Ordinary Life in the USSR

Women and Children in a Socialist Society, 1961

Estuary Press is proud to announce the forthcoming publication of the photo book Ordinary Life in the USSR, Women and Children in a Socialist Society,1961. Publication is scheduled for May, 2022. Ordinary Life in the USSR is volume one in the Critical Focus Series forthcoming from Estuary Press. The Series arises out of the 1986 publication of Critical Focus: The Black and White Photographs of Harvey Wilson Richards. In the context of the current crisis in Ukraine, publishing a book on one of the most outstanding accomplishments of the socialist period in Russia might seem untimely, to say the least. This project, however, has been in process for months, if not years. So the current controversy surrounding Russia was not part of the publication plan.

It is ironic that the Ukrainian crisis and the publication of this volume coincide. When Harvey and Alice made the films on the USSR in 1961, the USSR was almost as unpopular then as Russia is now which illustrates the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The unpopularity of the USSR in the midst of the Cold War in1961 did not deter us from making the film. And the unpopularity of Russia in the west today will not deter the publication of this book. The story it tells about women and children in the USSR, events that do not often make headlines, is as important today as it was back sixty years ago when we made the films. And whatever the outcome of the current conflict, the struggle to create adequate social safety networks to support women and children will continue world wide.

From the Introduction to Ordinary Life in the USSR

002 Alice and Harvey by Imogen Cunningham 1953
Alice and Harvey Richards, 1953. Photo by Imogen Cunningham.

With over 300 photos, in color and black and white, Ordinary Life in the USSR , Women and Children in a Socialist Society 1961 tells the story of Harvey and Alice Richards’ amazing trip to the Soviet Union that summer. I accompanied them on this five week journey as a 17 year old fresh out of high school. Their goal was to document the social safety network that existed in the Soviet Union for women and children in a socialist society. Alice Richards’ script from the films “A Visit to the Soviet Union, Part 1: Women of Russia” and “A Visit to the Soviet Union, Part 2: Far from Moscow” is the text of the book along with Harvey Richards’ photography of our journey to the USSR during the Cold War.

The book follows the films as closely as possible adding many previously unpublished still images taken during the filming. The resulting photo book reveals the achievements of the USSR in creating a social safety network for women and children. Alice led our efforts in meeting people in a variety of settings including work places, maternity wards, schools, universities, homes and child care institutions, and even a fashion show. We spent most of our time in Moscow but also visited Sochi on the Black Sea coast, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Irkutsk in Siberia.

Our trip was arranged with the cooperation of the Soviet Women’s Committee as part of ongoing relationships that Harvey and Alice Richards developed hosting women from the USSR visiting the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The Soviet Women’s Committee provided interpreters, transportation and arrangements for our itinerary.

Two documentary films and hundreds of images preserved in the Harvey Richards Media Archive, and presented in this book, are a portrait of the Soviet Union at a time in history 15 years after the end of World War II. Every adult in these photos had experienced the cataclysmic events of World War II. Millions of their contemporaries had died in the fight to destroy fascism and defeat Nazi Germany. Millions of homes had been destroyed during the invasion and bombings leaving twenty five million homeless. There were 20 million more women than men in the post war world of the USSR which in 1961 was still in the midst of rebuilding itself anew after all of the destruction and death of World War II.

Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the history of care and relative prosperity experienced by women and children during the Soviet period is now a lasting legacy in the world still struggling to achieve equality and justice for women. Our trip occurred at the height of the cold war when visiting the Soviet Union was rare for Americans. Alice and Harvey’s purpose was to contribute to the peace movement by offering positive images and information documenting the remarkable advances achieved in the conditions of women and children in a socialist society.
When we returned to California, Harvey and Alice wrote the script, edited the film and released the two films. The films were then projected for small groups locally in the San Francisco area interested in helping to build friendly public opinion about the the USSR to counter Cold War hostility.

Between 1962 and 2011 the films went into storage. As part of creating the Harvey Richards Media Archive web site in 2011, I digitized the films and extracted short clips from each film which I put up on my YouTube channel as previews. I entitled the clips from the Russian films “Ordinary Life in the USSR, 1961.” As of January, 2022 over one million viewers had visited my YouTube channel, including over 682,000 views of the “Ordinary Life in the USSR 1961” clip alone. Viewers have come from 120 countries around the world. This amazing response to the video motivated the publication of this book as the first volume of the Critical Focus Series.

Now, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, years after both Harvey and Alice’s deaths, these films remain as relevant as ever. Turning the films into a book aims retell our story again today in print to contribute to the global struggle to create social networks of support for women and children everywhere. This book is offered in hopes of providing information to the book reading public, to educational institutions and libraries of the world to help in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality for women. Creating and maintaining a social safety net for women in all societies is a necessary step along this road.

Me, at age 17, holding the camera on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia during the filming of Ordinary Life in the USSR
1961, Lake Baikal, Siberia. Paul Richards (center) holding the camera during the filming of Ordinary Life in the USSR.

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