In the Alexei Yurchak chapters we read, the main thrust is an assertion of the compatibility of Soviet ideology with Western music and culture. For the generation of Soviet people this idea concerns (the people born and raised sometime during the period between Khrushchev’s Thaw in 1953 and The Brezhnev Stagnation of the 1970s), aspects of Western culture such as music, clothes, brand logos and even terms of address could be absorbed into and become harmonious with the Communist ideals of a greater future. The West that they appropriated, however, was not the actual place or culture itself, but its reflection: the imagined West which represented some “Elsewhere”. This conceptual space could hold the value one imparted onto it; a Soviet citizen could use Western symbols in a different context, divorced from original meaning and instead imbued with an exotic, mysterious and compelling Otherness. Western did not necessarily mean “bourgeois” for this large swath of Soviet youth; it was much more a relic of contact with a mystical imagined realm. Thus, when the Soviet Union fell and the West was open, many experienced dissatisfaction as the West’s reality could not match the West of their imaginations. Just as massive, painstakingly assembled collections of rock-on-bones records and extremely low-fidelity tape recordings of Western music became stripped of their cultural capital, worth, and social power when situated in relation to the high-fidelity, easy-to-buy recordings of the West, all things Western became less easy to make one’s own as well as less valuable in the greater capitalist world.
The Soviet authorities did not do a horribly effective job at preventing the spread of Western culture and music. Though they did institute controls, these did not deter many. Millions of shortwave radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders were manufactured every year, and though the authorities tried measures such as omitting several radio bands and jamming the Russian-language American and NATO propaganda stations (but not those in foreign tongues), they also encouraged internationalism and cosmopolitanism, which meant that listening to broadcasts in other languages was common and accepted, and that the dissemination of Western cultural ideas was made easier. Likewise, the political cartoons made to lampoon those attracted to Western culture, such as those in the journal Krokodil, exaggerated the laziness, narcissism and stupidity of its targeted demographic, to the extent that many people who did enjoy Western culture did not see themselves in the caricatures. This trend is evident in the large number of Soviet citizens who put great effort into acquiring rock music and Western clothes. Many were devoted Communists: as we observed in the case of Aleksandr, what was important was to be a well-educated, critically thinking person who arrived at the ultimate correctness of Communism through reading and thinking (and not simple rote repetition). To such a person, identifying as a true Communist Komsomol leader and as a Western-rock fan and jean lover was no problem, because the ideals of Communism and rock music could be reconciled in their push for the future, experimental aesthetics, relative sophistication in comparison to trite estrada tunes, and potential to give joy to masses of people. Here there is room made for bits of culture that spiritually uplift and give pleasure to the receiver; music and culture does not need to be approved by the Party or even ideologically explicit in order to have a place in Aleksandr’s projection of Communism. Musical work does not necessarily reflect the ideological system of the society it comes from.
In contrast, our other reading, concerning Grazhdanskaya Oborona and Yegor Letov, shows a very different confluence of ideology and music. Siberian punk mainstay Letov’s involvement with the National Bolshevik Party during the 1990s is the problematic core of the discussion of GrOb. His possible fascist views may be interpreted literally and directly, or as an ironic overidentification with the purpose of parody (an instance of stiob). Though the term “fascist” was historically used often by Soviet authorities to criticize any Western rock or punk band, this is hard to relate to any actual fascist ideology. Similarly, though Letov’s possible fascism is troubling, the lyrical content of his songs does not reflect this ideology. He sings with irony, quoting official pronouncement, folk saying, traditional songs and poems, all from a notable distance. It is hard to determine what Letov actually believed, but I find it convincing that his music is not about racial chauvinism or bowing to strong central totalitarian power, it does not seem to include notable fascist symbols, and does not explicitly avow any political preference. GrOb is not like the Nazi punk band Skrewdriver–they are not that explicit or serious. Instead, Letov is ironic and focused on the death of the ego, something which seems much more nihilist, if anything.
