This is the KVN-49, a black-and-white television set produced in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the first set to be mass-produced in the country. It was a popular model. In just over a decade, over 2.5 million KVNs were sold throughout the country.
One striking feature of the television set is the large magnifying lens in front of the screen. The lens is made of plastic and is filled with a clear liquid such as distilled water or glycerol. Obviously, the purpose of the lens is to magnify the screen—a clumsy remedy to a technical limitation of that time, and a financial one too.
The Soviets had a voracious appetite for television but not enough money to buy bigger sets. A new set during the 1950s and the 60s cost anywhere between 850 to 2,600 Rubles, which was several times the average monthly salary of even the urban professionals. A Soviet family able to and willing to spend the hefty sum usually bought a television with a screen no bigger than the size of a post card. The manufacturer would affix a magnifying lens in front of the screen to enlarge the images and elevate the TV-watching experience. For the same sum of money, the family could have bought other household appliances that would have significantly improved their lives, such as a vacuum cleaner or a refrigerator or both. Yet, millions of consumers, irrespective of their salary level, their education and their profession, chose television sets despite their cost, their reputation for breaking down and the limited and low quality of programming available at that time.
The government loved getting the masses hooked into the idiot box because it provided them with a tremendously powerful medium to spread propaganda. In 1959, when the government increased the prices of luxury consumer goods, not only were television sets excluded, but the prices were lowered. Two years later, the government abolished the license fees that television owners had to pay just for possessing a set and receiving television broadcasts. Broadcasting itself was heavily subsidized by the state.
This set, another KVN-49, has a squarish magnifying lens. Photo credit: Soviet Visuals/Twitter
Television first came to the Soviet Union in 1934. The first television sets had tiny screens—less than 10 centimeters diagonally, and made images with a vertical resolution of only 30. Videos had an abysmal frame rate of only 12.5 frames per second. Regular television broadcasting began in 1938, but coverage was limited to only two of the biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. The market grew rapidly after the end of the Second World War, and exploded during the 1950s. The presence of the television in a country as impoverished as the Soviet Union astonished many foreigners who visited the USSR during the first few years after the death of Joseph Stalin. American journalist Marguerite Higgins reported seeing television antennas atop wooden houses, on the outskirts of Moscow, so dilapidated they literally sagged sideways into the mud. Yet, each of the two families crammed into the tiny space possessed a set of their own.
In 1955, there were around 1 million television owners in the Soviet Union, mostly in Moscow. By 1960, that number had risen to nearly 5 million, and then doubled again by 1963 to over 10 million. By the end of the decade there were roughly 25 million households in the USSR with television sets.
The government spared no expense on the development of mass broadcasting, despite the fact that the country was still struggling to provide the basics of quality food, clothing and shelter. In 1960, the year construction began on the enormous broadcasting tower, the Ostankino Tower, in Moscow, roughly a third of all collective farms were operating without electricity, and millions of families were living in cramped communal quarters. Astoundingly, television was never treated as a luxury. Throughout the 1950s and the 60s, factories struggled to keep pace with the demand for television. Stores would have waiting lists for would-be buyers, and some customers had to wait as long as ten months before they could bring home one.
The Ostankino Tower in Moscow. It is currently the tallest free-standing structure in Europe and 11th tallest in the world. Photo credit: vvoe/Shutterstock.com
Perhaps because of the pressing demand, or perhaps because of poor technology, many of the televisions manufactured in Soviet factories tended to break at least once during their first six months of use. Worse still, some TVs, especially the colored television sets, which came much later, exploded and set fire to houses. “In 1980, a total of 2.26 million sets were manufactured and 2,126 fires were reported. Five years later, the number of fires caused by television sets reached 5,490 out of 4.2 million manufactured. People were killed and buildings burned down,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper reported.
Once broken, the TV would sit idle in a corner because the parts required to repair the TV would nowhere to be found. Even if a family did have a functioning television, there was hardly anything to watch. Moscow TV, the country’s most developed station, aired for only four hours daily. But this improved as the years rolled by and the number of channels also skyrocketed, from just 9 channels in 1955 to 121 channels by 1965.
Vladimjr Sappak, one of the most influential television critic of the era, described the power the television had upon the Soviet masses in a poetic way:
It is often difficult to tear ourselves away from that tiny little screen. Why this is so, even we cannot really explain. If I turn on the television by chance and see that there is a movie or a theatrical performance on, l can turn it off right away with a fearless hand. as they say. But all it takes is for me to see those announcers we all know so well now reading the news, or a soccer field with bustling players, an English lesson, or kids in white shirts and pioneer scarves reciting poetry written for the occasion in their ringing voices, and my hand involuntarily hesitates on the off switch. Here [is a place] where you can look at any time and, without thoroughly investigating the heart of the matter; you can just observe the movement of life for a moment, and let the idler inside you wake up and gawk at how the birds are flying, how the grass is growing …. And your hand will not make a move to stop this living life on the screen, to turn it off, to cut it short.
A mechanical scan television set manufactured in the Soviet Union. Photo credit: Runner1616/Wikimedia
A Soviet house with a television set. Photo credit: M. Filimonov/Sputnik
A Soviet family enjoying a television program.
Photo credit: Anatoliy Garanin/Sputnik
A Soviet television store. Photo credit: Anatoliy Garanin/Sputnik
A Soviet television store. Photo credit: Sergey Subbotin/Sputnik