Come On, Let's Go.

The Soviet Union was breathing its last breaths when anything I can relate to as a reliable memory kicked in. I remember being told about American Stores which had expensive goods available for an entirely different kind of money than the rubles and kopeks I was used to. I also remember hearing about an American restaurant -- McDonalds -- opening in Moscow. I was told that the lines stretched around the block and that people valued the cups they got there like treasures from the Orient. Even though people waited on line plenty for simple food in Russia, it was hard to conceive of such lines. For one thing, thanks to my mother having some sort of connections in a local bakery, we avoided the wait and had hot loaves of fresh bread surreptitiously handed to us out the backdoor in the evening. Anyhow, weeks before we emigrated, my mother and I took a trip to Moscow (we were from Leningrad) to finalize some paperwork, and I got to see the line in person. It was fucking huge; take a look for yourself:

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First in Flight

Statue of Yuri Gagarin in Moscow, Russia
Via Adventures in Moscow

It has been fifty years since the day Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (Ю́рий Алексе́евич Гага́рин) made a 108-minute orbit of the earth in his Soviet-made Vostok (Восток, "East") spacecraft. Growing up, Gagarin was one of my heroes; I didn't know anything about the space race, or the Cold War, but I knew that I had a connection to the first man in space. To my five-year-old self, the fact that he came from Russia -- where I was from, too! -- may as well have meant that he lived down the block. He was even the man gracing Come On Let's Go's banner back before I changed it. Here's a montage of April 12th, 1961. I warn you, as it was created and uploaded by a Russian person, it is set to some pretty mediocre techno. So feel free to mute it and put something more appropriate on in the background, like this perhaps (or this.)

...and here's something everyone involved in the space race either never dreamed could happen, or always looked forward to: a fiftieth anniversary greeting from the American and Russian men and women aboard the International Space Station:


Here To Protect You

Co. Apple Min

Today is International Women's Day, which, far removed from its Party roots, is the occasion for all Russian mothers, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends and so on to incredulously ask "so, where are my flowers?" (Or maybe that was just my family.)

So, here's Ellen Ripley.


Hey, Sophie!

Below is the (unintentionally) romantically-titled "Shadows on the Sidewalk" ("Тени на тротуарах"/"Tenyi na Tratuarakh") It is a beautifully shot Soviet social hygiene film about the lures and depravities of rock and roll culture.

While more-or-less indistinct from American social hygiene films of the same nature, the Soviet-ness bursts forth in its moments. State disapproved rock music, for instance, is distributed through dubbed x-ray plates, which serve as makeshift records. And the culture spawned by these bootlegs? Well, it takes away valuable time young Soviets could be using to develop state infrastructure and comradeship within factories.



I began learning English long before I came to America. Thanks to Perestroika, Russian television aired a serialized BBC cartoon called Muzzy in Gondoland, which was aimed toward ESL education. I couldn't tell you if it helped or not but behind the American imports -- Duck Tales, Chip and Dale, Rescue Rangers and Muppet Babies -- it was my favorite thing to watch on television.

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Damn the Torpedoes

This blog post chronicles the trip of a few people to the The Museum of Soviet Arcade Games in Moscow. Of course, said museum is an arcade ca. 1990 in the basement of the Moscow State Technical University, but holy hell is this a nostalgia trip for me. The greatest discovery was that they took a few pictures of this:

Co. Dangerous Business.

That's my favorite and most-missed game, Morskoi Boi (Морской Бой, “Sea Battle”). It dates back to the 1970s, and is entirely electromechanical. There's no screen, no CPU, no graphics. You peer into a periscope visor onto a diorama of ships moving along the water The floor consists of tiles which light up, representing your torpedo as it approaches its target. If your aim is true, everything goes black except for a red explosion where the target used to stand.

The machine is a knock-off of Midway's Sea Raider, so here's a more deconstructed video of the mechanics:

Here is some more info on the game. The museum also has a simulated version you can play, with the real sound effects from the original machine.



I was recently turned on to this website, where a man named Igor Sergeev has, since 1976, collected thousands upon thousands of cigarettes, and archived images of them for our viewing pleasure. Obviously, I turned directly to the Russian ones. I've always admired Russian cigarette package design, and now I can share it with you! All images are courtesy of Mr. Sergeev, of course.

Беломорканал (Belomorkanal) are the cigarettes I grew up around. They weren't exactly cigarettes in the Western conception, but papirosi: a long filterless tube with the top quarter stuffed. Stuffed with what I can only assume to be the tobacco shavings collected off the floor of company making more tolerable cigarettes. I remember my mother's stories of her youth, of sons-of-bitches at parties putting these things out into empty sardine tins, stinking up the house to no end. When I asked her to pick me up a pack as a souvenier, she gaped, asking “you want a pack of the cigarettes that killed your father? She got them anyway. They were godawful. I never thought I would encounter a cigarette so foul I'd rather go through nic fits than smoke but here they were, in all their horrendous glory.

