“Of all arts, for us cinema is the most important.”—Lenin, 1919
An exhibition of Soviet silent-era film posters now underway at London’s Gallery for Russian Arts and Design features, among many treasures, a fair few of the important works of the design team of brothers Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg. Far from household names, it’s true, but their place in art history is difficult to deny. Their success was somewhat serendipitous—it happened that their Dada-inspired method of found image manipulation dovetailed perfectly with the conceits and priorities of the Constructivist movement that was dominating Soviet graphics of their time. They enjoyed a nearly decade-long run of superb work that ended only with Georgii’s untimely death in a 1933 traffic accident. I quote at length here from curator Christopher Mount’s essay in the exhibition catalog of their 1997 MoMA retrospective:
The 1920s and early 1930s were a revolutionary period for the graphic arts throughout Europe. A drastic change took place in the way graphic designers worked that was a direct consequence of experimentation in both the fine and the applied arts. Not only did the formal vocabulary of graphic design change, but also the designer’s perception of self. The concept of the designer as “constructor”—or, as the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann preferred, “monteur” (mechanic or engineer)—marked a paradigmatic shift within the field, from an essentially illustrative approach to one of assemblage and nonlinear narrativity. This new idea of assembling preexisting images, primarily photographs, into something new freed design from its previous dependence on realism. The subsequent use of collage—a defining element of modern graphic design—enabled the graphic arts to become increasingly nonobjective in character.
In Russia, these new artist-engineers were attracted to the functional arts by political ideology. The avant-gardists’ rejection of the fine arts, deemed useless in a new Communist society, in favor of “art for use” in the service of the state, was key in the evolution of the poster. Advertising was now a morally superior occupation with ramifications for the new society; as such, it began to attract those outside the usual illustrative or painterly backgrounds—sculptors, architects, photographers—who brought new ideas and techniques to the field.
Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg were prominent members of this group, which was centered in Moscow and active throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. The Stenberg brothers produced a large body of work in a multiplicity of mediums, initially achieving renown as Constructivist sculptors and later working as successful theatrical designers, architects, and draftsmen; in addition, they completed design commissions that ranged from railway cars to women’s shoes. Their most significant accomplishment, however, was in the field of graphic design, specifically, the advertising posters they created for the newly burgeoning cinema in Soviet Russia.
These works merged two of the most important agitational tools available to the new Communist regime: cinema and the graphic arts. Both were endorsed by the state, and flourished in the first fifteen years of Bolshevik rule. In a country where illiteracy was endemic, film played a critical role in the conversion of the masses to the new social order. Graphic design, particularly as applied in the political placard, was a highly useful instrument for agitation, as it was both direct and economical. The symbiotic relationship of the cinema and the graphic arts would result in a revolutionary new art form: the film poster.
Catherine the Great is one of those fascinating figures whose political power was often overshadowed by scandal. She did not, as popularly rumored, die attempting to have sex with a horse, but her real life was way more interesting. She had twelve well-known affairs, illegitimate children (no one’s totally sure which ones), and made lavish gifts to her consorts. She gave one of her boyfriends more than 1,000 indentured servants!
Cut to World War II, when a very surprised group of Soviet soldiers managed to stumble on ole’ Cathy’s special room while exploring a palace. It was packed with explicit art, wooden phalluses and some insane furniture. Instead of looting or burning the lot, the soldiers took pictures, and aren’t we grateful they did? Looking at the kinky personal effects of the rich and powerful is even better than going through their medicine cabinets! This is only some of the collection, as most of the photos and furniture have been lost or destroyed, but man… girl loved her some porn.
Definitely NSFW, unless you work at a really fun place, but since some of the most entertaining history is simply the gossip of yesteryear, consider this post educational!
A satirical painting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dressed in frilly ladies’ lingerie, Travesty, was confiscated by officials from the Museum of Power art gallery in St. Petersburg a week before the G20 summit started. Putin is shown combing Medvedev’s hair.
