Okudzhava’s Last Trolley

After the death of Stalin in 1953, his successor Khrushchev brought a cultural thaw.  Although it did not necessarily promote freedom of expression, “the Thaw” allowed for many cultural expressions that would have been forbidden under Stalin.  One of the most common forms of expression during the Thaw was the more realistic representation of life.  Soviet realism faded away as people the people wanted to process the pain they had felt from World War II and its aftermath in a creative way.  One way that these ideas took shape was through poetry, specifically guitar poetry.

Okudzhava and his guitar.  (http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1961-2/bulat-okudzhava/bulat-okudzhava-images/)

Bulat Okudzhava is perhaps the most well-known and accomplished guitar poet from this era.  Okudzhava began his writing of these poems, meant to be sung to music, during the 1950s.  However, he began as an underground poet, in order to avoid repression from the Stalinist government.  Friends and family would record his poems and pass them around, and millions of people were listening to his poetry without the official regulation of the party.  He was not officially published in the Soviet Union until the 1970s, but he was a well-known name due to his underground presence far before that time.

One of Okudzhava’s most famous guitar poems is called “The Last Trolley” and was published in 1957.  (You can watch it above!) Like many of his other poems, this one is very melancholic and captured the human emotion and feeling of the time.  He describes this trolley bus as a refuge for “when despair’s creeping up,” and it serves as a sense of comfort (RR, p. 567). This idea that every day objects and routines brought comfort after the war and the more repressive Stalinist government show the importance of stability in the lives of the Soviet people during this time.  These experiences allow him to find “goodness In silence, in silence” (RR, p. 568).  The silence and stability of riding on a trolley allows the narrator to find peace, and he finds that “the pain that pecked like a sarling in my temple Grows quiet” (RR, p. 568).  The music itself also brings emotion, as he sings against solely the guitar.  There is a raw, intimate feeling from the music due to the use of the guitar which further stirs up a melancholy feeling and makes it particularly compelling.

Okudzhava’s poetry represents the thaw because it shows not only how more expression was allowed, but also how the people at the time were processing the events they had experienced in the decades before.  While “The Last Trolley” is gloomy, it is not depressing; the narrator clings to what he can to find peace and to reduce his pain.  This raw and emotional reflection allows us to understand more clearly how people were feeling during this time, as it gives the real feelings of people at the time, who were struggling to understand the events occurring around them.

Okudzhava has many songs that are accessible online! Even though I didn’t understand the Russian, I found that many of them have a similarly melancholy undertone while others are more positive or upbeat.  The combination of the soft guitar with his strong voice is really soothing, in my opinion.  The title of the one below translates to “Prayer.”




“The Russia Reader,” edited by Adele Barker and Bruce Grant, p. 567-568.

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“A Stilyaga Ear”

A group of Stilyagi in the 1950s (https://www.x-rayaudio.com/x-rayaudioblog/)

The intense loss from the second world war led to a new cultural set of ideas and policies known as the “big deal.”  These ideas were a retreat from typical Bolshevism, and better acknowledged the lives and anticipations of every day citizens.  While the “big deal” manifested itself in several ways across society, one of the ways in which it did was in youth and alternative culture.  The youths of the time were apolitical—they were not trying to prove a point against the party, rather use this time to explore cultural aspects that were forbidden by the party.

Examples of the x-ray records the stilyagi used (https://harngsays.com/2015/01/13/music-to-my-bones/)

One of the most famous alternative youth movements during this time, the late 1940s and 1950s, were the Stilyagi.  This group listened to American music, especially jazz, and dressed in boldly colored, Western-style clothing. One of their most interesting techniques to listen to forbidden American music was using X-rays to create records.  This technique is portrayed in the contemporary Russian movie from 2008, “Stilyagi.” In this movie, the bold colors and upbeat music are shown in a way that the West does not usually associate with the Soviet Union.  Although these forms of expression were forbidden by the party, the youth especially of the time still yearned for a way to express themselves. The Soviet people were not brainwashed by official government edicts, and especially after the tragedies of the second world war, many people desired a new outlet for self expression.

More stilyagi! (I just think they’re super cool) (https://www.rbth.com/politics_and_society/2017/06/30/soviet-counterculture-rebellious-youngsters-opposed-communism-792765)

However, many throughout Soviet society—especially the older generation—did not approve of these types of movements. In the satirical article “Stilyaga” by D. Belyaev in 1949, the stilyaga are portrayed as a drain on society.  In the article, one of the characters is looking at a new grain of rye; he describes it as “a parasite ear; it sucks moisture and everything else from nature, but doesn’t give grain… They often look very pretty, but they’re empty and barren inside.” To this observation, the other character replies that it is “a stilyaga ear” of grain (MC, p. 450-451). The second character goes on to explain the stilyaga movement in a very negative way.  He explains them as not wanting to look like “normal people” and that they do not engage with reality—rather, they “flutter above life’s surface” (MC, p. 452).  These descriptions show the general attitude that Soviet society had towards this group.  It was not because they were going against the party, but because they chose to distinguish themselves in a way that was so counter-culture. It could be compared to counter-culture movements in the US in the 1960s and 1970s in this regard; it was not a political statement, but many others in society were still not approving and weary of it.

