A Gustav Klutsis banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
The Soviet era is famous for creating some of the finest works of propaganda. The posters were dramatic; the badges and pins, tiny and intricately designed. These were objects meant to be loved, passed down, carried in your pocket, posted to your mother, or pinned to your shirt.
It was politics made personal. And even today, you find bits of it scattered across Moscow.
In the sprawling Izmailovsky market, shiny Matryoshka nesting dolls welcome you with comfortable cliché. Then come fur caps and knock-off sports memorabilia (2014 Sochi Winter Olympics; 2018 Fifa World Cup).
Keep going, and deep in the belly of the bazaar, you’ll find Stalin staring out at you, accompanied by his band of Marx, Engels and Lenin. “These are Gustav Klustsis posters, my lady,” said a shopkeeper who claimed to be Siberian. “You are from India! Come in!”
USSR-era pins and a belt with a beautifully worked buckle. These souvenirs are so popular with tourists, that China is now flooding the market with fakes. Want to know which is which? Flip it over. An original piece will have, somewhere on the back, the hammer and sickle of the Community Party engraved as a tiny watermark.
Inside his dimly lit store, folders of postcards fell open, intimate meldings of history and art. For a few rubles (just over Rs 1,000), I bought three of these missives — one full of love and longing, written on the back of an image of a young, smiling Yuri Gagarin; another telling joyously of the arrival of a child; and on the back of a painting of Lenin, his finger raised to the sky, a mother writing of her husband’s death, to their son stationed at a dockyard in Vladivostok.
These postcards were printed and dispatched at a time when Russians were mobilised like never before, under one flag, travelling, working and migrating over a swathe of continent so vast, it now houses 15 countries.
On one of the three postcards I bought was a picture of two Indian girls performing Bharatanatyam at the 6th World Festival of Youth & Students, held in Moscow in 1957. This festival was an annual display of soft power. The Soviet Union was at the time isolated by the Western world to almost the same degree that North Korea is today. So to have youngsters from over 100 countries converge, was sending the world a message. India and Bharatanatyam were a part of it.
As I left the shop with my treasures, the shopkeeper called out again, “Don’t leave Moscow without the pins!”
A vintage military propaganda poster.
The pins were Soviet-era badges, but tiny. Soviets liked being decorated and honoured, and so the Communist party paid great attention to these souvenirs, distributed them regularly to party workers, made special ones for things like best radio transmission operative of the year.
When the Iron Curtain fell, these badges began to be seen as a dangerous sign of affinity to the former Soviet Union. So citizens sold or hid their memorabilia, and even today some of these historical trinkets are still finding their way to Moscow.
In fact, they are in such demand as souvenirs, that Chinese knock-offs are now flooding the market. If you’re browsing and want to know which is which, flip it over and look for a tiny sickle and hammer. The real Soviet-era pins and badges always had the emblem of the party embossed on the back.
If you don’t see the symbol, well, that one’s from China, and that’s a Communist souvenir of another kind.
First Published: Sep 14, 2019 17:18 IST