Foreign diplomats living in Cold War Moscow enjoyed apartments that were cavernous relative to those that Russian families crammed into. Still, there was no escaping the watchful eyes of the KGB.
The state was ever-present in the Soviet Union in 1969 when Leslie Malone Berger ’83 moved to Nr. 14 Kutuzovsky Prospekt on one of Moscow’s most beautiful boulevards. She lived there for two years, along with her parents, Dan and Anne Malone, and sister Shannon.
One unavoidable sign (no pun intended) of the government’s brooding presence were propaganda posters everywhere one turned.
Sweet Briar College has an extensive collection of these posters and it has just acquired 15 more, this time from donors who vividly remember how deeply this art form was woven into the fabric of Soviet life. What’s more, Dan Malone has a expert’s grasp of the Soviet mindset.
The retired Army colonel studied Russian language and history at West Point, then charted a career course toward the “ultimate post” in his arena: armed forces attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He traversed the country for his job, sometimes to out-of-the-way places, both with and without his wife and two young daughters.
“There wasn’t much else to buy as souvenirs, so the posters filled an important function,” he recalls. “In short, this was not a small or narrow field of interest. Everyone talked about the posters and you saw them wherever you traveled in the Soviet Union. Additionally, they are the subject of significant academic research and several books published by universities that include Soviet studies.”
Berger, now a speech language pathologist at Roanoke County Public Schools, came to see an exhibition from the College’s collection called “Art for the People” in Pannell Gallery last spring. She told her parents about it knowing her father, like many Sovietologists, owned a number of the prints. A few were displayed over the years, but most ended up in storage.
“It offered a unique opportunity to get the few posters we had out of our attic and into a useful role,” Malone says. “We followed up with a visit to the exhibit ourselves and saw right away it would be a great home for these special ‘souvenirs.’ ”
It helped that he and his wife were aware of and impressed with the Saving Sweet Briar alumnae — including Berger, who joined the movement. They donated their collection in her honor.
Galleries director Karol Lawson sees a Sweet Briar dynamic at work in all these pieces aligning — an 81-year-old saga starting with a “globe-trotting professor.” The school’s existing collection comes from a cache of the posters discovered under a staircase in the library in the 1980s. No one knows for sure, but they were likely left by Gladys Boone, an economics professor who traveled in the USSR for research in 1935, Lawson says.
Two years ago, Lawson obtained a $25,000 federal Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to conserve the core of the found prints, some of which were then exhibited in the spring show.
“It is a great story of how the work of students and staff over the past several years resulted in the popular exhibition, and then that resulted in a generous gift from members of the extended SBC family,” she says.
Malone, who retired from the Army in 1982, explains that all art was a propagandist tool of Soviet communism, but the posters were singular in their ubiquity.
“The genre of artwork and the transformation of artistic endeavor to Socialist Realism was an important part of the Soviet Revolution,” he says.
“Whether opera, ballet, poetry, paintings or novels like ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ Marxist-Leninist themes and purposes were rammed into all of it. Careers — sometimes lives — were destroyed. Creativity was abolished if it did not fit the Politburo’s aims. We were there in Moscow during the height of Soviet power. And we were surrounded by those posters everywhere we traveled.
“As Karol’s exhibit shows, poster art was at the cutting edge of promoting the new Soviet society.”
The posters were produced over decades and addressed every topic imaginable, from Lenin’s answer to “what is communism” to the benefits from collectivization of the nation’s farms, Malone says.
“Then came the Great Fatherland War — WWII — followed by the Cold War.”
The placards appeared big and small, on the sides of city buildings, on parade floats in Red Square, on boards erected in country hamlets — and as posters foreigners could purchase in bookstores and shops. Sometimes they were the only mementos of their excursions since photography was generally forbidden. The authorities weren’t kidding about that, either, Malone says. A friend of his who owned an auto parts business thought it would be fun to photograph a gas station and was promptly arrested.
Still, the Malones managed to capture some fantastic images while there. Innocuous family photos were permitted and the Soviets tended to look the other way during parades as spectators snapped away at displays of military might.
Like the posters, the photos offer a visual account of an unnerving time. Malone doesn’t know or care about the dollar value of his gift to the College. The posters’ worth is in the knowledge they impart, he says.
“To us, the more important value is to show the role of art in such a society that threatened the free world, and the importance to civilization of art and artists.”
A child’s-eye view
Dan Malone isn’t the only one with sharp memories of life in the USSR. Berger can still visualize a year’s worth of canned food spread on the floor of her family’s Northern Virginia living room, ready to be shipped to Moscow for their arrival. Once there, milk had to be brought in from Helsinki, and her mom would trace the girls’ feet on paper to order shoes by mail from the U.S.
Remember those KGB eyes? Berger does.
Their apartment complex housed four American families, Canadians, Afghanis and other nationals. A “militsiya” policeman always stood guard in a cramped shack, watching them come and go, she says, and two “babushkas,” or “grandmothers,” were stationed at each entrance, also monitoring them.
“My sister, Shannon, and I would always talk with the babushkas,” she says.
“We both learned to speak Russian. As children, we were very aware that our apartment was bugged and that we were always watched. I remember my parents ‘talking’ to each other using one of those play tablets where you could write and then peel up the top sheet to erase the words.”
Berger attended the third- and fourth-grade there, at the Anglo-American school with friends from around the world. She recalls the Soviet custodian would ice the playground to make a run at the bottom of the slide. They swam in the pool in the sports complex at Lenin Stadium, where her father recalls they also played American little league-style baseball.
She and her friends often roller-skated on the boulevard, where Russian kids would point at the foreigners. The braver ones asked them for items such as bubblegum or pencils, she says.
“We stood out because we wore colorful clothes and our skates were obviously Western.”
Though they needed permission to travel outside of Moscow, her parents ensured they explored the country, as well as their communist neighbors and other Western European countries.
“When we got out of the communist countries, we marveled at the abundance of fresh fruit and smiling faces!” she recalls. “Sorrento, Italy, was heaven on earth. Moscow was pretty grim and gray during that time. It was quite an experience living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and it truly had an impact on my life.”
At Sweet Briar, Berger, now the mother of three grown children, studied history and interned at NATO in Brussels. She spent a year in Paris through JYF. After graduating, she worked in Washington for a time, for Sen. John Heinz, and later for the Reagan administration, sorting newspapers to compile information packets in the pre-internet era. Eventually she earned her master’s and switched to her current career.
“I had a wonderful education and some exceptional opportunities at Sweet Briar,” she says. “Living in Roanoke, I’ve had the luxury of being able to run up to visit Sweet Briar every so often. My Sweet Briar sisters are some of my nearest and dearest friends still today.”
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