The Seduction of Soviet Gear

dtl6qcw7aOld Soviet gear is often ugly, heavy, and uncomfortable. What can make it a winner is that it streamlines your life. You may get bored or sore, but you will get a lot done.

As an example, my friend and I both love exercise, but we have totally different setups. He has a membership to a beautiful, clean, abundantly equipped gym, whereas I have a hot, dirty garage full of kettlebells. My setup is Soviet in its philosophy: it looks drab and monotonous, but it makes my life simple. When I want a workout, I just (1) open the garage door and (2) exercise. I can easily do this every day, even twice a day. I don’t even have to change clothes. Heck, sometimes I bang out some pullups in my suit on the way to work. In contrast, my friend’s quintessentially American gym membership looks much more appealing, but it is logistically complicated. To work out, he must (1) pack a gym bag, (2) drive to the gym, (3) park and enter, (4) change clothes, (5) find a squat rack that is not monopolized by someone else, and finally do steps (6-10) in reverse. It takes a lot of time, it is a pain in the ass to fit into his day, and it takes a lot of discipline. Me, I’m lazy, and as a result I exercise 10 times more than my friend.

The Russian approach is not necessarily cheaper. This is a common misunderstanding. Durable goods are expensive. Contrary to myth, AK rifles are hard and expensive to make. The reason that Eastern Bloc gear is available dirt cheap to me is that it was mass-produced at huge expense to governments that no longer exist and is now surplussed off for pennies on the ruble. So the stuff in my garage cost Brezhnev and Ceausescu big money and then I snapped it up for $4 at their garage sale.

My menagerie of kettlebells would probably cost me $1000 today. Just shipping a 90# cannonball is a big deal. But it was a onetime cost. I’ve had my kettlebells for 20 years, handled them roughly with no ill effect, and a century from now they will still be used by my great-great-great-grand-dogs. Contrast my friend, who pays $1000 for his gym membership every year.

His setup is much cooler, with lots of options, but it has an over-abundance of features I don’t want to pay for. And features are another area where the Soviet designers chose simplicity. My friend’s gym has Precor treadmills that I love because they are technological marvels. You can adjust the slope and speed, choose from preset programs or customize your own, monitor time and distance and calories burned, measure your heart rate using touch sensors (!), and watch entertainment on an integrated TV screen. But most of that stuff is stupid and, aside from being hugely expensive, the treadmills have so many features that they are fragile. At any given time, 20% are broken and awaiting a service call by repair staff, who probably charge good money. In contrast, my kettlebells have only one feature: they are cannonballs with a handle and they never break.

Instead of features, the Soviet designers went for versatility, which is a little different. The kettlebell is optimized for nothing, but you can use it on a “close enough” basis for many things. Squat it? Yeah, good enough. Weighted pullups? Yeah, close enough, you just hang it off your foot. It sucks but it works. Circuit training? Absolutely. Train the deadlift? Yeah, close enough, you just swing it a lot. Cardio when you have no space to run in? Sure, it’s not optimal but it’s good enough. I have also dragged kettlebells, thrown them, carried them in many positions, juggled them, used them as doorstops, tied errant dogs to them, and pounded soybeans with them. When I was in grad school, I think all I owned was a laptop and some kettlebells. Maybe you could say the kettlebell is “strategically underspecialized.” Contrast Nautilus machines or Hammer Strength machines. The Hammer machines are brilliant designs and so durable they could almost be Russian, but they only do one thing apiece and even now that I have a salary, I don’t have money and space to buy a dozen specialized machines.

101Finally, Soviet gear is always very easy to learn. The designers did not care about ergonomic comfort. In their machines, the Soviets left out many automated or labor-saving features and instead made the end-users pick up the slack by doing those things manually. But the Soviets were design geniuses at simplifying things for the user conceptually. You can figure out a lot of Soviet gear just by watching a quick demonstration and practicing. Especially if you are spurred along by motivational beatings from the sergeant!

The Soviets were designing for teenage draftees who might be functionally illiterate and scarcely understand Russian. (Remember, the USSR had 14 major languages and 51 million citizens who did not know Russian!) They were assured only four quick training cycles under brutal conditions, and then after two years they would go home and forget all their training. But thirty years later they might be called up from the reserves suddenly, issued their old equipment, and fed into battle with no refresher training. So the designers assumed an end-user who might (a) understand nothing the trainers said and then (b) forget almost everything.

They also wanted to minimize the variety and amount of stuff traveling up and down their chronically overstressed supply chain. They wanted fewer parts, less breakage, fewer trips to repair depots, and fewer training sessions. We often say the Soviets prized “reliable” gear, but more precisely, they wanted it to be reliable for the supply officers. It was not necessarily super reliable for the operator: Mosin-Nagant rifles seize up constantly and need to be hammered open, and Soviet vehicles were not designed to be “survivable” for the crew. But their gear is ingeniously optimized for giving a mass army a reliable supply. It seldom breaks, and when it does, the soldier can patch it up in the field well enough to keep it limping along at some minimal level of effectiveness. That soldier may not survive with his patched-up equipment, but there are millions more soldiers in the army who can carry on the fight when he is gone. The designers are interested in supplying the army, not the individual.

But then why would you choose Soviet gear?! If they made it to benefit the logisticians, not the end-user (i.e. you), why would you want it? The answer is that you are also your own logistician. You are responsible for securing equipment you can afford and you are responsible for organizing training for the end-user (i.e. yourself). Since you are responsible for overseeing maintenance, if you do not trust the end-user (yourself) to be diligent about that, you want forgiving gear. You are also the repair depot, so you might want something that you can fix yourself or throw away and replace without a second thought.

20180712_184710This is really huge: no one cares if they manage to break their Soviet gear. But when I have nice gear, I baby it and don’t want to risk it. Take as an example my “Tale of Two Hatchets.” On top is the hatchet I inherited from the grandfather I never met. It is gorgeous and nimble, so I would hate to hit something wrong and bend the edge. Therefore I use it a little tentatively. On bottom is a Soviet surplus hatchet. Calling it “rough-hewn” would be entirely too poetic. It is downright crude. But it hits like Thor’s own hammer, and since I only spent $20 on it, I would not weep if I somehow contrived to break it. In fact, it would be something to brag about.

 

 

 

 

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