Category: Watches

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.