Comrades of the Traveling Pants

V. Kunnap: The Plumbing in our house (1979) Caption from poet S. Smirnovskii. From “The Fighting Pencil Group” (1979).










Imagine a world where the bare necessities like water, shampoo, or even jeans were beyond your grasp. What lengths would you go to obtain these simple consumer goods that we have come to take for granted? In the image above, Russian poet Smirnovskii sums it up quite bluntly:

The plumbing in our house is in a state we cannot bear

And the Department of Waterworks almost a year

Just answers our letters in bold and vigorous papers…

While we carry the water on our backs and shoulders

By the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s “second” economy, which existed in the shadows of state-run communism was a part of virtually every citizens life. The black market was used to obtain everything from shaving cream to jeans, and such deals turned nearly everyone into a criminal in the eyes of the regime, who were often the worst perpetrators of these acts. Western goods were caused the greatest buzz, and jeans in fact became indicative of one’s class. How did it get to this point in the wake of Soviet reforms? Ironically, the issue was that people had more leisure time and money that ever before, but at the cost of their devotion to the Party and its ideology.

B. Semenov: Invisible Hats (1974) Source: “Fighting Pencil” Group: Red Tape from Red Square (1998) [In the hat store there is a sign that says NO HATS]







The trafficking of jeans was a symbol of freedom and class status during the 70s and 80s. In certain Moscow schools, there was even a trend where schoolchildren were ranked by jeans: with those wearing American jeans at the top and those with Soviet-made jeans snugly at the bottom. Obviously this seems like a massive failure of the Soviet economic system to compete with capitalism, but there was more to it than that. Brezhnev’s zeal in dismantling Khrushchev’s reforms did little to address the endemic issues in the economy. During his reign, agricultural and industrial growth continued to decline, and only massive government subsidies halted collapse. This resulted in a massive amount of inflation, which combined with the low worker productivity and a focus in raw output to create a deficit in consumer goods (Freeze, pg. 442-43). While the people continued to receive a moderate amount of government care and increasing free time, the black market grew to accommodate their growing needs. In this specific case, jeans became a highly sought and dangerous venture for grass-root capitalists.

Punish Those Who Do Not Work! Source: Posters from the Former Soviet Union. 2000.

The driving argument for why one would risk prison time and hefty fines for such items was answered in an interview by the Komsomolskaya pravda and a Russian youth who stated “Just try getting something you want in the stores.” While the Russian media and government saw the “secondhand” economy as a disease among the youth, some of the worst perpetrators were at the highest levels of government, including, allegedly, Brezhnev’s own family. Periodic government repression of black markets merely created more methods of conducting them, and bureaucratic corruption undermined the government’s “moral authority” wholesale. The result was that the private economy flourished at the cost of Soviet rule of law and its economy. While the older, conservative citizens couldn’t understand the “strange young fellows in jeans” and their new free-market moralities, they were but perpetuating the Soviet hypocrisy as they themselves dipped their hands into the cookie pot. The failings of Communism were becoming increasingly evident as the people lost faith in the system from the 70s onward, and even after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, the black market would still remain.



Freeze, Gregory, L.  Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford University Press [New York]. 2009.

In the CPSU Central Committee: On Improving Work to Safeguard Law and Order and Intensifying the Struggle against Law Violations. September 11, 1979 Original Source: Pravda, 11 September 1979, p. 1, 3; Izvestiia, 11 September 1979, p. 1.

Leonid Zhukovitsky. “We Continue the Discussion on How to Write for Young People: THESE STRANGE YOUNG FELLOWS IN JEANS”. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The ,  No.36,  Vol.29, October  05, 1977, page(s):11-12

Lev Kuklin, A Writer’s Notes: Knights of the “Jeans Culture”. October 1979 Original Source: Zvezda, No. 10 (October 1979), 188-195

Yu. Shchekochikhin. “AT THE SECONDHAND MARKET”. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The ,  No.31,  Vol.25, August  29, 1973, page(s):21-21. 



Underground Economy Images



Showdown at Damanskii!

Map of the disputed areas. Source:

On March 1969, two red behemoths stood on the brink of war. On the Soviet side, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were amassed along the southern border and over a million Chinese faced them. The Communist states of China and Russia, allegedly allies against the global “bourgeoisie” order, were now massed along the border of Northern Xinjiang province (China) and Soviet Tajikistan. Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the CCP, wanted territories, including the Zhenbao (Damanskii) string of islands, which had been ceded to Tsarist Russia during the time of the Qing Dynasty. While supposedly standing in solidarity against capitalism, there had been ongoing struggles since the death of Stalin with Mao’s policies, most importantly on China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. More than just a fight over land, this was a showdown between the personalities of Brezhnev and Mao, and the outcome would ultimately lead to a shift in the Cold War.

