A few years ago a handsome man with intense blue eyes (and a charming accent) walked in to the gallery and politely asked me if I might be interested in purchasing vintage Russian posters. That man, Alexander (Sasha to his friends) Bobylev, has become for us not only a great source for Russian posters, but also a friend. In addition to having a great eye for posters, he is also a personal fitness coach, a very funny man, and someone who loves posters as much as I do.
Below are Sasha’s (mostly unedited) answers about how he became interested in posters, how he finds them, and what he looks for.
When did you start being interested in posters and what was it about them that attracted your attention?
“It was about 12-13 years ago that when I saw an old Soviet poster used haphazardly as a sun-blind on a curtainless window of the school I used to attend. It was not exactly a really old poster but it was a bright example of the propaganda featured during the Cold War era: focusing on the terrible unemployment situation in the US and featuring a slouched, gaunt, unhappy figure of a jobless American on one side, all in grey colours, and on the opposite side – a bright red giant of a Soviet worker with forearms bigger than Schwarzenegger’s, firmly holding a huge Soviet flag with one of them, overshadowing half the Earth globe, with a promise to deliver at employment if not freedom to the rest of the world sometime in the near future.
I felt a strong urge to save it from further ruin by the merciless Central Asian Sun and see if I could sell to a western person to give it a new life on somebody’s wall and be appropriately appreciated as the Sovet artists who were selected to draw those posters were among the best in their trade. So I talked a friend who I promised to share the future profits with into attempting to get that poster by going into that school and cajoling the once our English teacher whose classroom that poster was protecting from UV-rays into letting him have it. To make a long story short, he got it and I easily sold it to some American military man who fell in love with the red giant.
We split the few bucks we got from that sale. And with that inspiration, it’s how it all started. I paid my friend’s expenses and he went different places looking for the last of the Soviet posters that could have been still kept intact in some former soviet institutions like schools, factories, government offices, and libraries. There were some disappointments along the way, weeks on end without luck, with just a few good posters found here and there, until one day he struck upon a big pile of them stored or rather scrapped somewhere in a basement of the central republican library. It was still a government-run, entry-and exit-controlled building. It was quite difficult to get into the authorised-personnel- only, find the right excuse to be admitted into the basement, let alone leaving it with just a small stack of posters hidden under a shirt to get past security. Of course, charm alone would not work here, so he had to find a way to grease a palm of an old Russian warden lady and convince her that he was just a poor artist himself needing those posters for inspiration or something like that.
And that had to be done almost every week, as I saw how genuine these posters were, some dating back to the Second World War, a lot of them to the 50-s and 60-s of the twentieth century, colorful, carrying different messages, some representing works of very famous poster artists of the Soviet era. We just had to have them all or at least try to.
It kind of dawned on me then that that posters had both historic and monetary value. As many of the posters that had been once all over the place were discarded, destroyed, and ruined (sometime even being used as wrapping paper or sun blinds in poorly provided public service establishments).
I organized different sales events, opening up a small poster gallery at the local US Airbase, dealing with a couple of local antique shop owners, auctioning many of them, and eventually taking some of them across the ocean as my family moved to live in Montreal where I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Etingin of L’Affichiste who is selling some of my posters these days.”
If someone is looking to acquire a Soviet poster, what is it that they should look for specifically? Are some images more valuable than others?
If someone is looking to acquire a Soviet Poster it’s kind of important that the poster has been issued by a central print-house agency in Moscow (such as Izogiz). So if you see the word Moscow printed somewhere at the bottom part of a poster it means that this poster had to go through a rigid selection criteria for an artist and even though the subjects could widely vary (from technical safety posters, to advertisements and propaganda posters).
The time periods such as 20s, 30s, WWII, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s – each represented different styles and drawing techniques. Each can be recognized and has several recognizable artists whose names appear at the bottom of a poster. Some of the original posters have been repeatedly reprinted (2 or 3 times) in later years, and still represent some good value as the printing machinery and dyes were very often the same as for the originally issued posters due to unchanging Russian bullet-proof technology which was not fixed or replaced for that matter until broken. Some WWII era posters could have been reprinted in 60s or 70s and look and feel just the same, at the same time found in better condition due to 20 or 30 year difference. They can be referred to as ‘original reprints’. L’Affichiste has a few of those as well.