"Blatnaja pesnja": Crime Songs and Ballads as a Reflection of Soviet History

Marina Aptekman, Brown University

Until recently, the study of the Russian literary oral tradition was devoted mostly to the history of Soviet political jokes. The so-called "gorodskoj romans" has not yet been regarded as a serious topic for scholarly study. Yet, in my opinion, these songs not only broaden our perspective of Russian Soviet culture but also provide us with a unique historical perspective. Long before the dissidents, they depicted a true picture of the Soviet political situation and presented their listeners with unique information of the Civil War, NEP, and the Great Purges, shown from the perspective of the so-called "little man," an average person rather than an official politician or a historian.

My talk will be devoted to one strand of the city romance, particularly to the criminal and the pseudo-criminal songs, known in Russia as "blatnaja pesnja." In my paper I will analyze the development of this tradition in Russia; however, my major concentration will be on the Soviet period of 1918-57. Among the topics discussed in the first part of the paper will be the influence of cabaret culture and the Odessa literary and musical tradition on early Soviet criminal song, for example, on songs like "S Odesskogo kichmana" and "Murka." I will also discuss the depiction of criminal situation of the NEP epoch in the non-criminal city romance, for example, in the numerous parodies on the popular "Kirpichiki" lyrics. I will then concentrate on the so-called "camp songs" ("lagernaja pesnja") and will argue for the division of these songs into criminal and "pseudo-criminal," defining the "pseudo-criminal" as the songs that became a part of "blatnaja" tradition, yet were written most probably by the non-criminal prisoners. As an example I will use such famous camps songs as "Kolyma," "Vorkuta-Leningrad" and "Idut na sever sroka ogromnye," and will compare them to the passages from various works of camp literature, such as Evgenija Ginzburg's Krutoj marshrut.

I will finish my paper with an analysis of the revival of official interest in the criminal song tradition in the 1990s, and will try to show both the positive and the negative causes that led to this revival.