New East Digital Archive

Soviet Visuals: the best snapshots from the Twitter account that became a bestseller

Varia Bortsova has spent years searching for scraps of the Soviet Union's distinctive visual culture and sharing them with the world via her Twitter, Instagram and Facebook account, Soviet Visuals. Now, to celebrate the release of the Soviet Visuals book, she’s chosen her five favourite images to share with The Calvert Journal.

23 December 2020

It is 08:00 in the morning on a wintery day in December 1995. It is pitch black, and all six layers of my winter clothes — particularly my reituzy, or woollen tights — are exceptionally prickly. I want to sleep, but instead I am walking through knee-deep snow, past an infinite array of towering apartment blocks towards a neon yellow light: kindergarten №1618. Here, I will spend the rest of the day attempting to avoid unpalatable porridge and making paper snowflakes with my buddies, Svetlana and Seryozha.

While I grew up in Moscow’s Prospekt Vernadskogo district in the early 90s, some version of this particular memory seems to exist in the collective mind of every post-Soviet child; whether they were born in Almaty, Baku, or Khabarovsk. A similar thing happens with Soviet photo albums, which all seem to come with a staple set of images: the poker-faced wedding photo, the family portrait in front of a carpet fixed to the wall, the New Year utrennik, or matinee children’s show group shot, where every little boy is dressed as a bunny and every girl as a snowflake. I tell everyone to try this exercise with friends from the former USSR: ask them to show you a family album, and I bet that you’ll find all three.

Every awkward wedding snapshot, television recording and carefully folded fashion catalogue page is, in a way, a glimpse into the lives of nearly 300 million Soviet people

Exploring dusty family photo albums and video cassettes was one of my favourite activities as a child, and this fascination with collecting the remnants of the Soviet and post-Soviet era continued well into adulthood, when my quest expanded to libraries and obscure flea markets everywhere from Kyiv to Minsk to Murmansk. Eventually, it led to the birth of the Soviet Visuals Twitter account in 2016: I wanted to consolidate these makeshift archives in one place and share the lesser-known aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain with friends. Over time, the page evolved into a community of over a million people sharing their own visuals across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as curious observers from around the world. Most recently, it has become a whole book.

Every awkward wedding snapshot, television recording, and carefully folded fashion catalogue page is, in a way, a glimpse into the lives of nearly 300 million Soviet people as they experienced love and pain, celebrated their children’s birthdays, joined the (only) party, laughed, cried and dreamed in sanatoriums, prisons, communal kitchens, and highly sought-after automobiles. I always stress that the project is in no way an attempt to romanticise, glorify, or justify the USSR’s ideological constructs and totalitarian practices: for many, this retrospective glimpse behind the Iron Curtain is an opportunity to reflect critically on the social and cultural norms of the time and compare them to the current state of affairs. For me, the greatest appeal is in unearthing certain trivial elements of Soviet people’s day-to-day existence: some questionable fashion choices, a ridiculously graphic factory safety poster, the peculiar design of a home appliance, a long-forgotten regional pop star… And while there was certainly a fair amount of grey in the USSR, so was a kaleidoscope of colour and creativity.

In honour of Soviet Visuals releasing its first book, I’ve chosen a few of my favourite images from the archives.

Chess tournament in Moscow, 1978

Image: Vladimir Rodionov

Following the release of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, the world is newly infatuated with the art of chess (as well as with the protagonist’s outfits). This 1978 photo of a chess tournament held during the XVIII Komsomol Congress depicts a whole different level of fashion. This image triggers so many questions: why are there so many turtlenecks? Where are the women, and are they wearing black turtlenecks? Why is the man in the 15th row wearing sunglasses? World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov is also pictured here, playing on the right.

May 1st Parade, 1968. Lvov, Ukrainian SSR

Image: Ilya Pavlyuk

This photograph of a girl at a Soviet May Day parade is one of my all-time favourite images. It’s not a photo, it’s a mood. While the International Workers Day was (and still is) observed in a number of countries, no one celebrated it with more fervour than the USSR: large-scale parades and processions complete with banners and balloons, nation-wide displays of technological achievement, and flowers everywhere. The date usually also coincided with the beginning of warmer spring weather after a long Russian winter, which meant that thousands of families headed to the streets to watch the parade and enjoy the sun. This girl, however, is clearly unimpressed by the forced fun.

Kosmos Cafe, Minsk, 1985

According to locals, the Kosmos Cafe was located in the depths of Minsk’s Chizhovka-2 district and near-impossible to stumble upon by accident: you had to know exactly where to go. It was decorated with all kinds of space imagery on the walls, coloured lights, and, most importantly, the floor tiles would illuminate when you stepped on them. They also served ice cream in little vases. Unfortunately, the cafe no longer exists. I find the abundance of space-themed designs in the Soviet Union infinitely fascinating: it appears everywhere from architecture to home appliances like vacuum cleaners to fashion and tech gadgets. The interior design of this cafe is one of my favourite manifestations of the Soviet space craze.

Diego Maradona in the USSR, 1990

When I started Soviet Visuals, I sourced most of the images and other media myself. But as the community grew, people began to contribute a lot of interesting material, including rare visuals I never would’ve come across on my own. This photograph was shared recently by a follower from Argentina: Diego Maradona was in the USSR with the Napoli football team for the eighth finals of the Champions Cup, hosted by the Spartak Moscow club. Now, when the entire world is paying tribute to the football legend, it is interesting to look back at moments like these. Unlike in the project’s earliest days, submissions now flow in to Soviet Visuals from every corner of the former USSR — as well as all around the world. It makes me so happy to see that the project has evolved into a collective repository of visuals and stories tied together by a common thread.

“My Grandparents”

Image courtesy of Evgenia Koshkarova

Photos of “ordinary people” from personal album archives are easily my favourite part of all our submitted material: I love studying the poses and facial expressions and thinking about how all these people’s lives have unfolded since the image was taken. Given the omnipresent visual propaganda that was weaved into the fabric of Soviet life (the same images that many have come to associate with the Soviet Union), I think that showcasing these raw, unedited photographs in all their diversity is extremely important for a more accurate reflection of life in the USSR. Sometimes, the photos are accompanied by stories or additional context. Take this picture, sent in by Yevgeniya Koshkarova, for example: “My grandmother Lyolya and grandfather Abilgazy met in the village of Energetik in the Orenburg region. This photo is from 1960. They got married two weeks after meeting each other. My grandfather hardly spoke Russian, and my grandmother was embarrassed to wear glasses. They raised three children together.”

The Soviet Visuals book, Soviet Visuals, is available to buy from Bloomsbury.

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