Suicide really isn’t war: megalomania, counterculture and the joy of metal music in the Soviet Union

By Dawn Hazle

Popular music presents a problem to authoritarian regimes: by its nature it either has to be controlled, or banned. Yet, control requires a lot of resources, and simply just pushes the problem underground.  In the Soviet Union, both approaches were undertaken: popular music was controlled through state-sponsored Vokal’no-Instrumental’nyi Ansambl’ (VIA) groups and everything else was banned.  Consequently, anyone who didn’t fit the bill simply went underground and, due to pressures, ignorance or lack of enforcement, they went often unpoliced and proliferated.

Russian metal music was one such disregarded and, therefore, underground genres. It grew in a similar way to Western metal music and was inspired by Western metal, but also

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AriaFest concert in Moscow (November 2015)

by Russian rock. Metal and rock, intentionally or not, are forms of ‘counterculture’ that provide an alternative to the dominant culture, and in the case of Soviet Russia, to official Soviet culture. One of the first bands in the Soviet context to establish themselves solely in the genre of metal are Aria, still going strong today and regarded as the Russian Iron Maiden. On 31 October 1985 they released their first album, Maniia Velichiia (Megalomania), in magnitizdat format.

 

Upon a cursory glance at the tracklist (in Russian), it is clear there is more to this album (and by extension, to the band) than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: the final track, ‘Pozadi Amerika’, with its generally recognised translation ‘America is Behind’, looks much like an anti-Western song.[1]  But a closer look at the lyrics shows something altogether different: it is merely describing a man reading a travel magazine. The song talks about the world being laid out in front of him, and this sense of ‘pozadi’ is lost in the translation .

Another potentially anti-Western song is ‘Zhizn’ Zadarom’ (‘Life for Free’). A simple reading of the lyrics shows this is not necessarily inaccurate, as there are lines such as the following:

Wisdom, beauty and talent – all overshadowed by the pricelist And it happened that he gave his life for nothing

But a simple reading is not enough: this denunciation of Western decadence can also be accurately applied to Soviet officials and the privileges that they enjoyed. The eponymous instrumental, ‘Maniia Velichiia’, can also be read this way: highlighting not only capitalist decadence in its harsh guitar entry but also Soviet megalomania as the near-operatic vocal chorus becomes ever louder.

The album moves further into anti-Soviet territory with ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ (‘Tusks of Black Rocks’).  This song contains the following lyrics:

He shouts to the gods: “I have no more need for you,

I can understand everything and do it myself!”

The cry’s echo was picked up at the same moment,

Carried away and smashed on a glacier

[…]

A rock cracked and an avalanche came down

And carried him away like a grain of sand

This appears to represent the leaders of the atheist Soviet Union, now beginning to pay the price after turning their backs on their people as they have turned their backs on God: the

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AriaFest Concert, Moscow (November 2015)

economy was in terrible shape, food imports had increased and relations with the West had soured.

 

In an interview I conducted with the writer of these lyrics, Alexander Ielin, in November 2015, he assured me the intention was largely anti-war. I have found this hard to fathom in ‘Pozadi Amerika’, but the lyrics of ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ and ‘Volunter’ (‘Volunteer’) could easily be interpreted as such.  One song which makes this anti-war stance particularly clear is ‘Eto Rok’, with its dual-meaning title (‘This is Fate’ or ‘This is Rock’). The last verse reads as follows:

It is enough to put on a brave show, the fate of all of us is as one Suicide really isn’t war, Not Waterloo, or even Armageddon There is not and never will be a winning side

I do, however, urge you to listen to the song: the lyrics given here paint a dreary picture (this part starts around 3:48) but the musicians are clearly enjoying themselves during most of the song. This, after all, is usually the point of this kind of heavy metal: to have fun, share that joy with others and ignore those who don’t like it.

Bio: Dawn Hazle is a part-time Master of Arts (by research) student in Russian & Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include Russian heavy and power metal, Tolkienism and the convergence of myth and reality. Her current study is investigating the influences on Aria’s first album, Maniia Velichiia, in the contemporary late Soviet climate. You can find her on Twitter at @keletkezes, and find out more about her interests on her blog.

