A peek at utopian space dreams behind the Iron Curtain

A new collection of Soviet space design is more relevant than ever. …

“This is the perfect time for books,” Alexandra Sankova tells me from her apartment in Moscow. Like many of us, Sankova is sheltering in place in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, which also makes it the perfect time to fantasize about getting off the planet.

Sankova is a co-founder of the Moscow Design Museum who has dedicated her recent career to collecting and cataloguing the distinctive design of the Soviet era. Her book Soviet Space Graphics, published April 1 by Phaidon, collects imagery from popular magazines that promoted space exploration and technology behind the Iron Curtain.

These magazines were something like a mix between Popular Science and Soviet propaganda, designed for an audience that had only basic material goods but wanted to participate in the USSR’s advanced space technology program. “Many [of the magazines] are published today but they lost this incredible design focus as before,” she notes. Technology for the Youth remains a leading monthly.

Moscow Design Museum

An illustration for a 1969 article in the monthly magazine Technology for the Youth. It reads: “Oh, that Mysterious Moon!”

“The whole culture from the 1920s, from the revolution, people were very enthusiastic and they were dreaming about discovering and exploring space, and many books and movies were talking about Soviets arriving to other civilizations,” Sankova says.

Moscow Design Museum

An illustration for a 1959 article, “What would a space station on the moon look like?”

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is perhaps best known for his mathematical descriptions of the physics of space travel, but he was also a major booster of science fiction whose embrace by Russian revolutionaries helped link communism and space science. Alexei Tolstoy, a distant relative of the great Leo, wrote Aelita, an influential science fiction novel about a communist uprising on Mars, in the early 1920s. By 1924, it had been made into a silent film. (You can watch it on YouTube.) All of this provided fertile ground for designers and illustrators.

After World War II, Russia and the US recruited German scientists to jump-start rocketry programs. The impetus to design vehicles to both deliver nuclear weapons and to stop those deliveries led each nation to look to the stars. Russia reeled off a series of impressive firsts, including the first satellite, the first animal in space, the first man and woman in space, and the first probe to land on the lunar surface.

Moscow Design Museum

A 1973 illustration, “In the world of professions: Machine builders.”

As the Soviet space program evolved, so did the designs. Initially, many were pictures of machines and distant planets. With the rise of human spaceflight, depictions of cosmonauts and their work became more common, eventually expanding to expansive, utopian visions of the future.

Sankova’s favorite style are more abstract renderings from magazines like Knowledge is Power, which sacrifice the technical diagram qualities of other illustrations “but open up the imagination.”

Moscow Design Museum

An illustration from a 1960 issue of Knowledge is Power for an article titled “Flying Like Birds, Swimming Like Fish.”

The work reflects both the aspirations of the centralized state and its frustration. One designer, Sankova says, began his work as an automotive engineer but couldn’t see his designs catching on in the planned economy, so funneled his “great ideas and dreams about how the world should look like in the future…into the illustrations. He was describing a world that he would love to design.”

Sankova recalls growing up with these magazines as a child, but she worries modern Russians are losing touch with their cultural heritage. “It’s bad because without knowing your history and knowing your past, you cannot move on,” she says. “We are trying with our collection to put together also history.”

That may matter more now than ever, with major powers flirting with a return to Cold War dynamics.

“Some countries are developing a nuclear missile, some countries are thinking of new chemical and biological arms,” Sankova says. “The space thing is again very interesting, because everyone is looking, following and focused on what Elon Musk is doing. I think that these issues—how we can live under the water or under the Earth, outside of the land, are starting to again be interesting. Technology is very improved, but still a virus can stop a planet.”

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