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Mutants and Grotesque Monsters: The Soviet Artist who rebelled against the fall of Communism
02.22.2017
11:27 am
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‘The Butcher’ (1990).
 
Not every Russian citizen was pleased to see the end of Communism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the 1980s and 1990s. Some, like the artist Geliy Korzhev (1925-2012) thought the changes wrought by perestoika were a betrayal of all the lives sacrificed in order to bring true equality to the Russian people. Korzhev thought the great socialist revolution had hardly started before it was being betrayed and abandoned by the politicians who had lived so well from it, while others had paid the price.

Korzhev was a hardline Communist who never gave up his political beliefs. In the 1980s, he began painting grotesque and surreal paintings of this new world of Russian capitalism he and his fellow Soviets were being forced to embrace.

Geliy Mikhailovich Korzhev-Chuvelev studied at Moscow State Art School from 1939-44, where he excelled at drawing and painting and went on to become one of the greatest artists of the approved style of Socialist Realism. According to the Museum of Russian Art:

[Korzhev] is recognized by contemporary Russian art historians as one of the most influential painters of the second half of the 20th century; his work has influenced the style and subjects of two generations of post-WWII Russian artists.

Korzhev’s painting developed from the basic propagandist needs of Socialist Realism into a more personal and highly artistic style. His work ranged from the traditional Soviet style to a more Impressionistic studies. Then in later life he progressed towards a highly surreal and almost Bosch-like approach with a series of allegorical works. These attacked the political corruption and folly of the new Russia. They depicted weird parasitic creatures devouring the flesh of citizens and bizarre monsters celebrating their worst excesses. His paintings were disturbing, thought-provoking and radical in their revolt against the new capitalist politics of the time.

Korzhev made his first mutant paintings in the 1970s when he felt the Soviet leaders were ceding their belief in Communism. This was confirmed with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev the great reformer who started the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Throughout the eighties, Korzhev worked in “silent opposition to the new Russian leadership.”

Unwavering in his views, in the late 1990s the artist refused a state award bestowed upon him by the government of the new Russian Federation.

In a note explaining his decision, Korzhev wrote of his motives:

“I was born in the Soviet Union and sincerely believed in the ideas and ideals of the time. Today, they are considered a historical mistake. Now Russia has a social system directly opposite to the one under which I, as an artist, was brought up. The acceptance of a state award would be equal to a confession of my hypocrisy throughout my artistic career. I request that you consider my refusal with due understanding.”

It is said that Korzhev “did not seek to openly criticize the political or social system of contemporary Russia” but from his paintings during this time it is difficult not to see how the political loss of faith in the Soviet state did not affect his work.

In 2001, he said:

“For those who are running the country I have, as Saint-Exupery put it, a deep dislike. Those circles that are currently flourishing and are now at the forefront hold no interest for me. As an artist, I see absolutely no point in studying that part of society. The people who do not fit into this pattern, however - now they are of interest. The ‘superfluous’ men, the outsiders - today, they are many. Rejected, ejected from normal life, unwanted in the current climate… I am interested in their fate, in their inner struggle. As far as I am concerned, they are the real, worthy heroes for the artist.”

Among his last works were a hammer and sickle and portraits of the new Russian Adam and Eva.
 
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‘Real’ (1998).
 
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‘The Butcher #1’ (1990).
 
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‘Mutants’ (1973).
 
More of Korzhev’s weird paintings, after the jump…

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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02.22.2017
11:27 am
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Bizarre video of the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ from Soviet TV of the 1970s
02.06.2017
11:31 am
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The Beatles were big enough that even the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had to deal with it, somehow. In 1976 Soviet-controlled TV—the only available televised media in the entire country—played a peculiar Russian version of Paul McCartney’s deathless song “Let It Be” as an oddly baroque and defiantly un-glitzy bit of variety TV. Odd to say about television in the worker’s paradise, but the trappings of the proceedings seem to me somewhat ... bourgeois?

It doesn’t happen too often, but today I sorely wish I understood Russian. In the YouTube comments on the video, there is some healthy (and also rancorous) debate about the nature of the Russian translation and the degree to which they represent a stridently post-Marxist rewriting of McCartney’s text. One participant’s premise is that in Soviet Russia, where the authorities control all of the public propaganda and nothing comes about by chance, it was essential to rewrite the humanism of the original song to fit collectivist ideas, so everyone’s the same, no one is an individual, one must internalize Communist conformity, blah blah. The original Russian is (forgive any errors on my part here) “Bylo, est, i snova: budet tak,” which means something like “It was, it is and it will always be like that.”