Other paintings of authority figures in the “Rulers” exhibit that “violated existing legislation” and were confiscated included depictions of two evil politicians, Vitaly Milonov (deputy mayor of St. Petersburg) and Yelena Mizulina, the ones responsible for recent vicious anti-gay legislation, with a rainbow flag, and conservative, homophobic Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who was painted with skull tattoos and busts of Stalin and Lenin. The government won’t say which existing laws were violated, but they could always point to the one prohibiting insulting state authorities or the new one banning alleged homosexual propaganda aimed at minors. It would be hard to argue that seeing the equivalent of a political cartoon in a newspaper is going to give young people “The Gay.”
Milonov, who may be the last male on the planet who has never seen actual pornography, had already complained about the paintings being displayed and described them as being “of a distinctly pornographic character.”
According to gallery owner, Alexander Donskoy, the paintings were seized with no formal warrant for their removal, the director was detained by police but not charged, and the museum was closed for a few days. Donskoy has been a thorn in the side of the Russian government since announcing his intention to enter politics in 2006. He also owns the G-Spot, a gallery of erotica, where a painting of a nude Putin and Barack Obama (with multiple massive dayglo penises) by artist Vera Donskaya-Khilko was seized by police yesterday. The G-Spot was shut down.
The artist who painted the Putin-Milonov Travesty piece, Konstantin Altunin, has fled to France and is planning to seek asylum. Maybe he and Femen’s Inna Shevchenko, the two members of Pussy Riot who fled Russia in 2012, and the upcoming diaspora of Russian artists can all be housemates.
Oh, and he wants his painting back. In an open letter to G20 leaders, Altunin wrote, “I ask [you] to mention the topic of censorship in [a] personal conversation with Putin and ask him to return my paintings seized from the Museum of Authority.”
So, hey, just in case G20 leaders or their staff members are actually reading Dangerous Minds during boring meetings, instead of playing poker on their phones (hi guys!), here are two other paintings they’re not supposed to see:
The term “underground” as regards fringe rock music in the West has always been somewhat problematic. I recall older relatives, who’d endured the Nazis’ concentration camps—one of whom had even been an actual member of the Czech Underground in that war—being baffled and a little annoyed when I referred to punk and college rock bands in the ‘80s as “underground music.” Why, I bought their records fearlessly and openly, without risk of arrest, in a store that was open to the public! Even bands that come closest to “illegal” like BlackFlag, who were repeatedly harassed in concert and even in person by the LAPD, were not likely in real danger of long-term confinement simply for existing. In countries where official government censorship of music is not the norm, we use “underground” when we mean “cult” or “emerging” (I do it all the time too, I’m not judging), and I wonder if that trivializes the struggles of bands whose very existence must actually be kept hidden.
This is why I’ve always found tales of Soviet Bloc rock bands so compelling. Beyond the irresistible romanticism of imagining Vaclav Havel and the Plastic People Of The Universe plotting to change the course of history while huddled around portable stereos playing smuggled Velvet Underground records, and through the recent and ongoing furor over the current Russian government’s utterlydespicableabuse of Pussy Riot, there’s something gripping and inspiring about the willingness of courageous and defiant Soviet artists to continue making art even in the face of punishment, loss of property, and loss of freedom. While the examples I cited above are well known, few stories of the impact of music during the Gorbachev era restructurings that led to the USSR’s end have made their way to me, until I ran across musician VasilyShumov’s article in Russia Beyond the Headlines:
It was typical for the Soviet system in the 1970s and 1980s to link jail sentences not with ideology, but with illegal business practices or passport violations.
All of a sudden, though, everything changed from black to white for Soviet rock music. Soon after Gorbachev’s appointment, rock music was legalized in the Soviet Union, while previously underground bands were allowed to be played on the radio and appear in TV shows.
A flood of favorable articles about underground rock filled Soviet newspapers and magazines. Rock fans got a chance to purchase official tickets for concerts featuring their favorite bands for the first time in their lives.
