The Strange Afterlife of Stalinist Musical Films

Rimgaila Salys


During the 1930s and 1940s Grigorii Aleksandrov and Ivan Pyr'ev directed a series of musical comedy films that became the most popular cinematic works of the Stalin years. These films lifted people's spirits and gave them a respite from the grim realities of everyday life during the difficult years of socialist construction and World War II. Aleksandrov's comedies were urban legends – Cinderella stories and show musicals – while Pyr'ev made folk musicals situated on collective farms. Because relatively few feature films were released during the Stalin years, the appearance of each new musical film became a major cultural event.

The reputations of the Aleksandrov and Pyr'ev comedies suffered after the 20th Party Congress in 1956, but the films acquired a second life when they were reissued for public consumption during the Brezhnev years, even though dialogue from the films now figured in satirical popular parlance on alcoholism, sex and Socialist Realist iconography. In their post-Soviet afterlife the musical comedies acquired a complex signification. The Stalinist sign, with its negative charge, was both itself parodied and simultaneously employed to parody post-Soviet reality in films such as Tractor Drivers-2 (1992). In two recent films, Moskva and Maimyl (both 2001), contemporary quotations from Stalinist musicals juxtapose the idealism, optimism and semiotic wholeness of the Stalinist era to the demoralized, corrupt and fragmented post-Soviet present.

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