Jazz, Soviet culture, and the limits of a bipolar world

ZOiS Spotlight 17/2019 by Michel Abeßer (30/4/2019)

S. Berezin, Curičenko, Bryzgunov and Leonard Orlov at the arts centre ‚Ėner getikov‘ Moscow 1961, © Vladimir Sadkovkin, Privatarchiv Michail Kull

Today you play jazz, tomorrow you betray the motherland

As the Cold War unfolded after 1945, the Soviet Communist Party started press campaigns against Western influences. Artists’ unions collectively condemned ‘ideological mistakes’ in novels, paintings, and symphonies, while numerous artists—including many of Jewish origin—were arrested for having former ties abroad. Orchestras were renamed, and jazz vanished from the stages and airwaves.

Amid the rising competition of the Cold War, however, these campaigns proved counterproductive for the Soviet Union’s attempts to be perceived as a progressive system. It was these anti-Western campaigns that encouraged the US State Department to expand and coordinate its broadcasts of jazz music in radio programmes directed towards the socialist East. By promoting jazz globally, the US not only promised to dispel the notion of a superficial American culture and counteract the image of racial discrimination that became the US Achilles’ heel in the Cold War competition; it also advertised the idea of freedom and democracy, ostensibly embedded in attractive jazz practices of collective improvisation.

Jazz vs. dzhaz: a question of genres

But what did jazz actually mean for Western radio DJs, Soviet ideologues, the common Soviet people, or the Soviet youth who were the main targets of the American efforts? The anti-Western campaigns in the late Stalinist period affected not only Western jazz, broadcast by radio and smuggled in on Western records, but also the Soviet Union’s own jazz tradition.

Dzhaz, to use the transliteration of the Russian term, had reached the country in the 1920s and was the subject of fierce political debates. The style that had developed by the 1930s hardly resembled the common Western understanding of jazz. Sovetskii dzhaz, or Soviet jazz, included not only elements of Western-style music but also Russian folklore, romance, tango, Jewish music, vocals, sketches, and acrobatics. This musical hybridity was central to the style’s popularity and ideological acceptance as an important part of mass culture. Dzhaz belonged to the Stalinist era, as did the terror, the show trials, and the Gulag forced-labour camps.

With these two different kinds of jazz in play, the social and political conflicts behind the music were more complex than just youth rebelling against party ideologues. During the revival of jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, disputes on questions of taste shaped conflicts between parents, for whom dzhaz resembled the nostalgic entertainment of the 1930s, and the next generation, later known as the Shestidesyatniki (the people of the ’60s), who were drawn to American, Polish, and Soviet jazz as art music. At the same time, Soviet cultural and party elites had to come to terms with wider sections of the population, for whom an evening dance concert with dzhaz did not contradict a genuine belief in the system’s superiority.

By party control or the market? – Jazz re-emerges after 1953

Due to popular pressure, dzhaz’s lower status in the cultural hierarchy, and flaws in the party’s musical censorship, the fate of Soviet jazz after Stalin’s death in 1953 was decided less in party meetings than on the musical market. Officially, Soviet concert organisations administered the market through a monopoly on providing musicians and ensembles for restaurants, organising tours, hiring and educating musicians, and creating an ideologically acceptable entertainment repertoire.

However, a constant lack of good musicians, low wages, and bureaucratic inefficiencies made the directors of these organisations victims of ideological attacks and dependent on a thriving musical shadow economy. Musicians, restaurateurs, and organisers all turned to this grey space where a gig could be arranged quickly, an instrument bought that otherwise was unavailable, or sheet music and records obtained that would provide band leaders with new and successful material.

As the Soviet state reformed the concert organisations in the mid-1950s, with the aim of improving financial efficiency by cutting costs, jazz as entertainment music increasingly benefited from this paradigm shift. For gifted jazz musicians, professionals or amateurs, job opportunities became plentiful, making artists more immune to repeated ideological attacks. Talent slowly outweighed ideological conformity. The Oleg Lundstrem Jazz Orchestra, founded in 1956, earned the Soviet state 3.9 million roubles across 250 performances in 1958.

Autonomy for young jazz fans

But how did Soviet youth, the target audience of the US broadcasts, appropriate American jazz? In reaction to the music’s increasing popularity, the Soviet youth organisation Komsomol started offering public spaces for the growing urban jazz scene. Jazz sections in culture houses and youth cafés provided rooms for concerts, lectures, and discussions. Suddenly, these activities fitted neatly into the organisation’s new policy of arranging spaces for cultivated leisure time where the future builders of communism would advance their education and engage in meaningful cultural activities.

Such spaces provided a political niche and gave jazz enthusiasts considerable cultural autonomy. These young elites transformed jazz into art music, performed and lectured in front of seated audiences, and established informal contacts with acclaimed composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich to boost the music’s credibility. Jazz was made Soviet by these social practices. This reciprocity between jazz and Soviet cultural values was underlined by a distaste for the emerging rock movement of the 1960s that increasingly became a common cause for some jazz enthusiasts and party officials.

Jazz as a transnational cultural phenomenon of US origin underwent a turbulent development from the early twentieth century onwards. The Soviet experience highlights the fluidity of the genre, which took on different forms and contradictory understandings throughout the century. As the political use of culture as a Cold War tool shaped the appropriation and reinvention of jazz, the music’s cultural and social ambiguities prevented it from fitting easily into a bipolar world.


Dr. Michel Abeßer teaches East European History at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg. In 2018, he published the book Den Jazz sowjetisch machen. Kulturelle Leitbilder, Musikmarkt und Distinktion zwischen 1953 und 1970.