The piece is deeply illuminating, chronicling not just the era’s bands impact on emerging social freedoms, but also the extreme difficulty of their transitions to public legitimacy:
Going from underground to mainstream was not an easy process for rock bands during perestroika. Musicians who had become accustomed to outsiders and the bohemian lifestyles suddenly received an opportunity that they could not have even dreamt of a few years earlier.
The majority of rock musicians were poor, even by Soviet standards of living. In addition, according to Soviet laws, all citizens had to have an official job; underground rock musicians were working as security guards, janitors and concierges.
It was not easy for underground musicians to adjust themselves to a mainstream lifestyle of radio stations, TV and movie studios. Regular touring was also something that they did not get used to.
Many musicians had no discipline or desire to deal with mainstream Soviet social circles that they did not like. Alcoholism was also an issue for some musicians, preventing them from becoming members of Soviet society.
The article is a treasure trove of performance videos, and a fine starting point for further exploration. Almost none of this music is in a style Westerners would consider remotely “underground,” it’s all pretty tame stuff. To underscore my original point, merely forming a band was a dangerous act; in a “classless” society, épater le bourgeois would just be redundant piling on, after all. Check out the laconic country rock of the pioneering and only recently disbanded Aquarium:
There’s a fascinating “long read” article on the Moscow News website looking back on the trip through Russia that David Bowie made forty years ago with Geoff MacCormack, his childhood friend and back-up singer/conga player for six major rock tours.
MacCormack was one of The Astronettes along with Bowie’s mistress Ava Cherry and Jason Guess and he appears on Aladdin Sane, Pin-ups, Diamond Dog, David Live and Station to Station (he’s also in the Ziggy concert film). He put it nicely when he described the three decadent, action-packed years he spent touring with Bowie to Goldmine magazine: “Say you’re my friend and I invite you to a party, and the party goes on for three years, and you change costumes, and maybe we go home and say hello to mother — which is important, obviously — and we check with our families and, and we do all that, and we come back to the party and we carry on the theme, or the next theme, or the other theme, or whatever the theme is going to be and that’s kind of what it’s like.”
The travelers were given communist propaganda on their arrival: the book “Marx, Engels and Lenin on Scientific Communism” and various leaflets explaining what they could and couldn’t photograph, as well as a sermon on the evils of Tom and Jerry which said the cartoon was sick, degrading and a threat to children’s development. To back up this argument, the leaflet noted that then British-Prime Minister Edward Heath had staged a private showing of the cartoon at his country home of Chequers.
It was only once they got to Khabarovsk that they realized that they weren’t actually on the Trans-Siberian Express. This fabled train was a bit of a disappointment after the grand old Nakhodka-Khabarovsk train – more Formica than wood paneling, even if they were travelling in first class.
In the rather sweet columns that Bowie wrote for teen magazine Mirabelle, he paints a pleasant, varnished picture of the trip, as if writing to reassure his worried aunts at home.
“I could never have imagined such expanses of unspoilt, natural country without actually seeing it myself, it was like a glimpse into another age, another world, and it made a very strong impression on me. It was strange to be sitting in a train, which is the product of technology – the invention of mankind, and travelling through land so untouched and unspoilt by man and his inventions.”
More realistically, MacCormack told of how he had to run and jump onto the train after it began moving out of the station while he was buying food on a platform. “The very thought of being stuck with no ID in the wastelands of Siberia still fills me with panic, even after all these years.”
The two train attendants in his carriage, Danya and Nadya, were unsmiling and stern (as would you, if you were on a seven-day shift), but they melted once Bowie presented them with a soft toy he had been given in Japan. They also were given the full Bowie charm.
“I used to sing songs to them, often late at night, when they had finished work. They couldn’t understand a word of English, and so that meant they couldn’t understand a word of my songs!” wrote Bowie in Mirabelle, whose readers almost certainly took an instant dislike to these women who had what they had dreamed of and didn’t even know the language, let alone all the words by heart.
“But that didn’t seem to worry them at all. They sat with big smiles on their faces, sometimes for hours on end, listening to my music, and at the end of each song they would applaud and cheer!”
