U.S.S.A.: Russia dusts off Iron Curtain. Lends it to America.
Tales of defiance from Soviet-era Russian artists, art-lovers prove artistic dissension can’t be regulated. America’s present clampdown on creative freedom will be no different.
When the Iron Curtain fell upon Soviet Russia in 1945, every aspect of society became an extension of the State including arts and entertainment. Every book, piece of music, and work of art had to be approved before citizens were allowed to consume it. What happened to art and artists unapproved by authorities? Were they thrown into the faceless abyss of the Gulag? Where their works burned in similar fashion to those in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? Read on to find out. You may be surprised.
“The Month’s Plan Fulfilled”
One of my favorite artistic Soviet-era pieces is an illustration titled ‘The Month’s Plan Fulfilled.’ It depicts a giant nail hanging in the background as a Soviet worker worries about the usefulness of one giant nail while the manager dismisses the economic importance of market value. The giant nail allowed them to meet their quota. That’s all that matters.
The text on the illustration reads:
“Who needs such a nail?”
“This is not important! What’s important is that we completed the nails plan!”
Comedy has a unique way of educating society. It breaks the ice through humor and gets straight to the point bypassing fluff that can cloud the message.
In this case, the shortcomings of a centrally planned economy are front and center.
Communist Russia’s economy had a hard time producing anything properly. Chandeliers were known to fall from the ceiling, killing leaders’ comrades. Light bulbs and TV sets constantly exploded. A Russian journalist’s translator was quoted in this article saying:
“Soviet light bulbs explode for one simple reason. They are made in the Soviet Union.”
All of the reasons for these economic disasters are expertly laid out in various works by Austrian Economists, one of them being Ludwig von Mises’ essay Economic Calculation in a Socialist Commonwealth.
The economic theory explaining the mystery behind the big nail is summed up in Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law states “once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.”
When Soviet authorities gave factories targets focusing on numbers, many tiny nails were produced to meet monthly quotas. When authorities switched the unit measurement to tons, cue the giant nail fiasco.
Bottom line, consumers’ varying hierarchies of needs determine demand, and their subjective valuations determine prices, not governments.
Though at the time the creation and publication of this comedic illustration meant imminent danger for anyone involved with its distribution, it has withstood the test of state censorship and remains a popular graphic associated with the pitfalls of the Soviet economy.
“Music on Ribs”
One of the most infamous stories regarding the consumption of banned art in the Soviet era is the history of the “X-ray vinyl black market.”
After World War II, many musicians and songs, even entire genres, were banned. Reasons varied but they all centered around ensuring cultural chastity. Any western influence of music was forbidden. This meant absolutely no Jazz, Rock and Roll, or Blues whatsoever.
Genres rich in Russian history before the Soviet Union were outlawed too. Gypsy folk music, music many Russians grew up listening to, was a definite no-no.
Music with outlaw stylings was not allowed. Prisoners locked up in the Gulag were particularly fond of this music at the time. By listening to the raucous lyrics and melodies in secret they felt less alone. Of course, this was unacceptable to prison guards.
Not just anyone could become a professional songwriter or musician in Russia either.
“You had to be a member of the composers union, so unless you’d been officially approved there was no opportunity to record.” (Dazed)
The legend of the first notes of music etched into the plastic of used X-Ray film reportedly began in St. Petersburg just after the end of the war.
Music can be recorded onto quite a few different plastic materials but there were a few economic reasons X-Rays became the go-to for awhile.
Soviet X-Ray material was “pretty good at holding the groove of recorded music.” (Dazed)
X-Ray material was also easy to get ahold of. Because X-Rays are highly flammable, the State ordered hospitals to get rid of them. Hospitals’ sudden need to dispose of X-Ray material coupled with music-lovers’ economic demand for the material was a perfect supply-demand match.
“They would literally go to the back door of the hospital, tap on the door and an illicit trade would take place, a swap for a bottle of vodka or a few rubles.” (Dazed)
Bootleggers faced fines and multi-year prison sentences for dealing black market X-Ray vinyl. Several who got caught did their time then went right back to bootlegging.
The great lengths these audiophiles went to while distributing banned music to consumers shows you how culturally important art is, especially art outlawed by authorities.
One bootlegger viewed himself as a “culture trader.”
“He felt like he had a mission… from God to actually spread culture.” (Dazed)
Stephen Coates, a musician himself, documents this rich part of Soviet history via X-Ray Audio Project, which has subsequently generated a documentary, book, Ted Talk, and art exhibition in Russia.
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, is a stunning novel with elements of magical realism often associated with Russian novels. Published in 1966, a good portion of it was censored by the Soviet government. Before it was even published, Bulgakov worked on the story from 1928 into the 1940s.
The Master and Margarita is a story about the devil coming to town. The book opens with him arriving in the atheist Soviet Union. Bulgakov weaves the devil’s story around a re-telling of Pontius Pilot’s killing of Jesus. Intertwined is a love story between a character named Margarita and her lover, The Master, a writer who has been imprisoned.
As word got around of the ambitious book Mikhail was writing, Soviet authorities began harassing him. First, they confiscated his personal writings and burned them. Luckily, one official took the time to make a secret full copy of his journal before it was destroyed, thus preserving his writing.
After continual harassment at the hands of the State, in a fit of anger and mental distress Bulgakov burned the original manuscript to The Master and Margarita. It didn’t take long though for his writer’s heart to kick back on and start ticking again. He began writing his book once more with his wife helping him with the manuscript as his health began to fail him.
Though an amended version of the story first appeared in 1966, the full version wasn’t published until after his death in 1973.
The book stands as a unique perspective of Soviet life, religion, the mind’s relationship to reality, censorship, and so much more. It maintains a cult-like following on a global scale.
America’s clampdown on artists of all kinds going off-script from state-approved speech shows a new Iron Curtain, one that bears a striking resemblance to the authoritarian “Big Brother” government in George Orwell’s novel, 1984 (another book that’s been banned quite a few times). But history shows artists and art-lovers are motivated by more than popularity, more than profit. They are motivated by freedom. They are devoted to it in perpetuity.
No matter how doggedly authorities try to censor, cancel, and ban artists, they need to take heed of important words in Bulgakov’s novel spoken by the devil to The Master after it was revealed he tried to burn his manuscript in the stove to get rid of it:
“Manuscripts don’t burn.”
Thanks for reading! Quick Introduction :) My name is Rebecca Day and I’m an independent singer-songwriter, Liberty advocate, and Editor-In-Chief here at Freedom Journal.
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