Playing peek-a-boo behind the iron curtain
Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain, GRAD's newest exhibition, puts on display a collection of everyday objects dating back to the Soviet era
It has been nearly 25 years since the iron curtain came tumbling down over Eastern Europe. Over this period of time, huge political, economic and social changes have shaken up the now independent countries of the entire regions – in many respects for the better. Yet, the way in which rest of the world understands those countries and the legacy of Soviet rule remain largely the same and narrow. GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design’s latest exhibition, Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain, continues the year-old gallery’s mission to showcase exceptional art and design to a UK audience, but in doing does quite the opposite: showing how ordinary and “just like us” daily life for Soviet citizens was. In theory, at least.
Ordinary Soviet lives of ordinary Soviet people
Work and Play brings together over fifty objects, many of them household goods from the Moscow Design Museum, that epitomise a Soviet ambition dating back to the 1950s. Throughout that decade, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev spearheaded a mass urban housing scheme, building millions of standardised, low-cost apartment blocks that became known as khrushchevkas. The desire to “catch up and overtake” capitalism intensified in 1959, when a war of words – the so-called “Kitchen Debate” – over the Soviet Union’s failure to provide consumer goods and everyday items to its citizens kicked off between Khrushchev and US President Richard Nixon at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.
Ironically, many of the consumer objects on show, ranging from a simple quirky plastic toys to a motor scooter, would not look out of place in an exhibition of 50s and 60s US or European design. Indeed, the Viatka scooter was an unlicensed copy of the legendary Italian Vespa, while the Zvezda-54 transistor radio was a carbon-copy of a French Excelsior-52 model, imported into the country by a Soviet diplomat. That said, there are many objects that have a unique “Soviet touch” to them, ranging from the vacuum cleaners – that feel more like rockets or satellites – down to the simple but iconic string shopping bag or the Alenka chocolate bar with the clubby rose-cheeked face of a baby, still to be found on shop shelves today. The distinct colours of the plastics and the enchanting designs of children’s dolls and sweet packets feel a million miles from the bleak, black-and-white imagery that is often associated with the Soviet bloc.
Cars and refrigerators
In reality, many of these household products remained off-limits for ordinary Soviet citizens, who found their new apartments to be cramped and overcrowded. One product in particular, the ZIL refrigerator, links the first tranche of the exhibition to the other focus area of Work and Play: the history of the ZIL factory. Famed for its exclusive limousines used by communist party officials, the factory, located in the south of Moscow, mainly manufactured trucks and military vehicles. In the 1950s, ZIL joined the consumer race by producing a refrigerator that became ubiquitous in Soviet homes, even if there was a long waiting list to get one and little to put in it.
The 100,000th version of the fridge has been brought to London for the show, as well as various scale models of the cars, trucks and buses manufactured by ZIL. It is a timely celebration of the factory, as it remains a very uncertain future, alluded to in photographs showing its sorry state. In fact, ZIL will more likely be producing apps over appliances in the future, with authorities hinting at various new uses for the vast territory occupied by the factory, including housing developments and a creative cluster.
Curated by GRAD’s Elena Sudakova and Alexandra Chiriac, Work and Play is not a comprehensive retrospective of Soviet design, nor an insight into the everyday complexities of Soviet life (alluded to in one single exhibit: a bootleg audio recording on X-ray plates). It is, however, a timely reminder of how design can help cultures, marked by different historical experiences and separated for political reasons, understand and associate with each other.