How Tatar man from Kazan takes Soviet aesthetic to global level

The biggest Museum of Soviet Lifestyle opened in Antalya, Turkey. It is the ninth around the world

How Tatar man from Kazan takes Soviet aesthetic to global level
Photo: Roman Khasayev

Kazan entrepreneur Rustem Valiakhmetov launched the Museum of Soviet Lifestyle non-governmental project in Kazan in 2011. It has become one of the trademarks of the capital for tourists since then. But the museum went further: a second museum opened in Kazan, another one in Yelabuga as well as in Samara and Saint Petersburg, Brussels, Paris, Ankara and now in Antalya. There is some space to store exhibits in London too, which is used to hold exhibitions in different cities of the Foggy Albion from time to time. Realnoe Vremya says why the Kazan project piqued people’s interest in Soviet aesthetic abroad.

Socialist lifestyle strides across Europe

The Kazan project Museum of Soviet Lifestyle already has branches in four European countries. But they, strictly speaking, can’t be called commercial: they are created in Russian agencies. Rustem Valiakhmetov, the founder of the project, shared a life hack: there are three key structures through which it is possible to create foreign expositions. It is the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation, Russian embassies in different countries and trade representative offices of Russia.

“Such art projects can be made via these three sources if you aren’t a big merchant and benefactor. Moreover, everything depends on separate ambassadors and representatives. For instance, we have a good friendship with head of the representative office of the federal agency in Brussels Aleksandr Razumov. With his assistance, we sent a minibus of our exhibits to Belgium, and now our permanent branch of the museum operated on the territory of the federal agency’s mission in Brussels,” Valiakhmetov says.

Diplomat Aleksandr Turov, trade representative of the Russian Federation in Paris, got enthusiastic about creating a branch of the museum in the Trade Representative Office of Russia in France three years ago. Now one can also get acquainted with a small but impressive exposition. There is a small warehouse in the agency’s office in London: there is enough room to organise a permanent exposition, themed exhibitions with exhibits stored in the warehouse are held from time to time.

The Kazan project Museum of Soviet Lifestyle already has branches in four European countries. Photo: vk.com/muzeisb

Valiakhmetov explains the phenomenon of the Europeans’ interest in post-Soviet lifestyle saying that the USSR was a closed country, and foreigners know nothing about how our people lived. They have clichés from films and Khrushchyov banging a shoe on the rostrum in the UN in their heads, but unique artefacts illustrating usual, ordinary and unofficial life are new to them.

“It is a special, unique aesthetic and a sample of what Soviet people thought, what they aspired to, what they dreamt about. Europeans want to see how the USSR reconsidered fashion trends, how we substituted what was unavailable for us behind the ‘iron curtain’, how the powerful ideology united people on the huge territory,” Valiakhmetov says. “And today Kazan became an ambassador of this brand — the post-socialistic aesthetic — in Europe. We increase our recognisability with these branches because many foreign tourists have already seen us in Kazan. This also influences our development. At the moment the European branches are image-related projects for us, we receive huge support when organising them, but I think we won’t stop here.”

“Turkish flow” of socialistic lifestyle: three museums in one country at once

Turkey already has two branches — in Ankara and Antalya, moreover, the Antalyan branch is the biggest among all eight. The third museum is getting ready to open — near Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. Simple factors explain such great expansion to Turkey: well-established business ties, a huge number of Russian-speaking people living in Turkey and naïve charm of Soviet aesthetic.

Everything began with Aydar Gashigullin, the trade representative of the Russian Federation in Turkey. Valiakhmetov states that the Tatar community isn’t the point (Gashigullin comes from Kazan), the point is what is characteristic of all other foreign projects — socialistic lifestyle has its charm, it is interesting, and the Kazan project is unique, it was the first museum of this kind in the world. This is why the trade representative in Turkey offered to open a small branch in Ankara with the scheme used in Europe: in the building of the trade representative office.

