“BIG IN THE USSR”: Western cultural imports in the Soviet Union

Western books, movies, and music that were more popular in the Soviet Union than in the West

(co-written with Mark Ioffe)

Can you imagine a world where very few people have seen Star Wars but Enemy Mine is a box office smash?  Where music lovers far prefer the Scorpions to the Rolling Stones?  Where Theodore Dreiser and Jack London are household names but nobody has read Philip Roth and Samuel Beckett?  Where children are far more familiar with Rudyard Kipling than Dr. Seuss?  That world existed, it was real, it was called “Soviet Union.”  Exactly thirty years ago, in December 1991, it ceased to exist.

The relationship of the Soviet Union — its government and its people — with Western Culture was complex and changed all the time.  Most of the time Soviet government viewed the majority of Western Culture as decadent and subversive, and was very cautious as to which Western cultural products (cinema, literature, and music) the Soviet people were allowed to enjoy.

Sometimes the tastes of all three sides — the West, the Soviet government, and the Soviet people — aligned, and Western cultural phenomena also became Soviet cultural phenomena.  Such was the case of Tarzan.  Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), a huge hit in America and the rest of the world, was released in the USSR in 1951.  The movie was recommended by the Soviet Minister of Culture Ivan Bolshakov with the following notation:  “Tarzan, a man uncorrupted by bourgeois civilization, is an antithesis of cruel and greedy American and English businessmen who come to Africa in search of profit.”  The film became a massive hit, causing millions of Soviet boys to climb trees and jump from hanging ropes.

Another example of such convergence of tastes, albeit for totally different reasons, is the master of science fiction and social irony Kurt Vonnegut.  He was equally popular among the American and Soviet public and officially approved by the Soviet authorities, at least until 1979, when he spoke in defense of Soviet dissidents.  Vonnegut’s Russian translator, the famous Rita Rait-Kovaleva, begged him to abstain from such actions, because she correctly surmised that all of his publications would be scrapped in the USSR, affecting her own livelihood.  The authorities, indeed, promptly ended their love affair with Vonnegut, although his popularity with the Soviet readers did not suffer in the slightest.

We can also recall Paul Robeson, an American musician and actor, whose fame peaked in the 1930s and 40s.  Soviet authorities accepted him for his political activism and relentlessly promoted him in the Soviet Union.  Robeson’s classical melodic approach appealed to Soviet listeners, and he became popular to such a degree that Soviet girls named their dolls “Paul Robeson” (these dolls were black).  Robeson loved his popularity and status and spoke of the Soviet Union:  “Here I am not a Negro but a human being.”  In fact, his race was an important factor in his promotion by the Soviet authorities:  they used it as an opportunity to demonstrate their tireless fight against racism, specifically — American racism.

Tarzan was allowed for its entertainment value, Vonnegut and Robeson — for their criticism of the American establishment.  Whatever the reason, their popularity with Western audiences, the Soviet audience, and the Soviet authorities was comparable.  But quite often the success of cultural imports in the USSR far exceeded their success in their home countries, in both popularity and impact.

Cultural imports in the Soviet Union can be divided into two broad categories:  “official” and “clandestine.”  The first category is defined as “approved by the Soviet government” and consisted of movies shown in theaters, officially released vinyls, and officially published translations of books.  The second category mostly included smuggled music records and later, in the 80s, video cassettes.  Books and magazines were also smuggled, but, due to the country’s overwhelmingly poor foreign language education, they were appreciated by few and did not make a significant impact.

“Official” film imports began to appear in Soviet theaters in the second half of the 1940s, and their selection was based on several factors.  Initially, the goal was simply to provide the exhausted, war-torn nation with some kind of entertainment.  Some film reels were captured by the Soviet army in Germany as war trophies (among them — Tarzan and Mutiny on the Bounty).  Some films were shown as part of goodwill towards the Allies.  Sun Valley Serenade was the flagship of the latter and changed Soviet society in the most unexpected way.

