Why you should care
Because arcade games are cool. And when they’re from 1970s Soviet Union, they’re even cooler.
When Alexander Stakhanov and his college buddy heard there was an old version of the submarine torpedo gunner game Morskoi Boi (Sea Battle) about to be scrapped in one of Moscow’s cultural parks, they quickly got on the phone. “They really wanted to put it on the garbage,” recalls Stakhanov 10 years later from the arcade museum the two friends have since built. “We bought it for almost nothing.” These days the game, with its pea-green shell and black rubber periscope, looks almost as good as it did in the late ’70s, and the museum has become one of the city’s hottest attractions.
The Museum of Soviet Arcades, located right next to the Bolshoi Theatre in the historic center of Russia’s sprawling capital, isn’t a pristine or stale sort of cultural institution. It includes a bustling café, an upstairs cinema where music gigs and film screenings are regularly held, and no rules — it’s a place where visitors “can touch anything, play with anything and listen to some cool music,” says Stakhanov. Amusements range from Gorodki (the arcade version of a Russian skittles game), several shooters that nod to their pasts as military training tools and Repka, a turnip-pulling strength-o-meter. Oh, and of course, Donkey Kong. At a time when ostalgie, or Russian chic schmaltz, is sweeping Europe, adults flock to the museum as often as kids do, says Stakhanov. He cares little, however, for communism; for him the games are “a nostalgic history about my childhood.”
The day I visit, the place is packed with teens and young families carrying handfuls of Soviet 15-kopeck coins. Arcades found fame in Russia after the 1959 American National Exhibition, in Moscow, which inspired Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to start buying U.S. consumer goods. Khrushchev soon fell in love with arcade games, and began producing them in military defense factories alongside ballistic missile electronics and nuclear weapon sensors. Machines were installed at railway stations, cinemas and cultural parks. Amid the technophilia of the Space Race, video games captivated the country.
But because arcades were made by the military, manuals were classified and disappeared with communism. Games were smuggled across the border to Eastern Bloc nations like Czechoslovakia, says Jaroslav Švelch, a lecturer and researcher at Prague’s Charles University. Meanwhile, parts have become hard to come by and the machines are only going to wear out.
So far, such obstacles hasn’t stopped Stakhanov and his business partners. In addition to the Moscow museum, there are two others, in St. Petersburg and Kazan; a Berlin branch is planned next. To think, “it was once just a couple of guys with these broken machines,” says Stakhanov, his long, curled hair shining beneath the museum’s bright lights.