Laughing your way through Bolshevik Russia


Utesov (left) in 1934’s “Merry Fellows”

In case you missed it, Grisha Freidin talks over at the New York Review of Books about the lighter side of the Bolshevik era.  Yes, there was a lighter side, apparently.

He praises Michael Scammell’s “nuanced review” of Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Last Days of The Russian Aristocracy – but then takes him to task for a passage about the fox trot, one of the unlikelier imports brought to Russia by Americans working for the American Relief Administration in 1921–1923 (we wrote about that effort here … the relief effort, not the fox trot).

Scammell wrote:

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).

Says Grisha: “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.”

Here’s proof:  Jazz leader (and comedian) Leonid Utesov in 1934’s Merry Fellows, which took Russia by storm.  And the final clip, Utesov’s Jazz Band in 1938’s “Temptation Rag” well, just because we like ragtime.  (Whoops, Mosfilm is being a drag – you’ll have to click the link to youtube in the film below.)

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2 Responses to “Laughing your way through Bolshevik Russia”

  1. Ceints de bakelite Says:

    I posted two articles about Leonid Utesov and Soviet jazz on my blog, you can have a look and listen to the music if you have interest :

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Will do!