Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Tales, Poems, Songs, Movies, Plays, and Folklore, 1917--1953 / Edition 1

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This anthology offers a rich array of documents, short fiction, poems, songs, plays, movie scripts, comic routines, and folklore to offer a close look at the mass culture that was consumed by millions in Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1953. Both state-sponsored cultural forms and the unofficial culture that flourished beneath the surface are represented. The focus is on the entertainment genres that both shaped and reflected the social, political, and personal values of the regime and the masses. The period covered encompasses the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the mixed economy and culture of the 1920s, the tightly controlled Stalinist 1930s, the looser atmosphere of the Great Patriotic War, and the postwar era ending with the death of Stalin. Much of the material appears here in English for the first time.

A companion 45-minute audio tape (ISBN 0-253-32911-6) features contemporaneous performances of fifteen popular songs of the time, with such favorites as "Bublichki," "The Blue Kerchief," and "Katyusha." Russian texts of the songs are included in the book.

Indiana University Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253209696
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/1995
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 713,517
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.31 (d)

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Mass Culture in Soviet Russia

Tales Poems Songs Movies Plays and Folklore 1917â"1953

By James von Geldern, Richard Stites

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1995 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-20969-6


The Revolution and New Regime, 1917–1927

We Grow Out of Iron

Aleksei Gastev (1918)

Gastev (1882–1941), a radical labor organizer and revolutionary culture figure, was himself a factory worker, and his verse poeticized the environment of the factory floor. He later became the leader of the taylorist movement to increase labor efficiency in soviet industry. He was eventually purged by stalin and died in a labor camp.

Look! I stand among workbenches, hammers, furnaces, forges, and among a hundred
Overhead hammered iron space.
On either side—beams and girders.
They rise to a height of seventy feet.
They arch right and left.
Joined by cross-beams in the cupolas, with giant shoulders they support the whole iron
They thrust upward, they are bold, they are strong.
They demand yet greater strength.
I look at them and grow straight.
Fresh iron blood pours into my veins.
I have grown taller.
I too am growing shoulders of steel and arms immeasurably strong. I am one with the
building's iron.
I have risen.
My shoulders are forcing the rafters, the upper beams, the roof.
My feet remain on the ground, but my head is above the building.
I choke with the inhuman effort, but already I am shouting:
"May I have the floor, comrades, may I have the floor?"
An iron echo drowns my words, the whole structure shakes with impatience.
And I have risen yet higher, I am on a level with the chimneys.
I shall not tell a story or make a speech, I will only shout my iron word:
"Victory shall be ours!"

The Iron Messiah

Vladimir Kirillov (1918)

Kirillov (1880–1943) was one of the "proletarian" poets of the revolution who, with Gastev and Gerasimov, exalted the machine as the savior of Russia. In this promethean vision, technology both destroys with its "cleansing flame" the corrupt and soft "old world" (including thrones and prisons) and creates the dynamic processes — modern labor and mass production — that will free mankind from the fetters of nature.

There he is—the savior, the lord of the earth.
The master of titanic forces—
In the roar of countless steel machines,
In the radiance of electric suns.

We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole,
With a nimbus of divine mystery,
But he came to us clad in gray smoke
From the suburbs, foundries, factories.

We thought he would appear in glory and glitter,
Meek, blessedly gentle,
But he, like the molten lava,
Came—multiface and turbulent ...

There he walks o'er the abyss of seas,
All of steel, unyielding and impetuous;
He scatters sparks of rebellious thought,
And the purging flames are pouring forth.

Wherever his masterful call is heard,
The world's bosom is bared,
The mountains give way before him,
The earth's poles together are brought.

Wherever he walks, he leaves a trail
Of ringing iron rail;
He brings joy and light to us,
A desert he strews with blossoms.

To the world he brings a new sun,
He destroys the thrones and prisons,
He calls the peoples to eternal fraternity,
And wipes out the boundaries between them.

His crimson banner is the symbol of struggle;
For the oppressed it is the guiding beacon;
With it we shall crush the yoke of fate,
We shall conquer the enchanting world.


Mikhail Gerasimov (1919)

Gerasimov (1889–1939), like the other proletarian poets, combined his technolotry or machine worship with a glorification of the collective — the "we" which pervades so much of the revolutionary poetry of the time (and which suggested the title of Yevgeny Zamyatin's famous but long-suppressed anti-utopian novel, We [1920]).

We shall take all, we shall know all,
We shall pierce the depths to the bottom.
And drunk is the vernal soul
Like May, golden with blossoms.

To proud daring there is no limit,
We are Wagner, Leonardo, Titian.
On the new museum we shall build
A cupola like that of Montblanc.

In the crystal marbles of Angelo,
In all the wonder of Parnassus,
Is there not the song of creative genius
That like an electric current throbs in us?

