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The Soundtrack of Stagnation: Paradoxes Within Soviet Rock and Pop of the 1970s


The “underground” Soviet rock scene of the 1980s has received considerable scholarly attention, particularly after the fall of the USSR when available channels of information opened up even more than in the glasnost years. Both Russian and American academics have tackled the political implications and historical innovations of perestroika-era groups such as Akvarium, Mashina Vremeni, and DDT. Similarly, the Beatles craze of the 1960s is also frequently mentioned in scholarly works as an enormous social phenomenon in the USSR – academics and critics alike wax poetic about the influence of the Fab Four on the drab daily lives of Soviet citizens. Yet what happened in between these two moments of Soviet musical life? Very little critical work has been done on Soviet popular music of the 1970s, its place in Soviet society, or its relationship to Western influences. That is the lacuna I address in this work.

My dissertation examines state-approved popular music – so-called estrada or “music of the small stage” – produced in the USSR during the 1970s. Since detailed scholarly work has been done on the performers of this decade, I focus instead on the output and reception of several popular composers and musical groups of the time, exploring the relationship formed between songwriter, performer, audience, and state. I do so in order to investigate and answer the following question: in the larger narrative of Soviet culture, what was the role of pop and rock music in the 1970s, a decade so ostensibly barren that even Russians refer to it as “the stagnation” (zastoi)?

An examination of the popular composers and songwriters who literally and figuratively wrote the soundtrack to this decade of Soviet life shows how room for flexibility and openness to certain Western rock influences could exist within Soviet state-approved music – so often dismissed as ideologically conservative. Likewise, a better understanding of the men and women behind the songs and groups of this era sheds light on the contrary forces that drove both musical production and promotion within the USSR, and opens the way for estrada as both an enthusiastically created and received phenomenon. Finally, and most broadly, this dissertation considers and explores the notion that popular music from rigidly political systems can be used as a way of constructing highly personal meaning in a realm obliquely parallel to – and simultaneously embedded within and enabled by – the political sphere.

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