Stephane Cornille of Comrade Kiev resurrects poster design of the former Eastern Bloc

Back in the USSR

Sometimes one unplanned moment can change your life, even if you don’t realize it at the time. That’s what happened to London-based vintage dealer Stephane Cornille. He was visiting Kiev for a long weekend and came across some striking Soviet propaganda posters at a flea market. Fast forward a couple of years, he runs his own business, Comrade Kiev, which specializes in Soviet-era posters.

A quick glance at the unique material in his collection—along with the travel photos he’s taken on sourcing trips—it’s easy to understand how this chance encounter blossomed into an obsession and full-time profession. Everything that he brings back West is saturated with a strikingly moody aesthetic that can only be found in that special corner of the world.

>We’re also impressed that Comrade Kiev has been built upon core values of championing sustainability and human rights. Cornille ensures that Comrade Kiev is carbon neutral and donates 2% of all revenue to Human Rights Watch. Eager to hear more of his story, we reached out to Cornille for a Q&A.

Stephane Cornille in front of the House of Government in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus Photo © Comrade Kiev

Tell us more about your specialization. How did you come to focus on posters of the Soviet era?

Before I studied business, I studied art history. I always knew I would come back to art one day. For the past eight years, I've been working in Fintech. Two years ago, I went to Ukraine and came across a few Soviet posters. I loved the color and the aesthetic and decided to buy 100 posters at the market. I thought I'd be able to sell them here in the UK—hence the name of my business, Comrade Kiev.

From there it kept growing. Every time I would visit an ex-USSR country, I would seek out posters. From Kazakhstan to Georgia, from Belarus to Moldova, I kept buying more and more posters. The USSR isn't really known for it's design, but there's this hidden side of design in the USSR, from Brutalist architecture to the Socialist Realism of the posters that now make up most of my collection. When I was made redundant from my Fintech job in July because of Covid, I decided to make this my full-time focus.

What makes this material so special? How does it resonate with clients today?

The Russian artist Kandinksy said: "Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated." These posters show a different side of our shared history that isn't taught in Western education.

When most people think of posters, they think of French or Italian travel posters. They don't think of Soviet posters. Soviet design is usually equated with the Lada. But the Soviet state employed tens of thousands of artists. The only art was state sponsored art, so some of the art that comes out through the posters is vibrant, striking, and often has hidden messages. I think a lot of clients are looking for art that is rooted in history and tells a different story than most travel posters from Western countries.

The sad thing is that up until recently, most poster designs weren’t treasured for their artistic merit. They were printed by the thousands and then thrown out when the movie or movement was over. The ones that survive today are increasingly rare.

Spotlight 5 works from your collection and tell us why they stand out for you?

It's sometimes hard to part with works because there are stories behind them, like buying a poster in a basement in Ukraine or at a small market in Georgia, etc. So I’ve begun to share photos of the places I visited on our Instagram @comrade.kiev. There is so much to choose from, but here are five works that stand out to me.

1. Circus on Stage - The Circus was a huge part of Soviet life. I've written a blog post about it. Aside from the importance of the circus, this poster stands out because of it's simple composition.

2. Let’s Tidy Up Our Environment - This poster also stands out because it shows that the Soviets were thinking about the environment long before the current crisis that we find ourselves in today.

3.12th April Cosmonauts Day - Space was the stage for the Cold War. The USSR used space as a propaganda machine. Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, was bigger than The Beatles. The space posters are increasingly rare as they are some of the most sought after.

4. You Will be Healthy and Beautiful - The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to implement a fully public healthcare system. Because literacy was low, they commissioned thousands of posters to be printed to help people be more healthy, from eating balanced meals, to getting vaccinations etc. And it worked! Over a 10 year period, the child mortality rate dropped by almost half and life expectancy increased by more than 10 years.

5. Indiana Jones - In the USSR and its satellite states, Western films were still allowed, but the posters weren't allowed photos of the actors. So the state would commission artists to create their own interpretation of Western films for the advertising poster. Some of them are just brilliant.