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Postcards From the USSR

Moscow Cinema postcard 1962
Moscow Cinema postcard 1962

When Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on Decemeber 25th 1991, one of humanity's  most controversial social experiments was almost at an end. The day after his resignation, the flag of a vast empire was taken down from atop the Kremlin. It was the peaceful end to a tumultuous, fascinating, and sometimes bloody span of human history. 

The Soviet state born in 1917 when the Bolsheviks forced Czar Nicholas II to give up his throne, it held sway over one of the most vast territories any empire the world has known. from its beginnings under Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union was supposed to be “a society of true democracy." However idealistic the new government may have been though, the repression was as bad or worse than that under the Czars. By the end of Joseph Stalin's leadership, millions had either died, or had been sent to the labor camps. The later leadership of the Soviet Union denounced such repression, and life in the USSR improved accordingly. 

While Soviet times were hard and cruel at times, there was a collective sense of normalcy for the larger population. Life went on, people lived, worked, loved, and had children. The resilient Russians did not lose their spirit, or their sense of humor, and especially not their pride. President Vladimir Putin put the USSR into context best when he said:

"Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains."

Today Our Russia would like to present our readers with an interesting look back at Soviet times, a view of the ordinary day-to-day via postcards the people sent. What could be more representative of a society, than the bits and pieces of life citizens chose to send to their friends and loved ones. We hope you enjoy. 

Of the life and times of the people of the USSR, it would be extremely unfair and inaccurate to depict an utter failure of that system. While there were many dark facets of socialism and convoluted communism, people still thrived as they have for centuries, no matter the system in control. The image below depicts a scene one might find right out of a Mark Twain tale of America. Yes, children still fished the banks of rivers, lakes, and the seashore. 

Summer in Leningrad postcard
Summer in Leningrad postcard by N. Kochergin, 1956

The trains still ran, commerce was still carried on, and by 1966 it did so all the way from Berlin to Vladivastok. It's often overlooked, just how vast this place that no longer exists was. 

Vladivostok airport, 1966
Vladivastok Airport in 1966

Looking at these wonderful cards, it's easy to compare how the people dressed, what kinds of cars they drove, even the airliners they boarded, with those of contemporary Westerners. The 1960's, in particular, bear witness to a Soviet society that did not "look" so different from that of the US or the UK. 

Vladivostok train station, 1966
Vladivostok train station, 1966

In the 1960s, the space race was on in between the United States and the Soviet Union. Early "firsts" by the Soviet cosmonauts, were minimized a bit when the Americans were the first to land on the moon in 1969. The culture of technology that arose from this competitiveness though, it put an indelible brand on people of both nations. Years before an Amerian flag was put on the moon, a Soviet  Air Force Major General named Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov became the first human to conduct extra-vehicular activity (EVA), exiting the capsule during the Voskhod 2 mission for a 12-minute spacewalk.

\"Men went into open space\", 1965
“Man went to open space on March 18. 1965”

The spirit of culture and beauty that shone through the bleak exterior of Soviet society was ever really dimmed. Nature, the innate beauty of the landscapes, all the things people everywhere dream of, it still shined in the art and expression of people. The wonderful postcard below reveals all that is dear to any of us, children, the delicate creatures of our world, the innocent humor of human beings set within a beautiful landscape. 

From the “Seasons” postcard set by V. Suteyev, 1959
From the “Seasons” postcard set by V. Suteyev, 1959

For Westerners the enigma that was the Soviet Union must have seemed strange. Many questions inhabited the psyche of Americans I know. Information about what was behind the so-called "Iron Curtain" was sketchy at best, and out and out propaganda in its worst forms in the United States. My own contemporaries could not have told you, for instance, if Soviet children even graduated high school. If only someone would have sent us a postcard...

High school graduates on the Red Square in Moscow. Postcard by K. Lebedev, 1959.
High school graduates on the Red Square in Moscow. Postcard by K. Lebedev, 1959.

One of the most interesting aspect of Soviet life was the fact an atheistic ideal never really outshone the deep seated spirituality of people under the flag of the USSR. Christmas was still Christmas, and Easter too, at least in the heart of the people. The postcard below conveys many underlying ideas, and a sweetness that still prevails in modern Russian society. The very cool postcard below from 1960 depicts "space dogs" Belka and Strelka flying through space on a Happy New Year card. Interestingly, Belka and Strelka were two of many canine space heroes, who traveled to the stars during the space race. After returning home from spending a day in space aboard Korabl-Sputnik 2, the dogs became national sensations of a sort. Strelka even had puppies later on, one of which was presented to US President John F. Kennedy's daughther Caroline by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961.

A New Years greeting card with Belka and Strelka, 1960
A New Years greeting card with Belka and Strelka, 1960

Then there was always the militarism of the Soviet Union. The effects of World War II, and the aftermath which manifested itself in the Cold War, they weighed heavily on the people under the Soviet flag. The world's sense of the USSR was one of suspicion, mixed with fear of a new kind of totalitarianism. Inside the Soviet Union, the same fears manifested themselves in other ways. Suspicion and the same old fears arose out of faulty ideals and even more disastrous political ambitions from both sides.

Soviet Military Card
A Soviet Military Card

Finally, I feel it is important to cement a footnote onto the Russia of Soviet times. The sense many in America had of Russia and the Soviet Union, it was always kept a bit balanced by the immutable culture and history of the place and its people. A good example of this is my own recollection of wonderful films like Dr. Zhivago. While these sentiments may seem corny or even counter-historic to some, this Academy Award winning epic stands out as more than a Hollywood success story. Dr. Zhivago is a story of resilience and hope,and sadness and hopelessness too. More importantly, it is a moving portrait of human beings in extraordinary circumstance. The card below reminded me of the film, and of our magnificently human qualities. 

Dr. Zhivago
The beauty we humans can express, even in the hardest of times