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.”


Sources:

1.    Smith, Hedrick. “Pin Hobby, Soviet Fad, Is Criticized.” The New York Times. September 22 1974. https://www.nytimes.com/1974/09/22/archives/pin-hobby-soviet-fad-is-criticized-millions-to-be-produced-badges.html. 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. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/soviet-pin-collectors. 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”). RG.ru. August 30 2014.  https://rg.ru/2014/08/30/znachki-site.html. Accessed 4.21.2021.

 

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