Joining the two in Khabarovsk was Robert Muesel, a veteran reporter with UPI with hangdog looks, and photographer Lee Childers, whose spiked platinum-blond hair and snakeskin platform boots drew plenty of looks, too.
Muzel described what happened when Bowie boarded the train.
“A passenger made an entrance that stopped onlookers in their tracks, as he was destined to do at most of the 91 stops to Moscow. He was tall, slender, young, hawkishly handsome with bright red (dyed) hair and dead white skin. He wore platform-soled boots and a shirt glittering with metallic thread under his blue raincoat. He carried a guitar, but two Canadian girls did not need this identifying symbol of the pop artist.
“‘David Bowie” they screeched ecstatically, “on our train.” Bowie turned their spines to jelly with a smile.”
There was reaction from the Russian side too, as one passenger looked at Bowie askance and said that such a thing could only happen in the decadent West.
Muesel hints that Bowie had a fun time on the train, but without providing any details. Mentioning talk of Bowie’s bisexuality, he wrote, “There was nothing ambiguous about his relationships with some of the prettier girls on board, either. “My wife Angela understands,” he laughed one day.”
Back in May, a Russian newscaster, Anton Kraskovsky, was fired from his job at KontrTV for coming out on live TV, on a government-backed cable network that Mr. Kraskovsky had in fact helped to launch himself. Video of his statement “I’m gay, and I’m just the same person as you, my dear audience, as President Putin, as Prime Minister Medvedev and the deputies of our Duma,” was posted and then immediately pulled down from both YouTube and KontrTV’s website. Then later they returned, apparently, with no explanation.
Kraskovsky told CNN that he knew he would lose his job for coming out. Via The Advocate:
“Somebody should do it,” he said. “I decided it’s time to be open for me. That’s it.”
He told Snob.ru that he felt like a hypocrite after covering the so-called gay propaganda law on a show.
“The meaning of this whole story we are discussing now is that throughout my whole life, I’ve been struggling with myself,” Kraskovsky said. “And this — as you call it — coming out is just another battle with myself, with my own hypocrisy, my own lies, and my own cowardice.”
He said after making the announcement at the end of the show, Angry Guyzzz, the audience and the crew applauded. He said he then went into his dressing rom and cried for 20 minutes before being fired a few hours later.
“They immediately blocked all my corporative accounts, my email. Literally immediately, overnight,” Kraskovsky said.
“They deleted not only my face from the website, but also all of my TV shows, as if I’d never really existed. The next day I wrote to [network head Sergey] Minaev that I was totally shocked. Because it takes them half a day to put up a banner when I ask them to, and here we had such efficiency. One could say they can when they want to. Now they’ve put everything back, but you couldn’t say why, really.”
Good on Anton Kraskovsky, he’s a very brave man. You can read an in-depth interview with him, here.
Personally I’m not one to make a lot of Hitler comparisons—I’ll leave that to the Tea partiers—but if there is anyone who doesn’t think that the Russian crackdown on LGBT people has ominous parallels to Germany back in the day, you need to have your head examined.
(Surely I can’t be the only one watching this clip who wishes the CNN newscaster would just spontaneously combust, am I?)
Контакт (“Contact”) is a cartoon produced in the Soviet Union by Vladimir Tarasov in 1978. The famous animation tells the wordless story of a friendly alien landing on Earth and trying to approach a bohemian painter-type to make friends. The painter freaks at first, imaging the alien capturing and torturing him, but in the end things work out.
This remarkable piece is absolutely exquisite. A joy to behold
Tarasov has said that he considers animation “the Esperanto of all mankind.” It’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack music (“Love Theme from ‘The Godfather’”) was known in Russia from this animation and not from The Godfather film itself, which was banned in the USSR.
