How do you say ‘mestizo’ in Russian?


Above is one of many images of Soviet playing cards bearing Maya-inspired illustrations from a post on EnglishRussia.com, as referred to tirado/thrown through a special informant.  

Aside from being visual delights, you are initially left trying to ask questions about their provenance, much less making the attempt to decipher them.  They merely rest taciturn, sphinx-like, callado, to whatever you attempt to ask yourself, because they are quite fascinating.  Whatever inspired the workers at the Soviet state enterprise responsible for producing these magnificent artifacts, they generated a pretty exquisite group of cards; they’re imaginative and downright noteworthy.   Who knows? Perhaps a bored KGB officer doing slop-work in 1950s Mexico City came across a deck of Aztec playing cards from Baraja Cuauhtemoc and passed over the naipes to an acquaintance at the state playing card factory in an act of camaraderie. 


The magic of cards like these is that they are portable pictograms giving the the gamepiece something more interesting to look  at and wonder about than a regular stack of casino cards.  Seriously, they beat the Grateful Dead Aztec-Inspired playing cards.  Want to get a sense for Mayan language and culture during a few hours off?  Take your card to the library and check it against a codex and lexicon!  To think that gambling implements could have the potential to be edifying!


Modernist flourishes on the Soviet cards such as the cats the queens hold in her hands speak of a mixture of ancient imagery and contemporary adaptation.   The distinct configurations of each of the two jokers in the deck speaks to the confluence of Mesoamerican and European at work in the deck.  The blue card seems to be rendered with a more appearance, while the red one seems almost Medieval European in a Mayan style, but I leave that up to experts to decide.



However, the images on the face cards are quite faithful to the drawings in codices: with respect to gestures, facial expressions, postures, decoration, and detail, which makes them all the more interesting to discover.

Still, the cards leave me with more questions than answers.  Is the existence of these cards a trace of a mestizaje in the USSR in the form of a curiously made instruments for everyday entertainment, or is it just a fluke of historical detritus washed ashore?  What do these items say about the way Soviets conceived the work of producing items for everyday life?  Why the odd reaction of being surprised at the discovery that Soviets (of all people-gasp!) produced these cards for everyday use when in the US typically has largely uniform face cards from a number of different companies, and when decorated cards would be only for serious gamers and sold as speciality items?  When will we see Mexican and Central-American takes on the matryoshka doll?  Or perhaps more symmetrically, could we find a Latin-American toy, like a balero, trompo, or loteria game festooned with Russian-style decorations? 

At some point, it would be great to give those Cuauhtemoc cards the kind of critical treatment they, as well as these Soviet ones, rightfully deserve.  For now, I am of mixed emotions.  At once I am unexplainably melancholy at seeing items produced by a now-lost regime bearing images from a destroyed civilization.  At the same time, I’m quietly joyful for their existence.


Image Credits- Maya Cards: Picdit, English Russia;Barajas Cuahtemoc: World of Trading Cards; Transcription of the Dresden Codex: FAMSI


7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This is fascinating!Do we know that they dated from the fifties? Do they predate or postdate the death of Stalin, and the failed Kruschevite experiment? The images do seem compatible with what you’d expect Marxist-Leninist jouissance to be like. It’s socialist realism with a flourish.


Comment by tomc

Thanks for good post

Comment by johnny

whats a Moche warrior from Peru doing as a joker in the midst of so much Mayan imagery?
Interesting article!

Comment by Isidoro

Great catch, Isodoro! Agradezco que nos llamaste la atencion a esta disjuncion.

A quick google search for images of Moche Warriors bears Isodoro’s claim out. All of which leads me to speculate further on touch of irony in a misplaced, though seemingly similar image on a face card in a deck using precolumbian imags. It truly is the joker of the deck.

Comment by tirado

These cards are fabulous in design and a real curiosity to find and – like much that comes from Russia – a little puzzling.
Can I ask if, like my set of Russian playing cards, there are 36 cards in this deck too?
Can anyone tell me why cards 2 – 5 are missing?

Comment by Dave

I couldn’t tell you for certain as to whether the cards I picked the images from have a 52-card deck. I would think that they do, but I was more impressed by the designs on the face cards and curious as to how Mayan themes made it into Soviet cards at the height of the cold war. Puzzling, indeed.

Comment by tirado

Here is a link to see them:
Russian Enigma

Comment by Dave

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