To Russia With Love

I’ve been gradually scanning my father’s photos, posting them to Flickr, and encouraging my family — especially my mother — to comment so as to identify names and places that are unfamiliar to me.  I recently scanned the photos from my parents’ travels during the summer of 1959, including a trip to the Soviet Union.

I posted the photos and invited my mother to tag and comment . . . and ended up with mentions on a number of Russian websites, a couple of Russian commenters on Flickr offering their thoughts on the photos, and over 50,000 views since the photos went up a week ago.

With the help of Google Translate and my mother, who speaks Russian, I’ve been learning more about the photos and commenters.

For example, here is a Live Journal page by “Finnish Passenger

{Snip from LiveJournal page in Russian. Translated below.}

Google translates this as:

In 1959, the American Peter Robertson on a tourist visa to visit the Soviet Union. Under the cut I have selected 48 photographs from his archive. Photos from the trip are interesting in that a Soviet citizen would not do at all these pictures, because ordinary is happening, and in ofitsilnyh magazines and newspapers printed entirely different subjects.

Yeah, the translation is a bit rough.

Another Russian blogger turned the photos into a guessing game and then provided answers (in addition to the answers in the comments).

My favorite of the bunch is this photo and some of the commentary around it:

{Black and white photo of a cobblestone street and sidewalk.  In the foreground is a very small three-wheeled vehicle, suitable for at most one person, open on top and looking almost home-made out of pieces of welded steel.  In the background are pedestrians and in the far background, indistinct buildings.}

I had no idea what this was.  A Flickr commenter, Leonid Paulov, explained,

Machine for the disabled. When I was 8 years old living in Kazakhstan. Roads there was not. After the rain this car off the road. The driver of a war veteran with Germany very loudly berated those who made this car

Remember, this is Google Translate talking, so it’s not that everyone in Russia actually sounds like Boris and Natasha.  Mom did a better job with the translation:

It’s a machine for disabled people. When I was 8 years old, I lived in Kazakstan. There were no roads for automobiles. After it rained, this machine could go out on the shoulder. A bus driver who participated in the war with Germany loudly berated those who made this automobile.

I asked:

So this is car that would be used by a disabled person? Like a wheelchair with an engine?

Mr. Paulov responded,

Yes, this is the first vehicle for persons with disabilities in the Soviet Union manufactured 60 years ago.

Still not clear on the role of the veteran/bus driver.  Here’s another Russian site commenting on the same photo.

Gazeta in Russian

The last paragraph reads,

In this collection you will actually find a lot of interesting details. For example, a rare three-wheeled wheelchair in front of the historic journey to Moscow.

There were a number of photos of women working on roads or in the fields.  One commenter noted  —  tersely but (to me) poignantly — that, because of the war, there was a dearth of men:

{Image snipped from a blog showing a black and white photograph of women working on a road and Cyrillic (Russian) letters in a caption above the photo.  The image also includes an icon representing the commenter, who looks like a buff comic book hero.}

(Pretty buff commenter, though, eh?)

A theater showing “War and Peace.”

{Black and white photograph of people walking in front of a building with a large banner in Russian.}

Reading the newspaper:

{Black and white photo of men gathered in front of a newspaper that is posted on the exterior wall of a building.}

The photo below is apparently a tank of something called kvass, which my mother described as a drink made from fermented rye bread.  Truly a testament to the ingenuity that can arise from the combination of great deprivation and great thirst.

{Black and white photo of an old time pick up truck towing a small tank of liquid, parked in front of a building.}

The sign says “place for feeding pigeons.”  And that’s Mom — in her travel gear — a far cry from the jeans and hiking shoes I wore for my post-college travels.


The requisite giant portrait of Khruschev.

{Black and white photo of a building with a giant portrait of Nikita Khruschev leaning against the columns in the front of the building.  The portrait is over twice the height of a man standing near it.}

and the people tasked with schlepping the giant portrait:

{Black and white photo of a giant portrait being carried horizontally by five women in scarves.}

More to come in a future post — by me or perhaps a guest post by Mom!

9 thoughts on “To Russia With Love

  1. BlueLoom

    Amy taught me the trick that if you bring up these Russian websites/blogs (where she’s getting so many comments) in Google Chrome, you can ask Chrome to translate the whole page for you. If you get “server error,” keep trying. I think it really means “server busy.” After a few clicks you may get the page translated.

    BTW: Google has a hard time coping w/ Russian. Russian is a fully inflected language: it has six cases. As a consequence, word order within a sentence largely doesn’t matter–the meaning of a word or phrase is determined by word endings that indicate case. Google also seems to miss some very common words: “kogda” means “when” in English. Why did Google miss that? “Na” means “on”–that should have been pretty easy. Anyhow, you can get enough from Google Translate to get the general meaning if you follow some of the links to Russian blogs.


  2. BlueLoom

    I’ve been thinking about the relevance of the bus driver in the comment about the motorized wheelchair. Here’s a theory: Leonid specifically says that the roads were unpaved (and presumably muddy after it rained). The bus would/might have gotten stuck in the mud (or at least greatly slowed down by it), while the nifty little motorized wheelchair could zip around him on the shoulder of the road. But Leonid specifies that the bus driver had also been in WW II. Perhaps he was also to some extent disabled in the war, but he’s stuck in the mud driving this [expletive deleted] bus while the driver of the wheelchair gets around him on the shoulder of the road.

    Just a thought.


  3. Alex Sh.

    Dear Amy, thanks for your pictures. Not only they are interesting because they show everyday life and common scenes and places, but also because they were made during the “Khruschev Thaw”. Before it or after it a foreign tourist wouldn’t get a chance (permission in fact) to make such a plenty of pictures showing everyday life.

    As for the car for the disabled: here’s my translation (I’m a native Russian)

    “When I was about 8 I lived in Kazakhstan. There were no paved roads there. After a rain this car moved to a roadside. The driver who was a WWII veteran sweared loudly at car’s designers.”
    That’s all. It’s hard to tell whether the veteran was not satisfied with this car in general or he didn’t like its ability to move along muddy roads with no hard surface.



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