In the postwar Soviet Union, a consistent shortage of goods was part of everyday life. So much so that when a line began forming outside of a shop, passersby would simply join the queue, waiting to purchase a mystery product — maybe a pair of shoes or a small kitchen appliance — because who knows when they’d have another opportunity to buy one?
Often, those standing in line carried avos’kas, which were string shopping bags that people kept with them, just in case they happened upon something they could buy. (The word avos’ka comes from the Russian word for “hopefully,” as in, hopefully you’ll find something to buy and put inside of it.) Produced at the factories of the All-Soviet Society of the Blind, the avos’ka is just one of the many products featured in Designed in the USSR: 1950–1989, a new book highlighting more than 350 once-ubiquitous candy wrappers, cigarette packs, radios, record sleeves, vacuums, cars, and other items from the collection of the Moscow Design Museum.
The book serves as a tour through the “landscape of everyday life in the USSR,” writes Justin McGuirk in his foreword — a presentation of the “minutae of a lost civilization.” As Alexandra Sankova, director of the Moscow Design Museum, explains in her introduction, “designer” wasn’t really a profession in the USSR. In a collectivist society, there was no reason to glorify the work of an individual (unless it was a high-ranking Communist Party official, of course), so instead of designers, largely anonymous “artistic engineers” worked for the collective good at large state-run institutions, all under the watchful eye of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE). “Hard as it is to imagine now, the words ‘design’ and ‘designer’ were banned until as late as the 1980s,” Sankova writes.
Designed in the USSR is divided into three sections: “Citizen” compiles everyday consumer items; “State” focuses on propaganda design and objects of the police state; and “World” outlines how the USSR represented itself internationally.
My parents were born and raised in the Eastern Bloc, so I asked them to identify some of the objects in “Citizen” that they recognized from their youth. The number one item was the avos’ka. But they also remembered the Nevalyaskha doll (“never falls,” or as my dad called it, Vanka Vstanka: “Vanka stands”), a toy that teeters on its spherical body, making jingling noises but never tipping over, no matter how hard you push it.
My dad also remembered the designs of candy wrappers, notably the Alyonka, which he said was considered one of the best Russian chocolate brands. But Alyonka wasn’t available everywhere (not in Yerevan, Armenia anyway), so when people went on trips to Moscow or Leningrad, they were sure to stock up. Designed in the USSR describes the Alyonka wrapper design as “the most prolific example of Soviet branding designed in the Soviet Realist style.” The little girl wearing a headscarf was the daughter of a chocolate factory employee, the artist Nikolai Maslov.
While Alyonka represented the exemplary Soviet child on candy wrappers, the Natasha and Sasha perfumes did the same for the adult Homo sovieticus. But the real Natasha wasn’t even close to being a Soviet citizen. “The portrait was taken from an East German photo bank while the model, as it turned out, was of Finnish origin,” notes the caption. “A men’s perfume called Sasha was also produced, but its packaging was never as popular as that of the Finnish beauty. The factory even received love letters addressed to Natasha.” (According to my mom, the fragrances were extremely popular, but they didn’t smell very good.)
The “State” section begins with posters designed to inspire and indoctrinate. In one poster, the words “study, study, study” appear above a boy reading physics, history, and political economy books, with a globe of the world on his desk and a painting of a studious Lenin on the wall behind him. Radios of all kinds, tape recorders, record players, and TVs also fall into this category, both because they spewed propaganda and because they could be tapped by the secret police. Then there are the phones. Some have no dials at all, signaling a direct line to Party bosses; one type of rotary phone claimed to be tap-proof. (But if you’re buying it from the state, can you really trust them?)
Cars also populate the book, the most luxurious being the Volga, popularized by a comedy drama called Beware of the Car. “The film’s protagonist, Yuri Detochkin, is a Soviet Robin Hood who steals Volgas belonging to corrupt officials, profiteers and thieves, and anonymously transfers the profits to the accounts of various orphanages.” According to my mom, this was everyone’s favorite comedy — it was one of the few that didn’t emphasize the typical propaganda. Only the most well-connected “comrade” could ever dream of owning a Volga.
The “World” section begins with the 1980 Moscow Olympics: posters, uniforms, and the fuzzy little mascot, Misha the Bear. Designed by children’s book illustrator Victor Chizhikov, Misha was the first Olympic mascot to appear full-face, rather than in profile. He was on everything, from soap wrappers to thermoses and packaging tape. My parents lived in Leningrad at the time, and when I asked my mom about the 1980 Olympics, the first thing she mentioned was the annoyance of seeing Misha the Bear everywhere.
The cultural importance of the Olympics was eclipsed only by the feats of the cosmonauts, which inspired Sputnik cigarette packs and candy tins with portraits of space dogs Belka and Strelka, the first dogs to go into space and return alive. (Laika had died in space three years earlier.)
Bright red and black propaganda slogans appear every 20 pages or so in Designed in the USSR: “Forward to the great goal!” “Comrades, let’s do morning exercises!” “Everyday work is a step towards Communism.” Strangely enough, they add coherence and almost humorous relevance to the book. Patterns emerge, especially a focus on utility over all else, but with frequent references to Russian folk art, Soviet constructivism, and a Stalinist take on Art Deco. In the words of designer Aleksander Ermolaev, a member of VNIITE for more than 20 years: “When there was a shortage of consumer goods, the formula ‘that will do’ seemed natural. Almost every Soviet object and environment corresponded to this formula.”