A fantastic history of pre-kitsch, postwar Soviet stuff

Was Soviet stuff ugly? More to the point, were Soviet people ugly? Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design answers the first question (no, it wasn’t; well, it sort of was) and begins to answer the second. It’s an excavation of the history of postwar Soviet stuff—wristwatches, cars, televisions, but also the cotton fishnet shopping bag, the pyramid-shaped milk carton, and the beveled glass (designed by Vera Mukhina, creator of the classic socialist-realist monument Worker and Peasant-Girl), as well as the metro coin dispenser and Sputnik. Well-published in a small format with both black-and-white and color photographs, the book gives a nice two-page history of each of its nearly 50 products or designs. These are predominantly from the era of “advanced socialism,” when the Soviet people, no longer being shot at by Bolsheviks and Nazis, could relax a little bit. Most of the book appears to have been written by an unknown young writer named Bela Shayevich (she gets a tiny credit on the copyright page). This is for the good, because Shayevich is funny.

Soviet design was influenced to some extent by early Soviet Constructivism (the beveled glass); by the space race (vacuum cleaners were especially prone to this); by the Western designs of which so many Soviet designs were knockoffs; and, above all, by economic limitations. It was a big country, a well-armed country—but it wasn’t a rich one. The essays here are in a lightly ironic style, but how else can one relate to these poorly made, slightly ungainly, mass-manufactured objects, which, nonetheless, were the best the Soviets could do? They didn’t have much, but at least they had to share it. And were they ugly? They were not ugly. You look at the photos in this book, the Soviet woman walking down the street, in heels, with her cotton fishnet shopping bag, the Soviet men drinking carbonated water from beveled glasses at a street soda dispenser, one man in a cap and jacket with a soldier’s medal on the lapel, another in a checkered button-down shirt and a striped cotton belt, a third in jeans and short-sleeved white T-shirt—and unless you’re a propagandist for the American Chamber of Commerce, circa 1982, or 2008, the last thing you could call them is ugly. These people were cool. Even cooler, dear reader, than you or me.

Keith Gessen is a founding editor of N+1 and the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

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A fantastic history of pre-kitsch, postwar Soviet stuff