Made in Russia: Soviet Design Oddities and Masterpieces


If you thought iconic Soviet design stopped at Sputniks, Lomos, and Kalashnikovs, you’re about to get old schooled. The brilliant, essential book Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design travels back to a time when objects were built for function and uniformity — tilting dolls never toppled, drinking glasses fit exactly a third of a standard vodka bottle, and soda pop was available around every corner via communal vending fountains. Edited by Michael Idov and penned by expats, this insightful little tome is brimming with cultural heritage, humor, and pure design porn. Have a good read and a curious gawk in this slide show of some of our favorites. And please, hold the Yakov Smirnoff jokes.

This classic Soviet toy was designed to stay upright via a mysterious, self-stabilizing mechanism held within its bright, bulbous belly. When titled by a child, Nevalashka (“One-that-won’t-lay-down”) would gently rock back, making a subdued ting-a-ling sound. Every time. Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

Long before the green-minded hip began toting these fishnet shopping sacks whilst touring organic foodmarts, the USSR had developed the archetype — the amazing avoska. Extremely long lines were commonplace and a score of good groceries was rare, so avoskas were essential, with their magical capability to collapse, unfold, and hold stockpile-bound bounties. Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

This iconic Yantar chess clock was Art Deco enough to charm and hefty enough to be slammed by impassioned players. Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

This is Misha, the Russian bear mascot, floating away during the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. From Made in Russia: “During the games themselves, Misha appeared as a giant balloon that was released during the closing ceremonies as a cartoon version of him shed tears on a screen and a choir of children sang ‘Good-bye, our sweet Misha.’ There was not a dry eye in the stadium. One can only imagine the tears that the mascot’s further fate would elicit: The balloon was recovered on the outskirts hours later, and put in storage where it was abandoned to be devoured by rats.” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

With these public fountain machines set up everywhere in the ’60s, Soviets could conveniently quench their thirst with carbonated tap water, an extra coin for a shot of syrup, all served in a communal glass. From Made in Russia: “Getting free soda out of the machines became a national sport. There were many ways to do it: coin on a fishing line, the fake-coin maneuver, and the most primitive and surprisingly effective method of all — simply hitting it hard in the right spot…. All in all, it was an ethical as well as an hygienic disaster.” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

This collapsible cup was a design breakthrough and a solution to the unhygienic communal drinking situation. From Made in Russia: “Like communism itself, disposable dishware existed only in theory.” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

This vertushka phone is missing something… Hmm… From Made in Russia: “The ultimate Soviet status symbol — beyond a black Chaika sedan, a government dacha, or a French stamp in the passport — was a lowly telephone. The only difference between a vertushka and any other phone was its conspicuous lack of a dial. You didn’t need one: Having a vertushka meant people called you. Important people.” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

Ah, aren’t these covers of the state-run Technical Aesthetics magazine (which was published from 1963 to 1991) beautiful? Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

The twelve-sided glass is a true masterpiece, holding exactly 250 grams, a third of a standard vodka bottle. First mass-produced in 1943, it was ingeniously designed by Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina, who created The Worker and the Collective-Farm Girl (a.k.a. the Mosfilm logo). Image Courtesy Michael Idov and Etsy.

Black Beluga caviar in a blue tin — the most prestigious caviar of them all. Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

Banki (“jars”) are glass suction cups used for storied homeopathic purposes. Novelist Gary Shteyngart explains in Made in Russia, “A pair of tweezers wrapped in cotton are soaked in vodka or rubbing alcohol and set on fire. The flaming pincers are then stuck inside the glass jar, which sucks out the air so that the edges of the ‘cup’ will form perfect suction with the skin. In one swift motion, the flaming pincers are removed from the now oxygen-less glass jar, and, with the sound of a horrible kiss, the cup is then stuck to the invalid’s back, supposedly to pull the mucous away from the lungs, but in reality to scare the toddler into thinking his parents are raving pyromaniacs with serious intent to hurt…. Even today I loathe to replace a burned-out light bulb because a banka so resembles a hollowed-out version of the same.” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

This indestructible space age “Saturnas” vacuum cleaner was re-appropriated by nifty post-Soviet geeks. From Made in Russia: “Gamers of the live-action role-playing variety now use the top hemispheres of the Saturnas as medieval helmets.” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

Krugozor was a monthly news and music magazine published between 1964 and 1993 featured interviews, psychedelic art, photos… and actual music! There were sixteen pages that served as covers for six flexi-discs. Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

This minimally designed Soviet radio was extremely popular and frequently exported. Image Courtesy Michael Idov.

The hammer and sickle “agitprop” evolved in the late ’50s and ’60s, its tail stretching into a phallic, space age motif. Vitaly Komar writes in Made in Russia, “Unlike Lenin, Khrushchev wasn’t worried about intimidating the world with thrusting objects. Erected in 1964 right next to the VDNKh grounds, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space was so openly phallic that Moscow cabbies took to calling it the ‘Impotent’s Dream.'” Image Courtesy Michael Idov.