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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Re-imagining Soviet popular culture: On 'Soviet Groove' & other films.

Trying to imagine what the Soviet Union was really like is a rather testing pastime. The Cold War images were so deeply engraved in many imaginations that even the idea of there being a youth culture in Soviet times is probably new for many westerners. That, then, slowly a more realistic or fuller picture is unearthed is, in many ways, thanks to film. Of course, between the visions of Vyacheslav Sorokin's 1998 film Тоталитарный Роман (A Totalitarian Romance) and Valery Todorovsky's film Стиляги (Hipsters) a decade later there is much in common. It was for both these films the rare individual who would stand out from Soviet conformism. Nonetheless at least Todorkovsky's film began to remind us of an alternative milieu (in its overblown way). It also brought to light the material ways in which underground/banned music was reproduced and listened to in the form, at first, of X-ray disks. And yet these films never highlighted the home grown music scene relying instead on the idea that it was imported music which challenged the system. So the story went it was the Beatles which rocked the Kremlin:

Only that it wasn't really. That story never took into account the reality that the Soviet Union was never as monolithic as that nor the fact that the Beatles were not the only western musicians to play an important role. Marco Raffaini's fine film Italiani Veri shows that the role of Italian light music played. It wasn't music banned or inveighed against but still probably had just as significant an effect in different ways over a longer period of time. It may have been, for the most case, a music that even the cultural bureaucrats permitted but, nonetheless the indirect influence it played in opening up new spaces and imaginations is undoubted.

Soviet cultural bureaucrats inveighed against western music but no, jazz wasn't quite banned in the Soviet period. After all we would never have got S. Frederick Starr's history of Soviet jazz if it were.

Just as the statement there was 'no sex in the Soviet Union' belies a rather more complicated reality in which erotica and prostitution existed but public discourse about sex was absent, so the Soviet Union played host to a greater variety of musical genres than most people imagined.

This will be the subject of two documentaries - one general and likely to gain an international audience and another more specifically devoted to the Siberian punk scene. The latter is Vladimir Kozlov's Следы на снег (Traces in the Snow). A teaser is available here on VimeoKozlov is interviewed here about the Siberian punk rock scene during the 80s and 90s and how it has developed since then.

Nonetheless, it seems as though it will be Alexei Gittelson's and Louis Beaudemont's Soviet Groove which will give people an idea about the story of Soviet rock as a whole and promises to gain a large international audience. The director and producer (a French son of a communist mother and an American of Russian origins) both became fascinated with the actual variety of music (often, but not exclusively, underground) in the Soviet period and aim to paint on a broader canvas than Kozlov. Their documentary project which has meant working in the archives as well as working with Lendoc will hopefully be on track for release in April 2015 and the last news is that they are hoping to work with a German production company. Their approach seems to be one of cutting through the stereotypes of the Soviet period and surely there is much that can astound a western audience and even delight a Russian one (the initial reaction to the teasers and trailers has been very positive in Russia).

Arguably it won't be the first film to uncover new forms of knowledge about music in the Soviet period. Elena Tikhonov and Domonik Spritzendorfer's fine essayistic documentary Elektro Moskva. However, in their case they took the history back to Theremin exploring both electronic music and the creative way in which instruments were created and assembled. Not exploring just the sounds themselves but the instruments too. It made for very enjoyable viewing displaying so many rarely known facts about Soviet culture.

The hope is that Gittelson and Beaudemont will show how Soviet music was not just a reaction to western trends but, being often unique, would be one eventually influencing music elsewhere. This is one point that the pair highlighted when I spoke to them at the Moscow Business Square (some music produced today seems as though it can only have been influenced by these underground or semi-underground Soviet groups). If so one will begin to understand that there is, indeed, a strange double influence happening. Just as the Soviet art of the 1920s only gradually influenced and had an effect on the life blood of western art, so arguably aspects of Soviet groove can, in retrospect, be seen as ahead of their time (as well as a reaction to trends abroad). A re-reading and re-imagining of Soviet culture that in a way goes hand-in-hand with the work of some who have posited a more complex understanding of Eastern European post-war culture history. A kind of counter-history is surely emerging in filmic accounts not too dissimilar from that proposed by Agata Pyzik and others in their books.

So in many ways the films of Kozlov, Raffaini, Tikhonova & Spritzendorfer, and Gittelson & Beaudemont are timely films. Unearthing a lost Atlantis- a story as yet untold in film. At least for those unaware of Aleksei Uchitel's fascinating documentary Рок (Rock) made in 1990 as the Soviet Union was itself disappearing.

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