Rock Behind the Curtain


One of the most important effects of the emergence of “Rock & Roll” in the United States during the 1950’s was the social revolution that came along with it. The older generations were shocked by Elvis Presley and the way he shook his hips, the sexual energy of performers like Little Richard, and the personal controversies of people like Jerry Lee Lewis. As the 1960’s came into view, The Beatles encouraged young men to wear their hair longer, Bob Dylan encouraged political protest, and more African American artists then can be named gave face the plight of African Americans in this country then ever before. Rock music represented social revolution in a way that few had seen before.

While all of this is important, it can be easy to forget that Rock was not a phenomena at the same time, once it did come around, the response was largely the same. When I looked at the sources provided by 17 moments, it was interesting to see how the older parts of Soviet Society responded to the liberalism that rock encouraged amongst the youth in similar ways to their western counterparts. In the article entitled “Western Styles Infect Soviet Youth”, the writer argued that teachers needed to, “protect young people from bad influences and vulgar tastes. It is not only proper behavior that we are inculcating, after all, but also civic virtue and patriotism” (Western Styles…). In typical Soviet manor, they tied the need to protect the youth in a patriotic way, something that their American counterparts never tried when fighting against rocks influences. Even more interesting was the official attempts at supresing the distribution of Jazz and Rock records in the early 1960’s. In the film Shadows on the Sidewalk, authorities attempted to these records distribution, seeing them as a threat to the Soviet values most likely. Interestingly, during this time Left thinkers from the Frankfurt School were coming out against jazz, but this is more a coincidence.

Another interesting strategy that the Soviet’s took to discredit rock music was to attack its commercial leanings. In an article entitled “Bob Dylan’s Trajectory”, contained an interesting passage on the commericalization of rock music as a form of critiquing it:

“The founders of this musical genre called it a “revolutionary art form,” but with time it has become clear that powerful “pop culture” has turneditinto just one of its commercial enterprises. Rock ‘n’ roll quickly became a form of business. Rock songs, many young Americans still feel today, challenged their “fathers’ culture.” But what happened? The fathers had experience and business acumen on their side. “Get mad, but only on the playing field,” they said to themselves. “Don’t go beyond that, or we’ll punish you.” (“Bob Dylan’s Trajectory”)


While this line of thought has some validity to it, I think one could argue that great innovation can happen in these circumstances. The greatest works are those that are able to take these restrictions and able to work against them. Additionally, coming from a regime that routinely created propaganda films in its native industry and then would hide them if they didn’t show everything in a favorable light (“Don’t go beyond that”), it seems rather hypocritical to criticize American rock music for its comericialization.

The Soviet response to rock music is interesting. Like their American counterparts, they were scared of the liberal ideas that came with it, that it would inspire youth to rebel against their leaders. It goes to show that the fear of youth culture and the new values it often represents always scares the parents and leaders of the youth, whether its in America or behind the Iron Curtain.

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“Bob Dylan’s Trajectory”

Western Style Infect Soviet Youth

Shadows on the Sidewalk

Smiles on Their Faces


“They seem nice and handsome and educated. They worked. And rested. And worked again.”

This description was found in the film Ordinary Fascism by Mikhail Romm. He was describing the German soldiers who were fighting on the Eastern Front during the Great Pattriotic War. While using these descriptors, Romm inserted into his film images that alternated between these images that showed German men fitting these descriptors and the work they were doing.   Half was of these images of them at work, carrying out of the greatest moral failing of this or possibly any other century: the Holocaust. Watching this made me feel a lot of things and reminded me of a lot of things that I had learned about the Holocaust in the past, but for some reason one thing in particular stuck out to me that for some reason had never hit home as hard before. Romm’s presentation of the Holocaust helped me realize just how casual it all was. The greatest mass murder in our times was carried out by these young men who were also capable of acting their age. Looking at other sources provided also really emphasized to me the kind of lack of gravitas it appeared to be given by those involved.

