Andrei Makarevich, lead singer of the Moscow rock band “Time Machine” / Wikimedia Commons
The Dissident Movement
Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner (1973) / Andrei Sakharov Archive
Dissidence arose among Soviet intellectuals in the 1960s and expanded in the early 1970s. Challenging official policies became possible as Khrushchev loosened state controls, but the practice continued to grown when the boundaries of permissible expression contracted under the Brezhnev administration. It reflected the contradiction between an increasingly articulate and mobile society on the one hand and an increasingly sclerotic political order on the other. While never including more than a few thousand individuals, dissidents exercised a moral and even political weight far exceeding their numbers, and paralleled the self-proclaimed role of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia as the “conscience of society.”
Roy Medvedev / Wikimedia Commons
Dissidence took a variety of forms: public protests and demonstrations, open letters to Soviet leaders, and the production and circulation of manuscript copies (samizdat) of banned works of literature, social and political commentary. In addition, from 1968 until the early 1980s, the samizdat journal, The Chronicle of Current Events, served as a clearing house of information about human-rights violations in the Soviet Union. By the early 1970s, the dissident movement evinced three main currents. Democratic socialism, couched in terms of “scrupulous regard for democratic principles” and “the possibility of an alliance between the best of the intelligentsia supported by the people and the most forward-looking individuals in the governing apparat,” was exemplified by the historian Roy Medvedev in his book, On Socialist Democracy (originally published in Amsterdam in 1972). Political liberalism and a strong defense of freedom of expression and other human rights was most famously articulated by the physicist, Andrei Sakharov in his essay, “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” which dates from 1968. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the novelist and author of GULAG Archipelago, embodied the third current which condemned western ideologies including Marxism in the name of Russian Orthodox values. In addition, human rights activities took up the cause of religious dissenters, Soviet Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate (“refuseniks”), and nationalities such as the Crimean Tatars.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn / Wikimedia Commons
Soviet authorities attempted to repress these currents and activities by propaganda that discredited dissidents and their claims, confiscation of dissident literature, removal of dissidents from their jobs, prosecution and incarceration in mental institutions and prison, banishment to a provincial city or outlying region, or enforced exile with removal of Soviet citizenship. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union. The network of underground groups set up after the Helsinki Accords of 1975 to monitor Soviet compliance with that agreement’s human-rights provisions was hounded and decimated by arrests. Sakharov was stripped of his privileges as a member of the Academy of Sciences and, in 1980, consigned to internal exile. But Roy Medvedev’s observation that “There is now a very widespread feeling that the way we live and work has become untenable,” eventually would be repeated by Mikhail Gorbachev as justification for his policies of glasnost and perestroika.
The creators of KVN (1962), from left to right – Mikhail Iavkovlev, Elena Gal’perina, Al’bert Akselrod, , Sergei Muratov / Wikimedia Commons
The most popular Soviet television program of the 1960s was a satirical game show and contest of wits called Club of the Merry and Resourceful, known by its initials in Russian as KVN. First broadcast in April 1961, KVN drew on Soviet traditions of student amateur theater and Odessan Jewish humor. It also aimed to replicate the excitement and emotions of spectator sport–KVN‘s ambitious young producers referred to the show as “intellectual soccer.” The show was organized as a competition between two teams of students, almost exclusively male, from elite technical universities and institutes, who competed in contests of humor, knowledge, and improvisation, before a jury of celebrities and an audience of “fans.” KVN quickly became a national craze, performed throughout the Soviet Union in schools, factory clubs, and rural houses of culture. Famous players and team captains became household names, appearing on other television shows and enjoying lucrative perks from team sponsors. In 1972, although it was still very popular, KVN was canceled.
Khimki City KVN Team (1965) / Wikimedia Commons
The show may have been doomed by the expansion of the Soviet television audience in the decade since KVN‘s first broadcast. From 1965 to 1970, the number of television sets per Soviet family doubled, from roughly one set per four families, to one set per two families, with much greater saturation in urban areas. In 1967, Moscow’s Central Television moved into the powerful new Ostankino television center, and began satellite broadcasting. Its signal reached roughly 70% of Soviet territory by 1970. Soviet authorities, accustomed to limiting the distribution of critical and unconventional arts and media to the urban intelligentsia, may have felt KVN‘s satire was not acceptable fare for television’s increasingly provincial and rural audience.