This week we discussed the ambiguities of Soviet cultural policies in the last Soviet generation and how this simultaneously enabled and prohibited various musical practices. In our first reading, Yurchak defines the “Imaginary West,” an unattainable, imaginary construction of the West that was produced locally through appropriation of elements of Western culture. The state, viewing Soviet citizenship and the practice of listening to Western music incompatible, misinterpreted this practice and thus efforts to contain it were not effective.
As Yurchak explains, many of the listeners were not listening to the lyrics at all, but using the music to create their own meaning and contributing further to the vision of the imaginary west. There was a fine line between cultural influence that was dismissed as representing bourgeois values and that promoted internationalism. These paradoxical demands enabled both discreet and state sanctioned methods of distributing and reproducing music. Examples include the rock on bones (producing vinyl on used x-ray plates: the “elsewhere” was being physically transposed onto images of fractured Soviet bodies), shortwave radio, and reel-to-reel tape recordings that we read about in detail last week. The shortwave radio enabled listeners to broadcast foreign programs. This was encouraged, and although monitored slightly, (jamming of certain stations that were explicitly anti-Soviet) it exposed listeners to different languages and music, particularly jazz.
Yurchak establishes that the practices associated with the “Imaginary West” were not outwardly oppositional or anti-Soviet rather gives many examples of those that were in favor of socialism and participated in the collection of Western music and did not see this as contradictory at all. An example is the Komsomol member, Andrei, who dismissed official cultural critiques as performative and organized concerts and spread information about his favorite rock bands. Another example is a student, Alexandr, who manipulated the language that critiqued Western music on scientific grounds to support his identity as a good Soviet citizen and music lover.
We also discussed the origins of Siberian Punk, and Egor Letov, its founding figure, and how his problematic political affiliations sparked a critique of his band, GrOb. Steinholt asserts that there is nothing in the music itself that supports his supposed fascist beliefs, and that this interpretation is instead an example of stiob, an ironic over-identification with that “character” as a critique. We discussed the problems of separating a musician’s creative output from their politics and how this is achieved.
I am interested in zagranitsa, which means “that which was abroad”, which reflects the paradoxical relationship between Russians and internationalism- as the socialist ideology was outward looking, yet most Russians would never be able to travel outside of the country. This seems to reflect something of how the state ideologies depersonalized cultural life by, for example, rendering the outside world as an idea, rather than a personal experience of travel for most people. I was struck particularly by how youth adopted Western symbols, wondering “why should we worry about any connection between music and politics?” The political ideology of socialism seemingly had become too disconnected from the people that they believed it in many ways irrelevant. Maybe this is why, as Stephen Coates says in the NPR podcast, “this was a time when it [music] mattered immensely..” because music was an immediate outlet for people to reconnect to culture in a more familiar way. I also really enjoyed this song by Letov: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtPCTs7igh8
I think the best sentence that describes what was happening during this time is a quote on page 203 of the Yurchak article in which he writes: “The symbols of the Imaginary West did not necessarily represent the “real” West and its “bourgeois” values; rather, they introduced into Soviet reality a new imaginary dimension that was neither “Western” nor “Soviet.”
I am intrigued by the term zagranitsa, which means “beyond the border” or “that which is abroad.” It describes the intersection of the two views of the world, which leads to the idea of an imaginary place that is both “tangible and abstract.”
What really stuck out to me in this article were the images and charts that were spread throughout the article. I was particularly interested by the cartoon of the young teenager wearing “bell-bottoms and platforms, smoking, and listening to a tape recorder” with photos of rock stars on the wall behind her. Fans of this new Western rock music were perceived to be “lazy, selfish, and immoral.” However, these young adults did not see themselves in this way. Instead, they believed that they were merely appropriating some of these new Western cultures to their own Soviet culture. These teenagers were not becoming “the West.” Instead, they were combining Western values with their own “local meanings” and personal experiences. They were not conforming for they were good Soviet citizens — still holding onto their cultural values. However, they were blinded by how much they let the Western influence them to the degree that they did not see themselves as removed from the Soviet.
