On Russian tchotchkes and Soviet design

Unsung Icons of Soviet Design book coverA very long time ago (in internet years), I had a Twitter conversation with blogger and general funny girl Vicki Boykis (@vboykis) about our attitudes towards Russian tchotchkes. The original link is dead, but it was probably something along these lines. Her response was an unequivocal “yea,” while I was firmly on the “ugh, why?” side. (Need another example of Vicki’s interesting love for things Russian?). We agreed that likely, the different times when we left had an impact on our families’ attitudes towards the country and its tchotkes. More on that in an upcoming post.

I was reminded of that exchange by this post from Good magazine on a new Soviet design book, called Made in Russia: Unsung Soviet Design. Take the Soviet soda machine, which dispensed bubbly bevvies into a communal drinking glass. The glass was attached to the machine, and everyone used it: “With all the plastic floating around and the nagging debate about any bottle’s carbon footprint, you have to wonder: Are machines like this, with some public health updates, perhaps, an idea worth stealing back?”

So in other words…

Soviet reality:
There isn’t enough of everything because we’ve completely messed up our economy, and our people don’t want paradise, they want Coke and jeans and colour TVs. And ugh, we have to share drinking glasses with strangers because we’re not environmental, we’re just f-ed.

North American interpretation:
Wow, how forward thinking and environmental. How cool. And look at those retro features. Let’s do it!

More photos from the book at 99% Invisible, and a great interview by Julia Barton with writer Michael Idov (born in Latvia, immigrated to Cleveland at 16, now in New York), who makes some great points about the way consumer goods played into the power struggle between the Americans and the Soviets (and more of the same in the book, I imagine).

The essence, argues editor Michael Idov, is the system that built them: a post-WWII economy, mostly closed from the rest of the world, trying to transform its tank and grenade factories into places that churned out Western-style consumer goods. Idov grew up in Soviet Latvia with “some pretty terrible stuff,” but he believes the experience makes him, and other Soviet citizens, hyperaware of good design when they see it.

The book is ultimately a contemplation on everyday things in a time when it wasn’t popular to riff on everyday things and they weren’t all that abundant either. Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are among the essay contributors.

Something about these images (especially the Sputnik ad) reminds me of the irony pointed out in Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich, which I wrote about recently—total horror set again an odd sense of pride and sacrifice. It’s an interesting tension that doesn’t necessarily exist in all totalitarian countries—genuine achievement set against genuine horror. Without making ridiculous somersaults of historical speculation, I think it’s safe to say that the Soviet victory in WWII certainly played a part in this.

You can listen to the podcast at the top of this post or check it out here at 99% Invisible. Plus, there’s such a fabulously great comparison between the parrot that keeps interrupting the recording and the Soviet “art” of imitation.

5 Comments

  1. Vicki on June 7, 2011 at 8:34 am

    I agree with this. I love Soviet nostalgia stuff, but I hate the way North American society is all like, let’s regress to Soviet times, walk everywhere, use reusable shopping bags, cloth diapers etc. There is a reason my parents immigrated here, and it’s not because we can make food by hand again.



    • Bill on June 7, 2011 at 9:26 am

      “Perhaps that’s because Soviet times were awesome, and socialism could potentially work given a common desire for a unified general beneficial outcome” said the American dreamer who has never visited a former USSR country.



    • Lea Zeltserman on June 7, 2011 at 8:13 pm

      Wait, it wasn’t the wonders of over-priced artisan food? Hmmph, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what my parents were thinking as they schlepped a toddler halfway across the world. (I would have picked up on your cloth diapers example, except we used them… But, in my defense, we had a service. So it’s all ok ;))

      I think the book itself is a lot more interesting and nuanced – that’s the impression I got from the podcast with Idov, but then Good got their hands on it…



  2. Julia Barton on June 8, 2011 at 11:03 am

    I like Michael’s comment about a “mass craving for shabbiness” here:

    http://www.timeoutdubai.com/print/features/23741-russian-design-showcase

    Soviet kitch is even more retro than American, since the system that made it is now retro too. By necessity, this kind of craving is ignorant and superficial, but that says more about where our world is now than the Soviet Union.

    Speaking of retro, it’s really too bad that 8-tracks never got picked up in CCCP. Just imagine what they could have done with that technology!



    • Lea Zeltserman on June 8, 2011 at 8:41 pm

      Hi Julia, thanks for your comment, and for the link. A great interview – I hadn’t thought about the connection between our hipstamatic obsession and Soviet cameras.

      The difference in how North Americans respond is so different too from Soviets. There’s still an element of nostalgia there, and for a lost homeland. Or childhood – I’ve had several people tell me that despite their happiness to leave the country, they still look fondly at their childhood and youth. I guess it’s just wired into us.

      Cheers.



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