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Liubov' nechaianno nagrianet ...

V. Safoshkin, L. Safoshkina. Liubov' nechaianno nagrianet... Moscow. Lamand. 1999. 416 pages. ISBN 5-89726-091-5.

"WIN A NEW VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE on New Year's Day! Just take a guess at the twenty most popular songs of the century and we'll give you the car on Red Square! Live on national television!" The insanely long odds against such a guess's being correct did not deter countless Russian viewers from playing this intriguing game as the year 2000 approached. A few months previously, the television station had invited its entire audience, all the way from the Baltic to the Pacific, to submit a list of its dearest songs -- in any language -- and then at 00:01 on January 1 to defy insobriety and start guessing the country's aggregate preferences. When the broadcast went live and then moved into the wee hours, however, even the host station was forced to consider the mathematical obtuseness of its task. A blindfolded presenter (Yevgeni Kiselev) eventually agreed to draw one of the letters in which a viewer's personal favorites corresponded at least in some vague manner to those of the nation. The winner, it transpired to nobody's surprise, was a Muscovite, a woman living only twenty minutes from Red Square. She had just enough time to drive her old car even further into the ground and reach the walls of the Kremlin for a floodlit presentation.

None of these songs, in either the aggregate list or that of the winner, had been recently recorded, and only a few were in English, such as "Yesterday," "Summertime," Let's Twist Again," and "Strangers in the Night." The great majority were of domestic origin, in many instances from the arduous years under Stalin. None were procommunist. Love songs, comic songs, and a little satire were most evident. Private concerns had eschewed and outlasted public plans, as many other television broadcasts proved simultaneously on other channels. In a similar avoidance of today's politicized business, an erstwhile Soviet vocalist walked into a plush, modern broadcasting studio on 30 December 1999 and remarked proudly: "Our TV station was never like this, but we had the songs." (Our songs outlasted their policies back then. That makes them better than your studio now, funded by the same money that runs today's politics.)

Another holiday broadcast, an overview of songs from this man's era and before, also celebrated the quality and constancy of popular entertainment (estrada in Russian) in the face of transient politics, both before 1917 and after 1991. The show contended that songs and the small stage had woven a better story than either socialism or syndicates, in fact the only story really worth telling: "We have cabarets today, just as we did back then [before 1917]. There were a few gaps in between, but we don't talk about them now." State oratory had been an unwelcome and loud infringement upon an ongoing, sung, and superior narrative.

It is New Year's Eve and we are remembering superior songs. While presenters are busy not talking about Soviet social science, the audience is nonetheless happily reminded of an artiste who flourished amid the rhetoric of Brezhnev's term in office. She sang in, was endorsed and loved by the Soviet Union, yet outlasted it. Even today, "There's no way you could find a person anywhere in the ex-USSR who hasn't heard at least one of her songs." This diva and other Russian performers are shown and honored, in guises both old and new. Many Soviet holiday broadcasts are rerun, which somehow manage in their less entertaining moments to reference both pre-Revolutionary traditions (circus) and socialist production, with insistent ovations to industrial, not festive or spiritual "miracles." Hard work makes fairy tales come true, not fairies.

Liubov' nechaianno nagrianet ..., compiled and presented by two of Russia's primary collectors of song, shows -- together with some priceless discographies -- how the notion of hard work in the material world served a radically different and happier purpose than the grand projects of steel and concrete proposed at party congresses. The collection's title, "Love Will Come Unexpectedly," is a quote from a comedy film at the time of Stalin's purges, yet these same texts, from the Thaw and earlier, are used in the year 2000 to advertise Russian beer and building companies, to name but two examples. The "unexpected" workings of the heart prompted a poetry that lasted longer (for all its unpredictability) than the grand, gray sadness of social planning.

When Russia's greatest poet celebrated -- in absentia -- his two-hundredth birthday in the summer of 1999, several Russian journalists noted in hushed tones that the poetry everybody really knows well did not come from a Romantic's ragged quill, but from the equally scratchy fountain pen of Soviet songwriters. If you want to know what Russians whistle today on their way to collect a dwindling pension, buy this book. (If you want to understand contemporary beer commercials, do the same.)

David MacFadyen Dalhousie University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:MacFadyen, David
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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