The stilyagi were like many other rebellious youth movements around the world.  As the basic egalitarian ideals of Bolshevism were rolled back during the “great deal,” the Soviet youth were looking for way to express themselves.  Although seen by many as noncontributing members of society, the stilyagi represent a side of Soviet culture that is not often portrayed in the West.






Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, edited by James von Geldern and Richard Stites



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Women Defend the Motherland

pasha .png
Pasha Lukianova in “She Defends the Motherland” (Ermer, 1943) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1kif_36ndo

The Second World War, or as it’s known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War, was a deeply emotional and heart wrenching experience for the Soviet people.  The great losses that the Soviet Union faced, on the front lines with the Germans, ingrained this experience into the citizenry and the cultural memory of the war continues today as perhaps the most important event in their history.  The large impact that the war had is shown through a variety of cultural outlets, especially film.  One of the themes of the war was the patriotism that it brought out in the people—hence the name “Great Patriotic War.”  The representation of women in war films reflects the importance of everyone in society doing their part to fight for the motherland.

The devastation of the war made it difficult to represent in film for years after the war. In 1943, the film “She Defends the Motherland” was released by director Friedrich Ermler.  The film follows Praskovia Lukianova, a woman who loses her husband and child to the Germans and becomes the leader of a partisan group.  The partisan movement was the creation of resistance movements against German occupied areas of the Soviet Union.  Lukianova, or as she later becomes, Comrade P, leads her group with vigilance and strength against the Germans.  She even gets revenge on the people who killed her son by running them over with a tank.

defend the motherland
Pasha Lukianova was the inspiration for a series of posters (can you see the resemblance from the first picture?) http://agenda.ge/en/news/2015/1016

“She Defends the Motherland” was a canonical and stereotyped film that showed the heroism of the women who felt called to fight during the war.  However, the more canonical nature of this film shows the underlying feelings of the time period.  The focus on the partisan movement, rather than the front lines, shows the deep impact that the war had—in 1943, wounds were still far too deep to describe that harrowing experience in film.  Instead, the Soviet people needed a more empowering film.  Although Pasha Lukianova experiences great loss, she becomes a hero who dedicates her life to her country.  This patriotism was necessary during the time to remind the Soviet people why they were fighting amid the great losses they felt.  In the clip you can watch below, you can see Pasha’s fierce commitment to her country.  At the news of the capture of Moscow, she is devastated.  She believes “if Moscow is lost, how can we keep on living?”

Pasha became a symbol in the Soviet Union during the war.  She was the inspiration for the famous posters, as seen above in my post.  Although “She Defends the Motherland” was not perhaps a cinematic masterpiece, it was a reflection of national feeling during the war and was meant to remind the Soviet people why they were fighting.  During this time of great loss, Pasha and her band of partisans were a reminder of the importance of the fight.





1930s Girl Gang– with Tractors?

Pasha Angelina on a tractor! (source)

When I think of the Soviet Union, I don’t often think of all-female tractor brigades.  However, in 1935, Pasha Angelina became a famous figure in her creation of a successful tractor brigade.  She was a peasant from the Donetsk Oblast, and her success in this brigade made Angelina a permanent character in Soviet culture.  She was an udarnik, or highly productive worker, often put on the same level as Alexey Stakhanov.  These workers became idyllic during the period of high Stalinism.  They were seen as heroes because they over fulfilled their quotas.  These heroes became important during Soviet culture at the time as a way to encourage the people to work hard and increase commitment to the plans that Stalin created.

Angelina was the protagonist of Sergei Tretyakov’s piece “Nine Girls.”  It focuses on a tractor brigade of nine women, led by Pasha Angelina.  Although killed in the purges several years after, Tretyakov spent two years in a kolkhoz (collective farm) researching this piece.  He tried to represent real people in the Soviet Union.  However, this piece pushes Soviet ideology throughout—in true Soviet realism form.  The “proletarian girl who knows the discipline and joy of work” on the kolkhoz dances throughout her day, “to show the happiness of work successfully completed (MC, p. 218).  Angelina is portrayed as an ideal Soviet woman—although her father urges her to become a doctor, she “would dream about the tractor” (MC, p. 219).  This emphasis on the proletariat over the intelligentsia is an obvious representation of the ideology at the time.  Even when she has a tough day on the tractors, Angelina still fulfills her plan – she is “vain and stubborn as hell about the Plan” (MC, p. 221).