As Steinholt writes, the word “stiob,” defined by Yurchak, describes a phenomenon in which one uses straight-faced irony so as to over-identify something to the point at which it becomes impossible to tell whether or not the person is supporting or opposing it. The Colbert Report seems to be the best example of this. People know that Stephen Colbert is pretending to be a right-wing conservative, but at times he goes so far that it can be difficult to tell if he is kidding or not. People speculated on what the implications were of Letov’s records being sold next to Russian National Unity’s (RNE) racist propaganda. Were there implications?
I wonder if it is possible to know whether or not a performer is supporting or opposing something, without them explicitly stating their opinions. However, would that not defeat the whole idea behind stiob?
One aspect that interested me this week was the acceptance of internationalism yet the rejection of cosmopolitanism. At this point in the Soviet Union, the integration of international influences seemed unavoidable, however the cosmopolitan aspect of the west, meaning consumerism and capitalist tendencies was still, in their eyes, preventable. From a western standpoint, much of what that the Soviet Union found unacceptable and anti-Soviet does not line up with what they found acceptable. For instance, though there were many restrictions on western music, and certain bands like Pink Floyd and The Talking Heads, the government did not have a problem with the use of shortwave radios and reel-to-reel tapes, and there was also no objection towards international broadcasts. There were many social critiques of these new practices, and of course some opposition, however in this era much more western influences were prevalent in the Soviet Union. An example that was brought up in the Yurchak reading was the obsession with name brand denim that had to be made in the US, and the young people’s desire for American packaging. This is why the distinction between cosmopolitanism and internationalism does not seem clear to me, because with internationalism comes cosmopolitan beliefs and practices and unwanted western influence.
I was interested this week in the very process of appropriating Western content and fitting it into a Soviet framework as a kind of “artistic process” in and of itself. What comes to mind is, again, the second I mentioned from the Yurchak where Alexandr “creates” a new way of thinking about music. He is not just applying the interpretation that will make rock music legitimate within Sovietism, he is also, in my opinion, engaging in creative production himself. He has added a new, previously non-existent, layer to the music. He has made it his own. A better example would be the young people who actually transposed their own lyrics and meanings onto Beatles songs. In this way, the Beatles melody serves as background music to the textual content they add, just like the guitars were secondary to the Soviet guitar poetry they accompanied.
I found the Yurchak reading especially interesting, partly in the way that censorship and criticisms of media and electronic mediums are discussed. I was especially interested in the shortwave radio and the lack of censorship surrounding it despite how other mediums of this nature were banned. Because the shortwave radio could be used for things other than listening to music, such as listening to foreign broadcasts, as long as it wasn’t anti-soviet propaganda or bourgeois. The resistance against the bourgeois is intriguing, because in Western culture, a lot of the time bourgeois culture and practice is encouraged, even strived for. Being in the upper class is a huge accomplishment. The shortwave radio did not exist for propaganda, it existed for information and learning and art, which I really like and appreciate.
In the last few weeks of discussions and readings, what’s stood out to me as the most indicative sign of the state of Soviet culture has been the various physical media through which information and entertainment were distributed. I’ve found that the physical object is consistently as telling as the substance itself.
Last week we looked at the significance of the Magnitizdat tradition (the reel-to-reel tapes used to distribute unofficial recordings) and this week the shortwave radio was the object that caught my attention. It seems that with new technology comes new genres, styles, and modes of listening. And vice versa, perhaps. The shortwave radio is interesting because it precisely embodies the paradoxical approach to censorship that the the Soviet Union employed – that is, encouraging the broadcasting of and listening to certain western traditions of music, while filtering out others. The shortwave radio is the technological grounds on which this contradiction of ideology lives. It’s a tool that disseminates western influences and “liberates” the artistic consumption of soviet people, while simultaneously being used to control what can be heard.
