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Picturing the Cosmic: Soviet Visual Culture in the Cold War and its Post-Soviet Afterlife

At the dawn of the space age political leaders and scientists in both the United States and the Soviet Union suspected, at least in theory, that the other side had the technological expertise to launch the first artificial satellite. As is well known, in October 1957 the Soviet Union won the first round of the space race. Sputnik 1 became a symbol of the success of the socialist system, demonstrating to the world that the USSR could compete with its rival as a modern industrial superpower. Among the Soviet people, sputnik’s triumph and the series of space “firsts” that quickly followed it sparked a heroic sense of invention and immense faith in technology. The makers of Soviet propaganda were quick to exploit popular enthusiasm for the cosmos, transforming the space program and its celebrated heroes into symbols of the Communist Party’s much larger political project: the construction of communism.  The fact that the images endured while the Soviet system did not is a testament to the powerful impact Soviet visual culture had on the popular imagination.

The world witnessed America’s victory in the space race in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. But disillusionment in the Soviet Union was obvious years before, the bright utopian future fading into the oblivion of the country’s diminished economic prospects. The optimism that had been at the heart of the USSR’s “scientific-technological revolution” described a utopian vision of a future Earth that stood in poignant contrast to the realities of the last Soviet decades. Yet the memory of that optimism, particularly as captured in enduring images of space heroes, fueled nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s moment of cosmic triumph even before the USSR’s collapse brought the Cold War to a close.

The papers in this panel offer new and critical approaches to understanding these phenomena, examining how visual materials – e.g. photographs, drawings, posters and films – expressed the knowledge and power structures that shaped Soviet reality in the Cold War period. Through analysis of media images, the panel aims to demonstrate that visual material and aesthetics played a crucial role in expressing official ideologies of techno-utopianism as embedded in Soviet policies of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. But it also seeks to show how images of techno-utopianism expressed through visual propaganda continued to have a vibrant afterlife in the post-Soviet period as they were co-opted, subverted, and otherwise invested with new meanings in a variety of creative works.

Thursday 29 October 16.15-18.15 Session 3