After cinema, the most popular form of entertainment in the Soviet Union was song, both purchased (on vinyl, tape or paper) and performed (at home or on stage). Those erstwhile denizens of the Soviet industry who are still operating today have, in some cases, sold almost a quarter of a billion records each, an astounding figure which still makes no allowance for the abstruse vagaries of the pirate industry. In other words, nothing mattered (and matters) more to more Russians than singing, yet Slavic studies in the West have paid scant or scathing attention to the combined notions of twentieth-century song and its popularity. Let us forget for a second about the urban, localized phenomena of bardic performance, about the hirsute horrors of Slavic rock and even about politics. What did Russians actually like to sing and why did they like it?
The unsightly, binary workings of Cold War rhetoric still shape Slavic studies today and foster a structuralist heritage, which presents Soviet popular entertainment in simple degrees of compliance or deviance. Yet the type of sung poetry which sold in the amounts mentioned above moved in and out of ideology with gay and glib abandon. Sometimes it was civic in intent, sometimes not. The workings of a socially sensible aesthetic as proffered by the dearest songs were often sentimental. They promoted an emotional connection and did so between stage and hall, across the footlights. This dialog of sentiment, of a big heart, forged in the early days of those such as Aleksandr Vertinskij or Leonid Utesov, became considerably more powerful in its affection of performer for audience (and vice versa) than any connection between state and song. The received (or officially proffered) notion of a civic person, personality or “ličnost′” was gradually displaced by the happier, heartfelt connection of a star or famous personality (once again “ličnost′”) with his/her audience.
This paper attempts to argue for an extreme reconsideration of Soviet sung entertainment as an activity of rare politics—in both senses. The resolute happiness of truly popular song saw “Sovietness” in terms that are both laudably more complex and forgiving than anything political rhetoric could offer. That same happiness resorted itself to fustian only sporadically.
The multigeneric nature and philosophy of light entertainment (“estrada”) in Russia began before the Revolution—and is still going strong after 1991. Cordial, sundry activities of change, becoming and desire have outlasted anything loud or august. Estrada changed because it always has and always will. Its sentimental, inconstant modus operandi invites parallels with today’s post-Marxist theory of, say, Deleuze and Guattari in a way that allows us to drop that prefix “post,” so to speak, and show a complexity within Soviet culture that was always there but is almost never discerned.
This paper is offered as introduction to a history of sung estrada in three volumes, the final book of which will be finished by the autumn of 2000.