Boris Yeltsin was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for 30 years before he became the first president of Russia, and many still remember him as the slightly ridiculous world leader who danced onstage at a rock concert. Such lightheartedness from the Kremlin is unusual. Russian humor has tended to be dark because so much of it was about the Soviet system (darkness incarnate!), and it is definitely absurdist, which doesn’t always translate. So a big welcome to Soviet Visuals, a new book by Varia Bortsova. Born in Moscow a year before the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Bortsova has collected images that offer a nostalgic and uniquely funny look at Soviet life through photographs (ranging from family shots to ones by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr), cartoons, and advertising and propaganda posters.
The images get at Soviet gaiety, which Stalin called “the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union”—a perverse statement given the source—as well as at the humor that can only be gained by looking backward in time. Babies are thrown up into the air to aid their health; a 1927 magazine illustration is captioned “DO NOT KISS! It’s through kisses that this year’s flu epidemic spreads most!”; and an anti-religion poster chipperly reads, “The bright light of science proved that there is no God!” Soviet Visuals is divided into chapters on science and technology, fashion and design, sport and health, work, family time, and, crucially, food and drink. Bring on the blini! —Julia Vitale