Made in Hollywood in 1941 and released in the USSR in 1944 Sun Valley Serenade had a cultural impact unseen in twenty years (and arguably the greatest foreign influence on the nation’s youth since the 19th Century).  Children of relatively well-to-do Russians (first in Moscow, later spreading to the rest of the country) fell in love with this film, its fashions, and its music.  “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “In the Mood” became their anthems, Glenn Miller — their god.  Jazz culture defined their lives.  Sun Valley Serenade was a solid success in America, but in the Soviet Union it single-handedly created the first youth counterculture:  stilyagi (loosely translated as “hipsters”).  They dressed, looked, and danced not necessarily like their American ideals, but rather their idea of their American ideals.  They even created their own language, heavily consisting of Russian-ized English words, like “shoozy” (shoes), “oldovy” (old), etc.  Main streets of their cities (usually named after Lenin) were re-christened “Broadway” or “Broad.”

Naturally, this created a rift between them and the rest of the monolithic Soviet society.  In the frigid post-war Stalinist Russia, where all non-conformity bordered on criminality, stilyagi were attacked in the press and in the streets, arrested, expelled from schools, even had their hair forcibly cut off.  Russian expressions of the time (“There is just one step between a saxophone and a jackknife” and “Today you play jazz, tomorrow you’ll sell your Motherland”) illustrate this era perfectly.  Stilyagi disappeared by the early 1960s but Soviet love for jazz remained for another twenty years.  On the scale of cultural earthquakes, Sun Valley Serenade is somewhere in the 7-8 range.

With the descent of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet authorities returned to pre-war cultural isolationism, but, unlike the pre-war era, there was a high demand for Western cultural imports.  The easiest one to control was literature:  the government held a monopoly on translations.  Classical books were preferred.  Their biggest advantage was that their authors were dead; their legacy — established and unchangeable.  The most published American writers in the Soviet Union were Jack London and Mark Twain.  Both had been popular in Russia for decades, both were celebrated for their sheer literary quality, both were consistent critics of American society.  It would not be a stretch to say that the popularity of both in the Soviet Union exceeded their popularity in the United States.  Jack London ended up being the second most published translated author in the USSR (after Hans Christian Andersen):  77 million copies of his works were printed between 1918 and 1986.

One must keep in mind that foreign works of literature were popular in Russia by definition due to their inherent exotics.  For centuries Russian readers, more so than their American counterparts, seemed to be interested in foreign literature.  Soviet teenagers were twice as thrilled by the literary adventures when they took place in faraway lands, and they could not care less if these books were successful in their native countries or not.  So, in addition to London and Twain, two established classics of American literature, Soviet readers were crazy about the equally established Edgar Allan Poe, the substantially less popular James Fenimore Cooper (whose popularity in American culture is now largely limited to The Last of the Mohicans), and the completely forgotten Thomas Mayne Reid.  Reid’s Headless Horseman and Oceola were devoured by every Soviet schoolkid with access to the library (currently the English prints of Oceola can only be found at the appropriately titled Forgotten Books publishing company in England).  French literature received similar treatment:  in addition to the mega-popular usual suspects Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, Russian readers embraced the significantly less famous Louis Bussenard and Gustave Aimard.

What about contemporary literary figures?  That was far trickier because of their unpredictability.  The main criteria for Soviet authorities were the writer’s critical portrayal of their Western homeland and friendliness towards the Soviet Union (or, at least, the absence of open hostility).  After the mentioned duo of Twain and London, the most prominent American writer in the Soviet cultural landscape was Ernest Hemingway.  A critic of American “to have and have not” Capitalist society, a Communist sympathizer, a committed anti-fascist, and a Nobel Prize winner, Hemingway was initially an ideal candidate for promotion by the Soviet government.  As Hemingway started to drift away from Communist ideas (his tour de force novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was criticized by both reactionaries and Communists), he was banished by the Soviet authorities.  His books were out of print in the USSR between 1939 and 1955.  

Hemingway’s comeback in the post-Stalin era was nothing short of triumphant.  His popularity with the Soviet intelligentsia skyrocketed.  Soviet people, tired of the relentless government propaganda of “mass heroism,” fully embraced Hemingway’s individualism.  He was viewed as a direct successor to Jack London, and his characters — direct descendants of London’s “strong men.”  Hemingway’s aesthetics influenced thousands of Soviet people in the 1950s and 60s.  His style (wool sweater, beard, pipe) was imitated throughout the country.  Many households prominently displayed the portraits not of Lenin but of Hemingway.  Under his influence people began to explore the wild, climb mountains, and embark on geological and marine expeditions.  He was not just a literary giant, but also a prophet of freedom and a source of courage for the people that desperately needed this courage to survive under the government’s oppression.  The musical culture of “bards” drew from Hemingway, and Russia’s greatest singer-songwriter, Vladimir Vysotsky, especially in the 60s, often spotted a look similar to that of Hemingway.  As important as Hemingway was to American culture, he was arguably more important to the Soviet one.