See the source image
Chinese Border Guards wave off Soviet Troops along Zhenbao Island (1969). Source:

While relations between the two power had been souring since the late 1950s, it all but collapsed when the Chinese swarmed a Soviet-controlled position on China’s border. Prefaced by Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, which saw the complete radicalization of China’s youth and military, and a series of anti-Soviet remarks from the great leader himself, the situation was tense to say the least. The result was a series of amphibious invasions, artillery bombardments, and mechanized assaults that left nearly 100 dead and many more wounded on both sides. The Chinese took over Damanskii island which started a chain of attacks and counterattacks on both sides. Cruelties were inflicted to soldiers by both belligerents, and the threat of nuclear arms had been raised. On the Soviet side, the fear of a massive Chinese invasion with millions of zealous Maoists rushing into Russia raised a near panic. Diplomatic measures were restored by October of that year and control of the islands would eventually be ceded to China by 1991. While full-out war did not occur, the conflict itself revealed a chink in the unity of international Communism.

Stalin, Mao, and Khrushchev (1949). Bolshoi Theatre, Dec 21. 1949.

Communism in China has been a subject of struggle and contention since it was introduced by the Soviets in the 1920s. Through great hardships and impossible odds, Mao pushed back both the Japanese invaders and Nationalist Kuomintang forces from his country and establish his party in 1949. What followed was a personality cult similar to Stalin’s, with all the trappings of a complete dictatorship. Under Stalin, the Soviets contributed greatly to China’s initial industrial expansion through a mutual-aid alliance treaty; however, this sentiment dissolved when the Soviet dictator died. With Khrushchev and later Brezhnev, Mao found little respect or commonality and relations went froze fast (Freeze, pg. 428). De-Stalinization and The Thaw may have been a great sign to Western nations, but to Mao, it was the ultimate betrayal of Communism and Marxist-Leninism. The denial to help the Chinese build nuclear weapons was used as evidence of racism by Mao, and from all these events, we can see how world war nearly ignited, again.


“Chinese Border Guards (1968)”. Chinese Propaganda poster posted on Sino-Soviet Border. Source: Landsberger, Stefen, R.: Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages. 1998.

The fracture of Communist unity was a turning point in the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s eastern bulwark was fractured, with the US on all sides, and a hostile Mao, and later Deng Xiaoping, to its south, they seemed to stand alone. This was compounded by talks between Nixon and Mao in 1972, a nightmarish situation for the Soviet regime. Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Soviet gains diminished as economic and party growth continued to decline (Freeze, pg. 440). The great victories in the 60’s faded into a tumultuous period of instability and conflict from the 70’s on to the Soviet’s collapse (Freeze, pg. 445). The Communist experiment was increasingly at risk as the Comintern failed to birth sustainable regimes. Without the undeniable leadership of individuals like Stalin, it seemed that even the Russian Soviet could not get itself together. With the fight at Damanskii and the loss of its Chinese allies, we can see how the misfortunes of the Soviet Union would continue to grow in the years to come.



Freeze, Gregory, L.  Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford University Press [New York]. 2009.

Mao Zedong, “OUTLINE FOR A SPEECH ON THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION”. Mao Zedong’s Manuscripts since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China), vol. 8 (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1993), 599-603. Translated by David Wolff. 1959.

“Soviet Report to East German Leadership on Sino-Soviet Border Clashes ,” March 02, 1969, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAMPO-BArch J IV 2/202/359. Translated by Christian F. Ostermann.


Images (By order of appearance):

The Chinese Border Images

From Stalin with Love: The Victor’s Plight

Vladimir Fedorovich Chekalov. “A Countrymens.” 1962. oil on canvas, 44 x 67

In its heyday, the Soviets rarely had issues with drumming up “volunteers” for their political and social needs. By 1945, the Red Army was 11 million strong and had proved itself to be the true victors in the European front. Faced with a starving, war torn nation, it was obvious that tanks and bullets were not the solution to reconstructing ravaged cities and the countryside. The Russian population had been devastated by purges before the war, and ultimately the prolific fighting that had  dramatically reduced the male population. These soldiers, who had fought blood and steel against a seemingly unstoppable foe, now would now play an instrumental part in Stalin’s plan to rebuild the Soviet Union. In a land where nearly all institutions of government and society had been blown away, every measure was taken to revive the Soviet Union and capitalize on its new plunders.

