon of alcohol consumption in Russia is grounded in folklore and selected literary representations (all from the 1970–80s or 1647 and 1840 foreign guests’ travelogues) and not in first-person accounts, data or sociological studies. Abundant in references to Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki, this essay appears to be rather an elaborate supplement to Erofeev’s work and does not necessarily reflect contemporary Russian reality. I find it necessary to note once again that most of the research for this piece was done in the late 1990s when Plutser-Sarno worked on a project which later became his contribution to the new edition of Moskva-Petushki. Without this background information, the text may come across as essentialist. I find that the book would have benefited from making this affinity clear.

Considering how largely under-researched poster art is in general, what seems to be missing from this publication is a commentary on the posters themselves. Apart from the few indirect references at the beginning of the book meant to illustrate common practices of alcohol consumption and acquisition during the campaign, there is not enough attention given to the visual artefacts that comprise the core of the book (out of 241 pages, 205 feature poster reproductions). The publication would greatly benefit from a close analysis of these visual texts as well as an overview of peculiarities of poster production and distribution in the Soviet Union that would reveal interesting and complex networks of the organisations involved, from the semi-independent artist collectives, like Boevoi Karandash [Feisty Pencil], Kukryniksy or Agitplakat Dona [Campaign Posters of Don], to the USSR Ministry of Health and Internal Affairs Office.

Extremely interesting is, for example, the poster on page 149 of the book that depicts a bottle of alcohol as a green snake wrapped around the leg of the poster’s protagonist (Fig.2). A green snake is a widely accepted symbol for alcoholism in Russian culture, deriving most certainly from the Book of Genesis in which the serpent tempts Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, which forever discredits human nature. Interestingly, the image on the poster is also reminiscent of a motif in Russian Orthodox iconography based on the legend of Saint George and the Dragon (which in Russian is, again, a serpent – ‘zmii’). This underlying religious reference is striking considering the anti-religious campaign still prominent at the time.

A fragment of Sistine Chapel’s ceiling that thematises the Downfall of Adam and Eve (Michelangelo, 1509); Soviet anti-alcohol poster (E. Bor, 1985), the text reads “We will overcome it! Alcoholism”; painted icon of Saint George and the Dragon (author unknown).

Even though the book is primarily interested in the anti-alcohol posters that were created and distributed between 1960 and the late 1980s in the Soviet Union, it includes examples that lay outside this temporal and geographical range. Posters and other artefacts from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria as well as illustrations made as early as 1921 in Soviet Russia all suggest a larger field and possibilities for future research.

ALCOHOL is a truly pioneering publication inasmuch as it introduces the English-speaking reader to the phenomenon of late-socialist propaganda art, containing plenty of examples with carefully translated captions. The two essays that frame the book accurately contextualise the disquieting and whimsical posters by emphasising the societal turmoil they came to symbolise. Foregrounding the relevance of Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki for the discussion of Gorbachev’s dry law would have been advantageous for the book as referring to this text when making generic statements about contemporary Russia certainly has its limitations. A third short piece on the peculiarities of the posters selected for this publication would have been a wonderful addition and a significant step forward in poster art research.

Evgenia Trufanova
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


1 Other FUEL’s titles that fall under this category, in my view, are: Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia in three volumes (2004–2013), Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts (2006), Notes from Russia (2007), Drawings from the Gulag (2010), Soviet Bus Stops in two volumes (2015–2017), Russian Criminal Playing Cards (2018), Soviet Signs and Street Relics (2020) and a few others. Godless Utopia (2019) as well as the above mentioned books are edited by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell who founded and have since been running FUEL Publishing.

2 The exhibition is alluded to in the book’s description on FUEL’s website. The book itself, however, does not mention neither the exhibition, nor the events scheduled around it.

3 Illustrated by Saint-Petersburg based artist Vasilii Golubev (not to confuse with the Soviet painter Vasilii Golubev), the 2011 edition also included supplemental “Khronika zhizni i tvorchestva Venedikta Erofeeva” [The Chronicles of Venedikt Erofeev’s Life] as well as examples of actual bottle labels that correspond to the alcoholic drinks Erofeev brings up in his Moskva-Petushki.

4 The treatment of alcohol products on TV technically falls under the Federal Law “On Advertising” and is regulated by Item 3 of Part 2 of Article 21 that prohibits advertisement of alcoholic beverages in “television programmes, radio programmes, or when cinema and video services are being provided” (although, ‘anonymous’ shot glasses get blurred as well). The ban on smoking in film and television programmes is, however, part of the 2013 Federal Law on “Protecting the Health of Citizens from the Effects of Second Hand Tobacco Smoke and the Consequences of Tobacco Consumption” (Items 2–4 of Article 16). Restrictions have been imposed on swear words as well: not only are they “bleeped” – the mouth gets blurred, too.

5 According to the 2019 WHO report, the total per capita consumption has dropped by 43% between 2003 and 2016, which has been linked to the rise in life expectancy in Russia. More on this: https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/disease-prevention/alcohol-use/news/news/2019/10/alcohol-related-deaths-drop-in-russian-federation-due-to-strict-alcohol-control-measures,-new-report-says [4.12.2020]. Unrecorded APC, according to WHO is 3.5 litres with the global average of 1.6 litres https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/indicators/indicator-details/GHO/alcohol-unrecorded-per-capita-(15-)-consumption-(in-litres-of-pure-alcohol)-with-95-ci [4.12.2020].


Evgenia Trufanova is a PhD student in German and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her dissertation project explores the phenomenon of underground women’s film- and video-collectives in Germany from the 1970s until today. Evgenia is the book review editor for Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe.


Brown, Roland Elliott. 2019. Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda. Edited by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell. London.

Erofeev, Venedikt. 2011. Moskva-Petuski. Sankt-Peterburg.

Plutser-Sarno, Alexei. 2007. Notes From Russia. London.

Suggested Citation

Trufanova, Evgeniia. 2020. Review: “Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell (eds.): ALCOHOL: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00011.245.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.


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