Today would have been the famed Soviet bard, actor, and conscious of a generation Vladimir Vysotsky’s 70th birthday. Vysotsky, who died in 1980 at the age of 42 from heart failure, perhaps proves once again that “its better to burn out, than to fade away.” True enough. Vysotsky’s great cultural impact in life and sudden death is the stuff icons are made of. Brilliant and moving, his passionate raspy voice made him a man fit for his time. It was also a time fit for the man.
Vysotsky’s 70th birthday is not going unnoticed in Russia. Monuments to the legendary actor, poet, and vocalist are being unveiled today in Samara, Voronezh and Dubna. The one in Samara is a 5 meter tall piece sculpted by Vysotsky’s close friend and well known artist Mikhail Shemyakin.
My love of Vysotsky’s music is only a few years old. My most memorable moment was last year in Israel. I was shopping at this flea market in Jaffa and stumbled upon a Russian immigrant selling records. Among his collection was a seven vinyl series of Vysotsky’s music called Na kontsertakh Vladimira Vysotskovo. He sold them to me for a dollar a record. The wax is in perfect condition. The sleeves are a bit worn, some have a few stains of god knows what, but not too bad. The records were published between 1987-1988 by Melodiia, the official Soviet record press, and are based on recordings Vysotsky did in the 1960s and 1970s. I figured that today is a good day to bust them out of my crate of records, blow the dust off of them, and give ’em a spin.
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By Sean — 4 weeks ago
Guest: Maria Belodubrovskaya on Not According to Plan: Filmmaking under Stalin published by Cornell University Press.
By Sean — 9 years ago
Vedomosti has a great article on the history of Russia’s housing crisis. Housing, as Maksim Trudoliubov notes, is a chronic historical problem in Russia, one which the Soviets tried to attenuate, but made little headway until the 1960s. “The comfort of our home life is still not good for many of us,” Trudoliubov begins. “As in the early Soviet and even in the “mature Soviet” period housing was the main problem for the majority of citizens. Life was collective not because the state managed to inculcate citizens with a fancy for the romanticism of “communal life,” and because of this all of Stalin’s construction projects must be seen in this light. There’s just not enough housing (as is the case up to the present). But even more important, housing–from the bunks in dormitories to elite apartments in nomenclature buildings–was an instrument of manipulating people.”
Indeed, as Truboliubov continues, solutions to the housing problem took on a variety of realist and ideological forms to manipulate people. Lenin, for one, saw the housing problem a matter of distribution and allocation. According to the Soviet founding father, the Tsarist elite held a monopoly over living space. The solution was a simple but cold revolutionary formula of “K = N – 1,” where K equaled the number of rooms, and N the number of residents. Meaning that “the number of people in an apartment must be one more than rooms.” Well, as the those intimately familiar with Russian housing know well, the proportion of people to rooms was often many times more lopsided than Lenin’s prescription.
Things only worsened after the Civil War when structural dilapidation, poverty, disease, and general governmental decay exacerbated the existing housing problem. As Truboliubov writes, “In 1921 37% of buildings in Moscow were unsuitable for habitation.” As one resident of what is now Building 9 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, the street that runs parallel to Tverskaya, central Moscow’s main drag, commented in 1922, “The pluming system, drainage and heating are destroyed. Apartments lack facets, radiators for central heating, and are stripped of stoves. In the majority of apartments the floors are taken apart, and dirt and garbage are everywhere.”
Apartment life in the 1920s was abysmal to say the least. As any reader of Bulgakov’s Dog’s Heart will know, apartments were allocated and reallocated in a sporadic, albeit proletarian, manner. Residents of various classes were cramped together. Revolutionary justice in housing required the bourgeoisie to give up their rooms to the new proletarian ruling class. And “when there weren’t any rooms to rent, then people rented corners, that is parts of rooms, corridors and kitchens.” And if those weren’t available, then sleeping in bathtubs served as a desperate alternative. The average living space in the 1920s was an average of 5.2 to 5.8 square meters per person.
Stalin’s industrial campaign of the 1930s only made matters worse as millions of peasant migrants flooded into Russia’s cities. As David Hoffman notes in his Peasant Metropolis, migration was so great that there was no conceivable way for the authorities to provide adequate housing. The solution was often the rapid and shoddy construction of worker’s barracks. The crunch was so great that the average number of persons per room in the Soviet Union rose from 2.71 in 1926 to 3.91 in 1940. One can only guess that the increase would be even more if the statistics only accounted for the country’s industrial urban centers.
More people meant less comfort. One American cited by Hoffman described his friend Kuznetsov’s living conditions in the barracks of the Kuibyshev electronic factory in the 1930s,
“Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw and dried leaves. There were no pillows or blankets. Coats and other garments were being utilized for covering. Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift during the day and by others at night. There were no screens or wall to give any privacy to the occupants of the barracks . . . I could not stay in the barracks very long. I could not stand the stench of kerosene and unwashed bodies. The only washing facility was a pump outside. The toilet was rickety, unheated shanty, without seats.”