Let’s Go, Girls! (1970s) / Wikimedia Commons
There were practical and political reasons for the show’s demise as well. For years, rumors and press accounts charged that fame and money were corrupting the show’s “merry play.” KVN‘s satire and irreverent student protagonists were also a poor fit for the more repressive political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even after it began to be filmed and edited in advance, rather than broadcast live, KVN did not please the censors. Disillusioned, and subject to tighter limits on what could be said on air, the teams’ young players had become “ungovernable,” according to KVN‘s producers and editors. The arrival, in April 1970, of Sergei Lapin, as the new head of radio and television, likewise doomed the show. Lapin, an ideological hardliner closely allied with the Politburo’s chief propagandist, Mikhail Suslov, was particularly hostile to KVN. Lapin had initiated the removal of prominent Jewish television personalities from the air; he likely objected to KVN‘s distinctly Odessan Jewish style and prominent Jewish players.
KVN returned to the air in 1986, brought back during the years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. (It remains a very popular show among Russians today). It would be easy to see the cancelation and return of KVN as a reflection of larger trends: two eras of reform and experimentation–the early 1960s and the late 1980s–with two decades of repression and cultural stagnation in between. But in fact, experimentation on Central Television never really went away during the 1970s. KVN was gone, but many very popular new game shows were created in the early 1970s.Let’s Go, Girls! (1970) was a kind of Soviet beauty contest, with young bakers, tram drivers, and factory workers competing in professional, housekeeping, and style contests. Its counterpart, Let’s Go, Guys! (1971) featured athletic contests and motorcycle racing. Another extremely popular humor program of the late 1960s, 13 Chairs Pub–set in a Polish bar inhabited by lovably corrupt, shallow, and foolish ne’er-do-wells who wore Dior dresses and sang and danced in Polish, English, and German–was not canceled until 1980, when conflicts between the Polish government and the Solidarity protest movement finally made the show’s exotic setting politically unacceptable. 1976 saw the first broadcast of a quiz show, called What? Where? When?, that focused, like KVN, on intelligentsia youth and was set around a roulette wheel in the Ostankino Television Center’s bar. All of these shows raised, however indirectly, highly politicized questions of ethics, values, and the nature of authority in Soviet society.
KVN‘s cancelation exposed the political risks of television entertainment, but game shows and other popular TV programs also offered solutions to the Soviet state’s Cold War problems. Game shows could direct consumer demand, define Soviet norms of taste, and promote acceptable popular music as an alternative to Western styles. These objectives were especially important during Détente, when the easing of military competition with the United States increased the stakes in soft, cultural arenas. Quiz shows and other entertainments also offered a way to focus on the moral and intellectual superiority of Soviet people, rather than on their standard of living. The imperative to entertain audiences in order to influence them ensured that Central Television’s staff continued to experiment with lively, original, and popular shows and genres throughout the 1970s.
The Pessimistic Citizen
The Irony of Fate, by Vladimir Sackhov (1975) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
The political turbulence, economic devastation, and social flux that Russia has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union has inspired a good deal of nostalgia for an earlier time of political stability and economic predictability. Despite the association of the Brezhnev administration with “stagnation,” a term that was frequently invoked by Mikhail Gorbachev to justify his program of reforms, many Russians cite the 1970s as a period of domestic tranquility. Yet, it was precisely during the early 1970s that the first signs of pessimism and even cynicism emerged about the Soviet system’s ability to sustain economic growth and provide its citizens with the conditions for meaningful lives.
Gauging public moods is never easy, leastwise in Soviet-type societies. Nevertheless, in lieu of more reliable public opinion data, one can point to such phenomena as the retreat into the private, the popularity of books, films and songs about lonely heroes who seem out of step with the canons of approved behavior, the proliferation of anekdoty (jokes) about the absurdity of official claims to the supremacy of the Soviet system and the hypocrisy of Soviet officialdom, and invidious comparisons with life in the “West” and (perhaps even more significantly given the similarity of systems) with the relatively prosperous if prosaic life in East European capital cities to which Soviet citizens traveled in increasing numbers as tourists.
