I Love Soviet Design

If there was any particular period in time that grabs my imagination, it’s the Cold War. I was born at the tail end of the war, when the Berlin War was falling and Glasnost and Perestroika were showing the truth about Russia: that the great Soviet war machine which the West had feared for so long turned out to not have wheels after all. The Cold War was characterised by the polarization of the world: you were either on the side of the West, or on the side of the East ( the term “Third World” to describe sub-Saharan Africa and America comes from this paradigm). It was a war of perpetual stalemate: ironically, it was nuclear weapons that were keeping us safe the whole time. With each side capable of inflicting instant death on the other, either as a result of First- or Second-Strike Capability, warfare was confined to localized conflicts. The Cold War was an era of peace.
It was also an era of social and technological development. Between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the USSR, the world developed telecommunications, feminism, rock music and computers. It was a period of rapidly accelerated development.
Enough has been written about American design during this time. Today I’d just like to highlight a few examples of Soviet design that I find really cool and inspiring.
This is something of a cheat, because the Tu-160 wasn’t a Soviet design. The Tu-160 was built as a long-range nuclear bomber capable of hitting major strategic targets in the US. It would fly across the North Pole, taking the shortest distance between Moscow and Washington, and return after dropping its payload. This isn’t the interesting bit – the interest lies in its design. The Tu-160 was copied wholesale from the Concorde, the Anglo-French collaboration that resulted in the most beautiful supersonic airliner to ever exist.
The similiarity of the design is quite shocking when you compare the two. They have similar lines: what is missing from the Blackjack A is the adjusting nose, while it adds sweeping wings that adjusted during flight. Despite this, the body shape and intakes are identical.
I find this particularly fascinating because Concorde is one of the few airplanes I have any real interest in: they have one down the road I’ve visited a number of times. I love the Concorde and genuinely mourn its passing, because not only is it a miracle of design but it has a structured cleanliness and honesty to it. It fulfills my design fantasies of aircraft: sleek, smooth, and casually elegant. Having walked around it, both inside and outside, I have to say this: at no point would it occur to me to use the same design for a strategic bomber.
The Concorde has a beautiful ruthlessness in its clean lines, sure. But in size and shape it doesn’t make sense to fill its hold with bombs instead of luggage. At the same time as the Russians were appropriating (read: stealing) the design of Concorde to make bombers, the Americans were making B-2 bombers that look like something the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would trade in their horses for.
Over the Pacific
The Russian ethos was different: find a design that works and adapt it. It’s long been known the Soviet military was working on a shoestring budget: whereas the Americans had a seemingly limitless design budget, the Soviets just got their hands on the Concorde blueprints, adapted them, and called it a day.
And I have to admire their bravado.
Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937) 
Another cheat, because this design isn’t from the Cold War, but it sums up Soviet design in a moment. Imagine for a second the process behind the design of Lady Liberty: Bartholdi and Eiffel get together and design a statue. It has to symbolise the new country of America. They compare deisgns. They reach back into antiquity and pick on the Statue of Helios that formed the centerpiece of the Colossus of Rhodes. They make  her hold a tablet with the date of the Declaration of Independence in Roman Numerals. In her other hand she is holding a lamp. The symbolism is complicated and abstract.
Now imagine the Russians designing a pavilion for the 1937 World’s Fair. They know they’re going to be facing the new Nazi Germany, who with a shocking Teutonic lack of imagination are making a replica of the Arc Du Triomphe, except bigger. They need a symbol of Soviet badassery. They need something that will shame the Germans and inspire healthy respect. They don’t have to dip into antiquity to find a symbol: they already have one built into the culture. A man and a woman, holding a hammer and sickle respectively, striding from East to West. It’s a simple design, and beautifully effective. In a moment it became an icon of Socialism. It says all it needs to say without any depth of symbolism: it doesn’t need to be explained. Here are the Soviet man and woman, representing the State and the people, the worker and the farmer, the man and the woman. They’re made of steel. If anything symbolised the surge in Soviet strength and aggression, it was this statue. Lady Liberty projects peace and hope: Worker and Kolkhoz Woman are badasses and they know it. They’re not going to take any shit from these Nazis or anybody else.
If anything indicates where things were going it’s the photograph of the German and Russian pavilions facing each other against the Paris skyline. People should have known what was coming: the stage was set.
Soviet Social Realism (1934- )
