Playgrounds seem like such innocent spaces, purposefully designed for children. And yet, throughout the former USSR, various play spaces reveal the residing ideology and intent of the Soviet Union.
Publishers David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka – who together make up Zupagrafika – uncovered this reality while travelling, photographing and illustrating the post-war modernist and brutalist architecture in the former Eastern Bloc and Western Europe. This is the focus of the other books they have published.
In their latest book, Soviet Playgrounds, Playful Landscapes of the Former USSR, the pair documented their findings after traversing through eight countries that once formed part of the USSR. They have also partnered with other local photographers – including Alexander Veryovkin, who shot in Russia and Belarus, and Ukrainian photojournalist Oleksandr Ratushniak who was in Kyiv after the Russian shelling in February 2022 – to bring this project to life.
The pictures feature playgrounds from 35 city centres, spanning Kyiv, Dnipro, Donetsk, Ternopil, Vladivostok, Norilsk, Yakutsk, Vorkuta, Minsk, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Dushanbe and Baikonur.
"Soviet Playgrounds reflects the reality of the former USSR," says Navarro and Sobecka, alluding to the structures shaped like rockets, planets and stars. "Many of the cosmos-inspired objects you will find in this book were installed during the Cold War-era space race. It was when every child wanted to be like Juri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space, and so the local governments started massive production of rocket slides so that every child could feel like astronauts in the playground."
The intention was to cultivate communist ideology among the next generation and get them subconsciously exposed to this deeper sense of patriotism through themed play equipment.
Born in the mid-1980s in Poland, Sobecka grew up in playgrounds much like those captured in the book. She remembers using rocket slides, earth-shaped climbers, spaceships, animal-themed ladders and cosmic roundabouts that imitated the communist spirit. However, these spaces are no longer used by children today or are maintained safely.
With many children growing up dreaming of becoming astronauts, particularly during the Cold War era, these playgrounds were used to try and convert the next generation into joining the wider communist political movement and promoting its space and arms achievements. Now with these structures largely lying empty, they are a faint memory of a former Soviet childhood.
Book available for purchase here.