Balloon Revolution in the Soviet Union

»Let’s vulcanize the soul and body!
From a poem in the newspaper ›Resin‹, May 05, 1933.
By Artúr van Balen, October 2017

This story began in 2013, when I worked with the Russian artist group ›Partisanning‹ to make an inflatable saw for a campaign against corruption in Moscow. The sculpture received widespread media attention, as it was inflated at the first protest after a year of silence.

Georg Zelma, inflatable huts on Red Square, date unknown (1930s). Courtesy Moscow House of Photography.

Through this public interest, a Russian friend sent us a picture by Georgy Zelma (1906–84), on which a parade of inflatable huts was depicted in Red Square in the 1930s (the exact date is unknown).  In the collection of Georgy Zelma’s work there is a similar photograph depicting the event. On the side of one of the inflatable huts a banner reads: »Lets exchange straw roofs for tiles!«, which could lead us believe that the parade was held by the Moscow fire brigade. Zelma’s family has sold his photographic archive and has no information about the photograph, nor did any art historians specialized in Soviet history. The huts looked technologically in such an advanced state, that I was convinced that this could not be merely a singular event in the Soviet Union before the Second World War.

A search in the archives of Moscow and Saint Petersburg followed, where I began to study press, photo and video materials relating to May Day (International Workers’ Day) and November 7 (the anniversary of the October Revolution) — the main Soviet holidays of that time. It turned out that between 1933 and 1938 official Soviet celebrations were not imaginable without these bizarre ›figure balloons‹.

Such figure balloons, floating sculptures, were made of plastic rubber and filled with air, helium or hydrogen, and were very fashionable at the time. Such objects appeared in 1927 on the streets of New York during the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. These figure balloons are like extensions of the shop window displays of the department store, intended to mesmerise and to stimulate consumption. In the 1930s, these objects mirrored the rise of modern consumer culture.

1934, Mickey Mouse under construction in the Goodyear Hangar. Courtesy University of Akron Archival services.

In the United States, the balloons most often embodied characters from comics and cartoons — funny smiling creatures with huge eyes. Soviet inflatable figures, too, were in their own way comical, but at the same time revealed a darker, more sinister undercurrent. In this sense, the most incredible was the 20-meter monster, carried across Red Square in 1934. The image of a man, an insect, and a reptilian united in one creature. On his face, human traits were attributed: furious eyes, nose, mouth and even a mustache painted in cartoonish style with black and white paint. The curved body was most likely a caterpillar, an animal in the stage of transformation. The seams on the head of the devil all lead towards a central, bright spot on the forehead, were a swastika is painted. The figure symbolized the threat of National Socialism, growing in strength at the time in Germany.

Moscow, 1934. Inflatable caterpillar-monster carried on the 17th anniversary of the October Revolution. Courtesy Russian State Film and Photo Archive (RGAKFD)

The figure balloons in the Soviet Union had an educational character and were part of the ›production propaganda‹, demonstrating technological progress for the communist dream. They appeared alongside parade floats, that artists and amateur clubs of factories skillfully produced for the national celebrations. Some of these objects, like the fascist behemoth, also refer to the much older Russian peasant tradition of carnival, which was assimilated into the new Soviet culture.

Ohio, 1933. Anthony Sarg, puppeteer and founder of the Macy’s Figure Balloon parade, plays with an inflatable elephant. The ears are made of paper. Courtesy University of Akron Archival Services.

Looking at the fascist monster, I paid close attention to its ears: they were not part of the inflatable sculpture, but were glued to it — as if technically performing this shape from the main material was still difficult. This technique reminded me of an inflatable elephant with very similar paper ears, which was shown at the parade in the United States a year earlier. I wondered why these two curly balloon-ears appeared so similar in style and technique? Did the United States and the Soviet Union simultaneously begin to use the balloons in mass demonstrations by coincidence, or did the socialist state borrow the aesthetics of the capitalist spectacle that became the surrealistic embodiment of the myth of the American dream?

Although no link can be proven, examples of appropriation in other spheres of mass impact exist. The comedy musical film ›The Circus‹ (1936) by Soviet director Grigory Alexandrov describes a similar experience. The film tells the story of an American actress called Marion Dixon, played by Lyubov Orlova, who escapes racial tensions in the south of the US, comes to the Soviet Union with a  complex technological attraction to the ›Flight to the Moon‹: she is catapulted like a bullet from a German-American designed cannon. Dixon’s fee is too high for the directors of the Moscow circus, and they decide to copy the spectacle themselves. The American remains in the Soviet Union after falling in love, and is launched into the circus ›stratosphere‹, released from a Soviet cannon. In the happy ending of the film, Marion, now known as Masha, is completely assimilated into the new society, and is seen marching in the first column on Red Square. A large red balloon rises in the sky.