The Severance Vostok

If you haven’t been watching Apple TV+’s new drama series Severance, you’re really missing out on an unsettling, thoughtful, and rewarding sci-fi mystery. Severance centers around Mark S (Adam Scott), an employee of Lumon, an enigmatic technology corporation. Lumon offers select employees the option to “sever” their work selves from their off-duty selves via a computer chip implanted in their brains. Severed workers essentially become two separate persons: the workplace “innie” knows nothing about the private life of the “outie” who goes home in the afternoon; similarly, “outies” know nothing about the work they do, thus presumably providing the company with the ultimate in non-disclosure agreements. The switch between personalities is triggered as employees enter and exit the workplace. Nothing from Lumon leaves the building; similarly, nothing from the outside world enters—not even the worker’s personal effects. Employees make a switcheroo in locker rooms at the beginning and end of each workday.

Which took me down an unexpected rabbit-hole when I realized that Mark S’s outie wears a Vostok Komandirskie wristwatch! A little history: according to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), Russian-based Vostok Watch Makers, Inc. has been producing reasonably priced and reasonably reliable watches since 1942, and became the official supplier to the Ministry of Defense of the Soviet Union in 1965. The most popular model is the Vostok Komandirskie (Commander’s) watch. Komandirskies come in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of variations, and are thus endlessly collectible. Soviet-era Vostok’s produced for the military are marked “ЗАКАЗ МО СССР,” short for “Ordered by the Ministry of Defense of the USSR.” A close inspection shows that Mark S’s Komandirskie bears this mark, so props to the prop master for accoutering him with an authentic Soviet-era wristwatch! Mark’s version is apparently associated with airborne troops, sporting airplanes and a parachute beneath the requisite Red Star.

Hello, Comrade!

It’s not clear what, if any, symbolic meaning is behind the selection of this particular watch. Perhaps it’s a nod to the Orwellian and authoritarian aura that surrounds Lumon and its much-revered founder Kier Eagan, who looks a bit like V. I. Lenin, and is depicted in dramatic bas-relief profile in the lobby of the company headquarters. Aphorisms and anecdotes relating to Kier are quoted like scripture.

Why am I so interested in this? Because I have been the proud owner of not one, but two Vostoks for the last 30 years. In 1991 or 1992, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I spotted a classified ad in the Atlanta newspaper for, of all things, Soviet wristwatches. (This was in the last few years before the internet and eBay made finding just about anything instantaneous, and spelled the end of print classifieds as the go-to method for buying and selling personal items.) As I recall, the seller was a recently discharged serviceman who had spent time in Germany, and somehow came into possession of several Komandirskies. Anyway, a phone call and a rendezvous at a gas station for a cash exchange left me with two of these interesting wristwatches. One is a man’s model, with a black face, light green letters, a Red Star, and a date window. The other is apparently a woman’s Navy model, smaller, but with an attractive sapphire face, silver dots instead of numbers, and a red-and-white anchor. The man’s watch bears the “ЗАКАЗ МО СССР” mark, while the woman’s model says, basically, “Made in the USSR.” Both watches came, sans wrist straps, in small plastic boxes with detailed instructions in Russian. I don’t read Russian, but lucky for me the seller gave me a quick primer on how to wind them, and how to set the date on the man’s model. I don’t remember the exact price, but I think I paid less than $100 for both of them.

Thirty years on and still ticking!

And so, these watches remained in their boxes in a drawer for over 15 years. Then one day, for some reason or other, I showed them to my wife and she asked why I never wore the man’s model, at least. I had no good answer, so we took them to a local watch shop and selected wrist straps. A spartan black leather strap with white stitching for mine; an attractive tan lizard skin that contrasts nicely with the sapphire face for hers. Sweet! We’ve gotten great use out of them over the last several years, and they’ve never needed any kind of servicing. The only downside is they have to be manually wound every day or two.

Severance just wrapped up Season 1, and what a cliffhanger! Season 2 can’t come soon enough, but it’ll probably be another year or more. Fortunately, the nine episodes of Season 1 lend themselves well to re-watching, if you’ll forgive the pun.

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