Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 24, 2018
Kul’ttovary: Bringing Culture into the Soviet Home
William Johnston Building Gallery, Florida State University, September 28–November 4, 2017
Installation view, Kul’ttovary: Bringing Culture into the Soviet Home, William Johnston Building Gallery, Florida State University, September 28–November 4, 2017, (photograph © 2017; provided by FSU)

The exhibition Kul’ttovary: Bringing Culture into the Soviet Home at Florida State University (FSU) was a welcome contribution in the area of Soviet design history. In narratives about this period, familiar tropes about lack of choice and low-quality, reverse-engineered copies are often contrasted with the iconic products of the United States, such as an Eames chair or the ’57 Chevy. However, this juxtaposition often involves thinking about design through certain Western assumptions, and can get in the way of a more thorough exploration of the history of Soviet material culture, a world precisely not driven by the values of individual authorship or commercial competition. As Alexandra Sankova, director of the recently opened Moscow Design Museum has argued, while the majority of the twentieth century is sometimes described as a “blank period,” there was in fact “a whole system of design” specific to the Soviet context.1

The exhibition, which was curated by FSU faculty member Yelena McLane in collaboration with students in her course on exhibition design, helped to paint this more nuanced picture of material culture in the USSR showing how it was the site of both repression and creativity. The exhibition was a unique opportunity for American audiences to encounter these everyday items. While it has been possible in recent years to see examples of Soviet design and consumer culture in exhibitions in Moscow and London, exhibitions in the United States have focused on better-known topics such as propaganda posters (for example, Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters from between the World Wars, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, September 23, 2017–February 11, 2018) or on the avant-garde. The exhibition at Florida State University concentrated on a special type of store that circulated cultural goods, or kul’ttovary. These stores date back to the birth of the Soviet Union, and efforts to cater to the large numbers of people who were being relocated as part of industrialization and collectivization. Encouraging wholesome leisure activities among this new working class was part of a strategy to shape the new Soviet citizen, to encourage literacy, and to suggest an ideal vision of a society in which everyone had access to these pastimes. The kul’ttovary store provided the new mass-produced goods necessary to this project, and then became the norm in the USSR until the 1960s. Because of McLane’s specialized research and collecting, the exhibition allowed viewers to better understand the specific philosophies that underpinned this sphere of cultural production.

The kul’ttovary store brought together diverse activities such as music and photography, art and sports. The objects on view in the exhibition dated from the 1930s through the 1980s, and were arranged in the seven kul’ttovary sections: radios, records, musical instruments, toys, art and school supplies, sports, and cameras. Wall texts centered around quotes from primary sources that provided clear political and social context. Each section also included photographs from the time period, as well as reproductions of 1950s advertising posters for the category of goods on offer, positioning these objects as embedded in a wider visual culture. The small household and recreational items were humble and commonplace, but still at times elegant, charming, or even futuristic. Two small radios opened the exhibition: a 1949 Moskvich model and another by the Moscow Hearing Appliance Factory from 1959. Both have a modern, no-frills aesthetic that was a direct result of the simplicity of their purpose—to play a single radio station. As the exhibition explains, for Russian writer Marietta Shaginyan, the “simple and unpretentious” radio exemplified the whole kul’ttovary principle, that culture connects the masses to a broader, peaceful humanity. The radios are made of Bakelite, an early and widely used plastic, in muted dark browns, and were intentionally displayed so that we could see their backs, which are not made of plastic but a basic cardboard material that would normally be hidden against a wall. McLane explained to me in conversation that she and her students arranged them this way in order to draw out a Soviet design ethos: practicality above all. In general, the choice to place all the objects on open structures that allowed viewers to see them from all sides encouraged a close look at their parts and construction.

The next section of the exhibition displayed a 1955 gramophone and a 1961 record player, both small and in portable casing, and made of the same plastic and wood in muted colors. The exhibition contextualized these with documentation of the Communist Party’s 1963 encouragement of the production of recordings that contributed to the “development of the Soviet people,” rather than records that catered to “stunted tastes” or had “alien influences,” implying a sense of cultural restriction but also of defiance. Kul’ttovary stores also offered musical instruments, especially for children, as access to music was a key indication of the supposed benefits of the new Soviet state, in which all citizens could participate in culture. It was apparent how the unassuming—but still decorated—balalaika and accordion could work as the industry’s answer to the need for instruments that were mass-producible but visually referenced tradition and history. 

Kul’ttovary stores also sold toys designed according to the new philosophy of efficient production on a mass scale. The collection featured the colorful plastic Nevalyashka doll, a style of roly-poly toy that is an emblem of Russian childhood, but is also found in many contexts all over the world. A “Little Child of October” construction set from 1964 showed how certain toys were geared toward developing social and political values, such as shared property and industrialized labor. The references to nationalistic themes were carried through in the adjacent section on art supplies, which included a paint set decorated with images of astronauts and a Sputnik. While these instances are deeply connected to the Soviet context, they called to mind references to the space race or to national pride that might have been found in American toys and education of this period. One of the most productive things about the exhibition was this possibility of seeing how the tensions of the Cold War sometimes revealed similarities between East and West, rather than differences.

A section on sports and games explained the Soviet emphasis on health and fitness, both mental and physical, exemplified through ice skating, tennis, and chess. A 1957 advertising poster showed a soft, cartoonish drawing of a smiling, skating child. We then arrived at photography, which was highly valued in the USSR. Rather like in the West, over the course of the early twentieth century, amateur photography came to be linked to modernity and participation in social and political life. The exhibition included examples of the Soviet cameras Lubitel and Fotokor, which were based on Western camera designs, produced on a mass scale, and marketed to youth and amateurs in the 1930s and 1940s. Lastly, a large 1954 Zvezda radio served as a centerpiece for the exhibition space, and usefully tied together many of its themes. It was modeled directly on a French radio, with the space-age appearance that we commonly associate with mid-century design, except for the Communist red star decorating the front, and the same cardboard backing as on the household radios. This radio would have been a status symbol for an important leader or party official, and showed the significance of design aesthetics as translated across the East-West divide of this period, as well as the role of material objects in the pursuit of political goals. It was not a priority for the Soviet radio to have its own style. However, it was carefully designed to visually resonate in an international context.

The exhibition usefully destabilized some of the typical dichotomies that appear in global histories of Cold War design. Even though these goods came out of a centralized government program, and were produced for political purposes, they could simultaneously play a role in daily life that was related to the ideals of wide-ranging access to culture and individualized leisure pursuits. While the USSR was in many ways culturally cut off from the outside, the objects on view showed how global influences made their way in nonetheless. Also, we might ask whether Soviet efforts in industrialized production had something in common with the major shifts in design during this time in the West, where designers took it upon themselves to integrate form with function in radical ways, making it possible for more people to own more things. The brochure that accompanied the exhibition noted that Russians of this period would not have used a direct translation of the word design, but rather words that translate to “technical aesthetics,” or “artistic-form rendering,” a distinction that hints at the emphasis on function over form, while at the same time indicating how these two values are never really separable. Kul’ttovary: Bringing Culture into the Soviet Home contributed to the history of design by showing that while Soviet industries were centralized rather than competitive, and designers did not operate according to a system of patents, copyright, or individual recognition, they did work to make products that great numbers of people would find worthwhile, drawing on an array of ambitions and cultural influences. They worked in the service of a specific political system, and did so through design, not by dispensing with it.

1. Alexandra Guzeva, “Lost Archives of Soviet Design to Be Exhibited in London,” interview, Russia Beyond, September 7, 2016, (as of April 20, 2018).

Colleen O’Reilly
PhD candidate, University of Pittsburgh