Russian advertising isn’t subtle. (Or, so we’re supposed to think…)
Watching this alleged commercial for tampons, made me recall how under Communism, the nation’s industrial output was not measured by individual items produced, but by weight. The larger the tonneage, the mightier and more successful the Soviet State. Unfortunately, this led to the production of heavier and heavier items, until items became impractical. For example, chandeliers were manufactured by Commie factories that were so heavy that they could no longer be mounted onto ceilings without bringing them down.
This is the kind of thought processes at work here.
Update: Well, whaddya know? this is NOT a ‘Russian tampon ad’—no matter how it’s been labeled by the uploaders on YouTube, Live Leak and alike. No. This is a clip from the film Movie 43, which has been described, in some quarters, as the worst film ever made, though there a handful of others disagree.
Well, now, you have to admire this as a piece of good Capitalist PR for a flop movie. Still doesn’t make me want to see it though.
If advertising is the face of free-market consumerism, what does it look like when there’s no free market behind it? Pretty brilliant, judging by a remarkable surviving 1983 Soviet commercial for ground chicken. (See video below)
From 1979 to 1989, filmmaker Harry Egipt created dozens of surreal micro-masterpieces for the Estonian studio Eesti Reklaamfilm. Glamorous models vogueing with sheep, ecstatic paeans to collective-farm oranges, teenage factory debutantes cavorting to unauthorized Rolling Stones tunes: Egipt’s commercials may have filled Western forms with Soviet ideological content, but their absurd, dramatic sensibility was wholly Egipt’s own.
Forgotten during Estonia’s post-Soviet collective amnesia, Egipt’s ads have since been seen by hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers, sampled for the Borat movie, and now collected on a DVD available through Egipt’s website. I contacted Harry Egipt via email to find him alive and well in Estonia, with a lot to say about his work. (The numbers in the interview refer to the commercials on the DVD.)
Jason Toon: What was the purpose of Soviet commercials, since the USSR did not have a consumer-oriented market with different brands competing for sales?
Harry Egipt: During Soviet times advertising had an entirely different purpose than it would have today. For example, it shows the absurdity of Soviet planned economy that the commercials produced by a state-funded agency were sometimes prevented from even being screened. The primary purpose of advertising was not to encourage people to consume, it was not to market a product or service, but rather to inform and educate people and shape their views on society in general as opposed to finding a market for a particular product. Advertisements were targeted at a wider audience, not at a specific group of consumers.
Soviet ads were absurdly twisted in the context of contemporary advertising compared to their capitalist counterparts. Selling a product was not as important as the entertainment value, thus making the ads themselves the product to be consumed. Products often vanished from the shelves without need for any advertising but ads were produced nonetheless. At other times an ad would be produced in hopes that, at the time of airing, a product would be available for sale. Quite often adverts provided a financial basis to make television programs – with less bureaucracy and more creative freedom. To this end my adverts possessed an artistic value and looked like music videos.
Jason Toon: Were you and the other creators aware of the element of absurdity involved in making ads for products that consumers could rarely buy, or that in some cases didn’t even exist?
Harry Egipt: Actually nearly all products or services that were advertised were more or less available (at the time the ad aired - ed.). For example, oranges that were not grown in USSR were rarely sold on the market. But when a cargo ship was about to arrive to Tallinn (the capital of Estonia), the advertisement for oranges was aired on local TV (nr 47 “Oranges”).
Before 1983, advertising for the car Zaporozhets (nr 56) proved to be completely absurd in the context of Soviet culture (the car was only sold for a special purchase card). But in 1983 there was a unique economic turnaround in the Soviet Union and within a month the car was available with no restrictions.
My action was not to be bound by Soviet doctrine. My clips demonstrated that Soviet Estonians are not afraid of capitalist glamour like socialist glamour (nr 82 “Luxury Goods”, nr 40 “Baked Apple in Pastry”, nr 78 “Perfume Plot”), nor young and beautiful dancing girls (nr 24 “Kalev Chocolates Selection”) nor other beautiful naked girls (nr 64 “Mistra Carpets” and nr 28 “Floare Carpets”).
