The space race – rockets, satellites, record-breaking cosmonauts – was a way for Soviet artists to adopt avant-garde ideas under the cloak of propaganda.
It stands outside the gates of the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, the giant trade-show-meets-amusement-park intended to show off the might of Soviet industry and science. It was built at a time when the USSR was leading the space race. A time when, to quote the submarine captain in the movie The Hunt for Red October, “the world trembled at the sound of our rockets”. The Monument to the Conquerors of Space is cosmic art on an out-of-this-world scale.
Built of titanium, the 107m (351ft) tall sculpture of a rocket shooting from the ground towers above anything in the exhibition park itself – it’s nearly twice as tall as the Vostok rockets whose missions inspired it, one of which is on display inside the park. The titanium-clad granite sculpture is so large that its base is big enough to house an entire museum, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
In a political system where religion was banned and only the most revolution-friendly pre-Soviet figures were exalted, Soviet artists turned instead to the iconography of Soviet leaders such as Lenin, the symbols of the USSR’s industry and science – and space.
The Soviet Union’s early lead in the space race, spearheaded by captured German scientists and the brilliance of designers such as Sergei Korolev, became a new canvas for Soviet artists, sculptors and product designers. But its roots go far deeper than that, says Alexandra Sankova, the director of the Moscow Design Museum.
“This interest in space started long before the Soviets got into power, it goes back to the days of Tsiolkovsky [a 19th-Century Russian rocket pioneer]. Everyone thought he was crazy, but the Soviets, after the revolution, made him part of the permanent ideology.”
Sankova says the USSR’s cosmic iconography blossomed in the 1920s and 1930s, much as it did elsewhere in the world, fed by science-magazine imaginings of life in a future age. But its popularity as a theme exploded as the space race took shape. The Soviet space programme, for so long a closely guarded secret, became a powerful propaganda tool – but it also had popular support from the artists themselves. “In the 1960s, suddenly everyone is very enthusiastic about the idea of being in space,” says Sankova. “Designers were making images inspired by these space achievements not because it was a ‘mass’ thing to do, but because they were hugely proud and inspired.”
“Space was a very important subject [for the Soviet system] to fight against religion,” Sankova says. “Space and technology were confronting religion.”
One of the most far-reaching outlets for Soviet space art was the magazine Tekhnika Molodezhi (Technology of the Youth), a science magazine which mixed science fiction and real-world engineering (and is still being published today). Its promotion of a Soviet place in space inspired many who would go on to become artists and designers. As Sankova writes in the introduction to the book Soviet Space Graphics, which collects some of the art and design held at the museum: “Throughout the entire period, Soviet citizens lived vicariously through the images they consumed. For the majority, it was the only way to experience the thrill of boundless discovery, and to embrace the potential of science to lift a nation beyond so many years of struggle.”
And it wasn’t just posters or images in a book – the cosmic icons could be found everywhere, says Sankova. “Textile designers were very happy to use it,” she says. “And also industrial designers and the makers of monumental art – sculptures, mosaics and architecture.”
The Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy in Moscow (known as Vystavka dostizheniy narodnogo khozyaystva, or VDNKh in Russian) celebrated some of the technology that had turned the USSR into a space superpower – a Vostok rocket and a mock-up of the Buran shuttle, for instance – in a casual setting. Even as Soviet citizens drank, laughed and rode ferris wheels, there was a reminder of the Soviet Union’s industrial power surrounding them.
“Space was an opportunity to promote communism and the Soviet system,” says Sankova. Artistic expression was strictly regimented in Soviet society, with artwork having to be approved by the Artistic Technical Council. “They would look at the process used, say ‘this needs to be changed’. It could be quite a difficult process to get through.”
The approved space themes, however, had a seismic effect on Soviet art, somewhat similar to what happened to Soviet photography in the 1920s, bringing the new ideas into the mainstream under the cloak of revolutionary propaganda. “It’s a revival of the ideas of the avant-garde,” says Sankova. But in order to bring ordinary society on board, Soviet space art also riffed off much more traditional forms of Russian art – including those which had been staples of the Russian Orthodox religion. “They took the typical icon from Russian art and turned it into something Soviet,” Sankova says. “Instead of Christ at the centre, it would be a Soviet figure. They had to convince the people and they had to use a ‘language’ they already knew. Some of those pieces are very like traditional iconic art.”
The murals, posters and sculptures were one side of it, but Soviet designers also used space objects and motifs in the design of everyday objects. There were desk lamps based on the Monument for Conquerors of Space, traditional tea glass holders bedecked with rockets and satellites. Even everyday chores were an opportunity – one of the most striking objects in the Moscow Design Museum’s collection is a planet-shaped vacuum cleaner that looks like something that might have come from a space-age cartoon series. Another vacuum cleaner resembles a retro rocketship, while a 1950s washing machine looks like a scaled-down booster section from a Soviet rocket.
Part of this was consumer design rubbing against the design of the actual space race equipment. There was little distinction between industrial and consumer production in the USSR. “The factories making spaceships or warplanes were also making toys or stools or teapots,” says Sankova. She says that Soviet space-inspired design developed a little later than it had in the US, whose Space Age Design is usually rooted firmly in the 1950s. This was, perhaps, because the success of the Soviet space programme made it easier to celebrate more esoteric design.
Even in childhood, young Soviet citizens were not immune to the call of the cosmos – the standard Soviet playground had rocket and spaceship climbing frames, Soviet soft power for impressionable minds. “We all played on the rockets,” Sankova says. “All Soviet children wanted to be space explorers, it’s natural – we were all growing up in the playground.”
Whether a new Russian audience, too young to have been influenced by this art the first time round, appreciates it, remains to be seen. “People nowadays don’t appreciate it as cultural heritage. The younger people don’t have the strong feeling about Soviet things, but some of the older people have better memories.”
Stephen Dowling is BBC Future’s associate editor. He is @kosmofoto on Twitter.