What everyone seems to have missed is that this is a pretty fair translation of McCartney’s original sentiment. What is the phrase “let it be” if not an ode to quietism, however defined? It don’t take a lot to get from here to there, you know? The propagandistic component might have resided not in rewriting McCartney in any way but in choosing this song, of all Beatles songs, as the one to adapt.

The 2000 WGBH miniseries Communism: The Promise and the Reality features a brief clip of this mysterious video, although unfortunately not much information about it is supplied. It pops up in “People Power,” the final part of the six-part series, about 14 minutes in (you can check it out below). After discussing the strong demand in the USSR for banned western goods such as blue jeans, the voiceover says, “But occasionally the authorities made an effort to cater to the tastes of the new generation….” and we get to see the start of the video. They translate the opening lines thus:
 

Everything’s happened before in the world
People are always the same
That’s how it was, it is, and always will be

 
 
Apparently the religiously tinged references to “Mother Mary” were also expunged, which can’t be too surprising.
 
See for yourself, after the jump…....

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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02.06.2017
11:31 am
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The USSR’s first TV ad was a surreal stop-motion musical about corn
08.09.2016
08:39 am
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Right this moment, I really wish I spoke Russian, the better to understand this 1964 commercial that turned up yesterday on the wonderful Soviet Visuals Twitter feed.

Perhaps calling it a “commercial” is a misnomer—Soviet agriculture was mostly organized into a system of collective and state farms, so commerce wasn’t the objective here—there was no brand competition. The context for this ad was a big push for corn that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had undertaken in the mid-‘50s. Corn was never important to Soviet agriculture, but Khrushchev valued it as livestock feed.
 

”Corn—The Source of Abundance,” 1959
 

 
Corn’s failure in the USSR was one of the factors that weakened Khrushchev (the Cuban Missile Crisis was a much bigger one) and allowed for the more conservative Leonid Brezhnev to successfully conspire to depose him, but while that’s interesting, it’s not singing corn interesting. This ad is great fun, and about the only thing that could have improved it would be if it had starred Eduard “Mr. Trololo” Khil. It features animated ears and cans of corn, seemingly petitioning a singing chef to cook them. We’re then treated to a panoply of corn dishes. It’s supposed to demonstrate the grain’s culinary versatility, but every meal looks sufficiently unappetizing to have been culled from The Gallery of Regrettable Food. And I particularly love the overwrought fake smile on the woman near the ad’s end who’s eating corn on the cob as though for the first time ever in her life.
 

 
Many thanks to Beth P for this find!

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Lady Trololo: The female Eduard Khil
Контакт: Trippy alien cartoon is a Soviet close encounter of the third kind with ‘Yellow Submarine’
Your favorite punk band is as ‘underground’ as oatmeal: Soviet rock’s Perestroika-era emergence

Posted by Ron Kretsch
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08.09.2016
08:39 am
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Russia to cheeky Bulgarians: Quit messing up our war memorials

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Vandalizing Soviet-era war memorials to fallen soldiers in clever ways in Eastern Europe has become an anonymous sport. Well, Russian diplomats call it vandalism. Others call it awesome street art.

The Russian government has gotten increasingly pissed off by the attacks on the frequently targeted bas relief sculptures on the west side of the pedestal of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Russian embassy officially requested that Bulgarian authorities clean up the most recent incident this month, in which red paint was daubed on the monument on the eve of the 123rd anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, track down and punish those responsible, and do more to protect the statues instead of what they’re probably doing now, which is taking photos of it with their smartphones each time it’s vandalized.
 
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Earlier this year the monument was spray-painted the colors of the Ukrainian flag. In 2011 the long-suffering soldier statues on the monument were notoriously painted to include Ronald McDonald, Wonder Woman, Robin, Santa Claus, The Joker, The Mask, Superman, Wolverine, Captain America, and an American flag. In 2012 balaclavas like the members of Pussy Riot wore were painted on the figures and, in separate incidents, Guy Fawkes “Anonymous” masks and ski masks were placed over the soldiers’ faces. Last August the monument was painted pink with apologies in Bulgarian and Czech for Bulgarian participation in the suppression of the Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Pink was the chosen color in a tribute to Czech prankster and artist David Cerny, who painted a Soviet war memorial in central Prague (Monument of Soviet Tank Crews) pink in 1991. When Cerny was arrested, supporters repainted the tank pink. Similar defacement of Soviet monuments have taken place in Estonia and Romania.
 
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Cerny is also known for floating a boat on the Vltava River containing an enormous purple hand flipping the bird at the Czech government building last fall.