These signs were most evident among white-collar professionals, whose numbers expanded from 3.3 to 21.4 million between 1950 and 1974, representing an increase from five to eighteen percent of the entire Soviet work force. Contributing factors to this change of outlook included the exaggerated expectations of material abundance that had been fostered under Khrushchev, the secular decline in Soviet economic performance from one five-year plan to the next, and the ubiquity of black- and gray-market transactions, which, while hardly new, were increasingly tolerated by the authorities. It should be stressed that the pessimistic Soviet citizen of the early 1970s was rarely a political dissident. This was not an overtly political phenomenon, but it did have political consequences of far-reaching magnitude.
Rock Goes Russian
Dance Floor, by Tatyana Nazarenk (1977) / Irkutsk Regional Art Museum
What was big in Soviet pop music in 1973 was not necessarily what was permanent. The musical establishment, which controlled the business through exclusive rights to lease stages, issue record contracts, contract for radio and television appearances, or to place songs on the official lists of sanctioned music, sat atop the pyramid of power beating back the attacks of innovators. The preferred style of popular music went under the name estrada (stage music), a mellifluous if unchallenging style of performance that matched the bland melodies and lyrics it normally delivered. Chaste love, peaceful mainstream existence, common pleasures were the substance of these songs; rarely did estrada address social issues outside the world of music, and never did it stray beyond the official boundaries of Soviet discourse.
Performers wishing to find some creative connection to their audience could take a number of avenues more or less connected to the thoroughfare of Soviet pop. Master songwriter David Tukhmanov, honored member of the Union of Composers, authored the smash hit of 1973, “My Address is the Soviet Union,” whose opening couplet, “My home is not my house or my street/ My home is the Soviet Union,” featured a banal Soviet patriotism much in keeping with official norms, enough so that Tukhmanov could compose the somewhat illegitimate electric guitar into the piece. Still the modesty of the song gave Soviet listeners a welcome break from the pompous songs about love for the Communist party and Motherland that the establishment preferred. A rare few Soviet performers could operate outside the system of official recognition and distribution. The bards, such as Bulat Okudzhava or Vladimir Vysotskii, were so popular by 1973 that their voices and lyrics were known throughout the Soviet Union on scratchy unofficial tape recordings.
Rock’n’roll was the unspoken and unacknowledged barbarian at the gate, with 1973 serving as a threshold year. Although the official response to rock was a stony silence, punctuated by occasional campaigns to discredit rockers, officially-approved VIAs (vocal-instrumental assembles, the euphemism for rock band) did try to devise alternatives. The favored pretender in 1973 was the Belorussian band Pesniary (Songsters), whose folk-inflected melodies, lyrics and costumes kept them within the family of Soviet music, enough so to indulge a slight taste for electronic music. Although rock had been long known in Soviet Russia, it was as a western phenomenon, despised by the mainstream, and idolized by a young few. Just as opera was once thought to be sung exclusively in Italian, rock was thought to belong to the English language. Early Soviet rockers sang American and English songs in the original, often without understanding them. The music culture was strictly imitative, and the thought that rock music could be sung in Russian about Soviet life seemed absurd. It was not until Andrei Makarevich, lead singer of the Moscow band Time Machine, which had been in existence since 1968, began writing Russian rock in the early 1970s did Russian audiences understand that rock could be about their lives too. The musicianship of Time Machine was, to be charitable, secondary, and Makarevich’s nasal voice could stray into a whine, but their songs cut so deeply into Soviet hypocrisy that audiences were avid, even though the group was not recognized by official cultural institutions.
Shakeup in the Republics
One of the chief features of the Soviet Union’s political history in the post-Stalin era was the longevity in office of the republics’ party leadership. Under both Khrushchev and Brezhnev, republic party elites enjoyed broad, discretionary power, limited only by the necessity of maintaining (or at least appearing to maintain) economic growth and avoiding an excess of ethnic-based nationalism. This power was exercised via the establishment of complex patron-client relations that often resembled national “mafias” replete with bribe-taking and payoffs.
