The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines and the Country Without A Past

John Harrison

There aren’t many cities in the world which can boast of a museum dedicated to gaming machines in a downtown area. Moscow, with her hundreds of museums, is an exception. This museum to be one of the most bizarre, and entertaining places (up there with the Vodka museum at Izamailova) in town. Here at Kuznetsky Most 12, for 450 roubles, you can be instantly transported back to the freckled-skin innocent flirting youth of your past when going to the cinema was still in vogue and hanging out in the gaming arcade in Gorky Park was the thing to do. Welcome to the Soviet Union’s version of gaming machines, which perhaps were not as thrilling or financially killing as their western associates, which they were modeled on, but nevertheless, had, and still have, a certain charm, an undeniable ’Soviet’ essence. This essence can be felt through the giggling faces of young visitors who want to experience what their parents, or grandparents got their kicks from after inserting 15 Kopeck coins into these antiquated, but still stubbornly functioning devices.This place may not be the ultimate thrill for the Pin Ball Wizard, but it probably will provide, with its loud primitive bangs and clashes a journey back into a never never pre-digital land of entertainment of our collective pasts, or a trip into a Pop Art Soviet Disney land for everybody else if you missed out on ‘Morskoi Boi’ in your childhood.The games are operated using 15 kopeck coins, and you are given 15 of these in a folded paper cone as you buy your ticket. 15 kopecks seems like a joke now, but I remember the time when 15 kopecks was the cost of a good cup of coffee, that is if you could find anywhere to buy a good cup of coffee in the late Soviet period without having to queue up for a stultifying long time. Gaming machines started appearing in this country (sorry, that country — which is when I remember that I live in a country of 144.3 million expats) in the 1960s, but became popular, that is, were found outside the guarded palatial ghettoes of the ‘Golden Youth’ in the 70s and 80s.The strange thing about this arcade is that the machines look like the games that stood on the Blackpool  piers and inside the foyers of the Odeon and Palladium buildings, but are somehow different. They seem to be somehow more ‘dobry’ (good), and positive. You don’t spend your time staring as your coin fails to knock down that delicious sweet, and never get your satisfaction. The game which you can test your strength on exemplifies this principle. You don’t have to hit anything or anybody, you merely pull a lever towards yourself with all your strength. ‘One Arm Bandits’ and any other gambling machines were forbidden in the Soviet Union; why gamble your time and money away when you live in paradise! It was impossible to win money on these games, you could win a prize — a toy or something, but not money. You couldn’t win on the same machine more than twice in a row. Olga Ustinova, the museum’s manager explained to me that such were the realities of the Soviet socialist economy. I believed him.Here you find children, teenagers and mums and dads laughing. Perhaps it is the novelty of playing with a three dimensional object which exists in time (past) and space rather than two dimensional computer screens which seem to exist in both but are at the same time in neither. This is something clearly old yet fiendishly new. Fun.Apparently, games were also used for training and testing proposes. Some were used to test candidates’ eyesight and alertness, when being interviewed for the armed forces. It took me a good hour of peering into periscopes and viewfinders releasing torpedoes at ships, throwing grenades at soldiers and shooting down planes with really cool primitive Tetris technology to realize that I was having great fun, but then to figure out that many of games are based on military themes.Such was the omnipresence of the militarisation of ‘dobry’ Soviet society. What is striking though, is that these games don’t lower themselves to the level of naming the enemy.I also thought, at first, that the museum is part of the ongoing movement to rehabilitate the Soviet Union, but this museum opened 10 years ago, and today’s Russia, sorry, really not very much like the Soviet Union although many insist we are plummeting back. The museum seems to work on feeding people’s nostalgia. Not for the Soviet Union, no thanks, but for their childhoods, or their missed childhoods.Nostalgia as a political and cultural force is incredibly powerful in any country, all the more so in country without a past.

The many different kinds of game machines represented in this museum actually had quite a short active life. After the fall of the Soviet Union, western games were imported in the form of computer software, with digital graphic interfaces. Enter Nintendo, Sony and other game platforms. The old Soviet machines which relied on mirrors and optics to create the illusion of space, became outdated almost overnight, and it certainly was much cooler to get dad to buy a Game Boy and an interface, and play with that with your friends than go to a rundown park and communicate with one of these out of vogue monsters. These sad unwanted bits of metal, wood, transistors valves cathodes and TV screens were abandoned as quickly as the statues of Soviet heroes; their lights dimmed by the internalising glare of the internet and the power of second generation computer and video games. The statues, which are virtually indestructible, found a kitchy home, the gaming machines did not.Fortunately for a few of them (the machines), a bunch of students who wanted to have a ‘Morskoi Boi’ all for themselves, phoned around the country and eventually found a whole pile of lonely  machines rotting away in a park. They bought them for ‘symbolic’ amount, restored them, thanks to their Soviet technical educations, and that was how it started.The museum has expanded to St. Petersburg where there is now a museum hosting 40 machines, and plans are afoot to open up a branch in Berlin, where Olga says that she thinks there is a demand for this kind of thing.The museum also houses various ‘public service’ machines. There is, for example, a wondrous apparition — a ‘Gazirovannaya Voda’ machine (Sparkling Water Machine) which first came out in the 1950s and wee produced in the millions. I was given a three kopeck coin and a cut glass glass (remember them?), I placed it inside the machine, gingerly inserted my coin, and the glass was filled with brown foamy water with syrup.The liquid was sickly sweet, tastes something like ‘Kvas’ and totally addictive. I had another and another. Each machine had its own glass which used to be tied to it with pieces of string, and you were supposed to turn your own upside down to rinse it, ready for the next customer. Such were the realities of a more communal lifestyle. I closed my eyes and remembered one of those hot summers in the late 1980s when rows of them stood outside the Central Telegraph on Ulitsa Gorky. Such machines were all picked up and packed away for the winter. One autumn they were taken away for good. The museum has a cafe and they organise  jazz evenings, public lectures and film showings; in Russian.   

The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines is a private interactive historical museum, where a unique collection of playable arcade machines from the Soviet Union is presented. The museum was founded by three enthusiasts, who collected arcade machines from the former Soviet Union, transported and restored them with love and care so they can be played. The collection continues to grow constantly. The first Museum of the Soviet Arcade Machines was opened in Moscow in 2007, and had a great amount of success among Moscow citizens and foreign visitors who found there exactly what they looking for: exciting time machines.

Entrance ticket – 450 rubles

Real gamers are welcome to play every day: Monday through Sunday from 11 till 9 p.m.

Kuznetsky Most 12. Nearest Metro stations: Kuznetsky Most and Lyubyanka

http://www.15kop.ru/

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