As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously wrote, “a spectre is haunting the internet – the spectre of communism.” Fine, the internet wasn’t around when they whipped up The Communist Manifesto in 1848, but communism is all over the social media right now – specifically, the Soviet Union.
Instagram accounts that post photos and ephemera of the USSR are wildly popular. On Instagram, @sovietvisuals has 273k followers, while Twitter accounts @sovietpostcards and @sovietartbot have 27k and 12k, respectively. From freakishly giant busts of Lenin hiding away in Tajikistan’s hallways to penguin porcelain coffee pots made by Soviet companies, these accounts highlight both the personal and political. Propaganda features heavily, but so do photos of people’s washing lines and children skiing in the shadow of the Kremlin. Then there are the Soviet-themed accounts that focus on one area of its culture, such as Instagram @modeliavtoussr, which solely posts pictures of cars to its 30k followers. This all begs the question: why are people suddenly so interested in Soviet content?
What these accounts offer is a look behind the iron curtain. Katya, a Moscow native who runs @SovietPostcards on Twitter, Instagram and Etsy, uses her accounts to show that Soviet people had “normal lives with families, friends and dreams”. As well as posting actual postcards from the twentieth century, she highlights Soviet design, architecture, film clips and candid photos of everyday citizens. She began in the internet trenches of Tumblr in 2010, initially only wanting to show off her collection of postcards, but, as she says, “things picked up surprisingly fast”.
Katya’s followers and buyers are from all around the world – some have Soviet roots, but most are just interested in “this weird country that was so different from theirs”. Until now, the USSR has often been presented negatively and with fear around the world. Accounts like hers are showing it in a new, individualised light, previously unknown to those outside of it.
Maria was born in the Uzbek area of the Soviet Union and now lives in Germany. She isn’t surprised by the popularity of accounts that celebrate her place of birth, because, in her experience, “there are many former citizens who think fondly of that time”. She muses that the amount of time that’s passed since the end of the Cold War in 1991 means that young people the world over can look at it from a more “neutral” perspective – a healthy interest that celebrates nostalgia and its aesthetic.
It’s important to Maria that “Stalin and his atrocities are not glorified”. But these accounts clearly do not seek to do that. Rather, they highlight the humanity and complexity of the everyday Soviet person – what they may have watched on television or at the cinema, what kinds of posters they would have seen on the streets, what their houses looked like and what they ate.
Belfast-based historian and bookseller Emma, tells me that she enjoys following these accounts because of an interest in the USSR, as well as experience working in a USSR research library that specialised in textbooks and children’s school books. These accounts, to her, build an image of the Soviet Union as a real, textured place. “You get the military propaganda next to TV clips next to a baby picture and an ad for sausages,” she explains. It’s this eclectic and perhaps unexpected variety that draws people in.
When looking at these accounts, it also becomes apparent that Soviet fashion and design was undeniably chic. A fashion spread of a male model in an entirely yellow outfit of overalls, a fur collared jacket and a bobble hat takes fisherman fashion to the extreme; a photo of a young Leningrad couple getting married in the ‘70s looks like a long-awaited Instagram announcement of a wedding between two fashion influencers. Even the mundane has a certain style to it, such as a picture of an Estonian woman at the Pepsi-Cola production plant in Tallinn that looks like a still from a Wes Anderson film.
As well as style and lifestyle imagery, Socialist-Modernist architecture also features heavily, with its harsh lines, concrete-heavy design and towering heights. One of the reasons for Emma’s interest in this era is because of its “powerful aesthetic” that is “all encompassing”, which is no better illustrated than in giant concrete hammer and sickles and sprawling 10-storey housing complexes. Through this architecture, the distinctiveness of Soviet aesthetics and the USSR as a political project are subtly drawn together. The account @socmod on Instagram has 153k followers and primarily focuses on the architecture of communist and former-communist countries across the globe. The popularity of this account in particular speaks to a fascination with both how things looked in this era, as well as its infrastructure and housing (private ownership of houses was abolished in the Soviet Union in 1918 – something which may seem appealing to city dwellers handing over extortionate rents to landlords here in the UK).
Although the fashion, architecture and photos of the everyday create an overarching “Soviet aesthetic” that can be related to the politics of the USSR, it is in the propaganda that Soviet social media accounts post where these politics most obviously come to the forefront. Everything from sports to working in the textile industry to space travel are promoted as part of the communist project, with a distinctly mid-century design.
Charlotte, a long-time follower of Soviet accounts because of her love for Russian literature, picks up on the impact this artwork has on the modern British viewer. The propaganda art that these accounts post – like an anti-USA caricature that ridicules its healthcare system in comparison to the free healthcare offered during this era – are, in her view, “straight to the point rather than symbolic and so can seem a bit bizarre in style.” She points out that she can’t ever imagine something so straightforwardly political and antagonistic being distributed around Britain. Although Tory propaganda does exist (who can forget the Brexit buses or the “retrain in Cyber” ads), it certainly doesn’t carry the same style or deliberate intention that Soviet posters do.
Comprising 15 republics, 286 million inhabitants and lasting 69 years, the Soviet Union can’t exactly be described as a niche period of history. Perhaps, then, social media accounts that focus on its culture are an inevitability, since there is simply so much material.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these accounts would automatically become popular. It’s the distinct aesthetic that comes to light when looking at them cohesively that’s fascinating to many, especially those who had no idea what people’s lives looked like during this era. The giant busts of Lenin and towering housing complexes indicate the political system Soviet Union citizens were living under, but it is the humanisation of these same citizens that truly makes these social media archives a success.
Come for the political intrigue, stay for the penguin coffee pots.