Rapid urbanization also gave rise to the Stalinist internal passport system in 1934. The passport system was an attempt to slow migration, especially that induced by the famine in Ukraine. The logic was to prevent an already desperate situation was getting worse. With housing and food supply already short (urban residents were on rations), a tidal wave of starving peasants would have brought the situation to the brink Soviet officials reasoned. The policy was certainly cruel. But Stalinist policies were never known for their niceties.
The passport system also became a permanent biopolitical measure of population control. Urbanites got them. Kholkhozniki didn’t. And though getting off the collective farm was easily done, the system put in place institutionalized discrimination until the mid-1970s when Russia’s rural inhabitants began getting passports. This is not to say that urban residents were allowed to move freely. City to city migration required registration. True, people still moved throughout the postwar period, but the passport and registration system was yet another bureaucratic control for the authorities to wield when necessary.
Substantial housing relief didn’t come until the 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev attempted to tackle the housing problem with the mass production of five story, box like apartment buildings. The “khrushchevki” provided relief, gave many their own apartments, but were hardly aesthetic or structural masterpieces. But a shoddy apartment was better than no apartment, especially for those war refugees who were living in dugouts until the late 1950s. And the continued housing projects of the Brezhnev period provided additional living space. So much so that by the end of the Soviet period, the square meter per person had grown to 15.3 square meters.
Present day housing, though still a problem, appears to be improving. As Truboliubov notes, according to Rosstat, the average living space has increased to 20.9 square meters per person. This is still low by Western European and American standards (Germany, 36 sq. m.; Sweden, about 40; and the US, 60), yet by Russian standards, which has a totally different historical relationship to living, privacy, and relationships, this is a great improvement.
Finally, Truboliubov ends his narrative with a reminder that registration, though deemed illegal by the Russian Constitution, remains in force. The authorities repeadtly balk at abolishing it. They only seem to always promise to “modernize” its application. Why? As Truboliubov notes, one of the features of a capitalist system is to increase the mobility of not just capital, but labor. But Russian capitalism works on an additional profit motive. The registration system has an additional function as an “instrument of extracting the profit of corruption.” “The Stalinist institution of registration now properly serves the bureaucrats as a source of income.”
Photo: English Russia.Post Views: 254
By Sean — 12 years ago
I’m not a big connoisseur of Russian music. My knowledge of it barely extends past ???????. And that’s because they constantly ran that damn ???? ???? video on MTV when I was in Russia. That said, the Moscow Times features a must have album in their Context section: Gulag Tunes: Melodies and Rhymes from the Gulag. Gulag Tunes combines Russian prison songs (??????? ?????) with surf music. I’ve been a fan of surf music since I had my Man or Astroman phase about ten years ago. The cover of Gulag Tunes, featured to the right, is worth its weight in gold. It pictures Stalin with a Hawaiian necklace of skulls, hovering over a silhouette of a prison camp.
As the Times describes the creation of the record:
Drinking red wine in an outdoor cafe, Antipov told the story of the album’s creation while seated next to his wife, Yelena, who translated the song titles into English and lived alongside the recording process in the couple’s home studio.
Antipov recalled how he recorded a couple of songs in the surf-music style and played them to rock critic Artyom Troitsky, who became the album’s producer. “Troitsky said that it was a great idea, and that I should develop it; that it would be possible to make a whole album, and maybe even more than one, because the topic is very rich, and there is a lot of material,” he said.
“No one has ever done this before, although the idea is lying on the surface. It’s an obvious thing,” he commented.
The album doesn’t have vocals. “If you know the words, you can sing along,” Antipov said. He made the album with guitarist Maxim Temnov, who is an expert on musical arrangements of blatniye pesni, and has also performed with the band Leningrad.
“Many of the authors really did write the songs while they were in the camps,” Antipov said, although he added that determining precise authorship can be tricky. The songs often have eight to 10 different versions. Some were performed by officially approved Soviet artists such as singer Leonid Utyosov, but the lyrics were often changed.
Songs reflecting gulag experiences include “Vaninsky Port,” which has the lyrics “May you be damned, Kolyma,” referring to the infamous region in northeastern Siberia that was home to a network of Stalin-era prison camps. The song continues, “You will lose your mind against your will. From there, there is no way back.”
“The album brought some people to tears,” Yelena Antipova said. After an initial printing of 1,000 copies, 300 were sold during the first week alone in Soyuz stores, despite a lack of promotion from the company.
Some blatniye pesni date back to the 19th century, while others were composed in the Soviet era. Originally, they were performed to the accompaniment of a seven-stringed guitar and accordion, Antipov said. The subjects are “love and betrayal, life and death, and freedom and imprisonment.”
Apparently a second album is in the works.
You can get more information and listen to a few of the Gulag Tunes at the album’s MySpace page.Post Views: 210