Sputnik

One2Ten - Russian innovations

Marking the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the world's most notorious totalitarian state, E&T considers some of the former USSR's less sinister technological creations.

1 Sputnik

The first manmade object to orbit the Earth, the Sputnik (meaning 'companion', or 'satellite') was the child of Sergei Korolev, Soviet space programme's chief designer. The first Sputnik was very simple indeed: it contained a 1W radio transmitter with four antennas to transmit the satellite's beeps in all directions, pressure and temperature controlling devices and three silver-zinc batteries. Sputnik's body, the size and shape of a beach ball, consisted of two titanium-coated hemispheres. Launched on 4 October 1957, it stayed in orbit for 22 days.

2 Fizzy Water Automatic Dispenser 

Manufactured in Kharkov, a bulky robot-like contraption was a common sight in the streets of every Soviet city or town. One had to drop a three-kopeck coin into the slot for a glass of fizzy water with a shot of syrup, and a mere one kopeck for a plain soda water. The box would then emit a series of loud mechanical noises before slowly pouring water into a communal drinking glass. The latter was supposed to be available with every machine (a customer was meant to wash the glass after the previous user by pressing it upside down into a built-in washer). In reality, however, glasses were few and far between – stolen by drunkards and smashed after use. It was advisable for thirsty Soviet citizens to carry with them a plastic cup – or why not the portable 16-side small glass, designed by the sculptor Vera Mukhina?

3 Ostankino TV Tower

Built in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and designed by Nikolai Nikitin, the Tower remained the world's tallest structure until 1972 when it was overshadowed by the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada. Constructed on the site of an old suburban cemetery (ostanki is Russian for 'remains'), the 1,771ft lily-shaped Tower had a relatively shallow foundation, with the main support provided by 149 cables (of which only 19 remain now) inside the stem.

The Tower still hosts most of Russia's main TV and radio channels and has a broadcast radius of 75 miles. During the Soviet years, one of its top tiers housed a three-storey rotating restaurant Sed'moye nebo ('Seventh Heaven') which made a full circle around the axis roughly every 40 minutes.

4 Zaporozhets Mini

This super-compact car, manufactured in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizh'zhia, had the derogatory nickname 'tin on wheels' and was the target for many a joke ('How would you accelerate a Zaporozhets to 100 km/hour? By pushing it off the top of a mountain.)' Despite such a negative image, the tiny car was extremely popular (one had to wait in queue for nearly 20 years to buy it) and relatively cheap too. Among its features were a part-aluminium engine in the back and ear-like air intakes for cooling on the sides. One model even had a removable floor panel under the driver's seat for... ice fishing!

5 Vostok 1 

First of the series of manned spacecraft placed into Earth orbit on 12 April 1961. It was launched by the two-stage Vostok rocket and carried the world's first man in space – Yuri Gagarin.

6 Avoska String Bag

No Soviet housewife would ever leave home without it. The name of this simple net bag, designed in the 1930s, contains an explanation of its purpose: avos is a popular Russian interjection which can be loosely translated as 'in case', 'perhaps' or 'god willing'. The bag could easily be accommodated in a prospective shopper's pocket, 'in case' he or she stumbles upon some defitsitniye ('hard-to-get') goods, like, say, oranges, sausages, toilet paper or almost anything else one could think of. The best English translation of avoska is therefore 'just-in-case bag', although a 'what-if' bag would be fairly adequate.

7 VEF Spidola Transistor Radio 

In the 1960s, the Latvian-made portable Spidola became one of the first Soviet transistor radios widely available to the 'population'. Light, smallish and well-designed, it was also the only portable musical device in the country as well as an audio 'window' to the capitalist world, for it allowed the listener to receive Western short-wave broadcasts – often heavily jammed but still audible, particularly after midnight. In a famous 1971 case, a Spidola belonging to a political dissenter was confiscated as an 'instrument of crime'.

8 Mobile Street Kvas or Beer Barrel

Designed in 1957 as 'tanker-cistern trailers' and invariably staffed by busty and garrulous women in not-too-clean white gowns (often worn on top of fur coats), these were like beacons for children (in which case the cistern contained kvas – a mildly alcoholic drink made of yeast, sugar and rye bread) and adults (in which case it was beer). Each contained 900 litres of liquid and could be moved from one place to another by a lorry. Although one could enjoy a drink on the spot from a communal mug, hastily rinsed by the seller, the safest thing was to bring one's own vessel, to fill it at the tanker and then to enjoy the drink at home (or in the nearest gateway).

9 Buran Snowmobile 

Snowmobiles have a long history in Russia and the Soviet Union. From the early 20th century, they were widely used not just for Arctic exploration, but also for more mundane purposes: mail deliveries, school trips etc. The Buran (meaning 'blizzard'), built in the city of Ribinsk in 1975, ushered in a new generation of snowmobiles. Previously most had one track and two skis in front, but in the Buran it was the other way round: two tracks and one ski in front. This improved the vehicle's balance and manoeuverability. One of the Buran's instruction manuals suggested 'rocking the machine from side to side' when its tread froze to the ground.

10 Nevaliashka Doll 

This cute round doll tilts, but never falls down. You can tilt it as low as you want – it will always get back up and be vertical. It also jingles. Developed in 1958 at the Zagorsk (now Sergiev Possad) Scientific Research Institute of Toys, which used Japanese Daruma dolls and old Russian Van'ka-Vstan'kas ('stand-up Ivans') as models, Nevaliashka was not as well-known in the West as matrioshka (the nesting doll), yet it was used by Soviet poets and writers as a metaphor for the 'invincible Russian soul'. Whether the latter is true or not, the toy was very popular with Soviet kids, particularly girls, and stays popular now with their Russian counterparts. The tilting doll, it seems, proved more stable than the USSR itself, the latter having long since fallen.

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