While reading the section of the Yurchak chapter dealing with Alexandr and his love of both rock and science something stuck me about the bands that he said he favored over The Beatles in his letter to a friend, including King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd, and Yes (pg 230.), while reading the list i was struck by the shared tendency of the bands listed to place equal emphasis on the depth of the lyrics and the musical composition itself. It reminded me of last week with the bards of Atvorskaya Pesnya, the strong emphasis on the power of the written word and its relation so music. While I’m not trying to say that the bands Alexandr listened to were in any way the same as Atvorskaya Pesnya, I found it interesting that out of the entire canon of Western music he tended to favor that which had similar traits to earlier Soviet music trends. Furthermore there is an emphasis, especially in a band like Yes, on the future and what it holds for the mankind, which seems to be a big question that Alexandr is questioning in his letters. The entire progressive rock movement seemed to remind me of these soviet bards, but perhaps it took reading their name in this context for me to finally make the connection.
This week I was also struck by the continuing efforts of the state to monitor music, their desire was too great to ever let the issue be but the government was also spread too thin to ever truly take the control they so wanted. This has been a largely recurring theme from each segment of the soviet experience and I am left wondering how other socialist governments deal with the same issues having seen how things unfolded in Europe/ Central Asia.
I’m really interested in languages and a society’s reaction to the linguistic aspect of its culture. I thought the shortwave radio section of the reading depicted accurately the values of soviet government. The fact that so many stations were censored out, and that the ones that were allowed weren’t expected to be understood by the majority of people shows the closed off society that these people experienced. I had been confused about how we kept hearing that the soviet government didn’t see itself as nationalist. However, this oppressive censorship of the government, and the fact that people continued to latch onto this small portion of the west that didn’t even mean anything to them is indicative of the fact that nationalism was really not their goal. Rather, it exemplifies the east-west conflict that we have been discussing this week.
Within his discussion of Egor Letov and his compositions for the Soviet punk band, Grazhdanskaia Oborona, Steinholt share’s a quote from Letov’s speech on behalf of Russkii proryv at the “Meeting of Leftist Forces” in Moscos in 1994: “A war rages, spanning the whole history of humanity […], a war between enflaming, creative, constructive forces, forces of order, let’s say, and forces of chaos, anarchy, destruction, stasis, death […] A new proletarian revolution is brewing, a righteous and final revolution, and I believe that if we- extremists, radical nationalists, and radical communists- unite our focus, victory will be ours!” (409) Letov’s sensationalism, reflected within his speech, calls attention to his desire to shatter order and stasis. His institution of stoib in his work with GrOb allowed Letov to incite reaction, believing that in order to enact change one must go to extremes.
The origins and intention behind Soviet punk interest in fascism is unclear, though Steinholt claims that stage names such as “Giobbels, Gimmler, and Gioring, as a mere superficial gimmick. The whole concept, it seems, would be too banal for a proper Nazi band, hence it is ‘just being funny.’” (404) I feel that the origins of the punk interest in extremism is aimed as a reflection more on the Soviet system then on Extremist ideology. I feel that this is reflected in the fact that the first stage of GrOb’s musical style was a response to styles and themes within Soviet Estrada compositions, such as the song about the trampled, discarded leaf discussed on page 405. I find it interesting that even in Yurchak’s discussion of the presence of the “Imaginary West” and figures in Soviet youth culture, such as the stilyagi, were also less interested in the reality of Western culture and more on the implications of its materialistic signifiers. Both of these movements, though markedly different in their manifestations, were less interested in anti-socialist ideologies and more interested in their provocative connotations.
