How the Soviets Imagined in 1960 What the World Would Look in 2017: A Gallery of Retro-Futuristic Drawings

In one of the most impas­sioned and beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten defens­es of Burkean con­ser­vatism I have ever read, the poet Wen­dell Berry took gov­ern­ment projects of both the left and right to task, pro­claim­ing in 1968 that the emer­gence of a mas­sive bureau­cra­cy was a trag­ic sign of the “loss of the future.” His argu­ment is sim­i­lar to one made over twen­ty years ear­li­er by the Trot­sky­ist-turned-con­ser­v­a­tive writer James Burn­ham, whose 1941 book The Man­age­r­i­al Rev­o­lu­tion pre­dict­ed “at each point,” wrote George Orwell in a thor­ough review, “a con­tin­u­a­tion of the thing that is hap­pen­ing.” A “man­age­r­i­al” cen­tral state, Burn­ham also argued, inevitably brought about a “loss of the future.”

Nei­ther the con­tem­pla­tive Berry nor the inci­sive Burn­ham have been able to account for one his­tor­i­cal­ly inescapable fact: the peri­ods in which 20th cen­tu­ry soci­eties imag­ined the future most vivid­ly were those most dom­i­nat­ed by bureau­crat­ic, tech­no­crat­ic, cen­tral­ized polit­i­cal economies. This is true under con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ments like that of the U.S. under Eisen­how­er, in which huge infra­struc­ture projects—from the high­way sys­tem to hydro­elec­tric dams— rearranged the lives of mil­lions.

And it was true under Khrushchev’s Sovi­et state, whose Vir­gin Lands cam­paign did the same. Indeed, mid-cen­tu­ry Sovi­et “expec­ta­tions were pret­ty sim­i­lar to the futur­is­tic pre­dic­tions of Amer­i­cans,” writes Matt Novak, “with a touch more Com­mu­nism, of course.” Unsur­pris­ing, per­haps, giv­en that the two nations were locked in com­pe­ti­tion over the dom­i­na­tion of both earth and space.

Novak’s under­state­ment is ful­ly war­rant­ed. Although the peo­ple in images like those you see here tend to appear in more col­lec­tive arrange­ments, their sci-fi sur­round­ings almost mir­ror those in the images from the U.S. that were par­o­died by The Jet­sons two years after this 1960 col­lec­tion. These detailed sce­nar­ios come from a “retro-futur­is­tic film­strip, which would have been played through a Diafilm,” a kind of slide pro­jec­tor. It’s a vision, it just so hap­pens, of our time, 2017, but it looks back­ward to get there, both in its tech­nol­o­gy and its design. The illus­tra­tion above, for exam­ple, “was almost cer­tain­ly inspired by the Futu­ra­ma exhib­it from the 1939 New York World’s Fair.” (Itself built, we may note, on the shoul­ders of Roosevelt’s New Deal.)

You can see many more of these illus­tra­tions at Pale­o­fu­ture, and at the top of the post watch a video ver­sion with “jazzy music and star wipes.” You may find these visions quaint, charm­ing in their naiveté and inaccuracy—yet often quaint­ly pre­scient as well. Retro-futurism’s appeal to us seems to rest prin­ci­pal­ly in how sil­ly it can seem in hind­sight, even when it gets things right. Per­haps it is the case that the most ful­ly-real­ized, total­iz­ing visions of tomor­row are as far-fetched as the con­trol­ling soci­eties that pro­duce them are unsus­tain­able. As Bob Dug­gan writes at Big Think, for exam­ple, we are bound to asso­ciate the “undead art move­ment” of Ital­ian Futur­ism with the very short-lived regime of Ital­ian Fas­cism. Maybe the degree to which a gov­ern­ment lacks a future is in inverse pro­por­tion to the inten­si­ty of its retro-futur­ism.

So what exact­ly is the rela­tion­ship between state pow­er and utopi­an futur­ism? The ques­tion invites a dis­ser­ta­tion, and sure­ly many have been writ­ten, as they have on the symp­to­mol­o­gy of the tech­no-dystopi­an and urban apoc­a­lyp­tic forms of futur­ism. We might begin by won­der­ing what our actu­al 2017 will look like 57 years from now. What will peo­ple in 2074 make of our end­less cul­ture of revival­ism, from zom­bie steam­punk to retreads and remakes of every­thing from Ghost in the Shell, to The Matrix, to Star Wars? Who can say. Per­haps, for what­ev­er soci­o­log­i­cal rea­son, we are suf­fer­ing, as Berry put it, from a loss of the future.


via Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sovi­et Artists Envi­sion a Com­mu­nist Utopia in Out­er Space

“Glo­ry to the Con­querors of the Uni­verse!”: Pro­pa­gan­da Posters from the Sovi­et Space Race (1958–1963)

Down­load 144 Beau­ti­ful Books of Russ­ian Futur­ism: Mayakovsky, Male­vich, Khleb­nikov & More (1910–30)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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