The beauty of old, cheap Soviet watches

Vintage Wostok soviet watch

This is an old “Vostok”, made in the Soviet Union back in — probably — the 80s. I got it off Ebay for about $25, which has become one of my new addictions: Buying odd, good-looking watches from the former USSR.

A year ago I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about the elite Swiss wristwatch industry, and how it was coping with the advent of the smartwatch. (The short version: They were mostly ignoring it.) Anyway, after spending several days oohing and aching over gorgeous, precision-engineered mechanical watches, I wanted one myself! Alas, I don’t quite have $5,000 in spare change kicking around to get myself an entry-level Swiss timepiece.

So I started poking around on Ebay … which is when I discovered crazy old Soviet watches.

There had been watchmakers in Russia for a long time before the Soviet revolution, but in the years after WWII, Stalin was insistent the USSR develop its own inexpensive, quality watches. That was, according to one account, because he’d noticed that Soviet soldiers had developed a taste for them. From Charles M. Lee’s Meeting at Potsdam:

[Stalin] perceived a new and vital danger: Millions of Russian soldiers had seen foreign lands, foreign wealth, foreign freedom. Thousands and thousands had traded everything they had with British and American soldiers for — wristwatches. Wristwatches, gold plated, silver plated, with seventeen-jewel movements: What unimaginable wealth they represented, and every single British and American soldier seemed to have one, and treat it casually, as though it were a mere convenience.

So after the war, several Soviet factories set about making inexpensive mechanical watches that were pretty rugged and inexpensive. They were produced in huge quantities, so while they’re technically vintage, they’re not rare. There are thus tons kicking around on Ebay for not much money: I’ve picked up a few for $15-$40.

If you want to look around yourself, the main brands to search for are Raketa, Vostok (sometimes spelled Wostok or even Bostok, and I usually add “vintage” with this brand name), and Pobeda — which means “victory” in Russian, and was a brand name picked by Stalin himself.

The best thing is how distinctive these things look! Say what you will about the USSR — it was an absolute nightmare for human rights, obviously — but man, they had a rad design aesthetic. Here are a couple I hunted down just now on Ebay …

Obviously “buyer beware” applies if you decide to pick up one of these. As you can see, most of these watches have dings and scratches — they’re not pristine. Me, I kind of like that banged-up look; it certainly matches the Soviet vibe, in a grim sort of way. The watch “crystals” tend to be plastic, and the hands and decorations on the watch-faces are similarly cheap. (That lovely blue watch at the top of this post? A few weeks after I got it, the second hand dislodged and needed to be popped back on.)

But the actual mechanical movements are, in experience, in pretty good shape — the one I’m wearing right now …

Me repairing a old soviet watch

This watch came without a band, so I had to put one on myself.

… hasn’t lost a minute in the last few days of running.

I also find the tick-tick-tick of a mechanical watch oddly … soothing, I guess? It’s a nice metronome to have clicking along in my otherwise silent, digital workplace.

25 thoughts on “The beauty of old, cheap Soviet watches

  1. Winterlion

    Just beware: like you can’t eat just one peanut, it’s very, very hard to have just one Soviet-Russian watch. I got my first (pre-loved) Amphibia about five months ago: what’s not to love? Rugged, reliable, fun to look at, I’m learning lots of history and much more by figuring out where these great timepieces came from and what the pictures on their dials mean. And my small collection hasn’t broken the bank! And I have met on-line many interesting folk, including the very knowledgeable and helpful Dashiell. Amphibias, BTW, started out as hand- winders, like most Soviet watches. The new ones are now automatic. Yes, I recently bought a 1933 pocket watch, so old its name isn’t in the dial. Big watch, nice loud tick, reliable and accurate as usual. Very, very few Soviet watches are quartz/battery powered. Hey Dashiell, is it true that all the Soviet “Masonic” watches are fake, or just almost all, in your experience?

    Reply
    1. Dashiell

      I cannot think of a single authentic Soviet or pre-Soviet piece with masonic symbols on the dial, but this is really jogging my memory. Plenty of other graphics and emblems appeared on dials, especially toward the later 1980s when watch factories were commissioning pieces to stay afloat. Commemorative dials were also common; Clive’s “pobeda3” is a good example of this: http://clivethompson.net/pobeda3/. But the “Masonic” watches are just for unsuspecting tourists, in my opinion — nothing like that originated from any of the known factories, to my knowledge.

      Would love to see your 1933 pocket watch!