The Moscow International School gave a room with an area of 980 square metres for the museum. Photo: antalya.mip.school

Then they got to know the Moscow International School whose branch opened in Antalya. Valiakhmetov says:

“It is really interesting to work abroad where there are Russian schools. The cultural life of the Russian-speaking diaspora is concentrated around them, the best environment to develop such projects develops here. The branch of the Moscow International School in Antalya has a big culture centre, and we have begun to work with them since an exhibition dedicated to GTO all-Union physical culture training programme. The head of the branch told me: “I want our children to visit our museum not only on holidays but also during the break”. And everything was resolved.

The school gave a room with an area of 980 square metres for the museum. While the other branches aren’t bigger than 300 square metres, the Antalyan museum became the biggest constantly operating exposition. It was brought from Russia, it consists of the museum’s reserves in the warehouse. Everybody helped to transport the exhibits: the school invested in it too, the trade representative office helped. For Valiakhmetov, it wasn’t and isn’t a commercial project — for him, it is a bridgehead for further development, a reason to demonstrate the charm of Soviet lifestyle with its naïve, warm atmosphere and characteristic features and make it loved by people here too.

Lyubov Dukelskaya, the president of the Moscow International School, says:

“It was my initiative to create a branch of the museum of socialistic lifestyle in Antalya, while Rustem kindly didn’t say no. This is why it turned out a very interesting enterprise. Why did we decide to undertake this project? A lot of our compatriots live here, their children were already born here, they go to our school, while they don’t know and don’t remember their history. But apart from the socialistic lifestyle museum, we also have Pushkin’s museum and Diplomat Karlov’s museum, this is why our children study history in museums inside the school, and it is very interesting. Of course, parents come here too, and not only they come: tourists are also interested in the project. Now it is a kind of trend, all Europe and America are talking about the Soviet Union, the topic has been very topical. The youth come here, see how it looked. This is why we think we chose a very modern field.”

Excursion to school museum for others (tourists) has an admission fee — 15 lira. Admission for the schoolchildren and their parents is free of charge.

Valiakhmetov helped to create the Pushkin Museum and Andrey Karlov’s museum too:

“Karlov was an interesting person, there is a handful of such. He simply did his job, he wasn’t prone to moneymaking. His widow told us a lot of surprising things: for instance, their family preferred to go to their dacha near Moscow on holiday, not to expensive resorts. There was also an interesting story when moving from South Korea the family managed to take their fish in a jar. We were interested in creating a museum about his life.”

Valiakhmetov says that urban authorities of Antalya also expressed special attention to the creation of the Museum of Socialistic Lifestyle too. They even paid official visits and checked if we didn’t have exhibits of rebellion and anti-Turkish slogans. But everything was good, the interaction with officials, according to the museum’s founder, is warm and friendly.

In answer to the question if additional services developed in the Turkish project (like, for instance, organisation of festivities and office parties), Rustem replies that he hasn’t set such a goal so far. He thinks that, firstly, they need to cement the brand and make it recognisable. And then they can create an analogous museum dedicated to Turkish lifestyle of the same era because at the moment it is uncharted waters:

“If people treat the Soviet legacy with some nostalgia, there isn’t such an interest in the past in Turkey because the country has a huge ancient legacy, it is the cradle of plenty of cultures, they already have things to pay attention to,” Valiakhmetov says. “The country wasn’t so conservative till the late 80s, this also plays a role: jeans appeared around the world — they began to be made in Turkey. Videocassette recorders appeared — their assembly began in Turkey. The iron curtain of the USSR and socialistic ideology allowed us to create a unique culture and develop the stylistics that exists nowhere else in the world. This is why I think the Soviet past has a glittering future: it will be trendy in fashion, music, art. It is very interesting to develop it, and we see huge opportunities for it. The only thing I can so far say about the development of the business is that nowadays our Turkish and European projects aren’t commercial. It isn’t about money at the moment, but development.”

