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Arts & Culture

Gulag Tunes

November 30, 2012 | by

One afternoon in 1943, just before a lunch date with Picasso, Dina Vierny was arrested in Paris. Three months later Picasso received her note, smuggled out with the prison laundry, saying she wouldn’t be able to make it.

Vierny, the well-rounded young muse of Maillol’s twilight years, had spent several months in 1940 leading refugees through the mountains from France to Spain. She met her charges at the train station, in her red dress, and they followed her, in silence, all the way to the Spanish border. She was arrested in 1940 and soon released, but by 1943 the Gestapo had the idea that she was some kind of Mata Hari, or perhaps a gold smuggler. During repeated interrogations, over the course of six months, she insisted that she loved hiking (which was true) and that she had been in the mountains buying cooking oil (which was false).

Born in Chisinau, Vierny was raised in a family that was both musical and politically radical. Her father, an Odessa Jew, was a pianist who lost his virginity to an anarchist during exile in Siberia, and her aunts were what Vierny calls “demoiselles nihilistes.” Vierny had sung in the radical performance group Octobre, under the leadership of Jacques Prévert, and with the famous Dimitrieviches, émigré Roma cabaret singers. In prison, she sang for those about to be executed, every Saturday. She had a large repertoire, and she took requests: in her memoirs she says that one young Communist waiting to be shot asked her to sing Edith Piaf through the cell window. She never saw his face.

Vierny already had some experience of prison songs, then, when she made her first trip back to the USSR in 1959. She went in search of painters; Maillol had made her his executor, and she had become a wealthy patron of the arts. In an atmosphere of intense, even life-threatening censorship, in a country that had been cut off from Western culture for thirty years, it was hard to find artists up to Parisian standards. But good prison songs were another story.

Stalin had died six years earlier, and people had starting coming back from the Gulag, bringing with them songs that they sang at the table, accompanied by a guitar or an accordion. Vierny asked her hosts to teach her the lyrics, and she went to some lengths to hunt down the very best songs. As she says, they were “poems, delicious and terrible,” with lyrics like

In the yard there’s fine weather
The new moon shines through the little window
And I have four years left to serve—
My soul aches, how I long to go home.

or

You’re laughing—you’re always laughing.
Someone took you—in full length.
You’re dancing with anyone you please
7000 versts away from here.

And what do I have? Snowstorms,
Frost that grips like a vise.
But I’m warmer than you are in the south—
Hot with jealousy and longing.

All is frozen, icy.
Under my quilted coat I carry
A tender body, a southern photo
Of your half-naked beauty.

And you’re laughing—you’re always laughing.
Completely naked, in such frost,
Dancing with anyone you please,
7000 versts away from here.

Some of the songs Vierny learned were of unknown provenance, and were probably quite old; others had been composed more recently, mostly notably by Vladimir Vysotsky, one of Russia’s most famous underground singers, and by Yuz Aleshkovsky, a writer who had spent several years in prison. Aleshkovsky was in good company: by the late ’50s, when Vierny made her first trip, the USSR had become a nation of ex-convicts. As Vierny said, “in every family I visited, there were people who had come back and many others who would never return.” (Vierny’s own father had been sent to Auschwitz and had not returned.) Criminal songs took hold of the popular imagination; suddenly everyone could identify.

This was only another defeat in the long war to create an official culture worthy of the Soviet utopia. Beginning in the 1920s, the movement for proletarian culture had aimed to create edifying mass art to replace degenerate popular culture (murder ballads, tangos, pulp fiction), as well as the avant-garde, which was seen as decadent and elitist. But faceless, charmless, “proletarian” art proved powerless to entertain, to provide a refuge from sadness, to create a sense of communion. The authorities were forced to make compromises—the people could do without the avant-garde, but they couldn’t do without pop music. Performers who were less than model citizens were allowed to flourish. The vaudeville star Leonid Utesov, for instance, was one of the Soviet Union’s most popular and long-lived performers. A proud son of Jewish Odessa, Utesov was no political zealot. His friend Isaac Babel wrote that “he propagandizes tireless and simple-hearted love for life.” The authorities seem to have accepted Utesov (unlike the less simple-hearted Babel, shot in 1940) in part because of his power to ward off despair—to entertain. In one of Utesov’s most famous songs, he sings

I have a heart
My heart has a song
The song has a secret
And the secret is you.

It’s saccharine, but it works, and the song is popular even today. On my last birthday, celebrated in Kiev, two of my dearest friends came over and played it for me, and I nearly burst into tears. Later that night, some new friends from St. Petersburg caused me intense joy when they serenaded me with three different versions (piano, banjo, accordion) of another great song recorded by Vierny:

And here I am, in prison again.
The sun doesn’t shine on me anymore,
I sit on my bunk and search for fleas,
I don’t want to peel potatoes!
A nightmare, blya, a nightmare, blya, a nightmare!

(In Russian, blya is a very bad word.)

