A Synthesis of Ephemeral Forms: Soviet Camera Enthusiasm on the Margins of the Performing Arts

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During the renaissance that was the post-Stalin Thaw period, camera enthusiasm became a notable aspect of Soviet sixties culture. The film clubs opening in various parts of the country were both evidence of and catalyst for a growing cinephilia. At the same time, new domestic production of 16- and 8mm equipment produced growing numbers of people wishing to try their hand at making films.

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All the Russias: A Transnational Approach

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A new approach underpins “Transnational Russian Studies,” edited by Andy Byford, Connor Doak, and Stephen Hutchings, just published by Liverpool University Press. Our book opens up the map of Russian Studies beyond Russia, treating Russian culture as an expanding and contested field that extends in not always predictable ways across multiple national borders.

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Sami Suodenjoki is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences (HEX) at Tampere University and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Political History at the University of Antwerp. The text below builds on his article “Popular Songs as Vehicles for Political Imagination: The Russian Revolutions and the Finnish Civil War in Finnish Song Pamphlets, 1917-1918,” published in Ab Imperio 2/2019.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 left a deep imprint on popular culture across and beyond the collapsing empire. Popular songs, circulated in printed form, were among the first media to tackle the transfers of power as well as the characters of revolutionaries and tsarist authorities.

In the Grand Duchy of Finland, one of the empire’s Western borderlands, the February Revolution was a particular inspiration for songwriters. Just a few weeks following Nicholas II’s abdication, the first song pamphlets addressing revolutionary events hit the market. These pamphlets continued the long European tradition of broadsides, cheap ephemera typically produced by and for lower-class people.

Three reasons made the February Revolution an especially fruitful topic for song pamphleteers. First, the revolution ended tsarist censorship in Finland, allowing songwriters to freely discuss political affairs and mock the authorities. Second, the dramatic surge of revolutionary events offered ideal material for topical verses that relied on melodrama and sensation. Third, the revolutionary situation produced an explosion in the number of public events, which in turn provided an extensive market for selling song pamphlets, as well as venues for performing the songs themselves.

The revolutionary atmosphere was reflected in the frequent mention of public figures in popular songs published in 1917 and 1918. Nicholas II, the Empress Alexandra, and Rasputin featured as dominant anti-heroes in these songs, just as they did in contemporary Russian popular culture. 

The song pamphlets also demonstrate good knowledge of top imperial officials, who were depicted as ruthless oppressors deserving their own downfall and as well as prosecution at the hands of the revolutionary regime. Of the new revolutionary Russian government, the songs highlight only Alexander Kerensky, who tended to be demonized because of his decision to dissolve the Finnish parliament in the summer of 1917.

The front and back covers of the song pamphlet “Freedom Songs: Joyful and Ironic,” 1917. The pamphlet was distributed by the bookshop Viertola, located in a working-class district of Helsinki.

Compared to their enthusiasm for the February Revolution, Finnish popular songs devoted far less attention to the Bolshevik Revolution in October. In the fall of 2017, Russian political dynamics were affecting songwriters’ imaginations only indirectly, through the radicalization of political rhetoric within the Finnish socialist leadership and press. These effects, in turn, translated into more militant texts distributed by song pamphleteers.

The events of the Finnish Civil War, a byproduct of the October Revolution, became a key inspiration for popular songwriters in early 1918. Some songs from the Civil War period sympathized with Finnish Red revolutionaries. Others tapped into the mainline of White propaganda, emphasizing the close connections among Finnish Reds, Russian soldiers, and the Bolshevik leadership.

After the Red revolutionaries had lost the Civil War in late spring 1918, Finnish authorities stemmed the tide of political song pamphlets. This action attended the return of censorship and new obstacles to working-class cultural activity. Some of the most active song pamphleteers ended up in prison camps, suspected of aiding and abetting treason.

Regardless, in the ensuing years, the Russian Revolution continued to inspire Finnish popular songwriters. Unlike the ephemeral songs popularized in 1917-18, several of the later numbers went on to become trans-generational hits. 