Orchids were cultivated,
Cradles of roses were swung:
Were we not in Judea
When love was taught by Christ?
We laid the stone of the Parthenon,
And those of the giant pyramids;
Of all the Sphinxes, temples, Pantheons
We have cut the clanging granite.

Was it not for us that on Mount Sinai,
In the burning bush,
The Red Banner glowed, like the sun,
Amid storm and fire.

We shall take all, we shall know all,
We shall pierce the turquoise of the skies;
It is so sweet to drink on a blossoming day
From the life-giving showers.

The War of Kings


This antiwar pamphlet, issued by the Commissariat of Enlightenment in 1918, used the popular traditions of woodcut graphics (lubok) and carnival verse (raek) to deliver a message about the monarchical nature of war and the solidarity of common people against war — all in reference to the still-raging European War of 1914–1918.

Come and hear this tale of cards,
That happened out in the big city—
A city decked out in spades and diamonds,
They'll be nothing new to you.
This here is a big-time king,
His role's the most important thing.

And this here fancy lady
Is the queen of the deck,
And this is the jack of-all-trades.
They've been around for centuries,
For every one of these dashing faces,
There's at least two number cards.

Here you see a whole stack of 'em,
They'd also like to be face cards,
But the most amazing tale of all,
Is that up till now they had no faces!
The dirty deuce, ditch-digger three,
Four and six gnaw dried breadsticks,
Seven and eight just flew the coop,
Nine and ten don't fast just on Lent.
Here comes comrade Petrushka
With his ears pricked up—
He listens to all the gossip,
Hears what they're up to,
He doesn't like to be stuck
Like a monk inside four walls.
And it's not like him at all
To say the same thing over again,
What ya didn't used to be able to say
Just seems funny when you say it today,
And tomorrow it'll be twice as funny.
You can listen to it bug-eared,
Or don't listen, if you like.
It's not the mansions that Petrushka
Tours with his sly tongue,
But he sends his words of wisdom
Over to the servants' wing.

Good day, respected public,
And the entire R.S.F.S. Republic!!!
It's me, Comrade Petrushka—
Your most uppity puppet!
I never palled around with rich folk,
Never made friends in palaces and
I mucked around in the back alleys,
And slipped through the back doors.
Back gates and sly words ain't safe!

For the first time, before you here
I'm telling a tale in my own words,
Brought to you by a free man,
How in a deck known to us all
All the kings lost hold of their crowns,
All the cardboard thrones were
knocked down,
And all the houses of cards blown
All us Petrushkas are comics;
But when I hung it out for airing,
Then I felt even more merry!

I, the King of Spades,
Am not used to being crowded:
I want to rule a worldwide tsardom,
To be called the King of Trumps,
And to be tsar of all the planet,
And make the other tsars serve me,
And all the other suits
Would be under my boot!

The letter of the King of Spades:

Listen up, King of Diamonds,
You whose deck is new!
I declare war on you,
And occupy your land.

The King of Spades has schemed
To prop up his throne of bast
By splitting up my deck
And attacking my freedom.
But I'll cut him quite a caper:
Get all the diamonds up in arms
From the two up to the ten—
He'll scram without looking back.

Finally it's safe,
We can throw off our masks!
Madam, my lady,
How can I serve you?
Strike a chord up, balalaika,
I am now the mistress here—
A lady, a lady!
Now I'm my own mistress!

Farewell, girls, farewell, wenches,
We're not ready for you right now,
We're not ready for you right now,
They're herding us into the army!

Oh, you, Vanya,
You are such a dashing boy!
How far away
Will you be when you go off?
And who is it
That you're leaving me for, dear?

Spade: I will win a greater glory
When I pierce you with my spade.
Diamond: Ow, ow, ow, King of Hearts,
Step lively now and help me out!
I, a Red King, have been your
Ally from time immemorial.
Hearts: Together, we'll put the King of
Between a rock and a hard place.

Spade: Ow, ow, ow, he fights like a lion:
Help me out, King of Clubs!
Club: Oh, sire, King of Spades,
Please release me from this war:
I have no gun, just this staff,
And on the staff my cross of clubs.

Hey, hey, stop, hold still,
That's what "our mighty foes" do.
I'm old, I shouldn't be fighting,
It's the King of Spades that started it.

I gotcha, King of Clubs, you oafish lout,
I'll make it hot for you, so kiss your heart goodbye!

Now I'm gonna stick ya good,
Just like the king says we should.
The king says so, but what of the soldier?
"How do you gain?" "You mean me?"

Hey you soldier, why ya goin'?
Why ya knockin' yourself out?
You'll never make an officer,
You'll have to make your way home

March forward, forward
Working people!
Hey, he's talking to us!
Why are you looking away?

There's been enough fighting,
It's time we got to work.
We might be diamonds, you might be
But we're all simple people.
Let's expel this world's kings,
So they won't bother us no more.
The deck won't be complete,
But then—we'll all be free.
March forward, forward,
Working people.