The main source of translations was the literary magazine Inostrannaya Literatura (“Foreign Literature”).  It was created in 1955 with a specific purpose of providing Soviet readers with officially approved translated works of literature.  Needless to say, this magazine became a highly sought-after commodity; the demand far exceeding the supply.  Western classics like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Inostrannaya LiteraturaCatcher, in excellent translation of the aforementioned Mrs. Rait-Kovaleva, became a smash hit, comparable to (but probably not surpassing) its success in the United States.  As another Russian bard Timur Shaov sings, “And Holden Caulfield was our friend, our comrade, and our brother.”

Translated Theodore Dreiser and James Aldridge were vastly more popular in the USSR than in the West.  The success of Irwin Shaw and John Updyke was fairly similar in both countries.  By contrast, such giants as James Joyce, Saul Bellow, Samuel Beckett, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth were almost entirely left out.  Beckett was first translated in 1989.  When She Was Good was Philip Roth’s sole Soviet translation (1971).  For one, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth were Jews.  Jewishness alone did not prohibit their Soviet publications (after all, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, and William Tenn were also Jewish), but the demonstrative Jewishness of their characters probably did.

Two traditional genres of imported literature — science fiction and mystery — suffered opposite fates with the Soviet public.  American science fiction of the 1950s and 60s was superbly popular.  Not just the obvious frontrunners like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut, but also Robert Sheckley, Poul Andersen, Harry Harrison, Clifford Simak, Henry Kuttner, Alfred Bester, Alfred van Vogt, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, and Roger Zelazny were translated, printed and reprinted, widely read, and admired.  While it’s hard to compete with Asimov’s and Bradbury’s fame and impact in America, it’s safe to say that Sheckley’s success in the Soviet Union far exceeded that in his homeland.  Perceived by the Soviet authorities as a “light” genre (in which they weren’t all that different from many Western critics, scholars, and politicians), sci-fi writers were given leeway denied to more “serious” writers.  Heinlein, for example, was a staunch Libertarian and anti-Communist, but his short stories were translated.  Not his novels though:  Heinlein’s only novel in Russian was the relatively harmless Orphans of the Sky (translated in 1977).  Russian sci-fi lovers were not introduced to his more controversial works like Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers until the fall of the Soviet Union.  Yet Heinlein was never outright banned in the USSR and even visited the country in 1959-60 (coming out with a slew of negative impressions).

On the other hand, American mystery novels, specifically the “private detective” genre, did not gain any substantial traction in the USSR.  Erle Gardner, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton were rarely translated.  Uber-popular Rex Stout only appeared in Russia during the Perestroika years.  This can be partially explained by the Russian notion of Americans as “men of action,” and detective stories were always considered “intellectual mind games.”  Subsequently, the Soviet people adored British masters of mystery like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and James Hedley Chase.  French mystery writer Georges Simenon was also incredibly popular.  American mystery genre was not held in the same esteem.  By contrast, in the minds of Russians, America was always a land of technological advance, so the status of American science fiction was very high.

Soviet cinematic imports had to subscribe to a complex set of ideological rules and policies, but a financial element was also present:  they had to be affordable.  The Soviet government did not want to overspend on Hollywood blockbusters; subsequently, Star Wars and Jaws were never shown in Soviet theaters.  But many films were imported and became national sensations.

The prime example of this is McKenna’s Gold.  Made in 1969, this cowboys-and-Indians flick flopped in the US but, released in the USSR in 1974, became a major blockbuster, seen by 63 million people.  It ended up being the second highest-grossing American film in Soviet history (4th overall), behind The Magnificent Seven (2nd overall) and just ahead of Spartacus (5th).  Obviously, on the last two films, the public tastes in the two countries agreed.  Oddly enough, out of the top ten grossing foreign films in the Soviet Union, only these three came out of Hollywood (5 of 10 being from India).  Furthermore, the top 20 list has only one other American movie:  King Kong Lives, another critical and financial failure in its homeland but a great success in the USSR.  Expanding the list to 50 adds King Kong (the 1976 remake), Crocodile Dundee II, Some Like It Hot, The Sandpit Generals (The Defiant), Tarzan the Ape Man, Stunts, Tarzan Escapes, and Tarzan’s New York Adventure.  Clearly, cinematic hits and flops had equal chances of becoming blockbusters in the USSR.