References

[1] (see the album’s reviews on Encyclopaedia Metallum – in Russian)

Full Image Attributions

Image 1 & 2: created and provided courtesy of Dawn Hazle

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The Political Language of Celebration: The Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1918-1932

By Jon Rowson

‘It is impossible to build socialism in white gloves’ – Mikhail Kalinin, 7 November 1930[1]

The Anniversary of the October Revolution was the apogee of public politics in the young Soviet state. The celebrations, lasting 2-3 days in all areas of the USSR, were a means of honouring the previous year’s achievements, and increasing the morale of the populace. Despite Petrograd being the centre of events during the October Revolution, Moscow- and in particular Red Square – soon became the axiomatic centre of celebrations after being named the Soviet capital in 1918.

The culmination of the annual Anniversary event was a joint military and civilian parade through Moscow and Red Square, where Soviet soldiers and citizens caught a glimpse of the political elite, and heard speeches delivered by a range of politicians. Over time, the nature of the celebrations changed, turning from a spontaneous outburst of civilian celebration, to a rigid, militaristic pageant. Nonetheless, the importance of the written and spoken word remained.

Political speeches were ubiquitous throughout the Anniversary event. Lenin delivered at least six speeches during the 1918 holiday, with his address on Red Square being published verbatim in the Pravda and Izvestiia VTsIK newspapers.[2] These speeches reveal crucial insights into how the Soviet state addressed and sought legitimation from its citizens, and how these processes changed during the turbulent first fifteen years of Soviet rule.

‘Kolarov is an amazing person. Did you hear the way he talks? He never says: fight. He says, to fight and win. Generally, the Bolsheviks were the kind of people that like to dot their i’s’ – Unnamed audience member, 9 November 1923[3]

As the above quotation indicates, clarity and understanding were of vital importance to the Anniversary’s political message. This was often reflected in the choice of speaker,

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Soviet leaders including Lenin (centre) and Trotsky (saluting) observing the Second Anniversary of the October Revolution celebration on Red Square, 1919.

particularly for the Red Square speeches which were always published in Soviet newspapers in the days that followed. During the War Communism years, Lenin and Trotsky, noted respectively for their speeches’ ‘iron logic’ and ‘drama’, both appeared frequently, reflecting their status at the head of Soviet politics.[4]

 

After Lenin’s death in 1924, a multiplicity of voices characterised the Anniversary celebrations. Two of the most audible figures were Mikhail Kalinin, often hailed as the “All-Russian Village Elder” [Vserossiiskii starosta] and, as the military began to play a greater role in festivities, Kliment Voroshilov.[5]

Problematically, many of the Soviet political elite were not proletarian in origin. However, Kalinin and Voroshilov, sons of a peasant and railway worker respectively, were figures that the Soviet populace both rural and urban, could draw commonalities with, especially during the reading of the revolutionary oath which began with the proclamation, ‘I, the son of the working people’.[6] This made them a savvy choice for inclusion in the annual celebrations .

The Anniversary celebrations were a means of mythologizing the achievements of the Soviet state. During the Civil War years, this took the form of celebrating the ‘unprecedented, incredibly difficult struggle’ of the Red Army troops.[7] Vague statements of success, such as Trotsky’s 1919 retort that ‘our army, which is fighting against the White gangs of Yudenich, is successfully moving forward’, were said to have drawn cheers from the crowd.[8]

During the years of the First Five-Year Plan, this myth-making project was directed towards the economy. Political speeches became replete with statistics, an example being Voroshilov’s 1930 parade speech, which featured the claim that ‘gross industrial output has reached 196.9% of the pre-war level’.[9]

Between 1928 and 1932, statistics such as these became evidence of socialism’s ‘extraordinary achievements’, and proof that, as Kalinin stated at the 1930 Red Square parade, ‘we have left behind many of the difficulties’ of the War Communism years.[10] Yet, at the same time as these statements of success, workers’ real wages had fallen 52% from their 1918 level, with the continued decrease in meat and dairy consumption another indicator of falling living standards.[11]

Legitimacy for this myth-making project was sought by demonstration of the Bolshevik elite’s ability to predict the future. Lenin’s 1919 statement of the Party’s ‘firm belief in the imminent victory of Soviet power’ was justified following the 1920 capitulation of the White forces.[12] After his death, Anniversary speeches contain references to the ‘great teacher’ Lenin, whose ‘great ideas’, such as the smychka, the union of proletariat and peasant, would help the USSR ‘overcome all difficulties’.[13]

