The Phaidon Folio

Educate, Encourage, Dream: Soviet Graphics from the Space Age

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Educate, Encourage, Dream: Soviet Graphics from the Space Age
'Soviet Space Graphics' via Phaidon.com

The following paragraphs were excerpted from Phaidon's forthcoming release Soviet Space Graphics, which takes readers on a cosmic adventure through Cold War-era Russia. Forged against a background of geopolitical uncertainty, the singular imagery featured were both popular and vital to the promotion of state ideology. Consisting of more than 250 illustrations - depicting daring discoveries, scientific innovations, futuristic visions, and extraterrestrial contact, this book is a unique lens into a strange and precarious cultural moment. This introduction is presented by Alexandra Sankova, in collaboration with the Moscow Design Museum. 

Soviet Space Graphics available for pre-order for $39.95 via Phaidon.com 

Will man ever be capable of departing Earth and entering into the vast expanse of space? What would this unknown environment be like? What dangers and challenges await those who are the first to venture into the universe’s uncharted territories? Will spaceships be able to return to Earth once they have left? Long before 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space, these and other questions occupied people’s thoughts as they peered resolutely into the star-studded sky. For centuries, humankind has been fascinated with what lies beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. But while precious few have experienced space travel first-hand, the race to uncover the secrets of the universe has been a truly global investment.

In the Soviet Union, in particular during the Cold War (1947–91), this effort manifested itself most prominently in a wealth of popular-science magazines used by the state to catalyze public engagement. Deliberately aimed at all sectors of society, from children to adults, amateurs to professionals, the magazines contained all manner of scientific and cultural content: articles, statements and commentaries on recent national achievements, as well as literary and art reviews, and the latest science-fiction stories. Underlying the success and accessibility of such magazines was the inclusion of highly skilled, artistic and technical illustrations combined with strong graphic and typographic identities.

Radio, issue 6, 1956, illustration by N. Grishin, for the article 'Television of the future' which discusses the potential for communications satellites to transform television. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 23) c/o Phaidon

Far from being mere accessories to the text, the visual elements of the magazines, which often encapsulated feelings of optimism, intrigue and discovery, made readers feel engaged in the effort and included in the action. Such devices were integral to the promotion of state ideology and had an immeasurable influence on generations of Soviet citizens, fuelling a recruitment drive that effectively sustained the space race. Across an extraordinary collection of more than 250 covers and interior illustrations – depicting daring discoveries, scientific innovations, futuristic visions and extraterrestrial encounters – this book offers a fascinating view into the creative minds at work behind the Iron Curtain. Through studying the evolution of the magazines’ distinct aesthetic qualities, it is also possible to trace larger shifts in the Soviet sociopolitical landscape.

 The advancement of Soviet space travel and exploration is inextricably linked to the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), a visionary rocket scientist and mathematician who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of astronautics. During his lifetime he published hundreds of scientific writings – both fiction and non-fiction – but he is perhaps best known for his research into the use of multi-stage rockets for spaceflight. As early as 1903, Tsiolkovsky calculated a velocity required to take a spacecraft into orbit around the Earth using liquid oxygen and hydrogen as fuel. Due to his rather reclusive lifestyle working as a teacher on the outskirts of Kaluga, in western Russia, many of his early works were written in relative obscurity and went virtually unnoticed when they were first published, among them his article for a St Petersburg scientific journal, ‘The Investigation of Cosmic Space by Reactive Devices’ (1903), which only achieved recognition following its republication nearly ten years later.

Knowledge is Power, issue 10, 1960, illustration by V. Viktorov depicting space dogs Belka and Strelka. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 30). c/o Phaidon

However, the October Revolution of 1917 signified a major turning point in the dissemination of Tsiolkovsky’s ideas; for a new government looking to inspire a national awakening of pride and superiority, the scientist’s humble background and pro-Soviet ideology provided the perfect narrative. At the outset of the Russian Revolution (1917– 23), the authorities endeavoured to make the achievements of science, industry and culture accessible to the general population. The country’s radical transformation was ideally suited to dreaming big, masterplanning the future and presenting the most incredible and aspirational visions to one’s colleagues and wider society. Printed matter became the most important platform for sharing ideas, the spread of news, protest and propaganda, as well as being a key resource for educating the masses. Thus, pre-revolutionary popular-science and literary journals that had previously ceased publication, such as Vestnik Znaniya (Herald of Knowledge) and Nauka i Zhizn (Science and Life), were brought back into print, alongside entirely new periodicals, with the distinct purpose of popularizing what might once have been considered specialist knowledge.

