Vladimir Stepanov // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Vladimir Stepanov // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

Striking Photos From Soviet History

Vladimir Stepanov // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Vladimir Stepanov // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

During the years of its publication, Soviet Photo was the most popular magazine about photography for amateurs and professionals in the country. The publication’s life span, the subject of a new exhibit at Moscow’s Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, charted the changing mores of photography in the Eastern Bloc. 

It ran from 1927 to 1997, documenting Soviet life—at least as much as it could while toeing the official party line. The Soviet Union’s General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press monitored all media, helping shape the image of the Soviet Union through publications like Soviet Photo, where the best artists and photojournalists published censor-friendly images of war, politics, the music scene, and everyday life. 

They provide a glossy image of life in the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century. The magazine’s archives reflect “very well how the country and its culture changed,” Ekaterina Zueva, the Lumiere Brothers Center’s exhibition curator, tells mental_floss in an email.

"Manicurist’s hands,"from the series Hands, 1929. Image Credit: Arkady Shaikhet // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

This is what getting a manicure in the Soviet Union in 1929 looked like! For what it's worth, nail polish is more than 5000 years old, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia.

"It's all about machines," taken on May Day in the 1930s. Image Credit: Boris Ignatovich // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

Left-wing photographers of the 1920s adopted extreme lines, shooting at diagonal angles and cropping striking images to hew to their motto, “new times demand new forms.”

“Youth,” Dinamo Station, Moscow, 1937. Image Credit: Boris Ignatovich// Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography 

Sunbathing hunk alert. Dinamo Station, where this photo was taken, is named after the nearby sports stadium. It's home to the Dinamo Sports Society, a group founded in 1923 that produced numerous star athletes in the Soviet Union (and was linked to the secret police). At that time, it was Moscow's main sports arena. 

"Untitled. (Shelter)," June 1941. Image Credit: Alexander Ustinov // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

This image of people receiving safety instructions for bombings was taken on the first day of World War II, according to Zueva. At right, a volunteer puts up anti-fascist propaganda posters. 

 "Duel," From the series MSU [Moscow State University], 1963. Image Credit: Vsevolod Tarasevich // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

The "symbolic image of the scientist against the blackboard covered with formulas became iconic," Zueva says. The scientist in question is a physics and mathematics doctorate named Vsevolod Balashov. 

Georgia, 1963. Image Credit: Vasily Egorov /Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev eat lunch on a collective farm (kolkholz) called Guripsh. The kolkholz system of collective farming was one of the Soviet Union’s main methods of agriculture. Collectives of peasants farmed state-owned land, and were paid based on the days they worked and the quantity of food they produced. These peasants were largely prohibited from leaving these plots of land for the city. 

Moscow, 1973. Image Credit:Alexander Abaza // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

The Soviet team took home all the gold medals in women's gymnastics at the 1973 Universiade (the World Student Games) in Moscow.

Musician Oleg Garkusha in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), 1986. Image Credit:Igor Mukhin // Courtesy Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography

Igor Mukin's photo of singer Oleg Garkusha would become a symbol of the new time of  Рerestroykа, of [the] new young protest generation,” Zueva says. 

[h/t: The Guardian]

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
The Dubious Legend of Virgil's Pet Fly
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock

Here at Mental Floss, we come across a lot of "facts" that, upon further examination, don’t hold up. Like, did Benjamin Franklin invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time? Not really. (Several ancient cultures seasonally adjusted their clocks, and Franklin only jokingly pondered having people wake up earlier.) The modern version was proposed in 1895 by George Hudson, an entomologist who wanted extra daylight so he could collect more insects.) Do sea cucumbers eat through their anuses? Some, but not all. (One species, P. californicus, uses its backdoor as a second mouth.)

Other facts have been trickier to debunk because the historical record was being snarky or sarcastic: Was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is likely named, a measly pickle merchant? (Ralph Waldo Emerson said so, but he was probably being snide.) Did people in 16th century France wipe their butts with geese? A quotation from François Rabelais's comic series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel has been confused as evidence, but Rabelais was a bawdy satirist.