I think what was most interesting about the long article was the picture with the radio. It was a brilliant example of the anarchic views that come back to contradict itself in the future with how radio has become a way of language for the world. Reading about the life of Egor Letov was also interesting because of how it showed the importance of politics when it comes to music. It was amazing to learn how severely affecting his fascist support did to his career. I think it was brilliantly summed up in his own answer to an interviewer when he was old, “I don’t give interviews because I can’t keep myself from saying what I think. And if I say what I think, there’ll be no concert.” (Steinholt 414) That was the most important thing that stuck out to me due to how it showed how closely connected politics and music are.
In the Alexei Yurchak chapters, we saw that the idea of the West was idealized as foreign and “cool” to the younger generations within the Soviet Union. This appropriation of Western culture seemed to exist in a grey area because it was overlooked and people were still allowed to listen to radio stations from all over the World. There is a world called, zagranitsa, which means “that which was abroad,” internationalism and cosmopolitanism was encouraged and people listened to a lot of music and radio shows from around the World, making people living in the Soviet Union not as secluded as I originally thought. I had always had the idea that the Soviet Union was completely cut off from the rest of the World, but clearly thats not the whole story. The World outside the Soviet Union was considered exotic and Western products were sometimes available and considered cool. The West did not have the same reaction to the East, there their wasn’t a demand for Soviet music or clothing. I wonder what would have happened if the West did have a demand for music and products from the Soviet Union.
What is it about punk rock that makes it such a potent artistic vehicle for expressing anti-authoritarian sentiment? The fact that punk cropped appears in Soviet Siberia in such a similar form to UK and US forms of punk begs the question of what it is about the genre that makes it so applicable to such a diverse set of circumstances. The political/social situations in these three countries which led to the development of punk are perhaps superficially similar but in fact quite different. For example, despite the shortcomings of Reagan era America it cannot be justly compared to the stifling atmosphere of the Soviet environment which unintentionally incubated Siberian punk. So what is it about the aesthetics of punk which make it such a universal vehicle for personal expression?
One thing that comes to mind is the directness of punk aesthetics. The music is simple and often mixed much lower then the vocals so that each word can be clearly heard (even if it is grunted or shouted). This is perhaps a more visceral, or at least more angry, version of folk music aesthetics. I wonder if a parallel could be traced between the development of guitar poets in Russia and the folk music movement in the US/UK and the next generation’s Punk. Both genre’s use music to present blunt personal and political statements. Perhaps later generations in both the west and in the USSR felt that folk music was to soft, punk was actually necessary in order to communicate the feelings of the younger generation with enough force.
In this week of discussion, I felt particularly reflective of western ideals and tradition, especially as these western histories and realities are embedded from my life as a student instead of them as a reflected image of a soviet projection, and left thinking about a theme of tangibility. What stood out to me in the Yurchak reading was the focal point of youth culture, which gave a perceptive lens — the way the youth culture consumed this music and made it their own — through which to view this large and dense project of examining socialist musics. It is interesting because the construction of the rebellious teen was created in the united states in conjunction with the rise of rock and roll music, and punk music has always been a platform for which youth can use a subversive voice. I think this is largely manifested in the way the way that music circulated through rebellion and also became a symbol of rebellion, both physically and metaphorically. The music was made tangible by these technologies that sought to preserve this subversive object, perhaps indicating an importance for ownership — to trace a common thread of the fetishization of musics (Adorno). However this seems a little more complicated to me because in a discussion of western musics, records and recordings are fetishized by their consumption and ultimate governing by a capitalist hand, whereas the materialization and fetishization of these musics in soviet culture seems to be more about the tangibility of the rebellion, and the materialized connection to the west, which in its own way, is part of the capitalist structure. I think this idea of tangibility can be read in many ways throughout this discussion, with the intangibility of the west that is sought to be resolved in a materialization of western goods, with the intangibility of music that is preserved in whatever desperate way possible, creating subcultures of consumers of music against their state, or even a state with somewhat intangible controls on art and music, flimsy, subject to change, inconsistent.