Power was distributed in republics along ethnic lines. The First Secretary of Republic Party was typically a member of the majority nationality, and master of the semi-legal economic network. His deputy, usually a Russian or Ukrainian, controlled nomenklatura appointment and ensured that the proper subordination to Moscow was maintained. In Uzbekistan, Sharaf Rashidov presided over the party and the republic’s vast holdings of raw cotton from 1959 until his death in 1983; in Kazakhstan, Dinamukhammed Kunaev headed the party from 1964 until 1986, and in Kyrgyzstan, Turdakun Uzubaliev ruled for 24 years, from 1961 to 1985. The Central Asian republics were not unusual in this respect. In the Soviet west, Moldavia had the same party leader from 1961 to 1980, Estonia from 1950 to 1978, and Belorussia from 1965 to 1983. In each case, as well as others, party bosses manipulated national symbols, promoted their “own” people, and permitted a vast amount of economic activity “on the side.”
At least until the late 1960s, the situation in the Transcaucasian republics was much the same. But, determined to break through the web of corruption and mutual protection in the region, the Brezhnev administration brought in new personnel to clean house. In July 1969, Geidar Aliev, a career KGB officer, replaced Veli Akhundov as first secretary of the Azerbaijani party. Three years later, Eduard Shevardnadze, head of the Georgian security forces, replaced Vasilii Mzhavanadze who had “served” as first secretary of the republic’s party organization since 1953. Mzhavanadze’s entire retinue of party and state officials was also removed and details of their corrupt practices were published in the February 28, 1973 issue of the newspaper Zaria Vostoka (Dawn of the East). In Armenia, Russians were assigned to the positions of second party secretary and head of the republic’s KGB in 1972, laying the groundwork for the appointment in November 1974 of Karen Demirchian, an Armenian engineer educated outside of Armenia, as party chief. Coinciding with these changes of leading personnel, P. I. Shelest, first secretary of the Ukrainian party since 1963, was dismissed in 1972 not for engaging in corruption, but for permitting what central authorities considered an excess of Ukrainianization in party appointments and the educational system.
Despite these shake-ups, the informal, ethnically-based networks that were deeply involved in the underground economy persisted. They constituted an effective form of national resistance to centrally mandated rules of doing business in the Soviet Union.
Seventeen Moments in Spring
Television viewers were glued to their sets through the prime viewing months of 1973, watching Iulian Semenov’s Seventeen Moments in Spring. The tale of Soviet spy Maksim Maksimovich Isaev, who had infiltrated the highest ranks of the Hitler’s political intelligence agency (SD) as Standartenfuhrer von Stirlitz, the series tracked his efforts to avert a conspiracy of German and American intelligence chiefs to forge a separate peace in the waning months of the war. Semenov, an experienced writer of police procedurals and spy novels who was rumored to have high connections himself in the intelligence community, was retailing old Cold War myths of American treachery in Seventeen Moments. Yet he also managed to portray Nazi leaders with a sympathy unknown to Soviet viewers, and to use Nazi Germany to offer a sly critique of Soviet society.
Left: SS-Oberführer Walter Schellenberg
Center: SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler
Right: Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner
Left: Allen Dulles, Swiss Director of the OSS
Center: Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller
Right: SS-Gruppenführer Karl Wolff
Memories of the Great Patriotic War were still powerful and deep for Soviet citizens. Whereas most western societies that had fought the war had put the experience behind them by 1973, and the war had become distant history for most young people, the war remained for Soviet citizens of all generations a source of trauma and pride. It was the one undeniable accomplishment of their country united, the one that had somehow remained unsullied by the pomposities of propaganda, the last time that the entire country had functioned in unity and honor, and the last great achievement of the Soviet state. The war effort provide the Communist Party with its last and most vital moment of legitimacy.
Because it had reshaped the country so profoundly, and because few Soviet citizens had not lost a relative in the war, the memory of the war was veiled by a reverence that made critical examination of the legacy very difficult. Lessons and stories of the war taught to children in Soviet schools depicted their own side in unnuanced shades of good and glory (as happened in other societies that had fought the war). Humor in treatment of the war bordered on blasphemy, so much so that the writer Vladimir Voinovich was excluded from the Writers’ Union in 1974 for having written The Life and Amazing Adventures of the Soldier Ivan Chonkin, the beloved tale of a not-too-bright Russian soldier as he survives the brutal war. The modesty and good humor of the piece contrasted sharply with the bravado of Leonid Brezhnev’s own wartime memoirs, Little Earth.