Now, on to more exciting territory. The first thing you should be aware of is that many of these are novelty packs. They're not all the Marlboros or Camels or Newports of the USSR/Russia. One of the first things I noticed was that animals, apparently, sell cigarettes. That makes sense. Who wouldn't want to buy a pack with an animal symbolizing strength and power. Like a wolf, or bear, or … penguin?

Ships and seafaring vessels are popular too. When I was a kid, Robert Louis Stevenson was the man to be reading. I love the gold-and-black “Corsairs brand the most. They're so classy.

The biggest constant theme, outside of “pictures of landmarks,” (which I'm not really going to go into as my grasp of pre-Cold War Russian history is tenuous at best) is SPACE. I'm not sure what America was like during the late 1980s, but in the Soviet Union, kids were absolutely inundated with space-related books and toys. At the age of four, I already knew who Yuri Gagarin (featured in the blog logo) was, and why he was important. The first package is a little blurry, but I'm almost entirely sure that it's Russia's old space station Мир (Mir):

Along with space technology, there are also the heavenly bodies. The red-and-white one is Mars:

Лайка (Laika, “Barker”) the Soviet space dog, makes it into a number of designs and even has a brand named after her. One of the things which never fails to break my heart is knowing that at least one of the scientists admits that “we did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog:

On to lighter faire, here's a few packs clearly marketed toward women. The zebra print one, particularly, reminds me of just about every young woman I've ever seen outside of a Russian restaurant:

Here's a few celebrating the mainstays of Russian popular culture, with no particular political bent. The chess one is my favorite, having grown up losing match after match after match to my grandfather, frustrated at the idea that I showed no interest in his hobby:

America Chic was in its prime during the Perestroika period. We had American Stores opening up all Leningrad, where you could buy imported goods, no longer solely available on the black market. They were, of course, inordinately expensive. The name of the cigarettes in the black pack is “Jeans.” Jeans were considered a uniquely American fashion choice, although they widely available since the 70s.

The single funniest results of the America Chic fad, is the following packet of “Brighton Beach" cigarettes. Brighton Beach is an area of Brooklyn which has been populated by Russian emigres since the 70s and has a unique culture that does not resemble modern Russia at all. Meanwhile, “Beach," being part of a proper name, is spelled phonetically, so the actually translation is “Brighton Scourge."

Ironic Soviet Chic, of the sort we see in the U.S., was not far off from the collapse. Strangely enough, far from being angry about the past, my parents' (although not so much grandparents', who bore the full brunt of Stalin) generation is delighted in the fact that their American-raised kids wear Che and Hammer and Sickle t-shirts. Probably because it is a complete capitalist dismantling of the sacred cows of the USSR, which anyone not fond of the place is glad to see. The last pack is a parody of this poster warding off idle chatter. The original said “Don't Gossip," the cigarettes say “Don't Smoke." Double reverse irony, indeed:

That's all! Make sure to check out Igor Segeev's site for more designs from around the world.


I Believe In Yesterdays

On a completely random jaunt through YouTube a few weeks ago, I discovered the following:

That piece of copyright-infringing insanity is a clip from a 2002 Armenian animated film entitled Yellow Submaryan (“-aryan” being a common suffix in Armenian names.) It is the
the work of Robert Arshavirovich Sahakyants (Роберт Аршавирович Саакянц/Ռոբերտ Սահակյանց) an Armenian animation producer and director, as well as an animator in his own right. Sahakyants is known throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union for his Soviet-era (and, naturally, Russian-language) cartoons based around Armenian folk tales and literature.

(Fair warning: both cartoons below are mildly-NSFW, depending on how your job reacts to roughly three seconds of animated nudity.)

This apocalyptic cartoon was a reaction to “the confused and sad Perestroika period [and the] events, moods [and] atmosphere prior to the August Putsch of 1991.” Entitled "Knopka" ("Кнопка", "Button") it is decidedly darker than the lighter folk-tale cartoons for which he was known. The distinct lack of dialogue in this film, along with the presence of an issue of ubiquitous party broadsheet Pravda (Правда, "Truth") and the dual-language credits indicate the difficulty the Armenian people (and by extension, all non-ethnically-Russian peoples in the Soviet Union) had to retain their own culture under Soviet rule and occupation.