Technology for the Youth, issue 8, 1958, 'Machines—Astronauts', illustration by N. Kolchitsky showing the individual components of Sputnik 3 as different characters. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (pages 34-35). c/o Phaidon

A significant number of these publications focused their attention on the exploration of Earth, its subterranean and oceanic depths, as well as the endless mysteries of outer space – each of these frontiers representing the promise of a bright, new Communist future. One example is the magazine Znanie – Sila (Knowledge is Power), founded in 1926, which showcased the research, advancements and successes of various branches of science, engineering and the humanities: the possibility of using hot-air balloons for long-distance travel; new technologies that could enable more in-depth investigations of the Antarctic; and the construction of Moscow’s Ostankino Television Tower, for example. It also shared practical information for daily life: step-by-step guides for constructing the latest technical devices, such as a radio receiver, or sewing patterns for the home seamstress. Such advice was necessary in a country where the most obvious – and often only – way to obtain something you needed was to make it yourself. During the same period, the burgeoning science-fiction literary scene that had gradually infiltrated Russia from the West, spurred on by scientific and technological advances, industrialization, educational reform and other fundamental societal changes that followed the revolution, also found its perfect outlet.

In 1933, the magazine Tekhnika – Molodezhi (Technology for the Youth) was founded, and to this day, it remains one of Russia’s leading popular-science monthlies. It began as a purely technical publication but soon embraced the best of Soviet and international science-fiction writers; it was through T–M that the works of the legendary Strugatsky brothers, Arkady (1925–91) and Boris (1933–2012), as well as translations of American authors Isaac Asimov (1920–92) and Edmond Hamilton (1904–77), Polish author Stanisław Lem (1921–2006) and British author Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008), made their first appearances before the Soviet public. At its peak, the magazine reached an estimated circulation of 150,000 copies. Though space travel was still in its infancy, it quickly became a prevalent theme of both fiction and nonfiction, and grew to symbolize the USSR’s hopes and ambitions in its race to achieve global technological supremacy. From the first years of its establishment, the young Soviet state recognized the Soviet-Space-Graphics-EN-6053-Interior-19-11-11.indd 8 25/11/2019 13:51 INTRODUCTION 9 opportunities that astronomy and spaceflight presented. Vladimir Lenin was an early supporter of Tsiolkovsky’s work and, in 1921, his government founded a military facility dedicated to rocket research, which later expanded to become the Gas Dynamics Laboratory. Alongside this development, another key figure was emerging in the field, aeronautical engineer Sergei Korolev (1907–66).

Technology for the Youth, issue 4, 1961, illustration by G. Pokrovsky for the article "Steps to the Stars', depicting a spacecraft passing over Mars. A system of intricate inflatable structures is attached to the tail of the craft, comprising a mirror for photography, a telescope, a radio relay antenna and a solar power plant. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 54). c/o Phaidon

Together with Friedrich Tsander (1887–1933), a close collaborator of Tsiolkovsky, Korolev fronted the Moscow branch of the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD), the Soviet Union’s first professional rocketry programme. These two organizations merged in 1933 to become the military-controlled Rocket Propulsion Research Institute (RNII). The same year, Korolev successfully launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket in the USSR. In 1938, as part of Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge, Korolev was arrested and sent to the Kolyma prison camp where he served five months before being transferred to a jail in Moscow. Remarkably, the jail contained a specialist design bureau staffed entirely by imprisoned engineers. Korolev spent the next several years working on aircraft and weapons for the war effort, but in recognition of his invaluable skill set, was officially released in 1945 and sent to Germany to investigate the country’s V-2 missile programme. What followed set Korolev firmly on course to become the USSR’s most vital contributor to the space race. Though he spent his entire working life in the shadow of the Soviet government, his achievements are virtually incomparable and, even today, form the basis for all modern-day space missions. As Robin McKie writes in a 2011 Guardian article:

[Korolev] developed the first intercontinental missile and then launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. He also put into space the first dog, the first two-man crew, the first woman, the first three-man crew; directed the first walk in space; created the first Soviet spy satellite and communication satellite; built mighty launch vehicles and flew spacecraft towards the Moon, Venus and Mars – and all on a shoestring budget.

