Counterculture

Culture

Counterculture

After Stalin’s death, in 1953, and throughout the “thaw” in USA-USSR relations, the cultures of the Soviet bloc went through a period that historians refer to as “an intense process of Westernization” in music (thanks to jazz and rock music), literature, film and even fashion (hippies). Western influence was both a wellspring of opposition to the Communist regimes and an affirmation of identity for Soviet youth, in the USSR as well as the People’s Republics. Yet the point for them was not so much to copy Western culture as to make it their own. The rock-music scene, for instance, chose to compose lyrics in Russian rather than to simply cover titles by Jimi Hendrix or the Doors. By the late 70s, western protest dissenting movements like punk had passed through the Iron Curtain and become subjected in their turn to official surveillance and repression. Ever since the Stalinist period, the political police had stuck very close to all cultural movements. The repression was dual, with both a public, visible side – i.e. arrests and censorship, as in the final anti-rock-music campaign launched by Andropov in 1982 – and a more discreet side, including infiltration by a network of informers recruited from within avant-garde groups. Yet Eastern bloc Communist officials’ attitude towards culture wasn’t always so repressive, and sometimes they tried to co-opt the counter-culture by providing a framework for it. Thus jazz festivals were encouraged in Czechoslovakia and the GDR in the 80s, as was Russian rock music during the Perestroika period. The musicians were no longer held responsible for their public’s reactions or their politics.

Archive

A punk interrogated by the Stasi.

The punk movement crossed the Iron Curtain in the late 70s, and soon took root in the GDR.

country: German Democratic Republic / year:

The punk movement crossed the Iron Curtain in the late 70s, and soon took root in the GDR. The Stasi, the East German political police, saw it as a counter-cultural manifestation, because the punk’s “no future” credo was diametrically opposed to Communist ideology. By calling teenagers in to the police station in order to “clarify their situation,” the Stasi put pressure on them – the idea was to threaten them with fines in order to turn them into informers, or to pack them off to the Army, and thereby effectively ban them from city centers. In some cases the young people were committed to so-called “Jugendwerkhöfe”, a special kind of protectory, where they should be reeducated to “socialist personalities” – sometimes even using violence. In the USSR, young punk group leaders were often locked up, too.

Caricature from the satirical magazine Krokodil: Fashion

“Rein him in!”

country: Soviet Union / year:

“Rein him in!” Fashion, especially among the young, could come across as anti-Soviet. Nevertheless, since Khrushchev, the Soviet textile industry had benefitted from Western technology and the influence of stylists from Dior, the French haute-couture fashion house. In 1965, the Soviet people had even been allowed to admire international fashions at the Worldwide Fashion Festival in Moscow. Still, the official point of view was unchanged: Capitalist fashion should be rejected, because it was overly extravagant. At the very least, it had to be adapted to Soviet diktats of “good taste” (in terms of color combinations and accessories). In 1958, for instance, a shipment of Finnish trousers, deemed to “zoot” or had to be adjusted before they could be released onto the Soviet marketplace.

Stasi photo of hippies at a music festival in Plauen (East Germany) in the 70s.

The hippie movement influenced Moscow’s youth in the late 60s.

country: German Democratic Republic / year:

The hippie movement influenced Moscow’s youth in the late 60s. Looking very much like their Western counterparts, they came together in various informal groups to demand, with greater or lesser insistence, pacifism, closer East-West ties, or a kind of mysticism. This is how the Hare Krishna sect managed to become established in the early 80s. In 1987, the sect even received official authorization to exist, when its members had been harassed or institutionalized for several years prior to that.

Soviet Pepsi-Cola Ad

Robert Woodruff, the eminently anti-Communist head of Coca-Cola until 1954, had refused to build factories or produce Coke in the USSR. So his main competitor, Pepsi-Cola, did.

country: Soviet Union / year:

Robert Woodruff, the eminently anti-Communist head of Coca-Cola until 1954, had refused to build factories or produce Coke in the USSR of Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist party from 1953 to 1964. So his main competitor, Pepsi-Cola, did; and it was their international director, Donald Kendall, who accompanied Richard Nixon, then Vice-President of the United States, to the American National Exhibition in Moscow, in 1959. The soft drink was tremendously successful, both with visitors to the Exhibition and even with Khrushchev himself. But Pepsi still wasn’t allowed to produce directly in the USSR until the early 70s, when it became the first American consumer product sold directly to Soviet citizens.

Jazz Music

“Today he plays jazz music, tomorrow he’ll betray his country”

country: Soviet Union / year:

Jazz always received an ambivalent welcome from Eastern-bloc officials. Perceived in the 40s and 50s as a tool of Capitalist propaganda, musicians could be harassed, but were also sometimes tolerated or even respected, especially in East Germany from the 60s on. A jazz festival was organized in Prague, and Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were all invited to perform behind the Iron Curtain. From the 70s on, East Germany actually acquired international renown for its jazz scene, with the authorities’ tacit approval.

X Ray Records

Eastern-bloc music lovers resorted to all sorts of subterfuge to circulate counter-culture music

country: Soviet Union / year:

Eastern-bloc music lovers resorted to all sorts of subterfuge to circulate counter-culture music: copied tapes, conversations with people in the West, and even “bones,” a nickname for a kind of disc pressed on used X-ray film. This technique, developed in the 50s, was first used to distribute jazz music, then later for censored American rock music. For a tenth of the price of a vinyl record, you could listen to a low-quality but unique sound, made on record turntables using easy-to-find equipment. By the late 50s, people could be jailed for producing them.

"Culture Being Put to Death": A Czech propaganda film making fun of underground music and culture.

From the early 60S, English and American rock music had caught on with Czechoslovakian youth.

country: Czechoslovakia / year:

From the early '60s, English and American rock music had caught on with Czechoslovakian youth. Inspired by psychedelic rock and American underground music like the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, the group Plastic People of the Universe rose from the ashes of the Prague Spring of 1968. Censorship forced them to go clandestine. The authorities made films ridiculing their music and caricaturizing their public as drug addicts, and brought legal charges against their members that lasted through 1976. With the support of the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, future president of the Czech Republic, their trial led to Charter 77, a manifesto for freedom of expression that dramatically increased opposition to the Communist regime.

Stasi film: punks near the Lutheran Church of Redemption in Berlin

Six months before the fall of the Wall, the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry for State Security) was still filming more or less inebriated punks near the Lutheran Church of Redemption.

country: German Democratic Republic / year:

Six months before the fall of the Wall, the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry for State Security) was still filming more or less inebriated punks near the Lutheran Church of Redemption. The point of this not-terribly-discreet surveillance was to gather evidence that would allow the Stasi’s special “punk” service to put pressure on some of these youths in order to convert them into IM (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, “unoffical collaborators”), i.e. informers.