by Michael Idov

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

With Russia in the news for the better part of last month, both for the winter Olympics and their handling of the events in Ukraine, it seemed like the right time to highlight this book. Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, is a showcase of a variety of Soviet-made design objects (and some logos & graphics), each paired with a short essay that tells the origin of the object and it’s cultural importance. The essays expand the appeal of this book to a non-Russian audience, because the objects themselves are pretty insignificant out of context. A Russian audience will like this book for the sheer nostalgia factor, pointing to each page and saying “I used to have this,” “and that,” and “this as well.”

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

I emigrated to the United States when I was ten and a half, so a lot of the items in this book are before my time, but even still, I was amazed at the fact that we owned so many of the highlighted objects. Flipping the pages was like looking at an inventory of our old stuff, each item jogging memories of childhood. I remember the TV network test pattern that would come up when television “ended” at the end of the day, the pyramid milk carton, the yellow and blue caviar tins, the falling egg video game (apparently stolen from Nintendo and recreated to feature a popular Russian cartoon character), the school uniform, the chess clock, the table top driving game – you get the idea.

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

We had these bags! They were apparently developed in the 30s, during severe food shortages. Their name “avoska,” comes from “avos” which means “perhaps,” as in — “perhaps” I will find something to buy to put in this bag.

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

These Kvas trucks were around during my time, but I have no memory of them because of my mother’s very strong aversion to kvas (a fermented rye beverage) as well as communal drinking stations. There is also a different kind of soda water dispenser shown in the book. Its’ claim to fame was the communal glass, which was often chained to the machine itself. After drinking from the glass, you were supposed to place it upside-down on a water fountain that was part of the machine, to rinse it off for the next patron.

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

Ok, I definitely wore these. This was the girls’ school uniform. The most bizarre and amazing part of the uniform, which now seems like a surreal idea, were the collar and cuffs. Your only option at personalization was selecting an embroidered collar & cuff, which came in different patterns and styles. The problem was that they were white, and would get dirty faster than the brown uniform, so the obvious logical solution was to weekly unstitch the collar and cuffs, wash them, iron them, and then sew them back on the uniform. I don’t know why you couldn’t just wash them with the uniform, and I am hoping there was a reason, because this was certainly a time consuming process.

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

We definitely had that chess clock, it might have been the only chess clock sold, and everyone played chess. And next to it is the scrabble board, which I don’t remember, but has some seriously crazy typography, with most of the letters and numbers merged into a single symbol.

Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design

The bear on the right was the icon for the Moscow summer Olympics in 1980, and apparently a huge merchandising success. A 3D-ified version was resurrected and used for the Sochi 2014 Olympics. The phone on the left, is a dialless diplomatic telephone that was only able to receive calls (hence no dial). It was given to the highest government officials, and therefore a status symbol—only the owner of the phone was allowed to pick it up.

I learned a great deal about the motherland by reading the histories of these objects. The tone of the writing is both informative and humorous. Aside from the editor’s essays, there are a six or so longer pieces by prominent Russian authors (including Gary Shteyngart). The selection of objects is unexpected and smart, leaving the reader with a glimpse of what life was like in the Soviet Union.

P.S. For anyone looking to re-live their Russian youth, there are multiple iPhone versions of the game “Nu, Pogodi!” (where you have to catch dropping eggs), the table top driving game is still in production, and last but not least, the opening and closing title sequence of the kids television program “Good Night, Little Ones!” is on YouTube.