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Soviet time capsules: messages from the past with lessons to teach us in 2017

Soviet time capsules: messages from the past with lessons to teach us in 2017
“The country of workers and peasants is storming the stellar ocean!” 1960s poster celebrating the Soviet space program

The centenary year of the Russian Revolution has seen the unearthing of time capsules across the former USSR, offering poignant — and sometimes bleakly comic — reflections on mid-century life, and where we’ve gone wrong since

20 December 2017

Soviet writers had a lot of hopes for 2017, from controlling the weather to smart home gadgets — not all of them destined to come true. The centenary of the 1917 Revolution has made this year a landmark in terms of reflecting on the changes and tribulations that the country has been through in the last hundred years, and how our present predicament compares to the bright hopes and dreams of the communist utopia.

One consequence of this is that 2017 has seen an unprecedented unearthing of time capsules in Russia and elsewhere. Most of them are from 1967 and were initially buried as part of the celebrations marking 50 years since the Revolution, with the idea that they would be uncovered as part of Soviet citizens’ glorious celebrations of the October centenary. These are letters to a future that never actually happened, making these time capsules an incredible curiosity, offering perspective on both the past and present. Read on to see what the Soviet citizens of 1967 wanted to say to their comrades of 2017.

“We’re a little jealous of all you who are celebrating the centenary of our Soviet motherland”

A letter in the time capsule of Arctic port city Arkhangelsk, composed by members of the Communist Party’s youth organisation Komsomol, talks about all the work that has been put into renovating the town and its suburbs, transforming them from villages with no roads and wooden barracks for homes into a bustling centre of industry: “The youth of our region is gifting you, the young ones of the 21st century, with Koryazhma that has been turned from a small village into a modern town within ten years, Severdodvinsk that we built on land that used to be swamps, and the colossal wood industry of the North: Kotlass, Solombal and Arkhangelsk factories. We know that you will have better lives than us,” the letter continues. “You will do great things in our galaxy, will make our planet great. We are a little jealous of all you who are celebrating the centenary of our Soviet motherland. But we also know that you will be a little jealous of our restless young generation. We have a clear aim, a great future ahead of us and lots of things to accomplish. We have things that we can invest out hearts, brains, energy and labour in, and this is the source of our happiness.” Russian news website The Insider, which published an overview of the letters retrieved from the time capsules, darkly accompanied this letter with current images of Arkhangelsk: suburbs where people live in wooden barracks and drive on dirt roads.

“You are the lucky generation: wars are just history”

Interestingly, the capsule containing the letter with this message was been retrieved in Ukraine, currently referred to as Europe’s only war zone: “You’ve never had to chant: ‘Shame on the Israeli aggressors!’, you’ve never had to protest the criminal war in Vietnam, read news about provocations in revolutionary Cuba. How far away these events are from you! […] Young crowd of 2017! We are sure that you have justified the trust your heroic predecessors have invested in you, that you have created a new world.” But war and conflicts weren’t the only focus of this letter. Speaking of Heroes of Labour — a Soviet award for those who exceeded planned outputs for factories and industry – the letter lists the names of the award’s recipiants, presumably under the assumption that these would be recognised by future readers. None of them, sadly, have fulfilled their destiny of celebrity. They might not necessarily disapprove, but what would the “60s generation of Komsomol members” think of celebrity dogs on Instagram?

“You are talking with representatives of other galaxies about scientific and cultural collaborations”

In this capsule, retrieved from the wall of the House of Culture in Novosibirsk, the three-page letter signed by the local Party Committee resembles a chapter from communist sci-fi fan fiction: “Dear descendants, today you are celebrating a unique day: a hundred years of Soviet rule. […] We know our time is interesting, but yours is much more so. We are building communism and you live it. We believe that you have perfectly equipped our blue planet, colonised the Moon, landed on Mars; that you are continuing the exploration of outer space that we, people of the first 50 years, have begun, and that your ships are sailing across the galaxy. We believe you are holding talks about scientific and cultural collaboration with representatives of other galaxies, alien civilisations. We believe that the work that our fathers and grandfathers started 50 years ago and which we share, you will finish and bring to victory.” While the Soviets might be disappointed by Russia’s rockets consistently falling out of the sky and the successes of the capitalist Space X, they’d probably still be quite curious about all the apps that we now have that can model your face and neatly place a dog mask over it.

“You will probably grow gardens in the Arctic Circle”

In far-northern Murmansk, the time capsule had been hidden inside a monument erected in 1967 to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the city. The retrieval took over two hours, as the capsule was buried under two concrete slabs and fixed inside a big concrete block. Judging by these burial techniques, those who created the time capsule definitely thought that our technology would at least be advanced enough to cut through concrete with space-age lasers. The letter hidden inside confirms this: “We have found in the earth of our peninsula the richest deposits of valuable metals and minerals, we have built towns, cities, factories and power plants in the tundra, laid roads, built a navy and learned how to reap a harvest from this meagre polar soil. We have only made our first steps into outer space, and you are probably already flying to other planets. You will uncover many natural secrets, curb nuclear power, tame the forces of nature, improve the climate, grow gardens in the Arctic Circle. Remember us, your predecessors, who built your city and whose lives were sacrificed for the struggle to build communism.”

“You have eliminated harmful bacteria and viruses, ageing and sickness”

The time capsule letter retrieved in Tiraspol, the second biggest city in Moldova and capital of unrecognised Transnistria, continues the strong sci-fi trends of their Novosibirsk contemporaries: “Dear comrades-descendants, the labourers of the 20th century are writing to you. Tell your children and grandchildren how we struggled for your right to immortality. We lived in heroic times when great discoveries were made, when the world was shaken by revolutions and wars burned the planet. […] You have probably already eliminated all harmful bacteria and viruses and live without ageing or sickness. But it was us who helped you in this, when we discovered the mysteries of cancer and overcame the barrier of tissue incompatibility.” The Insider grimly published some statistics along with the letter, as depressing food for thought on the issue: birthrates in Transnistria are falling fast while mortality rates are growing, and in the last 25 years its population has decreased by 264,000 people — over 35 per cent.

“We address you, those who don’t know what war is”

Another letter that addresses the issue of war and peace was retrieved from a time capsule in a monument in Okulovka, a small town near Velikiy Novgorod in North-West Russia. Apart from the overarching topic of the Second World War, the letter, which was written by the employees of a local paper factory in 1969, unexpectedly touches upon another issue topical for former Soviet countries in the 21st century: decommunisation and the removal of Soviet monuments: “We paid a heavy price of millions of lives for our victory. And today, on 22 June 1969, on the 28th anniversary of the treacherous attack by Nazi Germany on our Soviet country, we address you, those who don’t know what war is. We urge you to remember and respect the memory of those who gave their lives in the fight for socialism, who died defending the freedom of the motherland and European nations from foreign invaders. Guard like sacred relics the monuments we have built to commemorate those who died.” A sombre message, but one founded in an appreciation of life and the possibilities it has to offer — if we’re willing to work for them.

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