The end of World War II witnessed the emergence of a new conflict between the world’s two superpowers – the democratic, capitalist United States, and the centralized, Communist Soviet Union. With the Cold War gaining momentum, space became another dramatic frontier in this competition, as each side sought to prove its technological, military and political-economic might. The successful launching of Sputnik 1, catapulted into orbit off the back of a Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile on 4 October 1957, took the world by surprise and truly marked the beginning of the space age. The following month, the Russian space dog Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth. The US swiftly followed suit in January 1958 with the launch of the Explorer 1 satellite, and the same year founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). With pressure rising, the Soviets launched the Luna 2 space probe in September 1959, which crash-landed on the Moon and represented another triumph for the Russians. As the competition heated up, so did the response in the media.

Technology for the Youth, issue 12, illustrator unknown. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 103). c/o Phaidon

In the USSR, popularscience magazines were a vital tool in the motivation and engagement of the general public, documenting in great detail and vivid colour both the realities and fantasies of the state’s advancements on the West. The imagery that began in the 1920s as a romanticized and aspirational imagining of the great Socialist future had by mid-century adopted a more realistic approach based on the latest scientific research, and with the first major successes of the Soviet space programme, the iconography of space travel began to permeate all areas of visual culture. The illustrators of Science and Life and Knowledge is Power, among others, became increasingly adept at depicting the numerous satellites, probes and spacecraft being sent into the abyss, as well as more far-fetched scenarios that catered to the world of science fiction. Many of the magazines’ artists also had a more personal understanding of the subject matter. Georgy Pokrovsky (1901–79), for example, one of Technology for the Youth’s first illustrators, had a PhD in engineering science and was a professor of the Air Force Engineering Academy. He considered his artistic work a direct extension of his scientific research as it allowed him to overcome the potential limitations of technical drawings, and gave him the freedom to experiment.

In April 1961, the space race entered its next crucial stage, as Yuri Gagarin (1934–68) Soviet-Space-Graphics-EN-6053-Interior-19-11-08.indd 9 08/11/2019 17:11 10 became the first human to orbit Earth. His spacecraft, Vostok 1, completed one full circuit of the planet before he ejected from the craft and parachuted to safety. This event catapulted Gagarin to worldwide fame; his achievement symbolized the hopes and dreams of a nation while acting as proof of the Soviets’ superiority over the West. His picture spread throughout the globe and, among the pages of newspapers, magazines and books, inspired myriad depictions of humans in space. Gagarin, along with the succession of Soviet cosmonauts that followed him, became a national hero and celebrity, spurred on by the support of Soviet society, adults and children alike. There were five further oneperson Vostok missions, culminating with the first woman in space: in 1963, Russian-born Valentina Tereshkova (1937–) spent almost three days orbiting Earth a total of forty-eight times aboard Vostok 6. The next Soviet victory came in March 1965 with the Voskhod 2 mission, in which Alexei Leonov (1934–2019) became the first person to exit a spacecraft and spend twelve minutes in space conducting a spacewalk.

Technology for the Youth, issue 2, 1959, illustration by B. Dashkov for the article 'What Would a Space Station on the Moon Look Like?'. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 173). c/o Phaidon

Though Leonov and co-pilot Pavel Belyayev’s (1925–70) experience was perilous, with the two encountering multiple near-death scenarios, they returned home triumphant. Leonov is also credited with creating the first piece of artwork in space, a picture of an unassuming but remarkable sunrise over Earth. He would go on to make a number of other drawings inspired by his experiences as a cosmonaut, many of which were published. In the minds of Soviet citizens, Leonov’s vibrant, spectacular and authentic works formed an impression of the cosmos that was welcoming and full of possibility. Throughout the 1960s, the battle between the Soviet Union and the US was at its peak. Funding for NASA was increased by 500 per cent, the Soviet space programme commenced work on its Soyuz spacecraft and launch vehicle – a development that would impact all future space launches – and both nations committed to landing a man on the Moon before the decade was out. However, after a number of significant setbacks, including the tragic death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov (1927–67) due to a parachute failure, the Soviets fell behind. In July 1969, aboard Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong (1930–2012), Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (1930–) and Michael Collins (1930–) completed the first successful Moon landing, effectively winning the space race. Imagery of the Moon flooded the media and filled the pages of the USSR’s popular-science magazines. Cosmonauts were pictured docking at lunar space stations, gazing upon its surface through portholes or hurtling past its glowing expanse.