The imagined West of the Soviet peoples speaks to a broader discourse of disenchantment with, and disdain toward, the political and cultural climate of the day. The appropriation of Western signs and symbols in an attempt to create a new, culturally meaningful semiotic framework within which a new Russian imaginary and identity could be formed was a particularly fascinating facet for study. The imposition, exchange, and appropriation of ideologies and cultural signs has always been of interest to me because of the unique and unexpected ways in which they interact with local ontologies.
The way in which rock music were studied “scientifically” is one such example. Although references to the physical processes and the psychological effects of such music was (outwardly) meant to be critical, they, instead, provided a framework and vocabulary with which people could discuss rock music. As long as such discourse was mired within “science,” it was still perfectly in-line with Soviet ideologies surrounding art and music.
Yurchak’s article on the “Imaginary West” adds a new dimension to our past discussions on the ambiguity of the Soviet government in creating and implementing its official standards. It depicts the paradoxical relationship between official and unofficial practice in the late Soviet Era, showing us the reality of everyday life for the average citizen. Yurchak does not characterize the Soviet society’s obsession with Western radio, clothing, music and products as acts of dissidence, but instead, links these activities to the desire to have “real contact” with an unknown “elsewhere.” The author describes how both Socialist and Bourgeois values could coexist within a single Soviet identity and how this relationship did not affect the definition of a “good Soviet person.” Despite the normalization of Western cultural influences in everyday life, the government still attempted to limit and mold this presence in Soviet society. Yurchak mentions the “open-endedness” of the Soviet government in simultaneously criticizing, promoting and allowing certain art forms to flourish. He highlights the extreme ambiguity of the government, especially in its distinction between “bad internationalism” or cosmopolitanism and “good internationalism.” After completing this reading and our class discussion, I am still struggling to understand why the Soviet government saw internationalism as the opposite of cosmopolitanism, rather than nationalism. If the Soviet government criticized Western figures for their Bourgeois values, why would it actively promote using Western cultural forms as inspiration for Soviet artists and musicians? If the government truly wanted to effectively monitor Western influences on Soviet society, why was its restrictions on Western cultural products inconsistent? Even if the Soviet government did enact stricter limitations on society, would it have been able to successfully culturally isolate the Soviet Union from Western figures?
Curiously, there is not a held definition of the West that satisfies me, a marxist in the west (haha). Yurchak’s “Imaginary West” would seem to point out my mystical qualities, in that I am of a body existent but not precisely of a particular nature stressing its bourgeoise elements- it is the sheer fact of being West that makes me West, and more importantly, ‘west OF…’ that frames me as an inhabitant of “zagranitsa.” We mentioned how Stephen Colbert is a brilliant example of a sort of ‘stiob,’ in America- bearing that image in mind, what is the Soviet-made caricature of an American in the 60’s to the artist, (to us, perhaps, chieftest of concern)? Does what that artist makes for his western circle of production and consumption empower this image the Soviet’s have of him, or do they play at different energies at large in the threshold between the Soviet and the Western mindset? Is his art what enemizes him- does he produce art on behalf of his political nature? Is the vitality of that question merely dependent on the location of whoever seeks the answer?
Many questions arose while parsing the points our readings and discussions brought up. There is ever the sense of a distinctly Soviet identity apart from a Western one, but Yurchak for instance, argues that this appointment of traits based on location and mindset alone too closely ties a person’s political nature to his artistic surroundings, but moreover that the Soviet view of the west (really what Yurchak espouses) is partly an imaginary conception made to ironize the the truth against what was considered correct and socialist. It is a notion central to one’s deconstructing of anti-western energies behind the block, for ever in the criticism of art is the impetus to be correct based off of standards alone. To what degree were: the standard ( the socialist world) and its opposite (the west) falsely depicted by Soviets, in order for Yurchak to even consider that the Soviet view of zagranitsa is playing off an imaginary anti-standard…in order for that imaginary place to house and justify all the ironies that make ‘stiob’, but more importantly an enemizing view of the West itself, possible.