One Russian-Revolution-themed song that remains well-known in Finland today is “Kerenski,” which borrows its tune from the popular Russian two-step dance “Karapet.” “Kerenski” became a dance-floor hit across Finland in 1919, and was recorded numerous times in the decades that followed. The song’s popularity derives from its caustic mockery of Alexander Kerensky as a “cook” who tried to “bake” a new Russia by using various nationalities as ingredients — all before fleeing abroad at the end of 1917.

Piano sheet music for “Kerenski,” 1922.

Another example of the Russian Revolution’s longstanding appeal in Finnish popular music is “Vapaa Venäjä” or “Free Russia.” This song may have originated among Finnish Red refugees, who fled to Soviet Russia in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. “Free Russia”‘s melody was based on the famous Russian patriotic march Farewell of Slavianka, but the Finnish lyrics addressed the end of an oppressive era and the creation of a new Workers’ Russia. 

“Free Russia’s” transformation into a popular music hit was distinctively transnational and would have been impossible without the rise of the international recording industry. Migration brought the song to North America, where Finnish immigrant tenor Otto Pyykkönen recorded it (with alternative Finnish lyrics) for Columbia Records in 1924. In the years that followed, the march also achieved fame in Finland as a fixture at workers’ meetings and demonstrations.  

In newly independent Finland, bourgeois and even Social-Democratic newspapers labelled “Free Russia” an unpatriotic rhapsody of the Soviet regime. However, Finnish Communists embraced the march as offering a counter-image to both Imperial Russia and the oppressive nation-state in which they currently lived. What made “Free Russia” different from many song pamphlets of 1917 was that it located an imaginary workers’ paradise not in Finland, but in Russia.

The imaginary “Free Russia” eventually became a reality for thousands of Finnish and Finnish-American Communists, who fled political discrimination and depression to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These expatriates included Emil Rautiainen, author of the first recorded version of “Free Russia,” and Jukka Ahti, who performed the more famous version of 1929. Ultimately, however, the reality of a “Free Russia” did not live up to its image in song: both Rautiainen and Ahti later fell victim to Stalinist purges.


Exhibition Review: “Gastev: How to Work”

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“How To Work,” a recent exhibition of early Soviet labor rationalization techniques held at Moscow’s Na Shabolovke gallery, raises critical questions about the body’s role in the exploitative networks of contemporary capitalism, in which bodies are perpetually connected to post-industrial digital devices that regulate everyday life and labor.

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Cultural Despair and the Soviet Seventies

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In today’s United States, the ’70s seem close at hand. After Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, Foreign Policy asked if the country was once again facing “the geopolitical malaise of the 1970s.” Such comparisons reached a fever pitch during Trump’s impeachment trial, when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi griped that at least Nixon had the dignity to leave office. Back then, cultural commentators warned of The Death of Progress and The Promise of the Coming Dark Age (the titles of books published in 1973 and 1976, respectively). As American capitalism and Soviet socialism competed for global hegemony, both societies were plagued by fears of decline amidst geopolitical and economic shifts, and both cultures were full of alienated characters in search of regeneration.

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Excerpt from Brandon Schechter’s “The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II Through Objects”

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This book tells the story of that dramatic change—from a desperate, retreating band to a victorious army—as experienced by soldiers. The years 1941–1945 replayed in real life a universal tale that had become a major trope of Bolshevism: “the standard exodus and construction stories about the transformation of a motley crowd into a holy army.”

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Soviet Miners’ Strikes, Thirty Years Later: What Miners Demanded in 1989 and 1991, Part II

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By describing the benefits the mine accrued thanks to its specialists and white-collar employees, the “Izvestiia” article points to the intellectual nature of work performed by those striking miners called “bureaucrats.” This modification to the term’s meaning suggests, I argue, that at the core of the 1989 strikes was a tension between intellectual and manual labor that transformed the strikes into proto-class struggle. 

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Soviet Miners’ Strikes, Thirty Years Later: What Miners Demanded in 1989 and 1991, Part I

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In 2009 the former chair of the Donetsk Strike Committee recalled in an interview to the newspaper “Segodnia,” “We never pursued the goal of Soviet collapse. We were against the people in power, rather than the country.” Although this change in miners’ attitude could be interpreted as nostalgia, it seems equally likely that their bitter feelings are caused by the unresolved question of why their struggle for freedom and democracy ended in massive socio-economic inequality. I attempted to answer this question based on an analysis of miners’ demands, as well as the discursive context of the late Soviet 1980s and early 1990s.

