A Soviet Design for Life: Catherine Cooke's 20th Century Russia at Cambridge University

By Ben Miller | 05 July 2012
A photo of an illustration showing crowds holding banners passing a statue of a leader
© Cambridge University Library
Exhibition: A Soviet Design for Life: The Catherine Cooke Collection of 20th Century Russian Architecture and Design, Cambridge University Library Exhibition Centre, Cambridge, until April 6 2013

Catherine Cooke began her career at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture during the 1960s, and had returned as a lecturer there when she died in a car accident eight years ago.

A photo of various illustrations from a bygone book from the former Soviet Union
Cooke occasionally aroused the interest of Russian residents, not to mention the suspicion of government authorities
© Cambridge University Library
Her tragic death was also the loss of a formidable authority on Russia, but the collections she left behind speak volumes for her achievements.

“Catherine collected a great variety of surprising and rare things,” observes curator Mel Bach.

“For example, she owned the original of a letter sent to American artists by 32 of their counterpart Russian artists, designers, and architects during the very early years of the Soviet period.

“It’s an extraordinary primary sources, signed by luminaries such as Rodchenko, Malevich and Tatlin.”

Bach mentions the Royal Academy’s recent show, Building the Revolution, as a signal of increasing interest in Soviet design and architecture, but also believes this exploration of the period is important for its consideration of everyday things alongside those considered monumental.

As well as diligently listing at-risk Modernist Soviet Moscow buildings in her role for protective agency Docomomo, Cooke was a great collector: a 3D book, published in 1934, contains poster instructions on using artillery, and key Communist themes and ideals under the rules of Lenin, Stalin and others are played out through everything from bank notes and badges to the perfume bottles and food packaging which caught her eye.

“The exhibits do tell much of the story of the Soviet Union,” says Bach. “We see the earliest days of the Soviet period in propaganda relating to health, education and politics.

“We see optimisim in the dark days of World War II in postcards, and its long shadow in post-war ration coupons. We see the culmination of the Stalinist period in plans for vast buildings, and we see hopes for the future in the space race and the Moscow Olympics.”

Cigarettes and children’s books also feature, many of them accumulated when the easing of Cold War tensions allowed Cooke to travel more freely through Russia.

She would often weave between provincial towns on a fold-up bike, provoking intrigue among residents and suspicion among officials.

“It provides a narrative about the Soviet period from an unusual angle, looking at its themes through examples of design,” adds Bach.

“There are major historical moments, but we are also reminded of the ordinary people and the day-to-day stories of their lives.

“The turmoil of the Soviet century, good and bad, will, I hope, reach anyone through the visual force of Catherine’s astonishing collection.”

  • Open 9am-6pm (4.30pm Saturday, closed Sunday). Admission free.
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