Jason Toon: Were you familiar with Western TV commercials at the time?
Harry Egipt: Since 1970s we could see TV transmissions from Finland in the northern part of Estonia and this was our window to the western world.
Jason Toon: You worked for Peedu Ojamaa, the formidable advertising pioneer whose studio Eesti Reklaamfilm essentially invented the Soviet TV commercial. How did you come to work for him, and what was he like to work with?
Actually I have no formal education in marketing or film making. After I finished my history studies at the university in 1972, I started to work as a light technician and later became a cameraman in our only local TV broadcasting station, Estonian TV (Eesti TV). In 1979 Peedu Ojamaa made me an offer to come to work for the Estonian Commercial Film Producers (Eesti Reklaamfilm). I started as a director and pretty soon started to write scripts as well.
A documentary film titled Goldspinners gives a good overview of
how Peedu Ojamaa managed to build up Eesti Reklaamfilm.
Jason Toon: What was the creative process like at Eesti Reklaamfilm? How much autonomy did you have in making your commercials? What role did the “client” play in the process?
Harry Egipt: A customer would come to the office of Eesti Reklaamfilm and told us about the product or service they needed a commercial for. After a time schedule and a budget were agreed upon, the order ended up on my table. From here, I created an idea, did the casting, handpicked the crew, directed and produced the ad.
In general, my film projects can be considered as a one-man show since I was the author, director and producer. My work is characterized by an utterly unique style, which uses innovative ideas, fast editing, original music and gorgeous models. My ads were different from other directors and copywriters who worked for Eesti Reklaamfilm. As customer and audience feedback was very positive and clients trusted my solutions, Eesti Reklaamfilm gave me the liberty to fulfill my ideas and rarely challenged my concepts.
Jason Toon: The music in your most famous commercial, for chicken mince, is the most ominous and discordant I’ve ever heard in a TV commercial. Combined with the images of the mince coming out of the grinder, the chickens, and the models, the effect is deeply disturbing. Was this your intention? Were you hiding some kind of commentary in this ad for processed chicken?
Harry Egipt: The Chicken Meat Poultry Factory had at that time bought new and very modern equipment for their factory for making minced meat. They asked me to make a commercial where the whole process could be seen – how the chicken was put in the grinder with feathers and bones and how the machine was able to separate the meat from the leftovers. As not to upset a lot of children and animal activists, I managed to reach to a compromise so that only the final part, where the minced meat was coming out of the grinder, was shown. A famous Estonian composer, Alo Mattiisen, at that time created the music after he had seen the edited material.
Jason Toon: Did you ever do any political propaganda work?
Harry Egipt: No, never.
Jason Toon: Did you ever feel pressure to do so?
Harry Egipt: No. In Soviet times advertising existed only in the form of propaganda. Propaganda was made to glorify the Soviet way of life. The most prominent was of course political propaganda for the unopposed Communist party. Commercial advertising was nothing more than propaganda for commodity goods like my ads nr 4 “Lemon” and nr 5 “Green Onions”.
Jason Toon: How did the end of the Soviet Union affect your career? Have you continued to work in advertising?
Harry Egipt: Unfortunately Peedu Ojamaa was not able to keep abreast of the times and could not cope with the new market economy. After Estonia regained independence in 1991, many employees left the company and started their own businesses and so Eesti Reklaamfilm was disbanded.
Since then I have independently produced some TV commercials for my son Hanno – you can see them on the DVD (nr 84 “ThermiSol Rock’n’ Roll” and nr 53 “Serla
Household Paper Towels”). I have also directed and produced some ads after the DVD was issued (“Don’t Smoke, Lung Cancer Kills and Early Detection of Skin Cancer Can Save Lives”). I would still very much like to do commercials, but times have changed and in Estonia a younger generation is running the show and has different ideas.
Jason Toon: Are you surprised that your Soviet TV-commercial work has found a new audience in the West?
Harry Egipt: This is a big surprise, if it is really so.
Jason Toon: What can today’s advertising creators learn from your work?
