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Feeling a bit jazzy today? Not in the Soviet Union.
The USSR and jazz had a love-hate relationship ever since the country’s formation in the early 1920s; the officials hated it, the youth loved it.
To put into perspective, during his fruitful career, Dmitri Shostakovich, Russian composer and pianist, wrote three ballets: The Golden Age, op. 22 (1929-30), The Bolt, op. 27 (1931), and The Bright Stream, op. 39 (1935). The Bolt follows the story of a worker in a Soviet factory, Lazy Lyonka, who, together with an anti-Soviet plotter, plans to sabotage the factory’s machinery by putting a bolt into it. Their plan is quickly foiled by Komsomol, a political youth organization of the USSR. Soon after premiering on April 8, 1931, The Bolt was banned; Lyonka’s “languid waltz”, its tango and jazz-inspired tunes, were all too ‘Western’ and a bit too much for the Soviet cultural elites to handle (1).
But what exactly was it about jazz that made its reputation so unfavorable in the eyes of the Soviet officials? There are a few reasons; from the Soviet Union’s official aesthetic doctrine, Socialist Realism, to jazz’s close association with freedom, underground Soviet pop-culture, such as the Stilyagi youth counterculture, and decadence.
Socialist Realism: Narodnost, Partiinost, Ideinost!
Socialist Realism became the official aesthetic doctrine of the Soviet Union in 1932. Its emergence was detrimental to the artistic sector and its freedom of expression. The essence of Socialist Realism can be summed up in the following three principles: ideinost, narodnost, and partiinost (3). The first, ideinost, meant promoting socialism in artistic productions. Narodnost required works of art to represent the national character of the Soviet Union. Finally, partiinost expected authors and their productions to express loyalty to the Communist Party (3). Apart from these three principles, works of art that were considered suitable for the popular masses had to celebrate all the various cultures of the Soviet Union (and there were quite a few), “speak to the everyday life of the masses”, especially the proletariat, and inspire Soviet workers with optimism about the bright future of the communist project (3).
With these aesthetic requirements in action, little room was left for creative freedom and expression. Jazz, in particular, suffered from ideological oppression in the 1930s and the 1940s during the so-called “anti-cosmopolitanism” campaign. During this campaign, it was difficult, if not impossible, to talk about foreign influences and their effect on Russian culture was under strict supervision of the ruling elites. In other words, “writers, artists, scholars, and scientists were attacked for any sign of foreign influences on their work or for studying ties between Russian and foreign cultural figures” (4). With this in mind, jazz-style pieces were seen by the authorities and cultural elites as laden with foreign, American influence, and thus potentially harmful for the Soviet youth (5).
The genre as a whole either remained at the margins of the Soviet artistic scene or went underground. Those who were really enthusiastic about jazz, however, “adopted illegal methods to access the newest foreign jazz pieces and information on jazz” from other members of the jazz fan community or the black market (5). In a propaganda department report on Moscow youth in 1952, Komsomol complained that “vulgar western fox-trots and tangoes” are completely pushing out “beautiful Russian musical ball dances” from state-sponsored popular culture (5). Valery Todorovsky’s 2008 musical Stilyagi, depicting the Soviet youth culture of the same name, manages to visually bring us in the midst of the dynamic atmosphere of the “anti-cosmopolitanism” campaign and shows how the life of a typical jazz enthusiast in the USSR looked like. It was only after Stalin’s death in 1953, de-Stalinization, and the lessening of top-down artistic oppression, that jazz experienced a revival, with grassroots club activities and youth cafés dedicated to jazz and its fans opening around Moscow and Saint Petersburg (5).
“Jazz Means Freedom”
In the eyes of the Soviet officials, not only was jazz exposing the Soviet youth to influences of the West, and could potentially inspire it to acquire a decadent, bourgeoise lifestyle of America, but the expressive jazz and swing tunes could also motivate, they thought, jazz enthusiasts to rebel against the elites.
In his acceptance speech for the Spingarn Award by NAACP in 1959, awarded for outstanding achievements by an African American, Duke Ellington, American pianist, composer and leader of a jazz orchestra, when asked “why” American jazz “was so much in vogue in other countries”, replied, “I thought the reason was that jazz means freedom” (1). For the Soviet youth, especially, this freedom could mean freedom from communism or even “freedom from Moscow”, as was the case for the Baltic states where many considered jazz as sign of rebellion against ‘conservative Moscow’ (1). Jazz, in this sense, represented “both the freedom of expression and the spirit of rebellion against authority, that the Soviet youth so fervently sought to emulate” (1). And naturally, the Party did not really want the future leaders of communism wasting their time thinking about ‘nonsense ideas’ about liberty and the American lifestyle—we saw how the officials solved that in the 1930s.
And Freedom Means Jazz
To wrap up, although the Soviet officials were never really too happy with jazz even as early as Shostakovich started incorporating jazz tunes in his ballets, the genre provoked tremendous enthusiasm among generations of Soviet youths. For the elites, jazz symbolized the decadent, bourgeois West, while, in contrast, it allowed the Soviet youth to come in touch with the American cultural scene, and symbolically enjoy a degree of freedom. Even during the most intense period of top-down cultural oppression during the 1930s and the 1940s, jazz enthusiasts managed to get their hands on the latest records through more or less (il)legal methods. Their case demonstrates the energy with which the Soviet youth exercised its own freedom in the underground cultural scene and the various jazz clubs and cafés in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, despite the suffocating political atmosphere outside of their little jazz-bubble. As such, we can slightly rephrase Ellington’s statement that “jazz means freedom” into “freedom means jazz”—for the Soviet youth, it created a space in which they can escape the monotonous Soviet reality, even if only for a little while.
1. Davenport, Lisa E. Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
2. Ilichova, Marina. “Shostakovich’s Ballets.” The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich. Eds. Pauline Fairclough and David Fanning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
3. Kaganovsky, Lilya. “Stalinist Cinema 1928-1953.” The Russian Cinema Reader: Volume I, 1908 to the Stalin Era. Ed. Salys Rimgaila. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2013. 208-234.
4. Tolz, Vera. Russia: Inventing the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
5. Tsipursky, Gleb. Socialist Fun: Youth, Consumption, and State-Sponsored Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1945-1970. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.