Song of the Year and Soviet Mass Culture in the 1970s

By Evans, Christine | Kritika, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Song of the Year and Soviet Mass Culture in the 1970s


Evans, Christine, Kritika


"Song is a country / where the people choose their kings."

--Poet and lyricist Sergei Ostrovoi on Song-72, 1 January 1973

We have long drawn conclusions about late Soviet society based on its televised ceremonies. Images of the parades on Red Square and the interminable applause of Brezhnev-era party congresses, broadcast by national evening news services across Western Europe and the United States during the Cold War, have played a central role in the Western scholarly and political imagination. Anthropologists have used them to construct typologies of modern ceremony that distinguish between the closed, hegemonic rituals of totalitarian states and the disputatious contests of democratic ones. (1) Within Soviet studies, they have served as key evidence for Mikhail Gorbachev's characterization of the 1970s as an era of "stagnation," exemplifying the way that late Soviet public or "official" culture had aged along with the state's leadership, becoming hopelessly rigid, hierarchical, and formalized, preparing the way for the collapse of Soviet ideology in 1991. (2)

But Soviet Central Television had another set of televised ceremonies that were at least equally important: the high-profile and high-stakes musical variety programs that accompanied all major Soviet state holidays. (3) These shows were part of a group of new television holiday "traditions" invented during the Brezhnev era, many of which are still a prominent part of current Russian television's holiday programming. Among the most important of these new television holiday rituals were those linked to the New Year, the Soviet holiday most clearly associated with domestic spaces and relationships, and least clearly with 1917 or 1945. (4) The fact that Boris Yeltsin chose, in 1999, to announce his resignation and introduce his little-known successor, Vladimir Putin, during the New Year's Eve presidential address to the people, a tradition launched by Leonid Brezhnev in 1970, is but one indication of the continued importance of these television rituals in post-Soviet Russian political and cultural life. (5)

This article considers one of these new, Brezhnev-era New Year's traditions, a national song contest--part Eurovision, part Grammy awards-called Song, of the Year (Pesnia goda, 1971-present) that was broadcast every year on the evening of New Year's Day. Song of the Year, I argue, offers us a much more dynamic view of Brezhnev-era culture than that suggested by the label "stagnation": it reveals how the state-controlled mass media could become a site of significant cultural innovation and experimentation aimed at finding new ways of engaging and unifying the Soviet populace during the Cold War. Rather than exclusively offering a display of state power, Song of the Year sought to delight viewers by providing popular entertainments and creating a "good mood" for the holidays) Far from being closed and formalized, it emphasized audience participation, created suspense, and changed dramatically from year to year.

Song of the Year also unsettles our usual narratives about the evolution of Soviet culture after Stalin. (7) First, it highlights the continuities in Soviet cultural policy from Khrushchev to the Brezhnev era. Television was central to several aspects of Nikita Khrushchev's "thaw," particularly the renewed emphasis on leisure, the Cold War redefinition of competition with the West in terms of "ways of life" defined morally and materially, and the ambitions of Soviet journalists to lead the revitalization of the socialist project. (8) All these dimensions of the television "thaw" continued to shape Central Television's content in the 1970s. Indeed, the problems of leisure, of cultural competition with the West, and of identifying new ways to engage the population only gained importance under detente and "developed socialism." (9)

The response to these continued pressures during the 1970s was a group of television ceremonies that experimented constantly with new ways to stimulate viewer participation and to direct and satisfy audience demand, foregrounding the conflicts and negotiations that had long characterized Soviet popular culture. …

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