An Afternoon in Siberia Remembered

A very interesting article from Cool Hunting concerning a collection of late Soviet-era arcade games brings me back to a rare and fond memory of a Summer trip in Siberia.

In the Summer of 1990, at the age of 16, I was an exchange student in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinsburg) in the Ural region of the then still Soviet Union.  Blessed with an unusually fine and warm season, my Russian counterpart Dmitri and I spent most of our time boating on the many lakes, climbing the many mountains, visiting remote dachas of his distant family members and at one point even snooping around missile silos.  There eventually came a rainy week, however, which put our outdoor adventures on pause and Dmitri’s mother, keen to get us out of the apartment, filled our pockets with kopek coins and sent us off to the Sports Palace, which boasted, along with its squash courts and olympic size pool, a room full of arcade games.

Here all the local boys congregated in their capri pants, drinking banana flavored pop and chain smoking potent opium-tinged Kazakh filterless cigarettes.  Each was master of their own particular game, and each eager to show me their skills – I being, literally, the only foreigner in a city of 1.5 million…  hardly an exagerration, having been selected to visit the formerly “closed” city as a representative of neutral Ireland, I was something of a herald of the “opening up” to come!

Sverdlovsk had been a key manufacturing point for the T-series tanks in WWII.

Only weeks prior to this I had been with my own family at the Darian Lake theme park in Upstate New York and had ducked out of a sudden thunderstorm into a large tent arcade with mostly point-and-shoot games to wait it out.  I selected the first machine at hand, a TMNT, one of my all-time favourites, and popped an Irish 5 pence piece, at the time the exact same size and weight of a US quarter but only 1/3 the value, into the slot.  Placing my hands into position, left on joystick, right on kick and punch buttons, I prepared for round one when a terrific shock blasted me across the room.  Whether caused by the torrential rain leaking through the canvas or the bad luck of the particular coin I used, I lay on the ground bruised and tingling from whatever it was that led to the short-circuit, my elbows feeling as if they had nearly been blown out of their sockets.

Propaganda, of which there were still many examples in 1989.

Still smarting from my bad experience, I remained apprehensive of the bulking great arcade machines of Sverdlovsk, which looked like they could potentially do a lot worse than just electrocute me.  Though the Tetris game was very familiar, the others were odd clunky imitations of games I had seen in Irish coastal resorts, such as Courtown, years before.  Shooting bottles off a wall, driving without going off the road, round and round the same track.  I was polite in that I was happy enough just to watch, and take in the competitive banter.  But it was all very tame, there were no games killing imperialist transgressors, or battling Mujaheddin on desert turf.  Perhaps there was a duck-shooting game.

It was the last Summer of the Soviets before the big changes started kicking in and it would be a local Sverdlovsk hero, Boris Yeltsin, would lead the way through.  I wonder about those boys, how their lives turned out in the aggresive post-Communist smash-and-grab climate.  Did they become cops or gangsters?  Junkies or hopeless drunks, crushed by the desperation after the carpet was pulled out from under them, their secure futures evaporated?  Did their lives improve?  Do they still play games and think back to a more innocent time when they proudly showed their high scores to the first foreigner they ever met…?

My hosts, who I have unfortunately lost contact with.  Dmitri is on the right.

I wonder too if there’s any chance they’ve perhaps played a game I have localized for the Russian market?

Here’s a direct link to the Moscow Museum of Soviet Arcade Games (translated by Google).  I would definitely visit if the opportunity to visit Moscow ever presents itself again!