People who object to this sort of behavior have asked that the Bulgarian memorial be moved to the fairly new and apparently disappointing Museum of Socialist Art. The monument’s most hostile critics think it should have been destroyed after the fall of the Soviet Union, so it’s probably fair game as a focal point for political and cultural protests by activists and general mischief.
 

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright
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08.21.2014
11:43 am
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Communism in textiles: Soviet fabrics from the 20’s and 30’s
07.18.2014
11:31 am
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If you walked by a set of curtains made from one of these fabrics, you might not pick up on a communist star or the CCCP acronym. Many of the designs below are thematic of classical Russian art; you see lush color, dense scapes and even the odd Orientalist trope (note the pattern with the camels).

Anything more than a quick glance however, might reveal romantic depictions of farmers and factory workers, often rendered in the angular, geometric lines of Soviet Constructivism. Even more explicit are the references to Soviet ambitions of modernization. We see tractors, cars, airplanes, trains and smoke stacks—all the promise of an industrialized workers state.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
More Soviet textiles after the jump…

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Posted by Amber Frost
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07.18.2014
11:31 am
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‘Bone music’: Soviet-era bootleg records of banned rock and jazz pressed on X-ray plates
06.19.2014
12:43 pm
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X-ray records
 
What do you do if you’re living in the USSR in, say, 1957, and you’d like to press an illegal record of some banned rock and roll or jazz? Consumer tape recorders don’t exist, and in the USSR, vinyl is difficult to come by. How do you proceed?

One thing you might do is press your contraband beats into discarded X-rays. A police state does wonders for the sheer inventiveness of its citizens, does it not? Clever Russians eager to hear some liberating rock and roll would salvage exposed X-rays from hospital waste bins and archives and use them to make records.

In the 1946-1961 era, some ingenious Russians began recording banned bootlegged jazz, boogie woogie and rock ‘n’ roll on exposed X-ray film. The thick radiographs would be cut into discs of 23 to 25 centimeters in diameter; sometimes the records weren’t circular. But the exact shape didn’t matter so much, as long as the thing played.

“Usually it was the Western music they wanted to copy,” says Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev. “Before the tape recorders they used the X-ray film of bones and recorded music on the bones, bone music.” As author Anya von Bremzen elaborates: “They would cut the X-ray into a crude circle with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole. ... You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan—forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”

I can’t wait until Record Store Day 2015, when limited edition X-ray releases will surely be some of the most sought-after purchases!
 
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X-ray records
 
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Previously on DM:
Vintage X-ray ‘vinyl’ from Russia

 
via Vinyl of the Day
 

Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.19.2014
12:43 pm
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‘Soviet Toys’: The first Russian cartoon was (you guessed it!) commie propaganda!
03.03.2014
11:23 am
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Soviet Toys
Filthy capitalist swine
 
My fascination with political propaganda has no partisan allegiance, but left or right, I can’t help but think they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Those racist Tea party signs, the Shepard Fairey-designed beatification of Barack Obama—even the romantic filigree of Occupy Wall Street didn’t do much for me. My favored political propaganda is that rare combination of ambitious, angry, and optimistic—a trinity often achieved by the very coiners of the term “agitprop,” the Soviets.

Soviet Toys is the very first in a long and rich history of Russian animation, and while only a fraction those cartoons were explicitly political, the great Russian director Dziga Vertov made masterful use of the medium to produce some truly caustic revolutionary art.

Despite its explicit semiotics, the plot of Soviet Toys is a little bit of Russian history “inside baseball,” so I’ll sum up. During Lenin’s New Economic Policy (a period of liberalization where private citizens were allowed small entrepreneurial ventures to boost the economy after the Russian Civil War), a class of businessmen called “NEPmen” rose to prominence, much to the resentment of radicals like Vertov. Obviously, the fat glutton you see represents the NEPmen. Materialistic women and corrupt clergy (the church had experienced a contentious split) defer to him for favors. The industrial worker and the farmer both fail at bringing down the NEPman on their own, but eventually they literally merge (like the ole’ hammer and sickle!) to defeat him.

And as if that weren’t a happy enough ending, the Red Army comes along and forms a tree, from which all capitalists and conspirators are hanged. Though Soviet Toys might feel a little heavy-handed and technically crude by today’s standards, it’s an incredibly sophisticated little film for its time and place. Remember this is four years before Disney’s Steamboat Willie, and I don’t recall even one capitalist being hanged in that!
 