Although Pasha Angelina is the main character, the emphasis is less on her and more about the ideals she represents.  She is idealized in this Soviet realist way because she is a hard worker who only cares about fulfilling the plan and working hard.  In her brigade, she “maintains a strict discipline that is entirely voluntary” (MC, p. 223).  Despite the difficulties of being a woman in this field, it is not a feminist type work; it entirely focuses on her Soviet values. The interest of an all-female tractor brigade brought in people for entertainment, and interwove the entertainment with ideals of socialism.


Soviet feminism: Pasha Angelina

Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, edited by James von Geldern and Richard Stites, 1995, Indiana University Press





The Mechanization of Cinema

Dziga Vertov.  https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/8315/revisiting-revolution-vertov-medvedkin-soviet-documentary-cinema

Although the revolution was primarily focused on politics and economics, it was important to the revolutionaries that they also change the culture to fit their new ideology.  Cinema was a new art form that had captured the Russian people; there was appeal in the medium itself, along with its ability to carry messages during the war.  Cinema allowed ideas to move more quickly, which is why it was the preferred method of changing culture after the war. “The most important weapon in this respect, a weapon excelling any other, is at present the cinema,” according the Leon Trotsky.  It’s likely that more people knew what Lenin and Trostky looked like in comparison with Tsar Nicholas II.  (Russia Reader, 365)

Dziga Vertov was a cinematographer in the early to mid 1900s in the Soviet Union—although he may not have called himself this.  He believed “cinematography must die so that the art of cinema may live.” (RR, p. 366) He rejected previous cinema and produced what he thought was real film—documentaries.  He found drama and romance movies not only to be “cliché,” but also “mortally dangerous” and “contagious.” (RR, p. 366) These harsh words show the rejection of pre-communist culture and replace it with the new culture of the revolution.

Vertov was particularly interested in machines, which meshed nicely with the idea of quick industrialization after the civil war.  Machines were the subjects of many of his films, one of his most famous being Man with a Movie Camera (1929). (You can watch this film for free online!)  His focus on machines stemmed from the “delight” he found in mechanical labor. (RR, p. 368) The rhythm of industrialization was the perfect subject because in his mind, cinema was the “art of inventing movements.” (RR, p. 369) Man with a Movie Camera captures the technicality of film, with advanced editing cuts that mesh together the movements and mechanization of industrial systems.

Cinema like Vertov’s shows how culture shifted alongside the political and economic changes of the revolution.  Just as the old traditions and politics of Russia were set aside, so were the old themes of entertainment.  Traditional plots, structures, and angles were eschewed for what was considered a new, higher level of entertainment.  Vertov described his form of cinema as “the art of organizing the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole,” which I find to reflect a lot of the political goals of the revolution. (RR, p. 368)


The Russian Reader, Adele Barker and Bruce Grant.




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Wandering through Russia


“Mast tree grove” by Ivan Shishkin, 1898, https://arthive.com/artists/254~Ivan_Ivanovich_Shishkin/works/25979~Masttree_grove

The beauty of nature has changed in value and importance throughout history.  While many of us in southwest Virginia appreciate the mountains and landscape around us, in late 19th century Russia, nature was not seen as important enough to be considered “beautiful” and the focus of something as elevated as art.  However, this changed with the realist movement of the Wanderers, or Peredvizhniki, a movement of the late 19th and early 20th century in which Ivan Shishkin was apart.

The Wanderers’ goal in their painting was to de-elevate art and make it accessible to the common people. Art had previously only been contracted through patrons, thus only “high society” was rendered in art. Following Western customs, realistic paintings were often focused on Western culture and history.  The movement to accurately portray Russian history and culture, whether negative or positive, was considered rebellious for the time.

Shishkin’s paintings focused on the landscape of his hometown of Yelabuga and other rural Russian landscapes. His works include primarily landscapes, emphasizing the beauty in the simplicity of Russian nature. These were subjects that the common people could relate to, and it showed them that nature was important and beautiful enough to be considered art.  Shishkin’s paintings use light and shadows to illuminate these landscapes.

I chose one of Shiskin’s most celebrated pieces, Mast tree grove (1898), because I found a lot of beauty in the simplicity of the piece. I am partial to landscapes, but I really found this piece compelling and peaceful.  The soft colors and lighting off the water give a feeling of calmness, and you can feel the appreciation the author has towards his hometown in this work.  This connection between person and land is palpable, and this feeling was likely relatable for many Russians who had lived in the same rural area their whole lives.  I find myself connecting to places based on the landscape, and I think Shishkin brings out this feeling strongly in this painting.  Although not considered a subject worthy of art by traditional Russian society, this piece connected common Russian people to art—which was previously considered above them.







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