Other American movies that did better in the Soviet Union than in the USA:  The Great Waltz, Convoy, Orca, Starman, Enemy Mine, and The Flight of the Navigator.  The last three represented American science fiction that Soviet teens worshipped (especially in the absence of Star Wars).  Convoy’s criticism of the American way of life pleased the Soviet authorities, and its exotic landscapes and strong relatable characters (also in the tradition of London and Hemingway) appealed to the Soviet people.  Orca filled the niche that in the USA was already occupied by Jaws.  Some American films that became blockbusters in both countries are Cleopatra, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Great Race, and Romancing the Stone (in the absence of Indiana Jones).  Oddly enough, Tootsie became a smashing success in the USSR as well.

In some instances, the Soviet government’s selection of cultural imports failed.  They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was tailor-made for official Soviet approval but was a marginal success with the people; similarly produced The Front and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore did even worse.

As far as music imports, one would think that Paul Robeson set the template and that any musician criticizing the Western way of life would be welcomed in the USSR, but it was not so simple.  The actual tastes of Soviet bureaucrats mattered.  All official musical imports lay either in the realm of classical music or pop music.  The success of American pianist Van Cliburn in the USSR, following his victory at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, was phenomenal, but even more phenomenal was the success of disco acts like ABBA, Boney M. and Genghis Khan (last two — virtual unknowns in the West).  The Soviet popularity of the Italian child sensation Robertino Loreti, whose vinyls were officially released in USSR in 1962-63, far outlived his fame in both his home country and USA.

The next American musical icon to follow in Robeson’s footsteps was folk singer Pete Seeger.  Owning his arguably biggest hit “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to the behemoth of Russian literature Quietly Flows Don, Seeger was both a harsh critic of capitalism and a left-leaning supporter of the Soviet Union.  He visited the Soviet Union four times:  in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1975.  His music was officially released on vinyl by the only Soviet official label Melodia.  As a result, Seeger enjoyed reasonable notoriety with the Soviet people, probably on par with his modest success in America.  Other officially sanctioned American imports included a banjo and guitar virtuoso Roy Clark who, as a part of détente’s cultural exchange program and as an American “goodwill ambassador,” in 1976 brought to the USSR his famous Hee Haw show and demonstrated to the Soviets their musical pyrotechnics.  Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a country-rock act, visited the USSR in 1977.  Songs like “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers were reasonably popular.

Notice that the only officially imported American bands were of folk or country variety.  Folk, country, and country-rock genres were viewed favorably by the Communist authorities since they were perceived as the “music of the hard-working and exploited tillers of the earth,” making them ideologically acceptable. By contrast, straight-up rock’n’roll was feared as a “subversion” and “cultural imperialism of the West,” bound to incurably pollute the hearts and minds of Soviet youth.  The volume of attacks on rock’n’roll (especially on the Beatles) by the Soviet media was massive in both quantity and negativity.  Even such outspoken critics of bourgeois society as Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Bruce Springsteen did not receive official Soviet approval; instead, they were derided as the symptoms of Western degradation.  Soviet bureaucrats hated rock’n’roll.

Western rock music became a forbidden fruit in the USSR.  It was not available in record stores, so it had to be acquired on the black market:  the “clandestine” imports, smuggled across the border by those privileged to travel abroad.  These records cost a fortune:  a vinyl would go from 50 rubles in Moscow to 200 in remote regions (a higher-than-average monthly salary!).  Black market was a shady and complex system of relationships that could cost all involved parties much more than money.  But the demand was high, and the market thrived.

The Iron Curtain did not mean that Soviet music lovers lived in a vacuum, oblivious to the developments in the western rock scene.  Soviet youth knew that rock music was America’s great gift to humankind.  Yet their tastes differed from their American peers.  The Soviets were much more attracted to British rock.  They were aware of the main names in the American rock scene but their popularity was overshadowed by the British.  Only the most hardcore rock fans listened to Jimi Hendrix (despite one of the leading Russian rock bands Time Machine singing:  “In my heart, I have two:  Jimi Hendrix and you”), Janice Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Jefferson Airplane, The Eagles, Lou Reed, and probably even Boston and Kansas.  CCR probably was the most popular, but even the biggest American band in USSR — The Doors — was no match for the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Queen, T. Rex, Status Quo, and even Uriah Heep (which actually played several shows in the USSR in 1987).

