Reading many illustrated Russian fairy tales and national stories, one may be drawn to the likes of ‘Clumsy Bears’, ‘Red Poppy’, one of my personal favourites ‘Kara-Kum’ as well as other classics by Soviet confectionary manufacturer Красный Октябрь (“Red October”). The Soviet фантики or “candy wrappers” have been an element of discussion predominantly in Russian media over their discourse in the West which remains limited. In this discussion, I strive to illustrate the link of the Soviet candy wrappers to the Russian soul and childhood, particularly fairy tales. In other words, how the art of Soviet candy wrappers presents romance, dreaminess and nature as can be seen in fairy tales – as seen in my eyes.
In the sphere of Russian and Soviet folklore, famous Soviet artists like Ivan Bilibin and Boris Zvorykin created iconic art styles to depict famous Russian fairy tales. Bilibin, who was active in the late 19th to 20th century, created a style of Slavic folk art motifs through a personal art nouveau interpretation (Golynets, 1981). Zvorykin on the other hand contributed to fairy tale illustration in the 1930s during his residence in Paris, creating a delicate style of intricate, colourful artwork emphasising ornamentation according to authors such as Mnuchin, Avril & Losskaya (2008). There were many artists at the turn of the 19th century engaged in the topic of Russian folklore and regardless of the period, artists were typically influenced by visions of nature and the spiritual, creating their aesthetic with many being inspired by work on church iconography pre-Revolution.
From a glance, Red October’s ‘Candied Roasted Nuts’ evokes parts of fairy tale illustrations, especially the framing elements that can often be seen in Bilibin’s work. Looking at Bilibin’s illustration for ‘Ivan and the Firebird’ from 1901, one can make a comparison between the soft curves of a rather feminine floral composition of elements from the tale, with that of the wrapper, which, using two contrasting greens, features the delicate swirl of Cyrillic text ornamented with flaxen motifs of leaves and squirrels. Works of fairy tales today transcend the pages of books in that they are also depicted on traditional Russian lacquer boxes, matryoshka dolls and fans through traditional Russian miniature painting (Russkaja Skazka, n.d.). Clearly relevant in Russian and post-Soviet society and appearing sometimes almost religious from their ornamented and colourful nature, this makes for a curious connection to Soviet-era candy wrappers.
Unlike Western candies of this time, Soviet candies were designed by artists and have since been adapted by other brands within former republics. Red October, Rot Front and Babayevsky are amongst some of the oldest confectionary companies all of which were nationalised in the Soviet Union following the October Revolution of 1917. Others like N. K. Krupskaya rose during the time of the USSR itself. Much like the work of fairy tale art, Soviet candy wrapper design would be taken up by artists such as Michael Gubonin who had previously been engaged with working on church shrines and the painting of churches in the 1940s only to later work in confectionary design in the 1960s. Other prominent artists of the time were Vrubel, the Vastnesov brothers and graphic artist Leonid K. Chelnokov (Roberts, 2016).
The wrapper of one of Red October’s most famous candies, ‘Clumsy Bears’, was largely based on Ivan Shishkin’s painting ‘Morning in a Pine Forest’ 1889. It had been adapted by Manuil Andreev who had also created art for ‘Bear of the North’, ‘Squirrel’ and ‘Come on, take it away!’ according to Lesik (2022). It is often difficult to trace the ownership of specific wrapper designs due to sketches being kept in funds or archives such as by that of N. A. Nekrasov as well as some wrappers not being patented under nationalisation, meaning that several companies in the USSR could use the same designs and recipes for the sweets. For example, an article by Russian culture and education magazine Дилетант (2017) states that it was Russian artist Tatyana Lukyanova instead who had first designed “Bear of the North” for N. K. Krupskaya. Nonetheless, Soviet candies retain the magic of Russian culture, folklore and childhood in their vibrant yet careful design.
