Toys for Nostalgia
The 2007 holiday season has come and gone and so have two holiday exhibits, which registered a particular nostalgic impact on local Muscovites and expats. And there may be more of these kinds of exhibits as Russians reflect with increasing psychological comfort on their Soviet past. The exhibits were displays of holiday Soviet-era decorations (at the Mega Malls) and a huge display of mostly Soviet-era toys, holiday decorations and playtime activities, such as board games and toy trucks, along with spaceships and toy military paraphernalia, which was at the Museum of Decorative Arts.
My afternoon at the Museum exhibit was an incredible look at a child’s world that I didn’t know existed. Not that I couldn’t imagine it existing, since all cultures create playthings for their children. I just didn’t equate Soviet life with the sheer number and variety of objects available to the proletariat child, if their parents or schools were prosperous enough to invest in exclusively Soviet made items of holiday cheer (Yoelke party decorations, costumes and masks), or toys. I was overcoming my own prejudice since I stupidly thought that Soviet times promoted work and little play. But I watched the many older visitors at the exhibit smile and laugh as they remembered their Soviet childhood. Many of these toys were of educational value; dolls dressed in Young Pioneer red scarfs and hiking gear and Soviet space dolls and robots. Unless the collector of this vast group of toys was not successful in locating military toys, there was a surprising lack of saber-rattling toys on display; some tanks and airplanes, mostly from the 1930’s and the Great Patriotic War era, and only a small display of toy side arms. While I am used to seeing toy Wild West cowboy guns in the U.S., this exhibit had miniature Kalashnikovs and toy hand guns that would impress a KGB agent!
But dolls and stuffed animals dominated the exhibit. Hundreds of teddy bears and other creatures from Russian and Soviet stories and fables were crowded together in display cases. Dolls were also displayed by the hundreds. Another interesting contrast with earlier U.S. race-phobic culture and earlier Soviet peace and Third World outreach - the many African and Asian dolls. That type of toy racial equality didn’t crop up in the U.S. until the ‘60s and ‘70’s. One puzzling omission; where were the dollhouses? I wonder if there were no dollhouses because no proletariat children lived in houses? But playing with a dollhouse is not about where you live in real life, but pretending that you have control over a miniature space where you call the shots for the miniature doll family. Perhaps it was not practical to have miniature communal apartments to play with, or later in Soviet life, doll apartment houses. Either way, it doesn’t matter. This exhibit showed the diversity, the color (especially when plastics were introduced for toys), and the pure joy of toys available to decades of Soviet children.