May 02, 2021

Funky Soviet Keepsakes

Funky Soviet Keepsakes
A small collection of Soviet znachki, or lapel pins. From top, going clockwise: 1. “OSVOD RSFSR – Union of Societies Salvation and Protection of Human Life on the Waterways of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.” 2. “Smolensk Km.” 3. “Sharpshooter of the USSR.” 4. “Eighth Grade.” 5. “The Great War: Oryol” / Photographs by Haley Bader

Citizens of the Soviet Union amassed many things: stamps, car models, candy wrappers, portraits of Stalin, trips to the bread line, the major tomes of Lenin, tidbits of epic poems, metal teacup holders filched from trains. 

Of all the Soviet collectibles, though, perhaps the most popular was the badge.

A badge – known in Russian as a znachok (значок, plural znachki) – is a small, finely pressed bit of light metal representing some organization, person or event. Many are colored with enamel, and while generally aluminum, are sometimes minted of a precious quality. They might be divided into two categories: those that were given freely, and those only awarded for special events and achievements, which usually were issued with a document.

he will get you!
Image from the classic Soviet cartoon “Nu, Pogodi! (Well, I’ll get you!)”

Any and all Soviet institutions could produce their own lapel pins. Organizations ranged from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, featuring its vaulted architecture, to the Azerbaijan Sanitary Technical Assembly Enterprise, which graced the face of their trinket with a toilet seat. The pins represented cities and construction projects, government conferences and the 1980 Olympics.

two little pins
Left: “Bratsk Gesstroi (Hydro-Electric Station)”
Right: “AD (Aviation Engines) 50” –
representing the Moscow Institute of Aviation

Some awards, much like the American Scout badges, would require that the conferee first prove herself capable in some way. Military awards were prevalent in this category. Soldiers might be recognized as an excellent machine gunner, a super submariner, a ground-crushing tanker, artilleryman, miner, mortarman or many more roles besides.

Another such badge — the “Tourist of the USSR” — was sought by sportsmen and adventurers alike. Those who achieved the insignia not only needed two years of travel experience, but also had to have visited at least three countries. Not an easy feat during the Soviet period.

another pin
“State Academic Bolshoi Theater of the
Soviet Union 1776 – 1976: Award of Lenin”

The emblems became a way to signal group affiliation, fandom, and loyalty. They were sold in kiosks, awarded at Party events, and tossed to street passersby by any organization hungry for attention or support.

Znachki predated the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. According to Cathleen S. Lewis, a curator at the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the trend was inspired by a tradition of small pins presented to soldiers in ancient Rome.

too many emblems
“50 Years – Smolensk Technical School of
Electric Devices: Named for Lenin’s Komsomol”

Russia established a committee for the commission of the badges in 1722, which were awarded for industrial work in the nineteenth century. The Bolsheviks continued the practice for industrial work, and later included construction political projects. The first Soviet lapel pin featured the hammer and sickle and was awarded on the first Soviet Labor Day (May 1 in Soviet Russia) in 1918.

Some have pointed to the prevalence of sports during the Soviet Union as the real catalyst for the badge boom – fans wanted a way to display appreciation for a favorite team. Hundreds of thousands of pins were crafted each year, at times overwhelming production. In 1974, for example, Soviet state institutions submitted plans to stamp 146 million of the pins, and thousands of other clubs, towns, and organizations were projected to do so without official authorization.

two of the same pin
“100 Years: First of May International Day
of the Solidarity of Workers”

That same year, Pravda, the official state paper of the Soviet government and voice of the Communist party, critiqued the collecting obsession. An article warned that the practice of minting the trinkets, which consumed masses of precious resources and the time of many enterprising Soviet citizens, might end in disaster if not strictly controlled.

The badges reached peak popularity in the 1970s and 80s. Collectors hunted, traded and sold the znachki in pop-up groups and exhibitions. Fans of the emblems could be found displaying and hawking them in public spaces like the street corner or in an underpass.

bolshoi theater badge
“Bolshoi Dramatic Theater named for Gorky
– Leningrad”

Some were pinned to felt boards, others covered in transparent plastic. Collectors would also display the pins on rugs hung on the wall, to a pennant, and occasionally pinned to sheets of foam rubber — although the sheets would release a damaging chemical, resulting in the degradation of many an enameled emblem.

The badges, which now do not have the same popularity as they did in the late Soviet period, are nonetheless sought after by many an avid collector. The high-quality pieces crafted from precious metal can go for a pretty price, but some of the most expensive are those once issued by the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Cheka.

No honorable Russophile today would find himself without a Soviet znachok or two! But worry not – even in these Covid times, you can buy masses of the metal trinkets across eBay.

three little pins
From left to right: 1. “Smolensk.” 2. “Peace, Work, May.”
3. “For Work Without Accidents.”


1.    Smith, Hedrick. “Pin Hobby, Soviet Fad, Is Criticized.” The New York Times. September 22 1974. Accessed 4.21.2021.

2.    Armitage, Susie. “The U.S.S.R.’s Hottest Collectibles Are All Over eBay and Instagram.” Atlas Obscura. April 14 2020. Accessed 4.21.2021.

3.    Cherniysheva, Victoria (Чернышева, Виктория). “How and What Kind of Badges Were Collected in the Soviet Union” (“Как и какие значки собирали в СССР”). August 30 2014. Accessed 4.21.2021.


You Might Also Like

A Collector's Passion
  • May 01, 2006

A Collector's Passion

James Sinclair and his passion for collecting Soviet militaria has led to the preservation of some very unique uniforms from the height of the Stalin era.
John Rahill's Magic Lantern
  • July 01, 2013

John Rahill's Magic Lantern

In 2005 Anton Orlov stumbled across a collection of photographs that had barely seen the light of day for 80 years. For the next seven years, he was consumed by a quest to reveal the life story of the man who built the collection.
Match to the Death
  • September 01, 2002

Match to the Death

In WWII, in Nazi-occupied Kiev, local soccer stars were forced to play several matches against Nazi teams. The price for winning was death; for losing the price was even worse ...
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
The Best of Russian Life

The Best of Russian Life

We culled through 15 years of Russian Life to select readers’ and editors’ favorite stories and biographies for inclusion in a special two-volume collection. Totalling over 1100 pages, these two volumes encompass some of the best writing we have published over the last two decades, and include the most timeless stories and biographies – those that can be read again and again.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567