Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Cold war consumer products part I, the Soviet Union; Optimism and indestructibility

Russia seems to elude definition in many ways. It occupies an ancient cultural and geographical intersection between east and west. The Cyrillic alphabet is a wonderful, enigmatic emblem of this cultural confluence. It doesn’t look as alien to western eyes as, for example, Chinese, sharing as it does several recognizable characters with the roman alphabet. Some of the letters appear to be reversed roman characters, such as я and и, and some are intriguingly outlandish, like ж and д. Spoken Russian is at once familiar, infused as it is with a soft, lilting cadence sounding vaguely like a lullaby, and full of romantic mystery. So, Russia is not as separable from western culture as the oriental nations, rather it occupies a gradated space of difference.

In the midst of this cultural maelstrom Russians share a surprising amount in common with the English, our mutual love of tea being the most obvious thing. They also share our slightly mythological stoicism, but instead of our rather meek ethos of “make do and mend, musn’t grumble” they display an entrepreneurial knack for adaptation to limited resources. Essentially, most Russian consumer products are a bit crap but completely indestructible, creating a wonderful plethora of devices that forgive the owners optimistic attempts to modify them out of crapness, and will carry on functioning to a completely mediocre level long after their delicate western counterparts have fallen apart.

All of these items embody an enchanting creed of minimalism, practicality and an often ruthless disregard for the safety of the user, the extent of the latter defying belief. This made perfect sense in the context of a poor, developing country like the Soviet Union that sought to quickly transform itself into an industrial society. Indeed, to ease production, consumer products were often made in the same factories as heavy machinery or military equipment, by workers used to constructing trucks designed to run for hundreds of thousand of miles in the most hostile environments imaginable; thus durability and functionality were the orders of the day. The boiling wand (see below) is a perfect example of this- why charge the workers for an entire kettle, when they can have a bare electrical element on the end of a handle? The variety of ways you could harm yourself with such a device is truly mind-boggling. It seems the soviet citizen had a penchant for exposed pieces of red hot metal, as also found in the “reflector” heater, which used a polished metal dish to project the heat of an element into a room with fearsome force. The utilitarian, rugged nature of Soviet design was often dictated by the environment itself, as seen in the Vyatka scooter. Whilst it vaguely mimicked the styling of Italy’s Vespa, there was no room for the graceful, light bodywork of the original in a country where roads were often little more than mud tracks and winter temperatures plunged well below zero. Due to the need for a heavier, more damage resistant chassis, most russian vehicles became squarer, slower and more angular compared with western equivalents.

The soviet drive for simplicity sometimes produced whimsical results though, as in the case of “krugozor” magazine. Noting the popularity of western magazines that included vinyl singles on their front covers, its creators decided to make their publication out of nothing but records, filling it with an eclectic collection of exotic music and programs from around the world. This magazine is a truly fascinating artifact, conceptually and materially; some garishly bizarre examples of the cover art can be found at In the covers from 1972 onwards, Technicolor workers labor in psychedelic socialist wonderlands. However, even this most light hearted of Soviet enterprises serves as an exemplar of the ways in which Russia defies understanding by outsiders. As gaily coloured as the images may be, they can't help but seem slightly earnest or sad, reflecting the hardship that was an undeniable part of Russian life.

Whilst Soviet citizens had to make do with dull, second rate or often downright dangerous products, Americans were revelling in a consumerist orgy. Americans in the 50's lived in the richest nation the world had ever known. They drove the most powerful and ostentatious cars, danced to the sexy, driving rhythms of rock and roll and brought the space age into the home, more of which next time...

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