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Bolshevik Jazz

In response to:

The Russian Nobility Under the Red Terror from the March 7, 2013 issue

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Leonid Utesov, left, in the Soviet film Merry Fellows, 1934

To the Editors:

I very much admired Michael Scammell’s masterful and exhaustively researched biographies, and I read with great interest his nuanced review of Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Last Days of The Russian Aristocracy [NYR, March 7]. All the more surprising, then, is the impression of chronological confusion conveyed in the passage dealing with the fashion for fox-trot, brought to Russia by Americans working for the American Relief Administration in 1921–1923. Scammell writes:

The fox-trot was an immediate hit in Moscow—but not with the authorities or, surprisingly, with some pillars of the literary establishment.
The bard of the Soviet proletariat, Maxim Gorky, maintained that the fox-trot encouraged moral degeneracy and led inevitably to homosexuality. Anatoly Lunacharsky, commissar of enlightenment, wanted to ban the foxtrot—and all syncopated music—from the country altogether (and he succeeded some months later).

The impression, then, is that Gorky, who invited the ARA to come to Russia in the first place but from 1921 lived abroad until his return in 1928, spoke out against fox-trot in 1923–1924 or that around the same time Anatoly Lunacharsky “succeeded in banning all syncopated music.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Gorky’s notorious outburst against the decadence of contemporary Western dance music postdates the ARA’s tenure in Russia by five years (“On the Fat People’s Music,” Pravda, April 4, 1928). Nor did Commissar of Enlightenment Lunacharsky, whose disparaging remarks about fox-trot appeared in his tribute to the Malyi Theater in a 1924 volume marking its centenary, try to ban or indeed could ban “all syncopated music a few months later.” Jazz music and fox-trot thrived in 1920s Russia well into the 1930s.

The proof is on YouTube: all one needs is to listen to the old recordings of Leonid Utesov, whose jazz (with a strong whiff of the Odessa klezmer) was all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s. Utesov starred in the jazz comedy film Merry Fellows that took the USSR by storm in 1934 and remained an all-time favorite for decades. Also iconic for the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s was Vincent Youmans’s fox-trot “Hallelujah,” performed on Soviet Radio in 1928 by AMA Jazz, the band of the famous Soviet jazz pianist and composer Alexander Tzfasman.

Not that the cultural commissars did not periodically inveigh against jazz and pop culture; they did (and not just in Russia), but the strictures did not become effective until late Stalinism (1946–1953), when the USSR turned xenophobic and ultra-nationalist. A reliable and readily available source for jazz history in Soviet Russia is Frederick Starr’s Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union (Oxford University Press, 1983).

Gregory Friedin
Professor
Slavic Languages and Literatures
Stanford University
Stanford, California

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