During this unprecedented period of productivity the scale of society’s dreams had transformed dramatically. If, in the 1950s, artists were visualizing what technology would allow them to master the depths of the universe, only a decade later they were creating entire cosmic cities, orbital power stations, residences and greenhouses, and conjuring otherworldly scenes of interplanetary travel. The freedom provided by Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw’ era (1953–64) influenced not only the subject of the magazine’s illustrations but also their palette, which increased in brightness and vibrancy, undoubtedly influenced by a new wave of avant-garde artists.

Young Technician, issue 8, 1979, illustration by R. Avotin in celebration of the graduating class from a young bionics enthusiasts club. Picture credit: The Moscow Design Museum (page 201). c/o Phaidon. 

Beyond the magazines, space-age mania was also making its mark on Soviet architecture. Housing complexes and public institutes resembling spaceships, satellites and flying saucers sprang up. Across children’s playgrounds, monumental rocketshaped climbing frames and fantastical planetary structures appeared, and the walls of nurseries and schools were adorned with stars and galaxies. Space-themed murals and portraits of famous cosmonauts decorated the streets and subways, along with slogans on walls, posters and billboards exclaiming, ‘Communists, pave the way to the stars!’ In fact, all areas of Soviet culture, from poetry and literature to music and film, were influenced by the inescapable allure of space. Alexei Tolstoy’s novel Aelita (or, The Decline of Mars), published in instalments between 1922 and 1923, is considered by some to represent the best in Soviet science fiction. In it, an engineer and a retired Red Army soldier set out on a mission to Mars with the aim of sparking a Communist uprising. There they encounter a Martian civilization, descendants of Atlantis, and while the engineer falls in love with a native, Aelita, the soldier joins the revolt. The book, which draws close parallels with pre-revolutionary Russia, was later made into a silent film, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924). Music was also a powerful device for stirring up national support.

Upon re-entry to Earth, Gagarin reportedly whistled the patriotic song ‘Rodina Slyshit, Rodina Znayet’ (‘The Motherland Hears, the Motherland Knows [where her son flies in the sky]’) from 1951, which many Russians can still recite today. Even in the declining years of the space race, the period’s influence on culture was still apparent, though the idealism associated with it was fading. Andrei Tarkovsky’s darkly psychological sci-fi dramas Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) became cult classics, achieving worldwide fame and recognition. 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. To enter into the world of space travel as a scientist, inventor or cosmonaut was considered among the highest professional achievements – and this aspiration was perpetuated through the magazines that everyone read.

The pages that follow offer an immersive visual journey through these magazines, which have been grouped into four thematic chapters: the first, ‘Space Exploration’, includes images that define the USSR’s quest to conquer the cosmos: satellites, rockets and spacecraft of the many Soviet space programmes; unsuspecting space dogs Belka and Strelka, the first Earthborn creatures to go into orbit and return alive; along with numerous other depictions of interstellar travel. The second chapter, ‘Cosmic Pioneers’, reveals the people behind the effort, those at the forefront of technological developments: trailblazers, celebrities and heroes in the eyes of a nation, as well as everyday civilians who supported from the sidelines. Chapter three, ‘Future Visions’, shows us how the Soviets envisioned and realized the impacts of their advancements back on Earth, whether through basic improvements in transportation or more fantastical creations: towering vertical cities connected through vast networks of aerial and aquatic infrastructure and serviced through automated technologies.

The final chapter, ‘Alternative Worlds’, focuses on the more far-fetched side of exploration in the spaceage, where adventures into the unknown – be they into deep space or the deep sea – result in the discovery of new life forms, ways of life and civilizations that are ripe for a cultural revolution. Featuring images from the surreal to the sublime, that are vivid with colour and imbued with Communist sentiment, the magazines showcase the boldest of ideas from the truest of talent. In reviewing them today, we are transported back to a time of great optimism and boundless discovery, while still being humbled by the vast amount of, as yet, uncharted territory – both on Earth and beyond.

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