A Russian veteran kissing his daughter on his moment of return (1945). Photo by Georgii Petrusov,

The Soviets predicted early on that it can be pretty hard to rehabilitate a nation without any money, so economic reconstruction became the top priority for the regime. To make way for this new initiative, the bloated Red Army was slashed across the board, going from a peak of 11 million troops to 3 million by late-1945. This meant that 8 million veterans were phased out over a short period of time. Agricultural centers and ,ultimately, the people were squeezed to the breaking point as quotas and extortion drove rural Russia to famine, but with the added benefit of State acquisition of resources once more. In addition, all troops were awarded portions of their wartime salaries based on how many years they served, as was shown in the Demobilization Order given out by the Supreme Soviet after the war.  By this same order, many veteran’s were assigned jobs where their employer was charged with they had adequate care, a task that would have been daunting in a country with virtually no intact infrastructure. These efforts were taken to ensure the proper support of veterans; however, things were not all peaches and cream in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

“We Won Happiness for our Children! (1946)” Source: Russian Antiquity. 2000.

Taking a step from his rule in the 30s, Stalin conducted a “purge of the victors” that saw a general attack on the military’s power after the war (Freeze, pg. 394). This included the arrest and demotion of many officers and soldiers and the reorganization of High Command and the Ministry of Defense. The Red Army had become too strong and too well-celebrated by the people, and Stalin’s crackdown served to prevent a military takeover and so-called “Bonapartism” from taking place (Freeze, pg. 394). The remaining remnant of the Red Army was used to suppress newly acquired territories, the Western “allies”, and independence movements in the Soviet’s own territory. The hopes of liberalization and a loosening of Party’s control were to be unfounded in Stalin’s final years, as a strong grip was needed to ensure the proper recovery and ideological redirection of the people. The issues of loyalty to the Soviet Union were compounded by the many psychologically distraught veterans whose duty to each other and their families beat out the blind patriotism. These new challenges and realities were documented by veterans, filmmakers, and  artists alike, with some providing hope for the wounded of rehabilitation and others asking how their suffering comrades could ever recover. The latter was received with a typical Soviet response.

The above video presented an optimistic view of life as a wounded veteran. In a classic tail of determination and strength, the protagonist, Aleksandr Stolper, a former member of General Konev’s staff, recovers from the loss of his leg and rejoins his people as a productive and well-adjusted member of society. Films like these were highly praised by both Stalin and the Communist Party, but it revealed a major disjunction from the reality of the post-war. The Great Patriotic War was the most devestating conflict in human history, and many veterans were left flat-footed in the massive push for reconstruction. The promises of socialism and equality were often traded for brutal repression and extortionate measures that took their toll on the war’s survivors. It can be no surprise that while Stalin did lead the Soviet Union through this crisis that his policies would eventually be overturned by his more moderate successor, Nikita Khrushchev. As we move towards “The Thaw” and de-Stalinization, we should focus on veteran’s and the Red Army’s role in the new Soviet paradigm, and how the Party treated those who saved their country from the Nazi onslaught.



Freeze, G. L Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford University Press [New York]. 2009.

Supreme Soviet. Translated by von Geldern, J. “On the Demobilization of Senior Troops in the Standing Army. June 23, 1945”  Michigan State University. Received from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 2015.

Images (In order of presentation):

Coming Home

Veterans Return Images


Aleksandr Stolper: Story of a Real Man (1948)


An Unorthodox Approach

Pavel Korin: “Metropolitan Sergii”(1937) Trtiakov Gallery, Moscow

To the average Russian, it must have seemed that in the summer of 1941 there was no salvation from tide of war. Within the first month of Germany’s “Operation Barbarossa”, Russian defenses had been obliterated and 84% of the Soviet’s pre-war active forces had been captured or killed by the end of the year (Freeze, pg 376). German military might was undisputed at this point , and it seemed that their aggressive aspirations would be realized at the cost of millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians. In the wake of bloody purges and social repression by Stalin and his regime, the Communists were ill-prepared to defend against such a vicious enemy and it took every trick in the book to push back the  invaders. Borrowing a strategy from WWI, Stalin revived the embattled Russian Orthodox Church with the purpose of uniting the Russian people and boosting their shattered morale. Against the backdrop of death and destruction in the world’s most costly war, it would  loosen the Soviet’s grip on Russian social life and provide a step forward, for a time, back to the  pre-Revolutionary period in what would be a religious resurrection of a once powerful institution.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow

The birth of the Communist Regime in Russia portended the death of all religious organizations within the state. By 1918, the separation of church and state led to the systematic suppression and decay of church power on the belief that the Party was the only acceptable “gospel” to be preached or followed. Before its demise, Orthodoxy was a dominating aspect of Russian life with many magnificent churches dedicated to the faith. This tradition would be reborn in the context of total war, where the fate of the Soviet Union was at stake. The decision was made on September 1943, when Stalin allowed the acting Patriarchate Metropolitan Sergei and other leadership to elect a new Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and form a Holy Synod under the new Patriarchate (Patriarkhii, 1943). This new dimension in the Russian social conscious motivated the people to fight for their state and for the hope of change (Freeze, pg. 391).