 
Via Open Culture

Posted by Amber Frost
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03.03.2014
11:23 am
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Take your next vacation in the beautiful USSR! 1930s Soviet travel brochures
02.07.2014
09:22 am
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In one of my favorite movies of all time, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, there’s a scene where the titular character has been abandoned by her lover. In order to be with him, she had gone through a brutal, crude sex-change operation, and risked her life by leaving her home in communist East Germany. To add insult to injury, the Berlin Wall has just fallen; had she waited a while longer, she could have very well avoided the hasty decision of removing her penis and leaving her home for a two-timing man.

In a brilliant moment of dark comedy, she is then shown looking at a postcard from her mother that reads something to the effect of, “Greetings, from sunny Yugoslavia”—the joke being that Hedwig’s markedly stern mom had found happiness after the collapse of an oppressive communist state by vacationing in an country notable for its political instability, ethnic and nationalist strife, and eventual relentless war.

There are some places that we just don’t think of as fun vacation spots.

But having been around enough older socialists and communists, I do know that the USSR was actually a hot destination for a while, especially for leftists. I even know a couple people whose parents took their honeymoon there! And this was certainly encouraged by Stalin, himself, who established the government-run tourism board with the express purpose of raising the profile of the USSR.

Below, you see Soviet travel brochures from the 1930s. They advertise advanced industrial development, a commitment to the arts, gorgeous cities, and a diverse array of natural beauty. Some of them touch on Socialist Realism, but what strikes me is the diversity of the art, and the visibly ambitious optimism therein.
 
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Soviet travel poster
 
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Via The Charnel-House

Posted by Amber Frost
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02.07.2014
09:22 am
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The revolutionary Soviet silent-era film posters of the Sternberg Brothers
01.23.2014
12:29 pm
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“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.

 

 

 

 

 
More after the jump…

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Posted by Ron Kretsch
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01.23.2014
12:29 pm
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Socialism is Our Launching Pad: The Soviet Union’s incredible space program propaganda posters
08.29.2013
11:38 am
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“With Lenin’s name”

The Soviet Union was far ahead of the U.S. in the “space race” of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. By 1965 the U.S.S.R. could take credit for the first satellite, Sputnik-1 (1957), first animal in space (1957), first human in space and Earth orbit (1961), first woman in space and Earth orbit (1963), first spacewalk (1965), first Moon impact (1959), and first image of the far side of the Moon (1959).

As a result Soviet space program propaganda posters from this era were colorful and inspiring. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had Wernher von Braun helping NASA but no artists creating bold, bragging promotional posters like these. Even into the 1970s, all I remember from grade school is a faded poster of moon rocks and the usual “big blue marble” image of the Earth from the Moon.

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“Glory to the Soviet people, the pioneers of space!”
 
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“We were born to make the fairy tale come true!”
 
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“Glory to the conquerors of the universe!”
 

Above, “Flight to the Moon,” a Soviet propaganda cartoon from 1953

Via io9, where you can see a lot more of these vintage Soviet space program posters

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright
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08.29.2013
11:38 am
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Waiting for the Communist Call: Propaganda and reflection as the Berlin Wall turns 49

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The seemingly borderless nature of our digital age renders bizarre the idea of nationalized walls separating people. Current items like the Israeli West Bank “security” barrier and the demand for a wall on the entire Mexican border just seem absurd and brutal.

Those were walls that kept people out. Today marks the 49th anniversary of a wall that kept people in and fired the imaginations of artists like Pink Floyd, David Bowie and the Sex Pistols.

In an effort to stave off “fascist” influence from the West, German Democratic Republic General Secretary Walter Ulbricht closed the border between the Western and Soviet sectors with barbed wire and fences, on order from Nikita Khrushchev. It soon became the symbol of national alienation.

Below are two of the most fascinating pieces of media about the Berlin Wall that I’ve found. Walter de Hoog’s The Wall was produced by the United States Information Agency, the global propaganda arm started by the Eisenhower administration in 1953. Strangely, the USIA was prohibited to screen their films to the American public, so this stark, immediate and emotive piece wasn’t released here until 1990.
 

 
After the jump: Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker’s remarkable narrated slide show of his 40 years covering the Wall…
 

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Posted by Ron Nachmann
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08.13.2010
05:01 pm
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In Soviet Russia, *IT* Lets *YOU* Be
04.21.2010
06:06 pm
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Posted by Jason Louv
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04.21.2010
06:06 pm
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Dr Strangelove for Real: Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine
09.22.2009
06:13 pm
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Almost the flip-side of this post, How the Soviet Menace Was Hyped, Wired’s Nicholas Thompson takes us inside the Soviet Doomsday Machine so we can see how our Neo-Conservative fueled paranoia about them started a feedback loop that could have killed us all:

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won’t discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels?

Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.22.2009
06:13 pm
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