I was also confused and intrigued by the idea that internationalism was the opposite of cosmopolitanism as opposed to nationalism, which would have been more straightforward. But I think it is this falsely-labeled opposite that allows for the “gray area” that we’ve been reading and talking about. The image in the Yurchak chapter with the man peddling western rock records is an interesting example of this. The peddler looks benign rather than malicious, and the buyer looks a little bit naive perhaps. But the image hardly suggests the crumble of the Soviet Union. Instead we see someone who is encouraged to go into shops and purchase ‘quality’ art from other cultures (good internationalism) and who uses this to justify his buying a Kiss album on a street corner (bad cosmopolitanism). After Stalin, it seems that things aren’t black and white anymore, and the resulting confusion leads to a burgeoning counterculture, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily identify as contrarian.
I find the whole Rock on Bones moment to be fascinating, because it seems to be the perfect material object to explain this notion of the Zone which Yurchak explains as a metaphor for an imagined West. On the “All Things Considered” interview Stephen Coates recounted a story about people going to buy records and the dealers saying, “yeah, I got that song,” and then writing whatever name the buyer requested on a random record. This lead to people thinking they own and are listening to a song like “Rock Around the Clock” when in fact they are not. Yurchak’s presents an analysis of Tarkovsky “Zona” in which he claims the movie plays with this idea of the imagined West within the Soviet Union as something being derived from within by individual people. What the West was in the minds of the Soviet people was not what the West is in reality, it is an inner reality constructed by external influences or observations. This idea is presented clearly in the material world through the x-ray records. The records are initially x-rays, which are snapshots of the interior body of a random Soviet Citizen, these interior are then inscribed with music from the real West but it may not be exactly what you think it is. It might not be “Rock Around the Clock.” Suddenly you have images of Soviet Citizen interiors being used for presenting Western music. Yurchak states that these records “created an uncanny kind of intimacy: one both saw and heard what was personal, tangible and yet imaginary.” By buying these x-ray records people were receiving Western content but not the packaging or the “official version” of a product. Through creating a bootleg one is fundamentally changing how one interacts with the content due to the fact it is not being presented in the manner it is supposed to be. By pressing the bootlegs on “Soviet innards” a more personal connection is made allowing for the imagination to roam more freely.
I really liked reading the letter (inserted on page 190 of the Yurchak) that Leonid (the Soviet teenager from Yakutsk) wrote to his friend in Leningrad. It was interesting to hear Leonid include the organ music of J.S. Bach (of whom Leonid thinks is “indeed great”) amongst his growing collection of Western rock albums. Yurchak aptly observed that this connection – Bach and rock – would likely not have been common among most fans of Western rock (“clearly they [Soviet youth who like rock] would hardly recognize themselves in the critical portrayal of the fans of Western rock as people with no education or interest in high culture”(190)). This is interesting because it sheds light on the fact that listening to rock music was a more active and intellectual past-time for Soviet youth when compared to their American counterparts; not only was there careful planning in how these records were acquired, listened to, and discussed, but there was also perhaps less cultural stigma surrounding Bach (as an intellectual composer not usually fit with rock music) and so there was no real reason to exclude him from their Western collections.
It was also interesting to see how those Soviets who enjoyed Western culture were portrayed in the Russian media. Benjamin explained how the overly exaggerated features of such media (namely the political cartoons) allowed Soviet youth to disassociate themselves from these official portrayals and still remain true (in their own sense) to the socialist ideals of the state. I particularly enjoyed reading about how the Komsomol activist (Grigorii, as he is referred to in the Yurchak) carefully decorated his room with “liquor and automobile advertisements”. More interestingly, Andrea Lee, the student who describes Grigorii’s room, found it notable to state that the decorations are “cut carefully” and that they are “received as presents” – this is notable since it shows her amazement at the significance that seemingly trivial Western objects held for some Soviet youth.
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