"When vodka cured political ills" Baltic Times 29.03.2006

TALLINN - About 15 years ago, I remember seeing a Christmastime exhibit sponsored by Coca-Cola in New York, which showed the different ways the company presented Santa Claus throughout the century. No matter the year, he always seemed to be surrounded by the same cute dogs and children. It’s an old joke, but I always thought, with his very pink cheeks and faraway smile, that he looked slightly inebriated. He was like a wholesome Falstaff.
Coca Cola’s Santa doesn’t have any particular political dimension, at least on the surface. And studying his various incarnations is probably more the frivolous vocation of a bullshitting American Studies scholar. It is no accident that Andy Warhol used the icon for the same game he played with the Campbell’s soup can in the 60’s.
“Three Tough Ones,” an exhibit at Tallinn’s Vaal Gallery that treks a century worth of labels of three brands from the Liviko liquor company, tells a different story. Kannu Kukk’s label, drawn by Igor Roosaar, is made up of a rooster on a tree. Kaisa Puustak’s label for Vana Tallinn utilized a skyline of the city’s Old Town based on classic 17th-century woodcuts. Paul Luhtein’s Viru Valge label shows Pasunapoiss, a trumpet boy.
All three images resonate with strong nationalist themes. “During the Soviet era,” says Laura Kuusk, the 23-year-old who researched the exhibit, “those labels might have been a certain way of resisting state power.” Viru Valge used national colors on its label: blue, white and black.
If the images were so explosive, how on earth did Soviet authorities permit them to be used on vodka brands that were sold openly?
“The labels had to be approved by an artistic committee [in Tallinn] and a central committee in Moscow,” says Kuusk. The artistic committee had to make sure that no forbidden trademarks were on the labels. The Moscow committee had to make sure that the labels didn’t include any “mistakes.”
Of course “mistakes,” like the Estonian flag and a rooster on a tree trunk still got through.
“There were a chain of circumstances,” she says. “People went down to Moscow and took the Vana Tallinn liquor with them. It was a kind of currency.” In a regime in which alcohol was famously used to bribe officials, a liquor company would obviously be at a severe advantage.
There were some interesting controversies. According to rumor, the Viru Valge label, which utilized the trumpet boy, upset the Estonian men’s choir which used the symbol as their own mascot. So, changes were made to the label to differentiate the two. The boy changed his shoes, and went from an army brat donning civilian attire. Of course, that is all legend.
One change that is not legendary, happened a little more recently. In the 90’s, Liviko wanted to do business in Sweden and so the Viru Valge label gave up some of its Estonian character to take up some elements to make it more friendly to its new market in Scandinavia. It adopted a slightly different shade of blue in keeping with one Swedish company’s brand.
That change may have a little more in common in the explanation of Santa Claus’ style of dress than with anything to due with anti-Soviet politics. Saint Nicholas is red, instead of the green he enjoyed in the central European tradition where he can trace some of his roots, because Coca Cola needed an icon for an ad campaign it launched during World War I.

“Three Tough Ones”
Vaal Gallery
Runs through April 4
More info: 372 6810 871

Paul Morton