ROSTA Windows Close

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, came under new management in 1921, and promptly closed its windows. Established in September 1918 by the VTsIK from the old Petrograd Telegraph Agency, ROSTA carried the dual charge of gathering the news and propagating the party line to Russian citizens. Upon its founding in 1918 its first task was to find journalists willing to combine the two duties. When old Bolshevik and Proletkult leader Platon Kerzhentsev took charge in spring 1919, he radicalized the staff, demanding partisan reporting and forthright propaganda from his reporters.

ROSTA management sought help in untraditional places. The older press corps was hostile to the Bolsheviks; a new generation had yet to be trained. Though many of the Bolsheviks themselves were highly skilled journalists, they were busy governing. There was also a new audience for the press, much of it illiterate. Thus the proposal of avant-garde artists and writers to work for the agency was gladly accepted. From 1919 to 1921, ROSTA and its affiliates in Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, and other smaller cities, turned out hundreds of the so-called ROSTA Windows, the fruits of the collaboration. Master poets, led by Vladimir Maiakovskii, and painters such as Mikhail Cheremnykh and Ivan Maliutin, took the headlines of the day and turned them into comic-book posters, based on the style of the traditional lubok (wood-cut) print. The primitive style of the art and verse harnessed by highly skilled artists made for powerful propaganda displayed throughout Russian cities.

ROSTA was a dream for avant-gardists who felt that they best expressed the spirit of the Revolution, and who wanted to break down the boundaries between art and life. They had an audience of milliions, and a style that could reach even the most illiterate. The atmosphere of the Civil War, in which good and evil were clearly delineated, and in which the Bolshevik message was as simple as possible, fit the artists’ needs. When Nikolai Smirnov, former editor of the railway journal GUDOK, took over in 1921, he faced a new post-war reality. The simple black-white judgments of the Civil War, and an audience for whom literacy was ever more important, inspired him to close the Windows and invest those funds in print journalism.

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