Russian Orthodoxy during the War

With religious fervor and a revitalized industrial base, the Soviets soon turned the tide after the decisive victory at Stalingrad and marched onward to Berlin. The Nazis were in full retreat and the Soviet Union stood stronger than ever as one of the eventual victors of the war. The hope of a bright and cheery future was not totally realized as many Russians were repatriated and many faced severe punishment for crimes ranging from surviving the war to being corrupted by Western influences (Freeze, pg. 396). Orthodoxy remained a beacon for many, but other religions continued to be barred from the nation due to their allegedly divisive behavior. The Russian church itself was not without restrictions, and any group or party that strayed from Stalin’s goals were shut down with haste. Even in the post-war atmosphere, the Church served the State’s designs, but it offered some refuge to the war-stricken masses. While members of the church were occasionally harassed by ]Soviet secret police, the terrors of the 1920s and 30s, were, albeit slowly and with many bumps, coming to an end.

An assembly of Soviet tanks and troops being inspected and addressed

The rebirth of the Church was a risky move for Stalin in the aftermath of his purges and social restrictions, but it paid off. The Soviet Union was in dire need of a morale boost following the famines, disease, and defeats of the Second World War. Russia was able to regain its hypothetical position as the successors to the Byzantine empire and the Orthodox faith, which has hibernated since the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. This was a harbinger to eventual de-Stalinization and a return to some of the traditional aspects of Russian culture. While the church would again come under attack during Khrushchev’s regime, Orthodoxy would continue to grow into the modern era and retake its position in Russian politics and affairs. We shall see how this survives in the epoch of Putin and how willingly the Russian president chooses to share power in his fourth term of office.



Freeze, G. L. Russia: A History. Third Edition. Oxford University Press [Oxford]. 2009. 

Patriarkhii Z. M. “Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii, No. 1 (12 September 1943)”. pp. 5, 6, 11, 16. No. 1 (12 September 1943), pp. 5, 6, 11, 16.

Images (In Order of Appearance):

Orthodox Patriarch Appointed Images

Russian Orthodox Church in the Second world war



Food Fight!

Crowd of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Woman’s Vigilance League, at the city hall to protest the soaring cost of food. (Source: Independent, 12 March 1917; International Socialist Review, April 1917) Created / Published

Universal suffering was the hallmark of trench warfare during World War I. As millions died from the innovations in warfare and technology, a more subtle affliction plagued the overwhelmingly peasant population of Russia: food shortage. While the roaring machine guns needed only to be fed yet more bullets to the carnage it produced, the millions of Russian soldiers and their civilian counterparts needed bread, which was in serious scarcity. A combination of wartime demands, monopolization of the food supply, and mismanagement by the wartime government exasperated the already high tensions of post-October Revolutionary Russia. The lack of faith in the tsarists government and a string of defeats culminated in the flash point which unseated the centuries old Romanov dynasty and catapulted Russia into a Bolshevik controlled state with the popular slogan “Peace, bread, land” at its head.  It was quite evident by the war’s conclusion that bread, not social reforms or patriotic fervor, was the key to the people’s hearts.

Albert Rhys Williams: A Cry For Bread 1918. An appeal for bread to cities by peasants in Ukraine and the Volga. Library of Congress

Russia’s focus on the peasantry in the early 20th century had proved to be altogether fruitless by the time peasants had stormed the imperial palace. The Third Duma’s efforts at agrarian reform, while optimistic, were too little too late for the riled masses (Freeze, pg. 262-64). When conflict erupted,  neither the government nor the people were truly ready or unified for the demands of modern warfare in Europe, something already proven by the Russian’s bitter defeat to the Japanese ten years prior. To compete against industrialized nations, Russia needed to turn to “total war” which required a call to arms and war production for the entire nation; however, Nicholas’s government failed to fulfill its promise to the people. Only a few years into the war had passed before the government turned to desperate measures to keep the war economy from collapsing (Freeze, pg. 272). Simultaneous inflation, food shortages, and military desertion fueled the growing disaffection with government and hurt the overall war effort (Freeze, pg. 273). It was at this point that the people’s furor climaxed during a bread riot in St. Petersburg and changed Russia’s fate forever.