Spade: So, I'm finished with the hearts
And now your turn has come!

Diamond: Oh yeah? Then why are your
All dancing the trepak?
Just look, even the tens
Are dancing up a storm.
'What, I just don't get it—
We've lost the whole game!"

"It's all your and your wife's fault!"
"No, you and your war!"
"She danced your throne away!"
"No, the war was your undoing!"
But isn't life just a game?
But it wasn't whist we were playing.
We kept our trump cards in our hands,
And left the game all whist-ful.

Send Off: A Red Army Song

Demyan Bedny (1918)

Bedny (real name Yefim Pridvorov, 1883–1945) was the Most popular and prolific of the revolutionary poetasters. He specialized in malicious wit aimed against the Revolution's foes. In this red army song, written during A visit to the front, one sees the familiar conflict between Traditional village values (especially hostility To all recruiting) — here presented as shortsighted and Ignorant —and the new politics of the Bolsheviks: to sweep the land clean of all exploiters through combat. The poem was put to music in 1922, and became an unofficial Theme of cadets of the Ispolkom military school.

When my mother dear sent me
Off to the army,
Then my kinfolk also came,
Came a-running:

'Where are you going to, my lad?
Where you going?
Vanya, Vanya, please don't go
Into the army!

'The Red Army has enough
The Bolsheviks will get along
Fine if you're gone.

"Are you going because you have to
Or 'cause you want to?
Vanya boy, you'll be wasted
For nothing.

"Your dear mother has gone gray
Pining away for you.
In the fields and your hut there's
Much to tend to.

"Nowadays things are going
Mighty fine!
Look at all the land they've heaped
On us all of a sudden!

"Nowadays there's not a trace
Of the old hard times.
You'd be smarter off to marry
With Arina.

"Live with your young wife, and seek
No idleness!"
Here I parted with my mother,
Bowed before her.

I bowed low before my kin
At the threshold:
"Not a whimper from you, please,
For love of god.

"If we all were scatterbrained
And gaped like you,
What would happen to Moscow
And our Russia?

"Things would go back to the old ways,
Like those bad times.
They would take back what we have:
Land and freedom;

"The lords would settle on the land
As cruel masters.
In this nasty cabal's grip
We'd be howling.

"I'm not going to a dance
Or a feast,
This is what I leave for you,
My old mother:

"I am marching off now with
The Red Army,
Our deadly battle will be with
Gentry rabble.

"We will give a talking to
Priests and kulaks:
Our bayonets'll pierce the guts of
Those bloodsuckers!

"Won't surrender? So you'll die,
Go to hell then!
Paradise is sweeter when
It's won in battle,—

"It's not the paradise of drunks
Or bloodsuckers,—
But Russia, where our freedom reigns,
A Soviet land!"

Solemn Oath on Induction into the Worker-Peasant Red Army (1918)

The Bolsheviks disdained ritualism as an old-regime superstition. But when Trotsky created the Red Army from The ruins of the old, he found that rituals contributed To a binding esprit. Below is the army induction oath, Which echoed a similar oath from tsarist times.

1. I, son of the laboring people, citizen of the Soviet Republic, assume the title of warrior in the Worker-Peasant Army.

2. Before the laboring classes of Russia and the entire world, I accept the obligation to carry this title with honor, to study the art of war conscientiously, and to guard national and military property from spoil and plunder as if it were the apple of my eye.

3. I accept the obligation to observe revolutionary discipline and unquestioningly carry out all orders of my commanders, who have been invested with their rank by the power of the Worker-Peasant government.

4. I accept the obligation to restrain myself and my comrades from all conduct that might debase the dignity of citizens of the Soviet Republic, and to direct all my thoughts and actions to the great cause of liberating the laboring masses.

5. I accept the obligation to answer every summons of the Worker-Peasant government to defend the Soviet Republic from all danger and the threats of all enemies, and to spare neither my strength nor my very life in the battle for the Russian Soviet Republic, for the cause of socialism and the brotherhood of peoples.

6. If I should with malicious intent go back on this my solemn vow, then let my fate be universal contempt and let the righteous hand of revolutionary law chastise me.

Little Apple


Traditional four-line folk ditties (chastushki) reflected Popular understanding during the Civil War. With or without the accompaniment of an accordion, They distilled complex political formulas into direct And pungent images. Based on an old Ukrainian verse, the variations of the Little Apple series were sung by both reds and whites, showing how popular culture could stimulate political consciousness.


Excerpted from Mass Culture in Soviet Russia by James von Geldern, Richard Stites. Copyright © 1995 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Note: Performances of entries marked with an asterisk are on the accompanying cassette tape.,
I. The Revolution and New Regime, 1917—1927,
II. The Stalinist Thirties,
III. Russia at War,
IV. The Postwar Era,

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