Snowball Berry Red
Snowball Berry Red, by A.N. Evseev (1974) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
Vasilii Shukshin was not destined to be an international film star. His face slightly askew, nose detouring to the right on its way to Roman nobility, eyes hooded, and stature meager, Shukshin was an actor that only a Russian could love. And they did. As actor, director and writer, he produced a string of movies, beginning with There’s this Guy (Zhivet takoi paren’, 1964), and including among others Happy-go-Lucky (Pechki-lavochki, 1972) and his final and greatest success, Snowball-Berry Red (1973). Each film and story he created celebrated in one way or another the chudak, the specifically Russian oddball whose tongue-tied integrity leaves him on the edges of life, but in the heart of simple folk.
Last known picture of Shukshin (1973) / Wikimedia Commons
His most enduring role was Egor Prokudin, hero of Snowball-Berry Red, which Shukshin wrote, directed and played the year before his death. Egor was a ne’er-do-well who fell in with the wrong crowd as a young man. A string of robberies sent him to prison, and the film finds him released back into society and resolved to do good. It is not to be. Lacking job skills, slightly befuddled by the complexities of modern life, and gnawed by a yearning for a simple life that he lost when he was taken from the village to the city as a child, Egor cannot find a purpose, and falls easy prey to his old gang when they come back for him. When the love of a good Russian woman, played by Lidiia Fedoseeva, gives him the strength to turn them away, his old comrades cold-bloodedly kill him. The stark symbolism of this final scene, when Egor’s red blood stains the white bark of the birch, touched Russians deeply in the age of Soviet internationalism.
Grave of Vasilii Shukshin (1974) / Novodevichii Monastery, Moscow
Shukshin was a maverick, not a rebel. A party member from 1955, his pedigree was quintessentially Soviet. Born in 1929 in the village of Srostki, in the Siberian district of Altai, he did odd factory jobs in provincial cities, served in the navy, and taught history in his native village before he was accepted into film school in Moscow. The eagerness of Russian audiences to identify with his characters brought him acting success, which he then parlayed with his considerable writing skills. He won a string of prestigious state prizes for his writing, directing and acting from the mid 1960s, and his work resonated with, but never quite belonged to the school of village prose that gained popularity in those years. The village movement (derevenshchina), with its love of rural simplicity, and the staunch purity of character that it bred, had an uncertain relationship with the Soviet state. Although it fostered the Russian national identity that had become central to Soviet patriotism, it also denied the benefits of much of what the Soviet system had created. Thus when he died while filming Sergei Bondarchuk’s patriotic war fest, They Fought for the Homeland(1975), his legacy proved ambiguous. Was he a non-comformist like Vladimir Vysotskii, whose innate Russianness did not indispose him to western influence or the modern world; or a Russian nationalist along the lines of village writers Valentin Rasputin and Fedor Abramov, who eventually turned their backs on the greater world.
Our Workshop Gives Both Quality and Quantity!, by B. Semenov (1971) / “Fighting Pencil” Group
The Soviet economy functioned essentially as a “dictatorship over needs.” The center’s appropriation of resources for redistribution according to pre-determined priorities only dimly registered consumer tastes and preferences, if they were registered at all. Whereas in advanced capitalist societies goods chased people, in the Soviet Union it was the reverse: people chased goods. This chase included foraging trips to cities by goods-starved rural residents, standing in long lines that seemed to spring up from nowhere on the basis of rumors that a “deficit” good was for sale, participating in informal networks among friends and workmates to exchange favors (blat), siphoning off goods from the state for sale “on the side” (na levo), and a variety of other semi-legal (“gray”) and illegal (black) market operations that involved enormous expenditures of time and considerable risk.