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Excerpt from Jeffrey Brooks’ “The Firebird and the Fox: Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks”

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During the century of Russian genius roughly from 1850 to Stalin’s death a panorama of extraordinary cultural richness unfolded, with layer upon layer of innovation in the arts. Visual artists moved outside and beyond the academy to paint the Russian people and landscapes, then farther still to pioneer Primitivism, Constructivism, and Suprematism. Composers, choreographers, and dancers infused ballet with new themes, costumes, sets, and music. Writers offered masterpieces of Realism, honed the modern short story, and went beyond, turning to the fantastic to capture the surrealism of cultural life under Stalin. 

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Russian Government Reshuffle: Plus ça Change

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Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement during his annual presidential address on 15 January that the constitution will be rewritten, and the subsequent resignation of his government, caught everyone by surprise. Like Meghan and Harry’s announcement a few days earlier that they were leaving Britain, it seemed to have been be done in a hurry, and leaves many key questions unanswered. Does it signal the beginning of the end of Putin’s long reign – or is part of a scheme to enable him to stay in power behind the scenes even after he steps down as president in 2024?

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Winter Reading Series: Emil Draitser’s “Farewell, Mama Odessa,” Part II

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When the Bolshoi Ballet came to town, Si and Zev printed their own playbills and, at the theater entrance, handed them to the theatergoers. Below the ballet cast of “Sleeping Beauty,” they put a note. It called the public not to ignore the fact that the country capable of producing such an enchanting spectacle was also capable of treating its Jews as second-rate citizens. The police duly arrested the pair.

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Rereading Akunin: A Conversation with Eliot Borenstein

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Fandorin is just not a joiner. And specifically, if there’s one principle to which he’s committed above all others, it’s this notion of “personal human dignity” and the individual’s prerogative to sequester themselves in their own preferences. Fandorin doesn’t want to work for the Okhranka or for any other part of the Imperial government, which he sees becoming increasingly brutal and unreasonable. He doesn’t want to be with the progressives, either; he just wants to be on his own. And what’s interesting is that, for him, the only path to true independence is to be insanely wealthy. It’s one big libertarian dream.

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“One Soldier’s War” and the New Literary War Hero

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In literature and in real life, there is a new type of veteran. From the West’s GWOT (Global War on Terror) “hitters” to the generation Russia lost to Chechnya, the days of victory parades, shared belief and struggle, and the romanticized idea of the “War Hero” or “Veteran” is gone. This is reflected in modern war literature, as veterans of these recent wars attempt to tell their truth to what they frequently perceive to be an indifferent or hostile audience back home, and bridge a gap they themselves often claim to be unbridgeable.

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Ten Years of Eastern Partnership in Azerbaijan: Time to Take Serious Steps

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Within Azerbaijan itself, both the population and the political establishment see their future with Europe. This stance dictates prioritizing policies that would move the country closer to both the EU and the international community. For instance, with the EU’s help, Azerbaijan could accelerate the process of joining the WTO; continue to promote institutional reforms; and build more strategic partnerships in the region. However, if the EU and Azerbaijan continue to exist in a relationship defined by passivity and inaction, the moment could be lost, leaving Azerbaijan vulnerable to other regional centers of political gravity.

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What About Tomorrow? An Oral History of Russian Punk from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot

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Punk arrived in Soviet Russia in 1978, spreading slowly at first through black market vinyl records and soon exploding into state-controlled performance halls, where authorities found the raucous youth movement easier to control. In fits and starts, the scene grew and flourished, always a step ahead of secret police and neo-Nazis, through glastnost, perestroika, and the end of the Cold War. Despite a few albums smuggled out of the country and released in Europe and the US, most Westerners had never heard of Russia’s punk movement until Pussy Riot burst onto the international stage. My book, a history of Russian punk rock from the Soviet era to Pussy Riot, is technically an oral history — but it also includes several chapters written in journalistic style, expressing my personal opinion about things like punk in the provinces and Pussy Riot’s place in the scene.

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