Designing democracy: posters and the political transformation of Europe

The V&A holds one of the largest and most diverse collections of political posters from Central and Eastern Europe, documenting democratic change in the period 1989 – 1991. These posters were produced during the final months of the Soviet Bloc and the early days of democracy.

Many of these posters were acquired directly from their designers in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) in 1989, events which were part of a revolutionary wave leading to the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. V&A curators gathered posters from the streets at the time, and the collection grew through donations from anti-communist groups based in Britain, by galleries and independent cultural organisations in Central and Eastern Europe, and by journalists reporting events as they unfolded.

We have already 'voted' for them, poster, Jonas Varnas, 1989, Lithuania. Museum no. E.3108-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

About the posters

The October Revolution of 1917 unexpectedly swept Vladimir Lenin to power in Russia and marked the formation of the communist world. This watershed event was hardly documented on camera or in printed material. As if to compensate for this lack of visual evidence, Soviet artists and filmmakers spent much of the next 70 years commemorating the Revolution.

By contrast, the events of 1989 to 1991 in Central and Eastern Europe which led ultimately to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the end of communist rule, were recorded in close detail. Photographers and TV crews were on hand to capture the massive demonstrations which filled the squares of Prague, Budapest and Bucharest, and the cheerful queues of voters in the first free elections in the months that followed. At the same time, designers produced dozens of posters to record injustice and 'blank spots' in official history, as well as to encourage people to join in the task of creating democracy.

Nikolai Erdman: The Mandate, poster, Péter Pócs, 1989, Belgrade. Museum no. E.151-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These posters express clear opposition to communist rule and the desire to 'rejoin Europe', but they are also marked with the experience of life in the Bloc. Poster designers had become skilled masters of metaphor and allegory, often to escape censorship. At the same time hand-rendered lettering was used to signal the dignity of the individual in the face of bureaucracy. Many of the designs produced during these tumultuous years exploit these techniques. Others rework the imagery of Soviet power, sometimes obliterating its sacred symbols.

In 2009, twenty years after the posters were created and collected, we revisited the collection, working with an international group of poster curators and art historians to fully digitise, research and catalogue the collection. This object-focused research helped to decipher the posters' visual means of communication, the symbols, references and wordplay employed by their designers in response to a transforming political landscape. We sought, where possible, to retrieve the stories behind each poster – how it was conceived, produced and viewed. We also looked at how particular political events and debates motivated and anchored these posters, and what they reveal of the political imagination of 1989: the desires, the uncertainties, and the humour.

The Democratic Group from the Centre. Prosperity, Nation, Democracy, poster, unknown, 1990, Romania. Museum no. E.2369-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While they clearly capture the drama of history, these posters can also help us better understand attitudes and views found in these independent Central and Eastern European states today. Traces of the vigorous nationalism which shapes much political life are found in the array of symbols used, many of which had once been prohibited under the communist authorities. Others remind us of the respect for the rights of the individual on which democracy depends, a value which is still much defended by democrats in post-communist Europe today.

You can explore the full collection of these posters in Search the Collections, or view highlights in the slideshow below. The posters can also be viewed on request at the museum's Prints & Drawings Study Room.

Digitisation of the posters was supported by the European Commission Representation in the UK

Thanks to all the artists who have granted permission for us to reproduce their posters and to Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin and Archiv für Christlich-Demokratische Politik.

Background image: 'The Democratic Group from the Centre. Prosperity, Nation, Democracy', poster, unknown, Romania, 1990. Museum no. E.2369-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London