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:
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.
...and so, another Christmas Eve descends upon us. For those of you unaware, being Jewish, I don't actually celebrate Christmas. Coming from a secular Jewish family, I don't actually celebrate Hanukkah, either. Growing up, we occasionally paid lip service to any number of Jewish traditions, but I don't think we ever made it past the third or fourth candle. What we celebrate is New Year's Eve.
Christmas, in the Soviet Union, was replaced by the New Year's Eve (Новый Год, lit.: “New Year”) celebration. The (secular) tradition is almost identical: we decorate a tree (Yolka/Ёлка,) eat a hearty meal, gifts are exchanged, and so on. After coming of age, we also get really wrecked. New Year's Eve is not just a holiday, but also the biggest party of the year. I remember digging through old family pictures and finding a few from a NYE party wherein my mother was roughly my age. She, my father, and some of their friends are sitting on a floor, my father playing his guitar. Everyone is absolutely shitfaced. My friends and I are the inheritors of this tradition and, well, let's just say that making plans for January 1st is practically unheard of.
Okay, I mentioned presents. Well, we Soviets did not have Saint Nicholas. Communism did not look fondly upon the opium of the masses (although not even Stalin himself could neither put down the Church, nor Judaism) but considering the depressive qualities of the Soviet winter, something had to be done. So instead of Saint Nick, we have Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз) - “Grandfather Frost.” Tagging along is his beautiful young daughter Snegurochka (Снегурочка) - “The Snow Maiden.” What surprises a lot of my American-born friends is Grandfather Frost's color palette; unlike in the states he comes in both red and blue varieties, both equally acceptable.
Image co. Voices from Russia.
So, that's how we do. I did mention gifts, though, and here is one for you all. It is David Sedaris' classic story of Christmas-based openmindedness, Six To Eight Black Men. (NB: The video portion isn't particularly relevant, so I'm leaving the windows tiny for ease of browsing.)
I am an immigrant. A naturalized citizen of these United States. I consider myself an American (unless I have to tell someone abroad where I'm from, in which case the answer is a quick-shot “New York.”) My family came, escaped here from the Soviet Union. My fascination with that fallen empire exists only through the visors/blinders of nostalgia. I can't deny where I came from, where I had my formative experiences, where my love for art and culture sprouted. However, I also can't deny that it was a quagmire of a country, started on genuinely valiant terms and eventually run into the ground by a psychotic despot. I don't love the USSR (or Russia, for that matter,) but it is my homeland, just as America is my home. I cannot claim my grasp of history is anything but cursory, so everything I write from hereon may very well be inaccurate, but it is the way things went down in my head. I invite, welcome and cherish corrections.
I am an unabashed member of the left, and a radical one at that. My politics did not come from an even-handed observations of the two sides and a conscious choice, but rather my personal convictions thrusting me into the lefthand wall at 88 miles per hour. You could say I started climbing the damn thing just as I hit it, to see what was on the other side. I can honestly say that every individual within the legislature can agree on some bill, the ends of which result in my imprisonment. I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but you can see my point.
Twenty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell, and a good part of that fall revolved around Ronald Reagan. Between heated proxy fighting (my old tennis coach used to fly planes for the Soviet forces in Afghanistan) and increased worry over the “assured” part of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (not to mention the USSR's inability to feed their populace) the great symbol of superpower division was toppled. The fall wasn't nearly as spontaneous as history makes it out to be, but there is precious little truly spontaneous history. I'll admit to this being a facile treatment of the issue, but I'm no historian.
Ronald Reagan, whether you think of him as figurehead or mastermind, is partially responsible for who I am. Without the Gipper's nominal efforts, without his administration taking a step back from the brink of nuclear annihilation, my family may have never been able to emigrate to the United States. This leaves me conflicted.
One the one hand, Reagan holds a lion's share of responsibility for the mess our country is in right now. The co-opting of the GOP by hardline conservatism is inextricably linked to his bringing Nixon's “Silent Majority” campaign tactic to a fever pitch, molding it into a veritable religion of intolerant Christian extremism, anti-intellectualism and the very denouncement of reason itself. The 43rd presidential administration, riding Reagan's coattails and stealing an election, dropped us to a nadir as a culture. I never thought I'd see the day where issues settled by the Scopes trial in 1925 would be brought up for questioning. Also: Iran-Contra? The president committed treason. Plain and simple. Our fightin' boys in the Middle East are getting blown to shit with the veritable armory he sold them. How did it all end, you ask? Ollie North, the grand co-conspirator, has a show on Fox. And Reagan himself received a sending-off I can only compare to this Russian joke I found on Wikipedia:
Seeing a pompous and lavish burial of a member of the Politburo, Rabinovich sadly shakes his head: "What a waste! I could have buried the whole Politburo with this kind of money!"
...oh did that felt good to get out. Now here's the other side: I can say all that I just said without fear. I can say that President Ronald Reagan was a treasonous blight upon the citizens of the United States of America. I can say that instead of a funeral procession, they should have dumped him in a potter's field. And you know what? I'm not going to get “disappeared.” I was rescued from a life of poverty and anti-Semitism in the shithole that became of Russia after its turnover to “democracy.” I live in a country where the only reason I am waiting on line for a loaf of bread is because I decided to shop at Trader Joe's. My voice, no matter how insignificant in the grand scheme of things, can be heard by anyone willing to listen, and all the while my teapot remain unsullied by Polonium-210.
Ronald Reagan helped me live the life I do today -- and I love this life because I'm free to spit on his grave regardless.