By 1932, Lenin’s name was not only being used during the Anniversary celebrations to

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Military Review at the Fifth Anniversary Celebrations on Red Square, 1922.

legitimise Bolshevik economic and political policy, but also Stalin’s personal rule. Kalinin declared that Stalin was ‘leading the way for the Party’s implementation of Lenin’s testament’, whilst Voroshilov hailed ‘Long live the faithful follower of Lenin, the Bolshevik of Bolsheviks, Comrade Stalin’, during his speech on Red Square.[14]

 

Concurrent with these attempts to legitimise Soviet rule was the de-legitimisation of Soviet enemies, both internal and external. Speeches outlined, on the one hand, positive identities, such as ‘shock-workers’ [udarnik] and ‘collectivised peasant’ [krest’ian-kolkhoznik], and on the other, ‘enemies of the people’, including ‘truants’ and ‘kulaks’ .[15]

Humour was also used as a de-legitimisation tool. Kalinin’s damning portrayal in 1932 of American President Herbert Hoover as an ‘ignorant peasant, who raises his eyes to the sky and prays for the heavenly rain during a drought’, was a confident jab by a Soviet state which had fulfilled the First Five-Year Plan, whilst the American economy was still reeling from the Great Depression.[16]

The Anniversary of the October Revolution was a national holiday for all Soviet citizens, meaning that it had great nationwide exposure, This made it the ideal site for the dissemination of political messages. The dual processes of legitimising Soviet politics, both with regards to policy and personnel, and de-legitimising ‘enemies of the people’, were crucial to inculcating a spirit of festivity, achieved by demonstrating the achievements of the Soviet state, and the promise of a better future.

Jonathan Rowson is a first-year ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the Department of History. His thesis, entitled ‘Out-migration from the Russian village: Perm’ province 1890-1914’, examines migration networks in the late-Tsarist period at a local level, analysing the causes and effects of rural-to-urban migration within Perm’ province, and the growth of rural-to-rural migration from Perm’ province to Siberia. This province-level study is also an attempt at documenting the regional socio-economic idiosyncrasies of late-Tsarist Russia’s industrial and economic modernisation, and how this impacted, and was impacted by, population movement. Other research interests include the concept of legitimacy in the Soviet state, and the socio-cultural means by which the Soviet Union sought to legitimise itself in the 1920s.

References:

[1] Izvestiia VTsIK (308), 7 November 1930, p. 4.

[2] Graeme Gill, Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics (Cambridge, 2011), p. 71.

[3] ‘S tribuny’, Izvestiia VTsIK (256), 9 November 1923, p. 5.

[4] Orlando Figes & Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven, CT., & London, 1999), p. 101.

[5] Pravda (256), 10 November 1925, p. 3.

[6] Pravda (256), 11 November 1924, p. 5.

[7] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 37 (Moscow, 1969), p. 147.

[8] Pravda (251), 9 November 1919, p. 1.

[9] Izvestiia VTsIK (309), 10 November 1930, pp. 1-2.

[10] Izvestiia VTsIK (261), 10 November 1928: 4; Izvestiia VTsIK (308), 7 November 1930, p. 4.

[11] Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton, NJ, 2001), p. 55.

[12] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 39 (Moscow, 1969): 288. Originally published in Pravda (249), 6 November 1919.

[13] L. B. Kamenev, ‘Vos’maia godovshchina Oktiabria’, Izvestiia VTsIK (256), 10 November 1925: 2; Izvestiia VTsIK (261), 10 November 1928, p. 4.

[14] Pravda (310), 10 November 1932: 2; K. E. Voroshilov, ‘Rech’ na parade v Moskve v den’ XV godovshchiny oktiabr’skoi revoliutsii’, in K. E. Voroshilov, Stat’i i rechi (Moscow, 1937), p. 480.

[15] Voroshilov, ‘Rech’ na parade v Moskve’: 477; Pravda (310), 11 November 1932, p. 2.

[16] Pravda (310), 10 November 1932, p. 2.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: By L.Y. Leonidov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: History of Russia in Photographs