The Soviet Union is history, collapsed into a jumble of independent republics in 1991 after 70 years of top-down management by Communist Party apparatchiks. For Americans of a certain age, it was a secretive place overstocked with atomic bombs, glum bureaucrats, svelte ballerinas and Five Year Plans. Often colored red on school maps, it was terra incognita until it launched a satellite called Sputnik. Suddenly, all American kids were expected to buckle down on math and science, even while crouching under their desks amid fears of a nuclear attack.

For a clearer glimpse of what life was really like in the U.S.S.R. between the 1950s and '90s, there's no better introduction than "Photography From the USSR: Soviet Life, Russian Reality," an engrossing show at the Museum of Russian Art through Sept. 23. The photos -- all black-and-white -- are on loan from Thomas Werner, a photography professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, who collected them during the past six years while lecturing throughout the former Soviet Union.

"Russian photography is disappearing at an extraordinary rate because, culturally speaking, photography still isn't considered art there," Werner said recently by phone. "These are amazing historical documents created under very difficult conditions by people who loved it and did not expect to achieve any fame. A lot of them were professional photographers, but that meant shooting under the Soviet dictate. Everybody had to look clean and happy. They weren't allowed to shoot daily life, and in some cities weren't allowed to shoot from [buildings] above two stories for fear that the enemy could use the information."

Werner has befriended many of the photographers, among them Oleg Maksimov, whose dozen pictures in the exhibit include views of small towns, laborers on a smoking break, guys in a bar and construction workers. "Maksimov worked for a provincial newspaper and then for the Communist Party," Werner said. "Then he left the party and they broke in and burned his studio and many of his negatives."

Mementos of things past

"Reality" lives up to its name by providing visual evidence of a now vanished time and place. The photos show "graduating" first-graders, pigtailed chess players, commissars presenting awards, swaggering seamen on a whaling ship and women in a surprisingly wide range of jobs -- building roads, conserving art, shooting rifles. Soviet-era memorabilia augments the show, including ceremonial awards and Communist Party membership booklets.

Curator Masha Zavialova has arranged the pictures to contrast official Soviet events with the humbler realities of private life. A propaganda-magazine picture from 1965, for example, shows a brawny, well-scrubbed miner gazing proudly at an improbably glowing gem he has dug from the earth. A year later Maksimov snapped four exceedingly grubby women in a muddy construction site struggling to stir a barrel of whitewash or concrete with makeshift tools.

"[The miner] was shown as a hero of Soviet labor, but these women in the mud show what it was really like," said Zavialova, an art historian who vividly remembers the privations of her Soviet-era childhood in St Petersburg.

Four women wearing lab coats in a 1974 photo of an engineering studio brought back memories for her.

"That could have been my mother," she said, pointing to a weary, bespectacled woman seated in front of a drafting table. "She was an aircraft engineer. A lot of women worked in engineering, which was a good job, but very hard and all the work was classified. My mom worked six days a week and had to sit eight hours a day at a drafting desk."

Women's lives were not all so harsh. In one sweet picture, four day-care attendants pose with their adorable charges, a dozen bright-eyed babies who goggle happily at the camera.

Children, well represented in the show, behave like children everywhere -- they gaze longingly through a steamy shop window at little tanks and trucks, build a model airplane, try on a soldier's helmet. A bunch of knee-socked "Young Pioneers" lined up for a 1976 award ceremony could be American Scouts were it not for the Politburo dignitaries on the stand behind them.

Scrutinizing a memento from what could have been her own childhood, Zavialova smiled wryly and paraphrased her favorite French philosopher. "As Roland Barthes said, photography doesn't show what is. It shows what was for a short moment."