      Reply
    2. Clive Post author

      Aha, Winterlion, a pocket watch! I’d seen some old Soviet ones but haven’t thought about getting one yet. It’s a cool idea …

      (Dashiell, I haven’t seen any Masonic symbols either, but then again I may not have been looking for them …)

      Reply
  2. Alice

    I love Russian watches! I’m in Russia now for vacation and just got a Poljot with Putin’s signature on it! Automatic watch of which there are only 50 made!

    Reply
          1. Clive Post author

            Aha, those pieces are great! That’s a wonderful story of how you got involved in collecting these things.

            That Chaika 3050 is drop-dead gorgeous and I will not rest until I possess one. There’s one up for sale now … http://www.ebay.com/itm/RARE-Massive-Chaika-Chajka-Quartz-Rezonator-Resonator-Electronic-Mechanical/252640750134?_trksid=p2047675.c100011.m1850&_trkparms=aid%3D222007%26algo%3DSIC.MBE%26ao%3D1%26asc%3D38530%26meid%3Da9a2296df4b0423580c530939063eb2f%26pid%3D100011%26rk%3D5%26rkt%3D5%26sd%3D281487989373

  3. madis

    I may be wrong, but I kind of rememeber the technology for Soviet watches- like many other Soviet technology achievements – was to a large extent based on either world war II compensations- from Germany. Especially the production lines etc

    Reply
  4. John Pallister

    I bought a couple of Amphibia watches on eBay for less than £20 each (without straps, admittedly) – I love them! I think I’ll be getting more having read your post. Thanks! It’s great to be reading your blog again. (Also FWIW you have “Pobeda” twice in your list of brands.)

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Aha, the Amphibia ones — they’re the newer models, yes? Being made by the Russian watchmaking firm that still operates that brand? I wondered what the build quality was like on them. Are they mechanical/automatic or quartz? If the former, they sell at a remarkably low price for that sort of engineering.

      Pobeda, fixed — thank you! Glad you’re enjoying the posts, sir!

      Reply
      1. John Pallister

        Yes, I believe you’re right – they certainly seem newly constructed rather than vintage. They’re mechanical, or at least they definitely need winding every day or two. I don’t think they claim to be self-winding. Build quality seems OK, although I’m no connoisseur. I could do with a date display though, so I might get something more genuinely Soviet comparison.

        Sometimes I idly wonder whether there are places where wearing a watch with a Russian flag on it might inadvertently cause problems, but I suspect I’m pretty safe here in Norfolk.

        Reply
        1. Clive Post author

          I’ve wondered that too about some of the Soviet watches. Obviously I admire the design aesthetic, but there are plenty of people still around who suffered through a *lot* in the USSR … not as sure they’re down with folks like me cheerfully indulging my delight in these designs.

          As a case in point, behold the Pobeda “Luftewaffe” design: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Soviet-Russia-USSR-watch-ZIM-Pobeda-Luftwaffe-Messerschmitt-Pilot-ww2-/262418926257?hash=item3d19630ab1:g:kAwAAOSw2x1XKQo~

          That’s a really pretty watch! But, you know: LUFTEWAFFE.

          Reply
          1. John Pallister

            Yes, I see your point. (“I’m no sympathiser, but the aesthetic…” – stop right there.) But the whole “loaded symbol” thing – if I search for “russian watch masonic” I get all sorts of weird & wonderful results. But because it’s 2016 my first reaction is to ask of such a watch, “is it real (or a lure crafted to hook me like a fish)?” But what do I mean by that? It’s as real as my shiny Amphibia with its red star and a picture of a Russian submarine on the front. Is it a tangible link back through time into a hitherto-unimagined underground subculture of Soviet Freemasonry? Probably not, but I could easily buy the watch and pretend it was. That would allow me to extrapolate enough Gibsonian resonance to make the exercise worthwhile.

            I’d like to tie that back to some pithy point about people voting for Trump after crafting their own echolalia chamber Facebookocoon but it’s past my bedtime. 🙂

          2. Dashiell

            Good instincts, John. These are completely fake watches — modern reproductions playing into the idea of what Westerners assume Russian watches “should” look like. It’s important to cross-reference any Soviet watches with catalogs or reputable collections to ensure authenticity. Modern counterfeits abound.

  5. Ken Knudson

    Geez, I completely forgot how pleasant that tick-tick-ticking was! I have half a mind to go out and buy a big honkin pocket watch — nice loud ticker, dontcha know…

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      What’s particularly lovely is that the ticking is quiet enough that I don’t hear it most of the time … until I happen to reach up with my left arm, either to adjust my glasses or run my hands through my hair or just rest my chin on my first, then then, boom: I can hear the ticking, quietly, up close. It’s really pretty.

      Reply

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