Going further back in time, the last thing I wanted to show is the 1987 science-fiction cartoon "Urok" ("Урок", "Lesson"). Featuring early ambient electronica and cyberpunk themes, it is unlike anything I've seen come out of the Soviet Union before. I can almost assure you Peter Chung saw this before creating Aeon Flux; the surrealistic imagery, music and stylization all match his own. One of the odder things about this film is its post Cold-War attitude. While this cartoon was created during the Reagan era, it is still pretty shocking to see this sort of forward-thinking at a time when Americans were watching Red Dawn (not that the USSR didn't have plenty of anti-American propaganda, of course.) The written signs tend to be in both English and Russian, and there is a proliferation of branded Western items: a pack of Marlboros, a ray-gun marked “SONY.” (An aside: these little set-dressings remind me of one of US television's first science fiction-based goodwill move toward the USSR: including Chekhov, a Russian, on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek series.) Even the non-ambient music is western: at 2:15 in Part 1 you can hear Herbie Hancock's “Rock It” and the film ends to John Lennon's “Imagine” (FYI: the blurry text at the end is the lyrics, translated into Russian.)


I Will Always Be Against (Pt. 2 of 2)

On May 9th 1991, 24-year-old poet and singer Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva (Яна Станиславовна Дягилева,) known then to her friends and now publically as Yanka (Янка) left her Novosibirsk country home. On May 17th, Her body was by a fisher man found in the Inya River. The investigation revealed absolutely nothing with regard to the cause of death, but who knows how it was affected by her publicly anti-government sentiments and association with the underground Soviet punk scene (not to mention her marriage to Grazhdanskaya Oborona’s Yegor Letov.) Yanka was no stranger to retribution by the Soviet government.

Yanka’s albums were released posthumously, although a number of them were recorded. During her life time, she would play underground festivals and in very small, intimate shows called kvartirniks (Квартирник, “apartment gig.”) Fortunately, there is a very comprehensive tribute website. Unfortunately, for most of my readers, it is entirely in Russian. Here are dozens of photos taken of Yanka and Grazhdanskaya Oborona during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here is a (legal) archive containing all her albums and recordings. I suggest starting with Prodano! (Продано!, Sold!)

Her lyrics were full of pain and injustice, both personal and to the country as a whole. As far as “punk” goes, she was more in line with Patti Smith – no overtly shocking image, but songs full of razorblade insights. In “Po Tramvaynim Rel'sam” (“По трамвайным рельсам,” “Down the Railroad Tracks,”) a song of prison/gulag escape, she sings: “We have to be able to, in two seconds, dive into the ground,/To stay and lay there when the gray cars go after us,/That drive away with them those who couldn't or wouldn't lay in the filth.” Here is her performing it live at the Cherepovets Rock-Acoustic festival in 1990, just a year before her death. A friend and I translated the lyrics here, albeit they retain nothing of the original poetry.

From the same concert, here is "Rizhskaya" (“Рижская,” a street in Moscow.) A few years ago I had written a MetaFilter post about Yanka and a very kind user has translated the lyrics.

He also translated the lyrics to "Ot Bolshogo Uma" (“От большого ума,” "From Being Too Smart.")

So that is the legacy left behind by Yanka. You can read more about her here and listen to more of her music, streaming, on her posthumous MySpace page. YouTube user Faustua has a number of videos of her and Grazhdanskaya Oborona both. Unfortunately, there are very few actively-written translations of her songs, but you can always throw the Russian lyrics into Google Translate (or ask me directly.) Enjoy!


I Will Always Be Against (Pt. 1 of 2)

Photo co.

This is the Soviet Union's first punk rock band, Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Гражданская Оборона, Civil Defence) also known as GrOb (ГрОб, Coffin.) Most punk bands across the world had to dodge censors and obscenity fines while withstanding the the occasional token arrest. GrOb spent their time dodging the KGB and releasing illegal bootleg recordings. They survived well into the post-communist years, regularly releasing albums and becoming hugely popular (there are plenty of their stadium concert videos on YouTube.) Unfortunately, the lead singer and Soviet punk impresario Yegor Letov (Его́р Ле́тов) died in his sleep two years ago. Below is a video of their song “Ya Ne Veryu V Anarhiyu” (“Я не верю в анархию”, “I Don't Believe in Anarchy,”) taken during their still-illegal days in 1988. I've reproduced a translation of the lyrics as well, although they're slightly different than the video.

All that is not anarchy – that is fascism!
All that is not anarchy – that is fascism!
All that is not anarchy – that is fascism!
All that is not anarchy – that is fascism!

But you want to be the Fuhrer
He wants to be the Fuhrer
I want to be the Fuhrer
We all want to be the Fuhrer!

I don't believe in anarchy!
I don't believe in anarchy!
I don't believe in anarchy!
I don't believe in anarchy!

Who doesn't like the new order?
Who doesn't believe in the new order?
Who is not eager for the new order?
Who is building a new order?

I don't believe in anarchy!
I don't believe in anarchy!
I don't believe in anarchy!
I don't believe in anarchy!

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