The Ninth Five Year Plan (1971-75) illustrated the Brezhnev administration’s attempt to overcome the contradiction between an increasingly urbanized and culturally sophisticated society and the centralized determination of needs. As outlined by Aleksei Kosygin in his report on the directives of the Twenty-Fourth Party Congress, sales of goods to the population would rise by 42 percent, the rate of ownership of refrigerators would increase from 32 per 100 families to 64, of televisions from 51 to 72, and of washing machines from 52 to 72. Official sources indicate that in the course of the Ninth Five Year Plan total sales of goods had risen by an annual average of 2.8 percent compared to 5.4 percent during the previous five year plan period. As of 1975, television ownership exceeded what the plan had envisioned while refrigerator and washing machine ownership fell somewhat short. Quality and reliability of service of these and other consumer items were, of course, harder to measure, but if Soviet jokes from the 1970s and the popular preference for foreign-made goods are any indication, they remained abysmally low.
The gap between Soviet consumers’ rising expectations or sense of what they needed and what was provided through the mechanisms of the state, which were at the root of experimental reforms in the 1960s, evidently widened in the 1970s, leading to the proliferation of alternative mechanisms by which people obtained goods and services, and a profound sense of cynicism about living in a “mature” socialist society.
Left: Starship Chart (1960), Tekhnika molodezhi (Youth Technology) journal
Right: Flight to Mars (1966) / Tekhnika molodezhi (Youth Technology) journal
The Strugatsky brothers, Boris and Arkadii, rode the crest of the science fiction wave in 1973. Writing in a genre under an official cloud since the days of Stalin, the Strugatskys amassed a large audience at home and abroad for their novels. Their early works, such as Noon: 22nd Century (1962), offered a sunny exaltation of science that was attuned Soviet rationalism; The Way to Amaltheia (1962) featured intrepid cosmonauts that appealed to readers in the age of Gagarin. Later works however featured a psychological depth and sense of individual alienation that made them, in the context of Soviet literature, works of social criticism. Roadside Picnic (1972), tells of a mysterious Zone in Canada where enigmatic artifacts can be found. Their origins are unknown, though they seem to be otherworldly; more oddly still, nobody seems to question where they come from. The book contains no direct social critique, but its picture of a purposeless world of alienation rang true to Soviet readers, enough so that it was adapted onto screen by experimental director Andrei Tarkovskii under the title Stalker (1979). In the film the smuggler Stalker is a guide across a waste land to the Room, an ominous place where secret wishes are granted.
Left: Planetary Vehicle (1966) / Tekhnika molodezhi (Youth Technology) journal
Right: Lift to the Cosmos (1970) / Tekhnika molodezhi (Youth Technology) journal
As the Strugatskys wrote the novel that would inspire his second science fiction movie, Tarkovskii was filming his first, Solaris (1972), based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of 1961. Lem was Eastern Europe’s leading science fiction writer, aided by the relative cultural openness of his native Poland. His distinctive style, dubbed soft science fiction when its influence gained currency in the west, eschewed the naive awe of science that had characterized early science fiction, with its fantastic adventures, fancy technological, and dreams of a better future, for a more somber world in which human flaws were still prevalent. For Lem and others, questioning scientific rationalism was an effective way to question the rational principles of socialism. Solaris is a mysterious planet probed by earth scientists and cosmonauts. Covered by a living ocean capable of controlled chemical transformations, the planet communicates with the explorers by means of projected mental images. The hero of the novel is greeted by an image of his young wife, a recent suicide, and in confronting the image, comes to doubt the fabric of reality, or the possibility of rational choice. In his movie, Tarkovskii emphasized further the difficulty of any two beings communicating, whether they be alien life forms or husband and wife.
Left: Socialist Space Workers (1973) / Tekhnika molodezhi (Youth Technology) journal
Right: Spaceflight (1970) / Tekhnika molodezhi (Youth Technology) journal
The distinctive Eastern European brand of science fiction spawned by Lem and cultivated by the Strugatsky exerted great influence in the west. In a way they were reestablishing the tradition of socially-critical science fiction begun by Aleksandr Bogdanov and continued in the 1920s by Aleksandr Beliaev. If science fiction was a massively popular form of Soviet literature in 1973, one that inspired unease among literary officials and captured a readership much broader than traditional science fiction, it was because it functioned as dissidence of a different sort.