Varia Bortsova’s career path has taken a few interesting twists and turns.
Born in Moscow just one year before the fall of the Soviet Union, the 26-year-old began her professional career as a touring ballerina with a prestigious Russian dance company—a product of the national ballet training system.
Listen to this story
She spent three years performing for audiences all over the world. After realizing the risk a sudden injury could pose to her dance career, she opted to study journalism and linguistics at university. She now resides in Singapore, spending her days working in marketing for Twitter’s Asia-Pacific office.
But it’s Varia’s side hobby that has given her a unique connection to her upbringing, and gained the attention of curious eyes worldwide in the process.
Bortsova is the force behind Soviet Visuals, a Twitter account that curates and shares videos, pictures, and graphics from the former Soviet Union. The account has amassed tens of thousands of followers, all eager to get a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain at quirky visuals from a bygone era.
“Ivan Gudov fulfils the norm by 9050%. High productivity is the foundation of communism.” pic.twitter.com/iyZstMd0yi
— Soviet Visuals (@sovietvisuals) October 6, 2016
The sight of nationalistic propaganda posters commanding hard work and chastising vices sits in stark contrast to the typical conversations taking place on Twitter, where free speech reigns supreme (often, to a problematic extent).
So how have decades-old images from a failed political regime found new life in the digital world?
The answer lies in the unexpected virtue this material teaches us about creativity.
“All of these visual elements of the U.S.S.R. were kind of this organic backdrop to my life,” recalls Bortsova. “Every mundane experience like going to the hospital, going to school, going to kindergarten, it was all Soviet in every possible way.”
It wasn’t until she left Russia that Varia began to see how unique her experiences growing up were. New friends from other parts of the world were fascinated by her stories and examples of Soviet culture. Varia began sharing examples of Soviet life with them, and was taken by their interest and amusement.
“I thought if my friends found it interesting and appealing, perhaps a wider group of people beyond my social circle would too.”
Thus, @SovietVisuals was born.
The idea caught on quickly, growing to over 40,000 followers in just 4 months. And people weren’t just following the account, they were actively engaging with it. Images spurred lively debates, elicited commentary, and followers began to share material they themselves came across.
The internet’s fascination with Soviet culture is nothing new. Back in 2012, the world was introduced to Eduard Khil’s crooning voice in the viral “Trololo” video, a Soviet-era TV performance of a catchy, lyricless tune titled “I am Glad, Because I’m Finally Returning Back Home.”
Compared to a Katy Perry music video, the song seems quaint and alien. Yet there’s an undeniable sincerity cuto Khil and his song that captured the internet’s cold, cynical heart. Kitschy as it might be, it defies the normal idea of a Communist regime that many Westerners hold in their minds. Though the song was perhaps a bit heavy-handed in its appeal to nationalistic pride, Khil sang it with skill and earnestness. It was warm—even inviting.
All of this made it a hit with people in the United States and other parts of the world who lacked firsthand experience with Soviet culture.
“When I was growing up, we were shielded from the U.S. a little bit,” Bortsova explains. “I suspect the same thing happened in reverse: People in the U.S. didn’t get the full picture of the U.S.S.R.”
This cloak of mystery makes Soviet culture ripe for consumption online.
“It was always, and still is, a forbidden fruit.”
From Corn to Chernobyl
Content on Soviet Visuals ranges from peculiar to jaw-dropping, but it’s always thought-provoking.
For Varia, material from the time of the great Space Race always captures her imagination.
“I find space propaganda in the U.S.S.R. some of the most beautifully created and crafted images I have ever seen.”
Click the plus and speaker symbols to explore more and hear Varia’s thoughts on space in design.
Just as it did in the U.S., the Space Race influenced nearly all aspects of Soviet life. Buildings were designed to look like planets and appliances to resemble rockets. The prospect of space captivated people on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but Varia is able to offer an unseen perspective to many through her Twitter account.
