The year is 1959. More than a decade has passed since the end of World War II and the Soviet people are surrounded by gray, drab products stripped of everything but pure function. The Council of Ministers, the USSR's highest executive body, couldn't be bothered with producing aesthetically pleasing goods. In July of that year, Moscow's Sokolniki Park hosted the American National Exhibition. The exhibition overloaded the imaginations of the Soviet people with the abundant fruits of the capitalist market, embodied by free Pepsi and the latest in American fashions, electronic appliances, farm equipment, automobiles and other goods unavailable to the Soviet consumer. The event was also the backdrop of the infamous "Kitchen Debates" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Krushchev, where the two leaders sparred about the merits of capitalism versus communism in the kitchen of a suburban model house. Krushchev said that the Soviets had better things to build - like the Sputnik. In reality, he had little to show for when up against the lavish American goods.
Realizing that after Stalin and the war, the Soviets needed toys, and to prevent even further disintegration of morale, the Council of Ministers came up with a plan. The Council resolved to create VNIITE, the All-Union Technical Aesthetics Research Institute that was to "artistically construct" goods for Soviet people. It also published the magazine, Technical Aesthetics, which was to showcase the creations of modern Soviet designers. Technical aesthetics was the term used for what we understand as "design", since it was imprudent to use the capitalist D-word during the Soviet heyday. In fact, the magazine became more of a criticism of the poverty that surrounded the Soviet people. While Technical Aesthetics showcased some truly innovative designs, many of them never saw production because manufacturers didn't bother with the designers' suggestions. Instead, manufacturing went down a simpler route: ripping off Western goods. Once or twice a year, someone from the Communist Party would go abroad and return with a bounty of products, showcase them to the engineers at the nearest factory and ask them to make ones just like them. A whirlwind of reverse engineering took place, producing weird "Sovietified" goods. Thus, the Elektronika handheld gaming device was a rip-off of the Nintendo Game & Watch console. Scrabble inspired Erudit ("erudite"). The Vespa also received Soviet treatment - it became slower, heavier and squarer - and was dubbed the Vyatka, the best rip-off at the time.
But along the way, innovation burrowed in. A certain kind of Russian style emerged: eclectic, space-obsessed, Constructivism-influenced, kitschy and unmistakably Russian. The Soviets got their toys! What came out of these factories is best described in Michael Idov-edited Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, a collection of short essays, anecdotes and origins of many product staples of 1960's and 1970's Soviet life. Idov, who describes himself as belonging to the last generation that can reasonably call itself "Soviet", and who is now a contributing editor at New York Magazine, explains the meaning behind approximately 50 objects in an irreverent, snarky, but loving way. The book may be dearer to the Russians who interacted with most of these objects, but any aspiring Russophile will gather valuable insight while perusing this cultural study.
Radiotochka ("radio point")
As I studied each object and recalled my own memories of them (I once set my aunt's purse on fire because I put a water boiling wand in it), I noticed a pattern in the characteristics of Soviet design. First and foremost, Soviets did not shy away from preferring durability and ruggedness over elegance. Things were virtually unbreakable. Many refrigerators, vacuums and irons still function today (when I told my mother's acquaintance that I was writing a story on Soviet design, she exclaimed, "My hairdryer from 1976 still works!" No word on whether she is actually using it). For example, the still-ubiquitous Soviet classic, the twelve-sided drinking glass, was designed for durability. Idov points out, "it would hold up not only to the clumsy or passionate toast, but to the industrial dishwashers developed in the 1930's". To this day, the glass is produced at a factory in Russia. IKEA stores around the world carry a stark lookalike to this twelve-sided glass, and once you finish your beverage, you will see that it was "Made in Russia".
(Source: Russian Watches).