Yet one of our favorite dubious fun facts—a Trojan Horse that has snuck into a handful of trivia books—concerns Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid. The story goes that Virgil had a pet housefly, and when the insect died, Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces—nearly all of his net worth—for an extravagant funeral. Celebrities swarmed the poet’s home. Professional mourners wailed. An orchestra performed a lament. Virgil drafted verses to celebrate the fly’s memory. After the service, the bug’s body was ceremoniously deposited in a mausoleum the poet had built on his estate.

Virgil wasn’t losing it: It was all a scheme to keep the government’s fingers off his land. At the time (and this part is true), Rome was seizing private property and awarding it to war veterans. According to legend, Virgil knew the government couldn’t touch his property if his estate contained a tomb, so he quickly built a mausoleum, found an arthropod occupant, and rescued his house.

It’s a great story! It’s also unsubstantiated. None of Virgil’s contemporaries mention the poet throwing a lavish funeral—especially one for a housefly. The story probably has roots in an old poem that’s been (incorrectly) attributed to the poet called "The Culex." In the poem, a fly (or, depending on your translation, a spider or gnat) wakes up a man just as a snake is lurking nearby. The man kills both the insect and serpent, but soon regrets killing his winged protector. He builds the bug a marble headstone with this epitaph:

O Tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing
The duty of a ceremonial tomb
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Virgil wrote "The Culex." But as Sara P. Muskat, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1930s, wrote in a short essay, Virgil was regularly the subject of this kind of mythmaking. Shortly after his death, people in his hometown of Naples alleged he was the founder of the city. (He wasn’t.) Others claimed he had been the city’s governor. (He hadn’t). By the Middle Ages, Virgil was depicted as a magician or dark wizard who could communicate with the dead. (He couldn't.)

“There is then no evidence, ancient or medieval, that I can find to support the story that Vergil had a pet fly and gave it an elaborate funeral,” Muskat writes. “It seems quite inconsistent with Vergil’s usual behavior, and may indicate that the period of myth-making about Vergil has not yet closed.”

Like our friendly imaginary fly, perhaps it’s time for this factoid to bite the dust, too.

Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Queen Anne of Brittany's Heart Stolen From French Museum
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

Bringing new meaning to the idea of stealing someone's heart, thieves in France made off with a 16th-century gold relic containing the once-beating organ of Anne of Brittany, the only woman to ever have been twice crowned the queen of France.

Over the weekend, burglars smashed a window of the Thomas-Dobrée museum in Nantes and lifted the the six-inch case from its display, The Telegraph reports.

Anne was crowned queen when she was just 12 years old after marrying Charles VIII of France in 1491. After his death in 1498, she married Louis XII and once again ascended the throne, where she stayed until her death at age 36. Although her body was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis, she requested that her heart be kept alongside her parents’ tomb in Brittany.

“The thieves attacked our common heritage and stole an item of inestimable value," Philippe Grosvalet, president of the Loire-Atlantique department, which owns the museum, told The Telegraph. "Much more than a symbol, the case containing the heart of Anne of Brittany belongs to our history.”

The gold relic was saved from being melted down after the French Revolution, and it has been kept safe at the Thomas-Dobrée museum for more than 130 years. The case contains an inscription in old French, which translates to: “In this small vessel of pure, fine gold rests the greatest heart of any woman in the world.”

This practice of burying the heart apart from the rest of the body was not entirely uncommon among European aristocrats in the Middle Ages. The hearts of both Richard I and Anne Boleyn were kept in lead boxes, and the hearts of 22 former popes are stored in marble urns at Rome's Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi church.

It's also far from the only instance of relic theft. In a slightly more bizarre case, fragments of the brain of John Bosco, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest, were contained in a reliquary at his basilica in Castelnuovo, central Italy, until they were snatched by a thief in 2017. The reliquary was ultimately recovered by police from the suspect’s kitchen cupboard.

[h/t The Telegraph]


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