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Visions of human potential on envelope corners

To commemorate the coming of a promising new year and the end of a particularly difficult one, neweurasia has been looking to the future.  Last week we turned earthward, examining the question of whether eventual political and economic unification would be good for the region.  This week we turn heavenward, examining the technological and ideological destiny of Central Asia.

When Timur and I started the “Astrostan” series back in August, we originally intended it to cover just the Kazakh space industry.  We were interested in both the history of the famed Baikonur facility and the cultural role of space exploration in contemporary Kazakh society.  However, the series is now expanding to cover the topic of outer space in general in Central Asia, both past and present, in its entire range of aspects.

The history of outer space in Central Asia is, of course, inextricably tied up with Soviet space exploration.  What I find interesting as a philosopher is the tension that existed between the Soviets’ ambition to change human nature — symbolized by their difficult struggle to reach toward the stars — and the human catastrophes that resulted from their endeavor.  Call it hypocrisy or the metaxology of grand dreams, the Soviets’ mixture of hope and tragedy has lessons for everyone seeking to advance humanity.

Not all of the Soviets’ catastrophes were physiological, although, of course, a great many were.  Many, if not most, were psychological: the constant terror of secret police, the teleogization of art under socialist realism, so on and so on.  Because I’m an author and intellectual, the image of Mikhail Bulgakov burning the original manuscript of The Master and Margarita has been seared into my mind as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s shadow side.

The stamps below, however, represent the light side — the aspiration, the reaching for the possibility of greatness.  In the end, as we all know, the Soviets’ dreams slipped from their grasp, which is why I find these stamps so interesting: stuck to the corners of envelopes, although their imagery may be transcendent, they themselves physically embody the thin, easily disposable nature of Soviet ambitions.

Included are also four Soviet matchbox covers.  Again, the symbolism is striking: on the one hand, the sense of achievement and dignity, on the other hand, the destructiveness and transitiveness of fire itself.

The stamp photographs are from the collection of Flickr user pdxjmorris.  The matchbox photos are from the collection of Flickr user Dan Mogford.  Check out both users’ galleries to see their entire collections.  pdxjmorris’ is really impressive since it’s been gathered from throughout the Communist world, including Cuba and Viet Nam.

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