Surprisingly one American rock name that is almost totally forgotten in the USA but very dear to the hearts of Soviet rock-loving teenagers in the 1970s was Suzi Quatro, the bass-playing singer-songwriter and a frontwoman of the eponymous band, who was more popular in Europe and Australia than in her own country.  Another unexpectedly popular in the USSR American band was Heart, whose hit “Barracuda” even received some airplay on the Soviet radio.

Nothing and no one could compare to the worship and adoration that Soviet rock fans bestowed upon the Beatles.  Soviet Beatlemania rivaled Western in intensity, but was purely hypothetical:  no Soviet Beatles fan could hope to see their idols in concert.  Fans compensated by learning everything they could about the Fab Four and, more impressively, by learning the English language from the Beatles’ lyrics.  Also, it should be noted that the Rolling Stones in the USSR were never serious competitors for the Beatles.  Russian people always valued melody above all else, so music based on classical harmonies like that of the Beatles, ABBA, and Scorpions was far more loved than when it relied on groove, sound, and swing.

Musical interests were indicative of the divisions in Soviet society.  What music you listened to and which Western musicians you worshipped, was a class and a status thing in the USSR (perhaps as everywhere else).  If you met a kid who listened to Procol Harum, Moody Blues, ELO, Genesis, Yes, or King Crimson you knew you were talking to a refined intellectual, a highbrow esthete, probably a college student and a scion of an educated and privileged family.  Slightly below, but also showing a certain degree of education and class would be fans of such perennial favorites as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream, Kinks, or Elton John.  But if a kid professed attraction to bands like Slade, Sweet, Black Sabbath, Nazareth, Bad Company, and AC/DC, it demonstrated a proletarian taste and upbringing.  Even lower stood the lovers of ABBA, Boney M, Shocking Blue, Modern Talking, and two Italian pop icons:  Adriano Celentano and Toto Cutugno.  Among rock connoisseurs, these acts were considered downright barbaric, and not without basis:  there were reports of street violence between two rival gangs that idolized two rival Italian crooners.  Needless to say, nobody even bothered with Soviet-made music:  official Soviet vinyls contained either Lenin’s and Brezhnev’s speeches, classical music, or painfully boring, officially approved pop and ersatz-rock acts.

In general, it can be estimated that the popularity of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd among the privileged youth in places with stronger Western ties (Moscow, Leningrad, the Baltic Republics, Kiev, and Odessa) equaled their popularity in Great Britain.  Outside these social stratae, the Iron Curtain remained almost impenetrable, and the impact of Western rock music was limited.  But with the privileged, it was humongous.  Influenced by Western rock’n’roll, hundreds of Soviet teenagers realized they wanted to play this music.  Dozens of bands appeared in Moscow, Leningrad, and Vilnius throughout the 1970s.  In the 80s, the number grew to hundreds, then thousands.  The unstoppable march of rock’n’roll, in many ways, contributed to the liberalization and ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The disconnect between the tastes of the “elites” and the “commoners” is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Bob Dylan, revered by the Soviet intellectuals, played in 1985 in Moscow to a half-empty arena, while Billy Joel played a series of sold-out concerts.  The 1989 Moscow “Rock Against Drugs” festival (featuring, ironically, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, and Bon Jovi) and the 1991 “Monsters of Rock” show (featuring AC/DC, Metallica, and Pantera) were superbly successful, the latter most likely being the biggest rock show in history with half-a-million people in attendance.

The 80s and the Perestroika saw Western music flood into the country without restrictions.  In its dying days, the Soviet Union experienced a surge in the popularity of punk rock and heavy metal (although the elites still stuck to “artsier” acts like The Eurythmics and Tom Waits).  Similarly, Western films initially occupied “video salons” (private VCR-showing rooms), then official theaters.  Western books received mass translation.  The Iron Curtain evaporated.  From that point on, all differences between Soviet and Western culture consumers became not political, but regional.