When tens of thousands of Russian citizens hit the streets in 2012, expat Misha Beletsky 95 IL – an art director at Abbeville Press who now lives and works in New York – was watching on the web. The Russians were protesting fraudulent parliamentary election results and “everyone was carrying homemade corrugated cardboard posters with scribbled slogans,” he recalls. “Some of them were clever, others offensive – but none was well-designed. This was in Russia, a country that produced some of the most effective and striking political posters of the 20th century!”
Eager to do something about it, Beletsky reached out to his friends Serge Serov, a Moscow-based design critic and educator responsible for Russia’s Golden Bee – Moscow International Biennale of Graphic Design, and longtime New York Times art director and graphic design lecturer Steven Heller. Together, they solicited entries for a poster competition, in part via Facebook, announcing that a separate exhibition of the winning designs would be shown at the October 2012 biennale.
Within weeks they had received more than 200 entries – mostly from artists outside of Russia. “The funny part is that the people directly affected by this unfortunate political situation were not the first to respond,” says Beletsky. “I think that’s curious and telling.”
“My biggest surprise was the strong body of work contributed by students of Natalia Ilyin MFA 91 GD from the Cornish College of the Arts, a small school [in Seattle, WA] that is not on everyone's radar,” Beletsky adds. “Their posters could hold their own next to the pieces created by well-known and well-established contributors.”
The 31 winning posters were exhibited in Russia Rising: Votes for Freedom, a show that ran first in Moscow and then at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.
“The SVA had done a similar project on the Iranian upheaval a few years ago,” Beletsky explains. “It struck me that the situation in Russia was similar, so I contacted the exhibit organizers – including Francis Di Tommaso, who would ultimately design the exhibition – to see if there was interest. They immediately understood the concept of world designers submitting posters in support of democratic movements in a particular country.” Russia Rising also traveled to RISD in March and will head to the Cornish College of the Arts this fall.
Did Beletsky fear any reprisal from the Russian government? “No news is good news,” he quips. “Even though the traditional media there are mostly censored and controlled, people have found an outlet for free speech and free information on the Internet, and the government is writing it off as insignificant.”
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