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Zbigniew Wojnowski Traces the Effects of the Late Soviet Economic Reforms Through the Lens of Pop Music

On April 2, Zbigniew Wojnowski discussed how late Soviet economic reforms affected East European cultural networks in a talk on pop music from stagnation to perestroika. His talk showed how the history of popular music provides a rich prism for understanding the last decades of state socialism and the advent of capitalism.

Zbigniew Wojnowski, Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton London
Photo courtesy of Zbigniew Wojnowski

Though Polish TV shows seemed well known, he noticed that ‘Polish films and music from the 1980s (not to mention the post-socialist period after 1989) were not nearly as well known. People were also reluctant to talk about more troubling and divisive aspects of Soviet-East European relations. I thought it would be interesting to examine how popular culture shaped the relationship between the USSR and Eastern Europe, and how nostalgia for the Brezhnev era shapes mutual relations in the former socialist space today.’

He also noticed that there was a gap in the existing scholarship on late and post-Soviet history in Russia and East Europe. ‘In contrast to early Soviet history and even the Khrushchev period, I found that there were not many scholarly works I could assign to students who wanted to understand the 1970s and beyond,’ he says.

This was when he turned to pop music, which he found to be a very productive lens through which to examine the period. ‘Looking at pop,’ Dr. Wojnowski says, ‘I can trace the evolution of Soviet and East European identity building projects. I can further trace how different Soviet republics promoted their own popular cultures, exploring interethnic relations under late socialism. Because music was a large and often lucrative business, my history of pop also allows me to reflect on how commercial considerations shaped the politics of reform in the Soviet bloc. 

Music was used in cultural diplomacy, so its history allows me to analyze the evolution of international relations during stagnation and perestroika. In other words, writing the history of pop, I can explore very diverse facets of stagnation and perestroika that are rarely studied in tandem

Dr. Wojnowski found that professional musicians—though rarely studied by historians—played an important role during perestroika. ‘Many people who worked in the Soviet and Polish culture industries were very keen to pursue economic reform and, in particular, to create what we could call “free enterprises” in the music business. They were ambitious professionals who not only wanted to earn more money, but also sought new ways to buy better quality instruments and recording equipment in order to produce good music,’ he explains. ‘They jumped at the opportunity to devolve more decision-making powers to the level of enterprise as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev launched his reforms. They effectively translated Gorbachev’s economic reform into a cultural reorientation of the socialist camp.’

One result of these changes was that Viktor Tsoi of Kino and other popular Soviet musicians of the 1980s did not enjoy as much popularity in Poland as their Soviet predecessors of the 70’s. ‘When the USSR and Poland launched economic reforms that gave music professionals more control over what music to produce and sell, the Ministries of Culture in Moscow and Warsaw struggled to sustain the kinds of cultural exchanges which they had promoted during the 1970s,’ Dr. Wojnowski explains. ‘Signers and their agents focused much more on the domestic market as well as cultural exports across the Iron Curtain. Cultural links between Poland and the USSR broke down very quickly during the 1980s.’ 

Zbigniew Wojnowski’s talk focused on two state-owned impressario agencies—Pagart in Poland and Goskontsert in the USSR—which enjoyed a monopoly on the import and export of live music. ‘They organized Maryla Rodowicz’s and Anna German’s tours of the USSR, as well as Alla Pugacheva’s or Zhanna Bichevskaia’s tours of Poland. They also co-organized large popular music festivals like Sopot or the festival of Soviet music in the Polish town of Zielona Gora,’ he says.

Among the Soviet singers who performed in Poland, Dr. Wojnowski discussed Alla Pugacheva (by far the most popular), Muslim Magomayev, and Sofia Rotaru. Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotskii were also popular in Poland, he adds. ‘Their songs were translated and covered by many Polish performers, and Okudzhava himself recorded a song about Krakow.’

Over the course of his research, Dr. Wojnowski has come across some fascinating sources. ‘I think the most surprising sources I have found are the detailed accounts of long concert tours that pop performers undertook across the USSR and Eastern Europe,’ he says. 

These accounts show just how unglamorous the life of a Soviet-bloc pop star was un the 1970s and the 1980s. Musicians would travel for months on end, staying in bug-infested hotels. Their instruments were regularly damaged in transit from one concert venue to another—even when the instruments arrived undamaged, the electrical current at some of the provincial venues was not strong enough for them to plug in their instruments

At the same time, he says, ‘Lifelong friendships between Soviet and East European musicians were forged during these tours, sometimes resulting in scandalous extramarital affairs. Because of these friendships, and at a time when profits played an ever more important role in the music industry, even some of the biggest stars like Alla Pugacheva were sometimes prepared to stage concerts free of charge. This human story of stagnation and perestroika is perhaps the most surprising, because it stands in contrast to deteriorating political and economic relations between the USSR and its satellite states.’

Zbigniew Wojnowski calls his current research project still very much a ‘work in progress’. Within this framework he is also examining the life, death, and commemoration of the Soviet Ukrainian composer Volodymyr Ivasiuk (the author of such hits as ‘Chervona Ruta’). He intends to turn the project into a book-length study of the collapse of socialism and the advent of capitalism told through the prism of pop music and the pop music industry.

Zbigniew Wojnowski is a senior lecturer in the Department of Humanities at the University of Roehampton London, where he specializes in the socio-political history of Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and socialist Eastern Europe during the twentieth century. He became inspired to examine pop music in the period from stagnation to perestroika when he visited Russia and Ukraine in 2007-2008 to conduct research for his dissertation, which examined Soviet relations with the satellite states in Eastern Europe.