Video content from old Soviet TV shows and advertisements is always a hit as well. Ads for state-produced suits and corn may seem, well, corny, but they highlight an underlying creativity that’s unlike anything many followers have seen.
One of the first Soviet TV commercials, a musical about corn. “What do you want, corn?” “We want to be in the menu!” pic.twitter.com/fjZYwCPfi5
— Soviet Visuals (@sovietvisuals) August 8, 2016
Often, the tweets resonate because they serve as unintentional commentary on current events. Followers tie some of the content to the Presidential election in the U.S., or the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Other times, the content is a reminder of the progress made in the past few decades in areas like women’s rights.
Take the reaction to a video Bortsova posted of a televised vacuum cleaning contest for women:
“(They said) ‘Wow, how could this happen? This is so misogynistic!’”
Click the plus and speaker icons to explore and hear Varia’s thoughts on current events and Soviet propaganda.
Varia hopes these types of reminders serve to give people hope about where we stand as a society today.
“I think that’s interesting, because this happened just two or three decades ago, and it was totally normal back then,” she explains. “If people are reacting in such a way, it means now it’s not the norm anymore, so we’re in a good place. We’ve evolved as a society.”
Varia isn’t just sitting behind her computer to find material. She brings followers along with her to trips to former Soviet countries. On a recent trip to Ukraine, Bortsova toured the abandoned city of Pripyat—site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“I did a full day of live-tweeting from Chernobyl… I love doing that because, once again, it let me open a window into this really closed place via the open platform that Twitter is.”
— Soviet Visuals (@sovietvisuals) July 21, 2016
Finding a Way to Be Creative
Ask anyone raised in the United States or another Western society what comes to mind when they think about the Soviet Union, and they’ll likely paint you a pretty bleak picture.
While the Soviet regime can rightly be condemned for its human rights record, the U.S.S.R. was more than just a ruling political party. It was a nation of people—people with creative energy and the burning desire all humans have to let that creativity shine.
“(The Soviet Union) was this giant country with a very strict regime where everything was moderated, everything was curated. There was no opportunity for artistic freedom,” explains Bortsova. “But within this very constrained environment, a lot of interesting and creative content was being born.”
Being creative in a controlled environment presents unique challenges. The hallmarks of Stalinist culture were functionality, standardization, and eschewing the flashy trends of the bourgeoisie. How does one design something of beauty under such restrictions?
The answer to that question is precisely what Varia wants people to understand when they look at the content on Soviet Visuals.
“I want (followers) to know that human beings, despite how constrained they are, find a way to be creative,” she says. “In this controlled regime, people are at the height of their creativity.”
Every artist knows that they often do their best work when given constraints. Counterintuitively, constraints make us flex our creative muscles even more. They present a clear problem to overcome: How can I make something beautiful and still remain in this box?
Click the plus and speaker symbols to explore more and hear Varia’s thoughts on creativity.
In the case of Soviet creatives, those constraints came in the form of limited access to resources and a controlled message that many would struggle to turn into something creative.
At face value, it’s easy to view Soviet Visuals as a sad commentary on what it was like to live in this environment. Admittedly, that was my first reaction. The subject matter itself is hard to overlook: ads for state-funded suits and posters demanding maximum productivity. These are the examples people from capitalist backgrounds use to warn of the folly of communism.
But if you end your examination there, you miss the beauty hidden under the surface.
The true beauty lies in the tenacity of the human spirit that’s evident in the videos and posters Bortsova digs up from the annals of history. It’s a testament to human creativity that, no matter the circumstances, people find a way to create. And not just create, but to pour their heart and soul into a craft and produce something worthy of being admired and remembered for years to come.
For a former ballerina turned cultural-curator, born under Soviet rule, that’s the lesson to be learned.
“People in the U.S.S.R. found outlets for their creativity, and in many ways they found them in very different manners than artists in the U.S. I want (people) to appreciate all of this content. And hopefully they find it as funny, and entertaining, and beautiful, and thought-provoking as I do.”