Ugh, creepy. Social Realism was the school that developed to showcase the attitude of Soviet Russia. It existed to illustrate strength, resilience and duty. The men were all beefcakes, the women all pretty, and the children all neat and tidy. Whereas Art Deco showed people as gods and abstract figures, Social Realism was aspiration of a different kind, similar in many ways to the Nazi ideal of the Aryan man and woman. It showed people what they ought to be and what they should aspire to be. It was propaganda and control of a new sort: surround people with aspirational images and catchy slogans, and eventually people start to believe them. Even when people were starving through centralized mis-management of agriculture and freezing from infrastructure failings, they were surrounded by images of well-fed, healthy men and women working in sunlit fields. Or weirdly phallic trains.
Eventually Social Realism became a symbol of the lie at the centre of the USSR: Communism doesn’t work. The healthy, muscular people in sunlit fields would never exist. But in the meantime it set the stage for modern design, which emphasises bold colours and clean lines. Half of the designers and poster-makers in London owe their designs to Social Realism.
Tsar Bomba (1961) 
More than fifty years later, the Tsar Bomba remains the largest man-made explosion ever created. It had a predicted yield of 100 Megatons (reduced to 57 Megatons during its only test). To put that into perspective, villages were razed to the ground 55 kilometers from Ground Zero, and third-degree burns were experienced 100 kilometers from the drop site. It was a motherfucker of an explosion.
And it illustrates how crazy the Cold War became and how Soviet design ethic stopped being about weaponry and became about acting like the biggest monster. The Tsar Bomba was never going to be used: it weighed 27 tonnes, too large for anything but the largest bomber to carry it. It required a ton of parachuting to allow the bomber to escape Ground Zero. Even at half of its full power, most of the energy was radiated up into space. It had, in effect, no practical application. It couldn’t be carried across the Atlantic or the Pacific. It was detonated as much as a symbol of Soviet supremacy as it was a legitimate weapons test. It illustrates the moment when the Cold War stopped being a strategic arms race and started being a dick swinging contest.
In hindsight, the Tsar Bomba showed how ineffectual nuclear weapons could be. By building the most ridiculously large bomb possible, they showed that the age of nuclear bombs was over. From then on, nuclear weaponry would focus on one thing: smaller megatonnage and greater range. It was no longer about Washington VS Moscow: when missiles could be sent from small-scale installations anywhere in NATO or the Warsaw Pact countries, defence from retaliation was largely impossible. In effect, the Tsar Bomba led to the realization that large-scale nuclear war would result not in winners or losers, but only survivors.
The Soviet Space Program (1929 – 1991) 
Some symbols of the space program are iconic: most children would recognise the Space Shuttle, or the Lunar Lander, or the Saturn V. Quick! Name a Russian design!
Time’s up. Points are taken off for saying “Sputnik” because everybody knows that one. The Soviet design ethic didn’t extend to symbolic programs. They had no Space Shuttle to capture the imaginations of children.
Oh hang on, they totally did. Much as they did with the Tu-160, the Russians espionaged (what’s the verb for “espionage”? Espioned? Never mind.) the Shuttle design for their own uses. You’ll never have seen this in any western publication, of course (unless it’s the November 1985 National Geographic – yes, I’m that devoted to research). It was highly embarrassing for the Americans to discover there was a mole in NASA who was selling blueprints to the USSR. But apart from the Buran, name a Russian space program. No? Lunokhod? Vostok? Salyut?
The Russians made early gains in the space program, putting the first satellite up, the first animal, the first man and the first woman. Although they soon lost the lead (they didn’t have enough Nazi scientists, but that’s a story for another day), they were the first to grasp the basic principles of rocket flight.
But Russian design didn’t keep up with the times. Everything they put into space looked like a prototype. While the Americans were building progressively more sleek and beautiful spacecraft (think the elegant Moon missions and the Shuttle), Soviet design stayed stuck in the fifties. Go and google “Mir” and compare it to the International Space Station. I’ll wait. Do you see? One is a model of beauty and symmetry, constructed out of space-age materials. The other looks like something a guy built in a shed somewhere.
Russian spacecraft were all about wires and tubes and bulky, non-symmetrical bits. Every spacecraft they built between Sputnik and Salyut looks like a bin with bits stapled on. Cosmonaut suits look like something you’d be embarrassed to wear to a costume party. The interiors seem to drip with Tetanus and condensed breath.
What’s weird is that I find the bulky, crappy Russian spacecraft so much more appealing. They seem to evoke the early days of travel, where every bit could fall off randomly. If you’re travelling into the exosphere, you want something like the Shuttle – all sleek comfort and leg space. The Russian spacecraft seem to say: “We’ll get you there, with no bullshit, but no comfort either.”
What’s especially weird is that the Saturn, the Skylab and the Shuttle have all fallen by the wayside. What are Americans using to get to the International Space Shuttle? The Soyuz. How long did Mir last in space? Fifteen years, compared to Skylab’s six years. Could the Russians have got to the Moon before 1969? Yup. They just didn’t.
So there you go: sometimes bulky, rusty and crappy-looking design is better than sleek lines, ceramic bricks and teflon. Who knew.

9 responses to “I Love Soviet Design

  1. I really have to wonder what it is with men and bombs. Is it really just a “my penis is bigger than yours” kind of thing?

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