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How Nat Geo Captured the Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

National Geographic provided its readers with a unique look at the U.S.S.R., from its creation in 1917 to its dissolution 25 years ago this month.

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The December 1959 issue of National Geographic featured an article titled "Russia as I Saw It" by U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, who travelled to the Soviet Union to open an exhibition on American consumer goods. (The Russian women, he noted, found American models much too skinny.) The original caption on this photo of a streetcar stop in Sverdlosk (modern Ykaterinburg) observes: "Wherever Russians gather, slogans exhort the people to toe the Communist line," adding that the city is where the Russian Imperial family was executed in 1918.


Twenty-five years ago this Christmas, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the state evening news to formally announce his resignation as president of the Soviet Union.

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In November 1914, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, National Geographic's first full-time editor, published the 102-page "Young Russia." Only a few years before the Communist Revolution, the images captured cities of priests and soldiers, and country sides of peasant farms. This 200-ton church bell, cast in 1735, is known as the Tsar Kolokol, or "King of Bells." It remains on view in the Kremlin grounds to this day.


"You are the inheritors of a great civilization," he somberly told his viewing audience. "It depends on every single one of you so it gets reborn again and has happy and honorable life for us all." (Read "25 Years On, Collapse of Soviet Union Still Brings Cheers—and Tears.")

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In March 1966, an American professor described living as "an ordinary Soviet citizen" for five months in "An American in Russia's Capital." His accounts of living in student housing and shopping in government stores provided people outside the U.S.S.R. with a unique insight into the country. The photo captures the pressures of a rapidly expanding Moscow, with prefabricated apartment buildings edging near traditional cottages and farmland. In the background, a Stalin-era skyscraper looms.


The 30-minute broadcast continued with an update on the war in the Caucasus republic of Georgia, footage of a water-skiing Santa, and the weather forecast. Minutes later, the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin. The following day, the Supreme Soviet issued declaration 142-Н, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially dissolved.

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The March 1967 issue took readers to Siberia, introducing them to reindeer-herding Yakutians and rowdy picnics on the frozen waters of Lake Baikal. Here, a local cafeteria worker peers out of a window framed by ice.


National Geographic magazine first covered Russia in November 1914, as the fading Russian Empire was entering the First World War. More than 100 pages and 16 color plates introduced readers to this boundless land and its myriad peoples. Magazine missives on the revolution and its aftermath appeared regularly throughout 1917, and by 1944 National Geographic's cartographers issued to its subscribers "the first and only available modern map of the Soviet Union with place-names in English."

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Many National Geographic articles on the Soviet Union were photographed, and sometimes written, by Dean Conger. "In a way, I have thought of my work as a 'people to people' project, and my lens as one small peephole through which others may gaze into a world not often seen," he wrote in August 1977. Here, his camera is blocked by a woman in Tashkent. "This woman, proud of her city, probably thought I was trying to depict something substandard," he explained.


As the 20th century continued, National Geographic writers and photographers made occasional, restricted visits to the Soviet Union to document the grand achievements and social and economic failures of the communist state. They marveled at the space program and how women did men's work, chafed at oppressive government minders, and recounted endless conversations with Soviet citizens on the street about whether they owned cars and houses, how much their job paid, and whether America wanted war. (Also see "Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Putin.")

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Back in Siberia in 1977, Conger asked this little girl in Murmansk her age. She replied with a small smile and signaled with her fingers.


National Geographic was also there at the Soviet Union's demise, and our articles and photographs remain an important record of its existence as one of the 20th century's most influential and powerful states.

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Revisiting Siberia once again in March 1990, National Geographic documented the rapid development of industry in the region, both for better and worse. In this photo of Novvy Urengoy, then the world's largest producing natural gas field, the caption likens the workers' apartment housing to "giant boxcars" sitting on the permafrost.


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The Soviet Union was already beginning to unravel by the time we published a November 1990 article on the Baltic nations and their struggle for independence from the U.S.S.R. Unmitigated pollution, as seen in this village next to a cement factory, was one of the many scourges that led dissatisfied citizens to rebel against central Soviet command.


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Documenting the unrest sweeping Russia in February 1991, National Geographic shared the stories of neglected vets from the Afghan War and resurgent religious communities. Here, Red Army generals stand atop Lenin's Tomb to review a parade in honor of the 45th anniversary of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.


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Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, National Geographic returned to Russia and Ukraine in March 1993 to capture the aftermath. Here, a coal miner scrubs down after a shift in the pits around Donetsk, Ukraine. In 1989, strikes by miners in this area helped to discredit the Soviet regime. Today, the area is part of the self-proclaimed pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic.


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