25 Perplexing Things You Probably Didn’t Know About The USSR

Posted by , Updated on November 16, 2022

Many of us learned about the Soviet Union through heavily propagandistic Hollywood films (a la Rambo III and Rocky IV), where the Soviets were portrayed as evil, mechanical robots with no human feelings whatsoever. However, the truth about America’s greatest rivalry was vastly different. Being one of the world’s two superpowers for most of the second half of the twentieth century, the USSR went head-to-head with the United States in a series of fields from technology to science, military power to sports, and politics to culture. By the mid-1950s, the Cold War had worked its way into the fabric of everyday life in both countries, fueled by the arms race and the growing threat of nuclear war, wide-ranging espionage, the Space Race, the Korean War, and the clash between two different governing and socioeconomic systems. The Soviet Union became the first country to send a satellite (Sputnik), an animal (Laika), a man (Yuri Gagarin), and a woman (Valentina Tereshkova) into space, taking an early lead in the Space Race, but the United States finished stronger by putting a man on the moon (Neil Armstrong). These are 25 Perplexing Things You Probably Didn’t Know About The USSR.


During Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to England (December 1984), his wife, Raisa, told British agriculture minister Michael Jopling that there were more than three hundred ways to cook potatoes in the USSR. When he expressed his doubts, she promised to send him a cookbook, which she did a few months later noting: “My apologies for being somewhat inaccurate: in fact, there are five hundred, rather than three hundred, recipes to cook potatoes.”

Raisa GorbachevaSource: telegraph.co.uk , Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was in space when the Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991. He went up as a Soviet citizen and returned a Russian citizen.

Sergei KrikalevSource: theguardian.com, Image: Wikipedia

One of the most famous guns in the world, the Kalashnikov, was originally created in the Soviet Union in 1947, and has been in use ever since. In fact, there are more copies made of this rifle than of all other assault rifles combined!

KalashnikovSource: Wikipedia, Image: Wikipedia

Ostankino Tower is the highest TV tower in Europe to this day and was the world’s tallest self-supporting structure from 1967 to 1976. It surpassed the Empire State Building, was a masterpiece of Soviet engineering at the time it was built, and became the tallest freestanding structure in the world. It held this record for nine years until the CN Tower was completed in Toronto, Canada, in 1976.

Ostankino TowerSource: great-towers.com, Image: Wikipedia

The first spacecraft to land on another planet and transmit data back to Earth was the Soviet Venera 7. The probe was launched on August 17, 1970, and entered Venus’s atmosphere on December 15. After landing on Venus, the craft sent back only twenty-three minutes of weak data, presumably because it landed on its side.

Venera 7Source: russianspaceweb.com, Image: Wikipedia

Despite the Cold War between the two countries, the Soviet Union won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film on three different occasions: War and Peace (1968), Dersu Uzala (1975), Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980). However, many Soviet directors were more concerned with artistic success than with economic. This contributed to the creation of a large number of more philosophical and poetical films with some of the most well-known being those of Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century.

Mirror (film)Source: Wikipedia, Image: pinterest.com

Laika, arguably the most famous dog of the twentieth century and the first animal launched into orbit, was found as a stray wandering the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists considered that a dog like Laika would be ideal for their mission since she had already learned to endure conditions of extreme cold and hunger on the unfriendly streets of the capital.

LaikaSource: history.nasa.gov, Image: Wikipedia

Operation Barbarossa was the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, which began on June 22, 1941. Nearly ninety-five percent of all German Army casualties occurred from 1941 to 1944 during Operation Barbarossa.

Operation BarbarossaSource: history.com, Image: commons.wikimedia.org

The Soviets liberated Auschwitz, the largest killing center and concentration camp, in January 1945. Actually, the USSR liberated more concentration camps than the rest of the Allies combined.

AuschwitzSource: Wikipedia, Image: pixabay.com

The staples in Soviet passports corroded, while the United States used stainless steel. According to KGB files, hundreds of American agents were caught because their fake “Soviet” passports had the wrong staples and were of poor quality.

Soviet passportSource: chicagotribune.com, Image: Wikipedia

It is estimated that nearly eighty percent of the Soviet males born in 1923 didn’t survive World War II. This led to huge economic problems after the war but the Soviet Union recovered relatively fast.

Soviet prisoners during WW2Source: Wikipedia, Image: Wikipedia

Soviet theaters played The Grapes of Wrath to show how poor the people were in the West under capitalism, but it was later withdrawn because the citizens found it amazing that even the poorest of Americans could afford a car.

The Grapes of WrathSource: telegraph.co.uk, Image: commons.wikimedia.org

On September 20, 1963, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, President Kennedy proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union join forces in their efforts to reach the moon. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was poised to accept Kennedy’s proposal, but after the American president was assassinated, Khrushchev rejected the plan because he didn’t trust Vice President Johnson.