The role of nature in both Soviet candy wrappers and fairy tales is unmissable. The fascination with animals and nature in Russian folk tales comes from a deep tie between nature and Russian pagan belief that came before even the onset of Orthodox Christianity. According to Sokolov (1971), old Slavic belief places symbolism on animals through a sense of animism – the belief that animals, but even weather, plants, and geographical elements possess a spiritual nature. Animals have, thus, often been portrayed in original fairy tales as mythical creatures. These would have been retained during periods in which the USSR relaxed censorship. Pushkin’s ‘Tale of Tsar Saltan’ from 1831 features an enchanted swan, a magical squirrel and the prince transforming into a bumblebee, for example. ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ is one such example of a fairy tale that uses Sirins or Alkonosts to present the most revered villain of many Slavic tales – Baba Yaga. It is without a doubt that virtually every Russian fairy tale contains a connection to nature, and this is also shown in its respective illustrations. At the same time, Red October’s ‘Swallow’, ‘Petrel’, ‘Golden Cockerel’ and ‘Clumsy Bears’ directly depict animals. In my view, animals in Soviet candy wrappers are usually presented to be likeable with twists in the name to bring out the playfulness of candies or their texture. Whilst some wrappers are chosen based on flavour, like Babayevsky’s ‘Squirrel’ due to the hazelnut composition of the chocolate that it wraps, most candies adhere to the colour and warmth of the animal kingdom and the spirit of fantasy.
The work of candy wrappers is extremely diverse and dream-like just as the worlds found within fairy tales. When Prince Gvidon makes his way to the residence of Tsar Saltan in Pushkin’s 1831 ‘Tale of Tsar Saltan, he passes over many seas to find shining walls and the golden dome tops monasteries on the breath-taking, mystical island Buyan. Candy wrappers also conjure imagination of mystical lands. Red October’s ‘Kara-Kum’ depicts the dark silhouettes of camels on a backdrop of a golden desert scene, evoking oriental imagery of lavish delights and the warmth of gleaming sands in a passing moment. Although based on the USSR’s very own territory – the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan – it is sold as a faraway, exotic experience to the possessor, inspiring fantasy. RotFront’s ‘Moscow Lights’ is one example of a candy depicting a very real-world location in an enchanting psychedelic purple haze. Red October’s ‘Southern Night’ is perhaps an echo of a warm, southern republic of the USSR or a popular holiday destination. Around the 1980s, candies were created to depict the Jubilee, Olympics and other events although this was more for the purpose of instilling a sense of national identity and pride.
Through the art of confectionary, there is thus more of a dream-like depiction of the real, lived world in the Soviet Union. It can therefore be said that candy wrappers were an invitation for a dreamy journey in Russian folklore and a promise to transport the one who eats the sweet to the blissful geographical immensity of the state. This is the difference between candies and fairy tales as is touched upon in the next paragraph.
Ultimately, story-telling is common to both Russian fairy tales and Soviet candy art. Fairy tales certainly do this in a more literal sense as they directly tell a story. Looking beyond this view, one can see that candies are also a way to tell a tale and usually encompass elements of broader Russian stories in the form of other art forms such as operas, theatre pieces and other media. For example, Red October’s ‘The Golden Cockerel’ is likely an echo of Pushkin’s poem ‘The Tale of the Golden Cockerel’, written in 1834. The wrapper’s design itself was based on a 1955 cartoon of the same name according to Vicidomini (2016). Could Red October’s ‘Swan’ be inspired from the Swan Princess in Pushkin’s 1831 ‘Tale of Tsar Saltan’? Although not directly linking to candy wrapper art, it is also worthwhile mentioning that there are some logos of post-Soviet companies which have sometimes changed to feature motifs of traditional Russian folklore, such as South Ural company Южуралкондитер (“Yuzhuralkonditer”), then ЮУК (“YUUK”), which changed their letter-based logo to one of a firebird in 2006 – an echo of ‘Ivan and the Firebird’. It is important to understand that much like fairy tale books on bedroom shelves, children of the Soviet era collected candy wrappers alongside postcards and badges, the childhood soul being another commonality of both arts.
In conclusion, candy wrappers certainly go hand in hand with the rich folkloric culture of Russia and the Soviet Union as well as a strong spiritual tie to animals and nature that has existed in Russia since the Pre-Christian Rus period. Although made to be disposed of, candy wrappers served a purpose: celebrating the eternal imagery of beautiful Russian fairy tales.