Valiakhmetov says that urban authorities of Antalya also expressed special attention to the creation of the Museum of Socialistic Lifestyle too. Photo: kzn.ru

Dilapidated house demolition programme became gold mind for self-sufficient hobby

Rustem Valiakhmetov and his friends began to collect items from the Soviet past as students, in remote 1991. It was the last year of existence of the USSR, and Rustem himself says that they managed to catch one wagon of the leaving train. This powerful aesthetic couldn’t go anywhere — it got a new lease of life in the things that the enthusiasts collected. Firstly, it was a small memorial corner at Kazan State University, then the team rented small rooms in the centre of the city (including underground). And finally, 20 years later, the Museum of Socialistic Lifestyle opened in 2011 in the way we know it today.

Valiakhmetov says that he asked urban authorities to help to look for exhibits:

“Most of the exhibits exhibited now in our all branches get there from Kazan. The case is that when Kazan had a programme designed to demolish dilapidated houses, I wrote a letter to the authorities saying that such a situation happened once in life: when a huge layer of the past style was on the surface. People moved out and left stuff they considered unnecessary, but actually, it was artefacts of the passing era. Then the city allocated a warehouse for us, and we tenderly collected all these things from abandoned houses. And we still use exhibits from this warehouse in our different expositions.”

As Rustem says, now developing the museum is a hobby for him that pays back in general. In Russian agencies, he makes money not only by selling tickets but also an activity that can be characterised as a museum stand-up that has been born recently. The team has away exhibitions, festive programmes, office parties — and high demand for this appeared in Russia, which allows museums to stay afloat. The project is completely self-sufficient. But there aren’t astronomic profits: the founder of the museum says that they from time to time have losses in rental and utility bills, for instance, it is Happy Childhood Museum in Kazan and the branch in Saint Petersburg.

Valiakhmetov says that he asked urban authorities to help to look for exhibits. Photo: vk.com/muzeisb

Museum fast food, Minnikhanov’s razor and Olympic Bear’s dad’s autograph

During its operation in Kazan, the Museum of Socialistic Lifestyle became a trademark of the tourist city: people talk about it, foreign tourists enter it with pleasure. Special training isn’t needed to go in — Valiakhmetov himself says that the format of his project is “museum fast food”.

“There is no need for special training to go in. People don’t come here to take a photo with La Gioconda like in Louvre or a famous painting in the background like at the Tretyakov Gallery. We are a perfect format to enter from the street and spend no more than an hour but feel a warm atmosphere. Every museum has its own key idea: it can be style, people. So people for us are crucial. People treat us very warmly, and we have a lot of friends among influential and famous people because even celebrities — showmen, politicians, actors — see their childhood and adolescence on our walls. Nothing unites people better than their common past,” Valiakhmetov says. “Rustam Minnikhanov’s visit in Kazan became a fact of special recognition for us. He presented us a huge tape recorder, sweatshirt and Soviet-style electric razor. We are also proud of having a poster with the picture of Olympic Bear signed by its creator Viktor Chizhikov.”

Precisely contacts with famous and influential people became a driver of the expansion of the Museum of Socialistic Lifestyle to Russian and European cities. The Moscow City Duma has had seven successful exhibitions (Chairman of the Moscow City Duma Aleksey Shaposhnikov organised them), then there were two exhibitions in the Russian State Duma, branches in the tourism centre of Saint Petersburg and Samara opened (the local Officers’ House hosted the museum on its director’s initiative). The project has warm relationships with the Yelabuga State Museum-Reserve, it also has a branch.

“Rustam Minnikhanov’s visit in Kazan became a fact of special recognition for us. He presented us a huge tape recorder, sweatshirt and Soviet-style electric razor,” Valiakhmetov says. Photo: tatarstan.ru

The topic of socialistic lifestyle is popular in Russia: it isn’t even nostalgia — just curiosity and warm memories. The experience of Kazan became a starting point for opening analogous museums in other cities. And not only Valiakhmetov deals with it. But the capital of Tatarstan became a pioneer and sent a signal that the project has great prospects and its scale could expand. Moreover, not only in our country.

By Lyudmila Gubayeva, Vasilya Shirshova
Tatarstan