While Utesov churned out his cheerful hits, the darker sides of popular music thrived underground. A catchy song that captured the imagination was impossible to control; as an embittered Utesov said in his later years, “Music is like a plague.” And memory was soon aided by technology; in the 1950s, black marketeers made illegal records on discarded X-rays—sometimes called “songs on ribs,” since you could still see the white bones on the flimsy, translucent disks. Illicit records were soon replaced by tapes, giving rise to magnitizdat, the less famous but more widespread musical analogue of samizdat. (It’s easier to dub a tape than to retype a manuscript, and many people would rather hear a Vysotsky song than read The Gulag Archipelago.) All over the USSR, people listened to hissing, distorted bootleg tapes of poets singing to seven-stringed guitars. Vierny’s album, Chants du Goulag, was recorded in France but soon made its way back to the Soviet Union, where it was circulated by magnitizdat. Some people assumed that the singer was herself an ex-convict, though one with access to unusually good recording equipment. But it didn’t matter, really, who she was. When Vysotsky sang about the Gulag, it didn’t matter that he’d never been there. What mattered was the song, the feeling.

Andrei Sinyavsky, a writer sentenced to seven years in prison after a show trial in 1966, argued that criminal songs were the music of a society in which the only common bond was imprisonment. Soviet socialism did not unite the elite and the people; criminalization did. And in a population reduced to a state of absolute loss, Sinyavsky argued, criminal songs were the soul’s last expression: “When there is nothing to expect from society, there remains a song on which you still place your hopes.” Even after emigrating to Paris, Sinyavsky continued to use his old pen name, Abram Tertz, borrowed from a mythical Jewish gangster. He was a writer; he was a criminal.

Being a criminal wasn’t all bad. The imagined criminal world could be another kind of utopia, a much-needed antidote to the Soviet version. Thieves can have a lot of fun, especially when they’re smarter than everyone else—and especially when they’re in mythical Odessa, dream-world of Jewish gangster kings. My favorite song on Vierny’s album, “Odessa,” shows the paradise of thieves confronting Stalinist hell. It begins in Moldavanka, the Jewish neighborhood immortalized in Babel’s Odessa stories. The leader of the thieves sends pretty Marusya to retrieve a top pickpocket, Kolka, from the camp at the White Sea Canal. Marusya arrives in the Arctic Circle as if by magic, only to find Kolka in shiny leather boots, wearing a worker’s medal and carrying a sheaf of paperwork. He tells her that he has found the meaning of life in the purifying flame of work—he has betrayed his thief’s honor, and become a bureaucrat! Marusya flies back to Odessa, and on that very same day Kolka gets a knife in the ribs. The song is dense with criminal slang, some of it almost unintelligible. But some of it is deliciously metaphorical: for example, the slang word for “knife” is “feather”—which also means “pen.”

In the real Gulag, professional criminals did better than others, certainly better than the “politicals.” Often the criminals robbed or even enslaved other prisoners, but sometimes they helped them. Nadezhda Mandelstam tells a story about her husband’s last days that she heard from a mathematician who was in the same Vladivostok transit camp. The mathematician made friends with the leader of a criminal gang occupying a coveted loft in the barracks. One day the gang leader invited his new friend to listen to some poetry. When he arrived, the mathematician found Mandelstam reciting his verse and being fed white bread and canned food—impossible luxuries—by the criminals. They listened in silence, and sometimes asked him to repeat a poem.

Sophie Pinkham is a student of Russian literature who lives in New York City.

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10 COMMENTS

9 Comments

  1. Ceints de bakélite | November 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Very interesting article, thank you very much! If you have interest, here are two 78rpm recording of Leonid Utesov and Alexander Tsfasman I posted on my blog : http://ceintsdebakelite.com/category/ussr/

  2. Scott S. | November 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Wow. What a great article. It actually gave me chills. Could the author (or anyone else) perhaps recommend further reading on some of these subjects? I’d be much obliged.

  3. Anya | November 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    this article made me tear up. i listened to the linked songs while reading. thanks ms. pinkham, for such a poetic experience.

  4. Sophie Pinkham | December 1, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Scott–unfortunately, there aren’t many sources on this, especially in English. “Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, 1917-1991″, by S. Frederick Starr, is good (but not about criminal songs). Robert Rothstein (early Soviet popular music), J. Martin Daughtry (magnitizdat) and Jarrod Tanny (cultural myth of Odessa) have published interesting articles in academic journals.

    Also, a point of clarification, since someone asked: Dina Vierny traveled to the Soviet Union repeatedly, starting in 1959, and recorded her album in the 70s.

  5. Tom Taj | December 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Scott S., consider Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag.” Some bits of this article reminded me of her astonishing depictions of the experience of living in the Gulag system, and how different societal or ethnic “types” were treated and mistreated and tried to survive. Harrowing.

  6. Sophie Pinkham | December 1, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Agreed, the Applebaum book is excellent. A couple of other good Gulag books are “Gulag Boss”, a memoir by Fyodor Mochulsky, and “Cannibal Island” by Nicolas Werth. You might also be interested in Evgenia Ginzburg’s excellent memoir “Into the Whirlwind.” Just don’t read them all in one gulp…

  7. Scott S. | December 2, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Thank you all for the kind responses. I’ve read all of Applebaum’s work on Gulag, and add my voice to yours in singing its praise. I will check out those memoires, though. Thanks all!

  8. Pawan | December 4, 2012 at 4:33 am

    Though I’m unfamiliar with any of the post Stalinist culture in the USSR (and in entirety almost unfamiliar about the culture of the USSR itself)I find article very moving, one which is oozing emotion in every line. I loved it.

  9. eugene | June 12, 2013 at 10:04 am

    прекрасное начало, но дальше начинается мелодрама – и так перевести сложно (если вообще можно), но подстрочники песен, сноски “In Russian, blya is a very bad word” и прочее лингвистическое кокетство это уже не очень понравилось/

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