ICON-IGNORANCE

13 November 2006
Nikita Prokhorov
Nikita Prokhorov


Before and after in Nikita's identity project



A symbol is just a symbol. A color is just a color. And a star is just a star, even if it's red. It is a ubiquitous symbol, having been appropriated into the mainstream culture for a multitude of corporations and businesses, such as Heineken and Wal-Mart. The significance of the red star is lost on most of the American society. I am certain many would tell you that the red star was on the old Soviet flag, and they could possibly tell you that it is prevalent on several current flags. Ask people about the true origins of the red star, however, and they will walk away feeling as if they have just failed a history exam. That's not a real surprise. What comes as a bit of a shock that it is used with a complete disregard for its history and true meaning. While designing my identity, I decided to adapt the star for my own logo. Ordinarily, I could've pretended to be an ignorant pedestrian oblivious to its importance, except for one small predicament: I was born in Moscow, Russia, and lived there for the first ten years of my life. Although I have been living in the United States for the last seventeen years, that is no excuse for my lapse in judgment.

The red star has always been a powerful symbol that stood for a cruel and bloody regime, comparable perhaps only to the swastika. There is an underlying difference though. While the swastika is primarily known as the symbol of the Nazi Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Workers Party) it has been omnipresent in history and religion since around 2000BC. It found its way into Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as either a religious symbol or a geometrical motif. In Hinduism it symbolized luck, represents the sun, or the concept of samsara (the indefinitely repeated cycle of birth, misery, and death caused by karma.) Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia to China, Korea and Japan, taking the swastika with it. Its appearance can also be traced along the African slave routes around 1500AD. The discovery of Troy in the late 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann also produced objects bearing the swastika ornament, and it was thought of as a special Indo-European symbol from then on by a multitude of scholars and historians. It quickly gained popularity and turned up in many designs until the early 1900s. In 1920, Adolph Hitler irreparably tainted the swastika. To paraphrase a Murphy's Law adage, "If you put a teaspoon of sewage into a barrel of wine, you will get sewage." In one foul swoop, Hitler tarnished the swastika's image by appropriating its use for the Nazi Party. From that, it has not and probably never will recover. Although still a religious symbol, when one sees a swastika, the "H" word that comes to mind is Hitler rather than Hinduism.

The red star, on the other hand, has never been a symbol of any religious significance. When it had been adapted for the Communist regime, it became a symbol of an extremely tyrannical and bloody era that has survived in many ways, hearts and places. In the Central Museum of the Soviet Army there is an explanation of the symbolism of the first emblem of the Red Army: "....The Red Star - the emblem of the Red Arm....the star of justice..." (underreported.com.) The red star and Communism never stood for justice or anything remotely resembling it. Their ideology catered to everyone's needs on the surface, but behind the scenes it catered only to the Communist Fuhrers. While claiming to be "friends" of the oppressed, they were the worst oppressors themselves. As they got richer and richer, the poor got poorer and poorer. The promises of a prosperous and rich life for everyone were abundant but the only lives that improved were theirs. Had the oppression and lies been their worst crimes I possibly wouldn't be writing this article. The mass murders and torture went hand in hand with the Communist era. When Lenin was at the helm of the Communist party, the head of the CHEKA (the predecessor to the KGB) was Felix Dzerzhinsky, also known as the "Iron Felix". In one historically recorded example, he brought Lenin a list of noble, highly positioned people who had been recently placed under arrest. Lenin read the list, put marks next to several names and gave it back to Dzerzhinsky. The latter left the room, and later reported that all people whose names were checked off were shot. "Why?" asked Lenin. Dzerzhinsky replied, "You put a mark next to each name!" Lenin responded, "I was just marking off the people that I knew!" Their motto was, "if the enemy doesn't surrender, he must be eliminated". Under that motto, the Soviets slaughtered tens of millions of people through executions, famine and torture because those people were alleged enemies. The absolute majority of those persecuted were killed or imprisoned for no reason at all. Among them was the creme de la creme of the nation, those whose intelligence, culture and ability to think for themselves rather than adhering to the crowd mentality made them "the enemies of the people". So when the two-headed eagle recently replaced the star, it was as much of a facade as Communism itself. Times may have changed, but the guiding principles and beliefs remain the same.

So why did I choose this star, this horrific symbol to represent myself? For one, I did not do my homework. The concept was to reflect my roots and to allude to my design style. I wanted to associate myself with the era that produced many great designers, theories and concepts that are still referred to and idolized by many. I didn't realize what else I was associating myself with, and my family were the ones that brought it to my attention. As I stated before, a symbol is just a symbol. That is, until someone makes an emotional or personal connection to it. My parents and grandparents who also emigrated with me in 1989, lived through all the horrors and experienced everything first hand. My great grand father was imprisoned and persecuted, finally perishing in the war that killed an estimated thirty million people. My other great grandfather's brother spent half of his life in a Soviet concentration camp. My great grandmother and my mother were not allowed to get into graduate school because they were Jewish. Never mind the fact that they had perfect grades. My stepfather was persecuted as well, losing his job in the process and spending time in jail. My family was deeply offended by what I did and felt my design slapped them in the face. There was a span of three days when we did not speak with each other, and my stepfather said, "....until you replace that bloody star, I don't have a son anymore...". That statement really stung me and made me realize the boundaries I crossed with my design. We have been in the US for seventeen years and consider ourselves American. Both my mother and stepfather have worked extremely hard and took full advantage of the opportunities that were provided for them in this country and became very successful. I thought they would not react so emotionally to my logo. I chose to ignore history and, in my ignorance, also overlooked my family's past. I have never encountered nor expected a reaction as strong and as emotional. I also forgot about the heritage and associations that a single symbol can communicate. Your heritage can work for or against you. So if you choose to use a symbol with years of history behind it, make sure you know that history.




About Nikita Prokhorov
Nikita Prokhorov recently graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
To contact Nikita, click .