The Material Culture of the Soviet Union

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
  1. What is material culture?
  2. Why did transition of socialism to capitalism have such a dramatic impact on the material culture of Russia?
  3. Consider the vending machines which utilize a communal glass instead of cans or bottles.  What does this suggest about Soviet culture?  About the Soviet use of resources?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – Somewhere out beyond Moscow’s Third Ring Road, a group of enthusiastic amateur archivists has undertaken a truly heroic project – to collect all of the loose odds and ends of the Soviet Union’s twentieth century material culture.  They have rented an old warehouse complex south of Kuzminki Park, packed it beyond capacity with everything from kitchen appliances to Soviet-era arcade games, and called it the Museum of Industrial Culture.

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The men behind the project are gregarious old putterers – fix-it men with an especially keen eye for design and detail. They greet me warmly and charge nothing for entry – this is an especially grand act of love, a hobby that has outgrown the shed out back – though they will gladly accept donations. During my visit, these friendlier old tinkerers are engaged in various restoration and conservation projects – getting that old Soviet dirt bike running, feeding the guard dogs some kind of ad hoc mash, sorting through new acquisitions.

What appears to be an expansive mess on first glance is actually carefully organized. There’s a clean and simple logic that becomes mostly apparent.  All of the old Soviet cars, trucks, and buses are out back – along with several partial jet fuselages, one passenger, one fighter. There is a case full of old food packaging along that narrow aisle, and another whole section with toys in various shades of condition from well-loved to just sad. Some of the arcade games still turn on, and visitors are encouraged to play.

 

 

I do not have the touch for the shooting game, much to the curator’s amusement. In my defense, I am neither a hunter of animals or a gamer of games. This large cabinet – dating from the 1980s – works on infrared technology, like an old television remote installed in the barrel of Red Ryder bb gun. There isn’t really a screen or graphics as anyone from the twenty-first century would understand them. Instead, the gun triggers incandescent light bulbs that toggle on and off as you “shoot” them.

It’s very analog, and I think I may have blown a fuse because everything on the machine suddenly goes dark. I back away with a smile and a “Spasibo.”

You can learn more about Soviet-era arcade games here.

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Lined up in the shade outside is a row of Soviet-style vending machines – which dispense beverages into the buyer’s own personal cup.  If you’re thirsty and you didn’t bring a cup, you can use the communal one that is chained to the machine. That’s a fantastic vector for disease and also a great way to conserve precious resources like aluminum, glass, and plastic.

 

 

There’s nothing too obscure for these guys – there are various specimens of many styles of the metal grating that still guard windows on the Soviet-era apartment buildings throughout the city.  They’ve got 1980s computer equipment and old maps showing train routes throughout the USSR. They even have those coin operated mechanical animals that sit outside supermarkets. Whole bins of specialized Soviet screws and fasteners.

Nothing here is sorted chronologically, and there is almost no signage. I bet these men could tell me stories about every item in their collection, but I don’t speak Russian and they don’t seem to speak English. All of that context would be fascinating – it is a conversation I’d love to be a part of and a book I’d die to read… But just handling these things – getting right up beside them, squinting to decide whether that weird device is a 1960s vacuum cleaner or a men’s electric razor?  Smelling the leaky oil from that Dnepr M-72 motorcycle’s crankcase – these men are cataloging the loose ruins of an entire society…

 

 

They are archaeologists working in the recent past, collecting the things that the rest of the world has called obsolete.  What most Russians have discarded and replaced, they have rescued and preserved.

This is a barely-living history, full of the granular details that no one bothers to note – because they’re so mundane, so omnipresent that no one in the future could possibly find them interesting, right?  I mean everyone uses a typewriter for important papers, and we all consult the phone book from time to time, when we’re not too busy reading the newspaper…

Those things once seemed like they were so obvious, so unimprovable that they would just be around forever. Today, your smartphone or your car seem that way…  But one day, your great-grandkids or some future archaeologist will be confounded by the material traces of your life.

The old saying is, “The clothes make the man.”

You could also say, “All of the clothes, all of the cars, the toys, the tools – these make the society.”

This is the Museum of Industrial Culture in Moscow, Russia.

It is the work of a few impassioned collectors – men working to preserve the material culture of the Soviet Union.

Material culture is a term used to describe the physical objects that make up everyday life.  Material culture is what packs this unassuming warehouse.

IMG_1614.jpgThe Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and with it all of the state-run industries that held a monopoly on the ordinary consumer products that make up this museum’s collection.

In the new, post-Soviet 90s, those state-run industries suddenly faced competition from the capitalist companies of the West.  In an effort to shift Russia’s economy from socialism to capitalismthese industries were quickly auctioned off, making certain insiders quite wealthy.  This process was painful for many average Russians, however, who lost jobs, benefits, and their lifestyle during this dramatic period.  Practically overnight, the government got out of manufacturing.

In terms of these products that fill these shelves: who wanted a Lada when suddenly you could buy a VW? Or that crummy arcade game when there was Nintendo?  There was no longer a great demand for goods largely considered inferior to their Western counterparts.

The Soviet system of government was gone, for better or worse, and so too was the material culture that had defined Russian life for generations.

Most every item in this museum was discontinued – a mass extinction of mass  production.

 

 

In the twenty-first century, the economy has gradually recovered. With prosperity, Russians have cast off their aging Soviet possessions, consigning them to landfills, to memory…

And to this museum – a work-in-progress which seeks to turn that material culture into a proper history of the Soviet experience.

Listen to a 99% Invisible podcast – Unsung Icons of Soviet Design – discussing some of the items featured in this museum.

Activities

  1. What do your shoes say about you?  What about your car?  Your cell phone?  Create a virtual Museum of Industrial Culture documenting the material culture of your classroom, bedroom, or home.  Write informational signs describing the items featured in your museum – including the brands, marketing campaigns, and social meaning each item confers on its owner.
  2. Create a students’ paradise in your own classroom.  When you walked in today, your classroom was likely organized according to a capitalist model, in which each individual student controls his or her own school supplies. Create an inventory of all of the supplies brought to class today – the sum total of all of the pencils, pens, erasers, calculators, notebooks, etc…  If these supplies were divided evenly between all classmates, how many of each would an individual student receive?  Which classmates are better off under this new distribution of supplies?  Which are worse off?  Which system is more fair?  Which system would lead to a more productive classroom?
  3. Imagine that you have been commissioned by the Museum of Industrial Culture to write English-language signs explaining the function and history of the items in their collection.  Use the Internet to research Soviet products that might be found in the Museum of Industrial Culture.  Find pictures to accompany the text and create a virtual traveling exhibition in your classroom.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH GENEROUS SUPPORT AND COOPERATION FROM ROSSOTRUDNICHESTVO.
 The main building of Moscow State University, one Moscow’s Seven Sisters – stunning Soviet-era skyscrapers built in part with the slave labor of German POWs – was built in an attempt to modernize the capital, transforming it into a world class city with its own distinctly Russian style of architecture.  They are not so easy to cast aside, even if you wanted to. (Moscow, Russia, 2018.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

  • A Guided Tour of Moscow is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms.  The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of Russian history and culture circa 2017 and is meant to present these topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring Moscow on their own.  Explore Red Square and Gorky Park, commute through the Moscow Metro, and participate in the 2017 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.
  • Live From Moscow, 2018:

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