A starving Chuvash family near their tent in Samara in post-WWI. From The Sun news outlet.

In the aftermath of the February Revolution, radical changes in government, military, and political direction were ongoing, but food remained the top priority to the masses. Rationing had been in place since 1915 with the institution of the Special Council for Food, but this did little to alleviate the effects of Russian scorched-earth policy and the diversion of resources from food to war production (Lewis Seigelbaum, para. 1). Famine and food lines were commonplace by October of 1917 and the newly formed Provisional Government failed to provide any solution to the humanitarian crisis that was brewing. Monopolization of food production was continued by the Duma, but this merely created higher prices and few answers to the dire issue. Petrograd, the seat of Soviet power and a city on the verge of starvation, finally had enough, and the Bolsheviks took control with their cry for peace, bread, and land.

A women watches her partner starve to death. 1920s. From The Sun news outlet.

The consequences of this are well known today as Russia became a Communist state, but the effects of World War I and institutional ineptitude could not be reversed. Famine and the resulting civil war caused millions of deaths and widespread violence across the Soviet state. In the end, the Bolsheviks continued the same policies as previous administrations, though with greater viciousness and brutality to the misfortune of the Russian people (Lewis Seigelbaum, para. 3) . Survival was fought for through anarchy, looting, and even cannibalism as the state once again outstandingly failed to fulfill its promises . Many lessons were learned as the new regime forcefully consolidated its power and subdued the resulting “White’s” counterrevolution. Change was won for by the need for food, and it proved how little ideology or equality can feed an empty belly. As history has once more shown, a state is only as good as its ability to take care of its people, and Nicholas’ and the Duma’s prospects of a “modern” Russia ultimately led to its demise.

Tea with a Splash of Vodka

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A Group of Workers Harvesting Tea, ca. 1907-1915. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-04430 (32)


What is it that makes an empire? The ruler may argue that government and order define one’s realm; however, these are all institutions of the people. Before the troubles that would bring about the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia was an  immensely diverse spread of land that was called home to many different ethnicities, not all of which were true natives. Before the Kievan Rus, who would make the first steps to what we know as modern-day Russia, there were many groups who were trying to find their place in a rapidly changing world. The photo above, a part of the Prokudin-Gorskii collection, shows a group of Greek farmers harvesting tea in Chavka, which is now the area known as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, in the southern region of Russia. From this group’s origin and tale comes one piece of the puzzle in the fall of the Tsarist regime. These Pontic Greeks had lived in this area since the 700s BC, around the time that ancient Rome was created, and they continue to live there to the present day. From the original Greek colonies along the Black Sea during the Classical period, this area was subject to a steady migration of Greek settlers, most notably after the fall of the Empire of the Trebizond to the Ottoman Turks. Carrying with them the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the Byzantines had imported to the Rus, these settlers were eventually incorporated into the increasingly heterogeneous Russia Empire.

As the Russian state grew during the pre-Revolutionary era, so did its sense of culture. Against the stereotype that Russians live solely on Vodka in their daily lives, there was a thriving tea culture that captured the attention of all levels of Russian society. Since its introduction in 1638 by the Mongols, tea was an important commodity in Russian and culture and one of the number of agricultural goods that the Pontic Greeks focused on. While tea itself was quite important, the prosperity of its producers and sellers was not. As can be seen in the photo above, these workers were predominantly peasants whose livelihoods centered around the production and demand for tea. When this was disrupted, as it was during World War I,  and the government failed to support them, the people suffered. Areas like Chavka became the breeding ground for the revolutionaries that would eventually overthrow the Tsarist regime. Through the coming turmoil, this region would remain predominantly Greek, and it would bear the blows of both a genocidal Turkish government and a crumbling Russian empire.

While this land and its people are not the typical image one constructs when discussing Russia, they represented a large population of agrarian societies which made up the empire in the early twentieth century. Their ethnicity was but one group of the widely varied peoples in Russia’s borders, and they are as much a part of Russia and the Revolution’s story as Lenin and Stalin were. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii set out to document Russia’s economic life during a complicated time of industrialization and world war, and he succeeded in recognizing the backbone of the empire’s livelihood. It is also important to remember moving forward that Marxist communism was intended for more developed states, and the ramifications of the revolution on the majorly agricultural empire would produce many growing pains throughout. While these people now live in the remains of the Soviet Union, they directly impacted its creation and deserve credit in the history of Russia.


Mack, Glenn (2005). Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Wood, Michael (2005). In Search of Myths & Heroes: Exploring Four Epic Legends of the World. University of California Press. p. 109