Previously unseen objects in a cultural studies book show a Russian preference for ruggedness over elegance, and a knack for self-parody
One of this year's most remarkable cultural studies books is Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, edited by Michael Idov with text by Bela Shayevich and contributions by other members of the American Soviet-born intelligentsia.
Some of the book's objects are actually sung, for the reason Westerners associate with the positive side of Soviet manufacturing: an unashamed preference for ruggedness over elegance. And some have become cult objects, like the LOMO camera and the Ural motorcycle. Who can forget the Kalashnikov, still a world best-seller? A few other products have surprising pedigrees. The cover image is a Russian adaptation of a Japanese Buddhist daruma doll, representing resilience and perseverance. The Raketa watch was first produced in a factory founded by Peter the Great for marble and gemstone cutting, then converted by the Soviets in the 1930s to make timekeeping jewels and the instruments themselves. Most Soviet consumer design, though, was inspired by Western goods, from hairdryers to Fiats, remade Russian style. The result was generally shoddier, but sometimes the Soviets also managed to maintain traditional quality because they hadn't learned to make things badly yet, thus the excellent bed linens and face towels in the Academy Hotel, owned by the USSR Academy of Sciences, when I was its guest as an editor in 1988. Who minded if all the pressed buttons popped out every time the elevator stopped at a floor? The driver had to stop the Fiat-style car assigned to me once or twice on the way from the airport to the hotel because the radiator boiled over on a warm May day, but the main point was that the car would start in the coldest Moscow winter weather.