Another example of sturdy Soviet design is the Raketa ("rocket") watch. Legends surrounded this product - it once shattered a TV screen that it was thrown at in anger, the waterproof version worked from inside a full champagne flute, and it was once found in the belly of a freshly caught pike - still working! Raketas are still manufactured in the 300-year old factory that was founded by Peter the Great (originally intended for marble and precious stone works, but the Council of Ministers deemed that the Soviets wouldn't need any marble). The same durability goes for Ural guitars, which were incredibly heavy, and with necks that were too small and hard to grip. But they were nearly impossible to break, cutting out guitar smashing from a rebellious Soviet rocker's repertoire.
Which brings me to the second characteristic of the Soviet design. Personally, I do not believe that any serious user testing was done during the design and manufacture of these products. Why such a small neck on the Ural guitar? Why did the Zaporozhets, the cheapest car on the market, have a removable floor panel under the driver's feet - for ice fishing? Why, oh why, did the Aelita-2 hairdryer have only one setting - scorching hot? And which consumer would enjoy the Elektronika BK personal computer's keyboard, which had plastic bubbles (that are normally hidden by key caps) for buttons that were incredibly uncomfortable to type with? Such painful elements haunted almost every object. One can argue that some odd or missing key features (like a second setting, "cool", on the hair dryer?) subtly terrorized consumers.
These pains and inconveniences led to nationwide rogue customization. Left with no alternatives, Soviets took design into their own hands. For example, the Elektronika BK personal computer was the tinkerer's dream come true. The computer was essentially a keyboard. In order to work, it had to be plugged into a television and a stereo (if you wanted to save your work). The device didn't have much on it - some examples of programming for BASIC computer language, and a few games. As a result, amateurs developed simple algorithm games, whole operating systems and homemade disk drives. BK clubs flourished across the country. Zaporozhets car was another example: easily taken apart, and easily beefed up with other car parts. The same ingenuity spilled into other areas of life - Soviets who didn't have access to fancy children's clothing would sew outfits from old tablecloths; TV antennas weren't available in stores, so people simply attached wires to their sets; people grew their own vegetables on small personal plots of land, and often they harvested them before they were ripe to prevent neighborly theft.
The author with Nevalyashka
Not all objects were clumsily "Russianized" Western projects. Some products were unique inventions that are revered by some to this day. The twelve-sided glass is one example. Remember the LOMO camera with its light-leaking plastic body? The original was a copy of the Japanese Cosina CX-1 and was designed for use in espionage industry. However, it didn't produce sufficiently sharp images and was deemed too heavy, so the Ministry of the Defense released it to the masses. Nevalyashka, the classic toy that nearly every baby had, was inspired by the red and white Japanese Daruma tilting dolls (which are the source of the Japanese proverb "Fall down seven times, get up eight"), it was "Russianized" with little "arms" and an incredibly coy facial expression.
The pervasiveness of these goods in the everyday Soviet life (almost every child remembers the Horse and Jockey game and three generations of Russians watched Khrushya and Stepashka, the protagonists of the popular children's TV show) was overbearing at the time. Western designs were deemed the best and highly desired, which is why, after the fall of Communism, Russians immediately took to branded foreign goods. Many of the products described above, described in Idov's books and abandoned in Russian grandmas' closets, are not produced anymore because the state-run operations couldn't adapt quickly enough to the sudden capitalism that ensued in Russia in the early 90's.
|Saturnas vacuum (Source: ForeignPolicy.com).|
Despite the deaths of many products - some of which were beautiful space-inspired pieces of engineering, like the Saturnas vacuums (which are popular with the live-action role-playing crowd that uses top hemispheres as medieval helmets) - a slow wave of nostalgia for Soviet goods has been emerging since the 2000's. One can buy Raketa watches online; Lomography group keeps the LOMO well alive and thriving; AK-47 is still the most produced assault rifle; the Ural motorcycle and sidecar (minus the machine gun) are available for purchase, and Buran snowmobiles can be yours for $2,500. Recently, I embarked on my personal salute to Soviet "technical aesthetics" by asking my grandmother to bring Soviet cameras and watches on her upcoming trip to Canada.
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