The photo below is a wonderfully candid image of what appears to be a Soviet soldier returning home on leave. I acquired it from a seller in the former Lithuanian SSR who specializes in Soviet-era antiques and ephemera. There are no dates or identifying information on the photo itself, but some online research yields a few clues: First, the uniform is either from the so-called “Modernized” era of 1969 to 1987, or from the “End of Empire” era of 1988 to 1991. The “CA” on his epaulettes indicates he was in the Soviet Army’s infantry, and there are no stripes on the board, meaning he was a private at the time. The shield-like badge near his collar has a “2,” on it, making it a second-class proficiency badge for enlisted soldiers. The Opel that he’s leaning against looks to be from the 1980s.
The different facets of the image are intriguing in and of themselves and they are complemented by the warm sentiment visible on this young soldier’s face. But the historical value of the picture is greater than the individual curiosities of his uniform and surroundings, because the photo captures a moment in time from a place that no longer exists on any map: the USSR.
As far as I am aware, this photo is hitherto unpublished.
Written in July 2015 for the site “Suicide Dive,” this piece was originally entitled, “Yes, It Really Happened: When Politics Met Wrestling” and it included this preface:
“Yes, It Really Happened” is Suicide Dive’s weekly throwback to weird, lesser-known angles and stories from the past. We’ll revisit some of these not-so-classic moments of yesteryear, providing links, pictures and videos along the way. Got an idea for a future installment? Leave a note in the comments section below.
Long before the likes of Jerry Springer, Steve Wilkos, or even Morton Downy Jr. there was Wally George. Widely regarded as the founding father of “combat television, the platinum-coiffed television host introduced America to the loud-in-your-face confrontational style that is a mainstay on today’s afternoon lineup. He seasoned the mix with a healthy amount of over-the-top jingoism and high praise for then-President Ronald Reagan, often ruffling feathers of his political foes with insult-laden tirades and hyperbole. In some respects, it was a simpler time…
Wally George was the ultimate “right fighter” of his day, taking on any and all subjects he deemed improper. He hosted adult film stars, metal and punk rockers and—somewhere along the way—he turned his attention to the world of pro wrestling. It’s worth noting that back in those days, it was an open secret that wrestling was scripted and predetermined. Even more importantly, wrestling was absolutely on fire and on the rise as a pop culture institution and Hulk Hogan was the face of the business.
Wally wasn’t having it, though, and in his eclectic cavalcade of guests he included wrestlers of all sorts, including macho heels, Amazonian women, and even a mud wrestler or three.
The TV host’s fixation with pro wrestling is best viewed with a grain of salt and the benefit of hindsight. A prime example is his mid-‘80s meeting with bodybuilder and wrester Don Ross who was working in the ring as Ripper Savage. Things got heated quickly, as Savage started working the crowd from the moment his glutes hit Wally’s appropriately-named “Hot Seat.” with some cheap heel heat, likening Wally’s rabid crowd to a “Nazi youth meeting” and calling them “animals.”
Later in their discussion (which was really more of a yelling match), Wally took some shots at Ripper, openly questioning the legitimacy of his work inside the squared circle.
“What kind of theatrics was that you were playing in the ring there, huh?” George jabbed. “I want to tell you one thing, Ripper Savage: You are not a wrestler… What you are is an actor–and a bad actor!”
Wally also welcomed gargantuan female grappler Queen Kong — better known to some via the moniker Matilda the Hun — to his show, and in a particularly antagonistic interview, he declared her to be “a disgrace to womanhood” as his peanut gallery chanted, “Sick! Sick! Sick!” For her part, Kong dismissed Wally as a “wimp” and ridiculed his audience relentlessly. At one point, Wally asked Quennie if she could go toe-to-toe with Hulk Hogan and she replied that she’d have been up for the challenge for sure.
“When Hulk Hogan got through with you, maybe you’d look like half a woman again,” Wally quipped.
Of course, a healthy amount of all Wally’s material was shtick and theatrics. In fact, he even made a cameo in the 1985 cult classic Grunt! The Wrestling Movie. As his career progressed, Wally George’s television escapades actually came to resemble the world of pro wrestling without the confines of turnbuckles and ring ropes. He even staged a back room brawl with disc jockey Rick Dees during their lengthy public feud.
Nowadays, WWE does a decent job of transitioning real-world celebrities into the confines of their parallel universe, albeit for very short periods of time. But the peak of Wally George’s fame came at a different time when kayfabe was the reality and folks didn’t think too hard about that nebulous place where sports and entertainment overlap.
Sorting through another set of 35 mm slides featuring photos taken by a world traveler from days past, I have discovered a few more images of the USSR from the Brezhnev Era. The pictures below are from an unpublished private collection. Judging from the dates on the slides and the decorations on the Kremlin Wall, these photos appear to have been taken during a celebration of the Great October Socialist Revolution in November 1981.
These images were produced using a Wolverine F2D-8 slide & negative scanner.
Click on the photos to view larger images.
The Red Banner of the USSR atop the Grand Kremlin Palace. On the right is the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin
The Grand Kremlin Palace. Note the flags of Soviet Republics on the lower portion of the roof. The “CCCP” and Soviet State Emblem were removed in 1991.
The Lenin Mausoleum with ceremonial decorations on the Kremlin Wall.
It’s the perfect marriage of my appreciation for Soviet-era ephemera and “found photos”: I have acquired a number of old 35 mm slides of photos by various and sundry unnamed world travelers, taken during the 1970s and 1980s. The collections I am currently sorting through include hitherto unpublished scenes from the USSR and Eastern Europe.
Below are some newly discovered photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, taken during a tourist’s visit to Moscow in 1978. The colors have faded, but there is a lingering charm in these images, as they were captured in the midst of an era in which many westerners were taught to regard the Soviet Union as a closed and unwelcoming frontier.
Click on the photos to view larger images.
The images above were produced using a Wolverine F2D-8 slide & negative scanner.