Harry Egipt: Creativeness, advertising as an art, how to create memorable ads that viewers do not tire of, and how to produce innovative masterpieces on a limited budget.
Fragments from a meteor explosion over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, approximately 920 miles to the east of Moscow, injured up to 500 1000 people, as windows were shattered, tiles fell, and the roof of factory collapsed.
The meteor has been estimated to have weighed around 10 tons and its explosion lit-up the sky with a massive flash of light, leaving an enormous plume of smoke.
According to the first news reports, Vadim Kolesnikov, a spokesperson for the Russian Interior Ministry, said 102 people had called emergency services for medical assistance following the incident—mostly for multiple injuries caused by broken glass and falling objects. This figure has now risen to over 520 1000, and includes dozens of children, and 2 that are currently in intensive care.
Footage of the explosion has been variously captured by cell phones, CCTV and on-board car cameras.
Despite adopting a policy of state atheism, the secularization project of the Soviet Union could do nothing to sever the cultural connection to Christmas.
Below are some “holiday” cards from the Soviet era, but one can easily detect efforts at sneaking familiar Christmas traditions into what had become a Soviet New Year celebration. You can see the character of Ded Moroz, formerly an evil sorcerer from Slavic mythology—he was said to freeze and kidnap children without conciliations from their parents. His striking resemblance to Santa is the result of a massive rebrand by the Orthodox Church to mimic the Dutch Saint Nicholas.
Of course, after the Russian Revolution, Ded Moroz was declared “an ally of the priest,” and was subsequently (somewhat awkwardly) retrofitted over the Soviet New Year holiday. In 1935, high-ranking Soviet politician (and primary facilitator of the famine-genocide in the Ukraine), Pavel Petrovich Postyshev spoke out in defense of Christmas, arguing that its pre-Christian origins and value to children should exempt it from condemnation as bourgeois or religious. This paved the way for a more lenient view on the holiday.
In 1937, Stalin even commissioned a Ded Moroz for public appearances, commanding, however, that they wear blue, so as not to be conflated with the Western Saint Nicholas. There were even Soviet Nativity Scenes with Ded Moroz as Joseph, a Snow Maiden (Ded Moroz’ helper) as Mary, and the baby New Year as Jesus.
As you can see below, Soviets fashioned some truly surreal feats of cultural synthesis with Ded Moroz, Communist iconography, and the USSR’s omnipresent symbol of ambitious futurism: space travel.
Rockets for speed, horses for nostalgia
Actually, screw the vestigial horses—they’re just bourgeois sentimentality
Note the icons of industrial economy in the tree—factory, bridge, dam, rocket, minecart, etc
Despite the perception of the USSR as a colorless model of utilitarianism, when we get a peek at some of the stuff it produced, we find all sorts of innovative artifacts. The Museum of Soviet Arcade Games resides in the basement of an engineering school in Moscow. Run by Maxim Pinigin and Alexander Stakhanov, it contains about 20 working machines, with 20 more under repair. The pair run the museum as a functioning arcade, open to the public, seven days a week.
The game above is called Morskoi Boy, literally “Sea Battle.” Of course, being Soviet, it was was government-produced, making use of national manufacturing. So, it was actually made in a submarine factory, and the periscope is an actual submarine periscope. While presumptuous American minds frequently ask if this was some sort of Cold War training machine, Pinigin and Stakhanov insist that the game was just for fun and entertainment.
In fact, like a lot of Soviet arcade games, Morskoi Boy is a direct knock-off of a (decadent) American console, (though with a heaping helping of Soviet charm). This is all the more surreal when you consider the omnipresence of The Cold War; the kids who played Sea Battle in the U.S. could have very well been imagining Russians manning the ships they torpedoed, all the while Russian kids were playing the exact same game, perhaps fantasizing Americans as their targets.
If you can’t make it out to Moscow, the video below shows the game in action, and the website has a fun (and addictive) flash facsimile. So go shoot some battleships! Just try not to think too hard about who you’re shooting at.