Review: Pamiatnaya medal’ sovetskogo perioda 1919-1991

A. S. Shkurko and A. Yu. Salykov. Pamiatnaya medal’ sovetskogo perioda 1919-1991: Katalog (Soviet Commemorative Medals from 1919 to 1991: Catalogue). Moscow: The State Historical Museum, 2005. 403 pp., many b/w ill. ISBN 5-89076-086-6.

After Robert Hoge, the ANS Curator of North American Coins and Currency, asked me to integrate into the Russian medal cabinet 250 Soviet medals that had been donated to the Society by Dr. Ira Rezak in 1999, a colleague from the Hermitage suggested I use this catalogue for my work. This book proved to be an excellent reference in the cataloging of these and other Soviet medals in the ANS collection.

This profusely illustrated catalogue, featuring black-and-white images of over two thousand commemorative medals of the Soviet period, serves as one example of the renewed efforts of one of Russia’s official cultural institutions (the State Historical Museum in Moscow) to preserve the country’s recent artistic past (in this case, in the realm of numismatics). The principal author of the introductory essay, A. S. Shkurko (who is the Associate Research Scientist and long-time Keeper of the museum’s medallic collection), is known mainly for her articles and exhibition catalogues on Soviet commemorative medals relating to the events of the October Revolution of 1917. Shkurko’s text for the catalogue, typical of Soviet scholarship, presents a thorough—albeit dry—review of Soviet medallic art and its production. A substantially abridged English version is appended at the end of the catalogue. Despite some stylistic flaws, the English summary covers the main points discussed in the Russian essay, but lacks detailed discussions of particular medals and biographies of individuals involved in the production of Soviet medals.

In the foreword to the catalogue, E. S. Shchukina, curator of medals at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, aptly calls it the “corpus” of Soviet medals from 1919 through 1991. This book embraces virtually every medal produced by the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Moscow mints during the period under discussion. The catalogue is primarily based on the collection of medals at the State Historical Museum in Moscow, though the medal collections of the Leningrad and Moscow mints, the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, and numerous private collections were also utilized.

The St. Petersburg Mint, founded by the reformist Tsar Peter the Great, was the only official, functional mint in Russia at the time of the revolution of 1917. However, the production of medals (just like everything else) was adversely affected by the civil war (1918-1922) that followed the revolution and demise of tsarist Russia. The production of medals slowly picked up in the late 1920s and 1930s, with a distinctly ideological character. Some of the older master die sinkers who were active at the mint before 1917 were employed by the new government and were responsible for training the new generation of medalists and for the development of the new stylistic idiom of socialist realism, which was gradually adopted by all of the arts in the country. This style would dominate Soviet medal making in these decades. During World War II, the Leningrad Mint was relocated behind the Ural Mountains; military orders and decorations remained its sole focus of production until the end of the war. In 1952, the newly founded Moscow Mint began producing some of the government’s commissions of commemorative medals. Some medal specialists from the Leningrad Mint were called upon to manage the new production and train new personnel for the industry. Both training and production were financially backed by the Soviet government, which also supplied the industry with the centralized commissions and orders and initiated various competitions among medal makers and sculptors to promote medallic art as part of the wider Soviet monumental art propaganda program. For the last three decades of its existence, Soviet medallic art remained an integral part of official Soviet propaganda. It reflected themes typical of the genre, such as important political events and persons, scientific progress, and military victories. In addition, as the overall political and social atmosphere began to relax somewhat in the early 1960s (a period in contemporary Russian history referred to as the “Thaw”), culture, literature, art, and architecture came to be considered subjects suitable to be featured on medals. Subsequently, the number of medals produced in the early 1970s through the late 1980s increased substantially, and their appearance tended to deviate from the dogma of socialist realism, retaining some elements of the individual styles of the artists involved in medal production. It is worth noting that the completion of official commissions was a sure, if not lucrative, way for a Soviet bohemian to survive and even thrive in an otherwise hostile environment, which considered artists socially suspicious and sometimes outright dangerous to the society.

The catalogue entries are organized in numerical order and are divided into sections according to the year in which a particular grouping of medals was produced. They contain such important information as the title of the medal, the artist’s name, material, diameter, number of medals per issue if available, and additional information on individual specimens that the catalogue’s authors deemed worthy of inclusion. Almost all of the medals referenced in the catalogue are illustrated; the detailed descriptions of those that are not are sufficient for identification. Three alphabetical indices follow the plates: they are organized by the artists’ names, the names of the persons depicted on medals, and by the medal subjects or titles, respectively. Even though the catalogue is written almost exclusively in Russian, the quality of the plates is sufficient to allow a wider audience of readers interested in Soviet commemorative medals to take advantage of this reference. Despite lacking any indication as to which collection individual specimens originated from and, thus, their accession or inventory numbers, this catalogue is undoubtedly the most definitive source for Soviet medals of this period.

—Olga Less