John F. KennedySource: spacedaily.com, Image: Wikipedia

The Soviet Union first participated in the Olympics in 1952. It dominated the medal table in six of its nine appearances at the Summer Games and seven times in nine appearances at the Winter Games. The Soviet athletes won an astonishing 1,204 medals (473 gold) in just eighteen participations and remain to date statistically the most dominant nation in modern Olympic history. Amazingly, the Soviet Union still dominates the all-time medal tables in sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, weightlifting, and both men’s and women’s volleyball twenty-five years after its dissolution.

Soviet athletesSource: Wikipedia, Image: Wikipedia

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was banned in the Soviet Union in 1929 because of its alleged “occultism,” but the book gained popularity on the black market alongside other banned books, and the restriction was lifted in 1940.

Sherlock HolmesSource: Wikipedia, Image: pixabay.com

Ever heard the term Stilyagi? A typical Stilyagi was a member of a youth counterculture from the late 1940s until the early 1960s in the Soviet Union, who listened to Western music and dressed like an American or Western European youngster. The Western media often referred to them as Soviet beatniks or hipsters.

StilyagiSource: Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-century Russia (Book), Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Even though the Soviet Union wasn’t famous for its entertainment industry, it produced one of the most famous video games in history: Tetris. Tetris was created by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while he was working for the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science of the USSR in Moscow. He derived its name from the Greek numerical prefix tetra- (all the game’s pieces contain four segments) and tennis, Pajitnov's favorite sport. It was released in the West two years later and has sold almost 200 million copies since, making it one of the biggest-selling video games ever.

TetrisSource: press.tetris.com, Image: YouTube

During a visit to Boeing (in Seattle, Washington) in the early 1980s, Soviet scientists secretly applied adhesive to the bottom of their shoes in order to covertly collect metal samples from the floor and collect any kind of information they could. According to the KGB, their mission was accomplished.

BoeingSource: damninteresting.com, Image: Wikipedia

Ever heard of “White Coke”, the alternate version of Coca-Cola produced in the 1940s at the request of Georgy Zhukov, the marshal of the Soviet Union? The Soviet was introduced to Coca-Cola during World War II by his counterpart in Western Europe, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a fan of the drink. So, Zhukov commissioned a colorless Coca-Cola that resembled vodka because he loved the taste but was ashamed to be seen drinking the famous American drink in public.

Coca-ColaSource: bbc.com, Image: Wikipedia

Vladimir Demikhov was a Soviet scientist and organ transplant pioneer. The controversial scientist created at least twenty two-headed animals in his quest to perfect the art of transplantation. Although he sounds like a modern-day Dr. Moreau, Demikhov’s work was an attempt to understand how damaged organs can be replaced, or how to create artificial substitutes. Although he’s best remembered for creating the first “two-headed dog” in 1959, his studies would eventually set the stage for similar organ transplants some forty years later.

Two headed dogSource: Wikipedia, Image: Wikipedia

In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev signed an agreement with Nixon – Vice President at the time – to build the first Russian vodka distillery in the United States. Apparently there was one Soviet thing Americans really loved to consume even during the Cold War.

VodkaSource: Wikipedia, Image: Wikipedia

In Soviet Russia some prisoners who were scared for their lives got tattoos of Lenin or Stalin (or both) on their chest or other parts of their bodies, because guards weren’t allowed to shoot at images of their national leaders.

StalinSource: YouTube, Image: Wikipedia

When you think of supersonic flight, you probably think of the Concorde. However, the Concorde wasn’t the first supersonic transporter, and it certainly wasn’t the first commercial plane to break the sound barrier. Those honors belong to the Tupolev TU-144, the USSR’s only supersonic transport that first flew on December 31, 1968, near Moscow, two months before the first flight of the Concorde.

Tupolev TU-144Source: gizmodo.com, Image: Wikipedia

Tsar Bomba is the nickname for the AN602 hydrogen bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. Its test on October 30, 1961, remains the most powerful man-made explosion in human history and produced a mushroom cloud over seven times the height of Everest. The shockwave circled the earth three times and caused windowpanes to be partially broken at distances of 900 km (560 mi). Now you know why we’re lucky the Cold War never became a “hot” one.

Tsar BombaSource: nuclearweaponarchive.org, Image: wikipedia. Comparison of the Tsar Bomba

During the Siege of Leningrad in WWII, a group of Soviet scientists boxed up a cross section of seeds and moved them to the basement of the Hermitage Museum, in an effort to protect the world’s largest seed bank. They refused to eat its contents and by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of them had died of starvation.

Siege of LeningradSource: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, Image: Wikipedia

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