While watching Romm’s film, there were numerous examples of how casual the entire event was for those who carried it out. Romm noted how soldiers carried pictures around with them of the great atrocities. Sometimes they included themselves in these photos. One image in particular that struck me was one where a German soldier was standing smiling in the foreground while in the background there was a woman dangling with a rope around her neck. The soldier’s smile, a look of innocence, disturbed me more then the body. Romm noted how the campaign to kill the Jews dehumanized its victims, but those who carried out these atrocities were as well. That soldier, whose smile seemed to not have a care in the world, was just one example of that. Another moment of note was a clip a group of German men playing in a river, obviously during of period of relaxation. One could not help but think of it as a time to relax and enjoy oneself before heading back to do the work. It made me think of them as just taking a few hours off after a long days work, enjoying time with friends, something we all enjoy having after work or school. The footage of them playing in the river made it seem as if this was everyday for them, that they would go from the camps to the river. The casualness of it all was striking. The title of Romm’s film was what really hit home. He entitled it Ordinary Fascism, pointing to how normal it was for the people involved. This normalcy, this attitude of treating these atrocities like a days work, was most disturbing of all.

The orders from Heinrich Himmler entitled “Order for the Liquidation of the Ghettos of Ostland” also emphasized to me how casual the system was. His order for sending the Jews of Ostland to the camps was not an elaborate one, but instead a simple 6 step order. He told his subordinates to destroy the ghettos, to send their residents to camps, and to not let people in the camps out of them for work for any reason. Reading it almost felt like reading an order to move troops to another city or orders for the building of a new barracks or command post. It was shocking to see human life treated with such casualness and lack of meaning, even in one as brutal as the Great Patriotic War.

Watching Ordinary Fascism and reading Himmler’s orders was a stunning reminder of how normal it was to those who carried out the Holocaust. To them, it was a job, it was something they were ordered to do. As Romm pointed out in the quote above, they seemed like nice, handsome young men who woke up every morning and went about carrying out the work they were ordered to do. They were following orders. And maybe to them, who were they to say no. To them, it was just part of the job. That is the most disturbing thing of all. They were so dehumanized, so distant from what they were doing that they were just orders from those above. It was ordinary. And they did it with a smile.

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Ordinary Fascism

Order for the Liquidation of the Ghettos of Ostland

Nationalism, Communism, and the Soviet Union


An interesting movement that slowly emerged over the course of the 1930’s and hit its peak in 1939 was the concept of nationalism in the Soviet Union. As noted in his essay entitled “The New Patriotism”, historian James von Golden noted that the later 1930’s saw a rise in the posthumous rehabilitation of figures from Russia’s past, especially military leaders (von Golden). These military leaders were treated as heroes of the Russia of the past and were emphasized as heroes to the then still relatively new Soviet state. This rehabilitation was part of the larger nationalist project that was going on in the Soviet Union. What’s interesting about this rise in nationalist feeling and its encouragement is that one would not expect such ideology to be encouraged in a communist state. Communism emphasis on the working class as a group and the center of the state would make one think that nationalism would not have a place. This is due to the fact that the working class does not have any single nationality, as it is a group defined not by where it is from, but by its experiences and its exploitation under capitalism. Sources such as “The New Military Oath”, “For the Fatherland!”, and the film Alexander Nevsky provide important insights into how the balance between communism and nationalism was found and nationalism sentiments were built during this decade.

“The New Military Oath” and “For the Fatherland!”provide important insights into how nationalism was built through the use of the military. These sources intertwine nationalism and communist ideology in ways to make them appear one in the same, part of the larger struggle. For example, one paragraph in “The New Military Oath” ended with the line, “to be faithful to the people, the Soviet Motherland, and the Workers-Peasants’ Government” (The New Military Oath). “For the Fatherland!” also included an interesting line, stating that, “The defense of the fatherland is the supreme law of life” (For the Fatherland!). The Soviet government here was trying to make the revolution, the building of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and nationalism one in the same. One point of interest in these posts was that nationalism was not used as a way of building and helping to sustain the revolution. Instead, they were treated as equal, one feeding into the other and given equal importance. For example, traitors in “For the Fatherland!” are not framed as being traitors of the working class in general. Instead, they are just traitors of the working class in the Soviet Union and the nation as whole. This insular focus on nationalism in the Soviet Union appears as a link to the policy of “Socialism in One Country” that Stalin followed. These two documents as a whole show the combined nationalism and communist ideology.

The film Alexander Nevsky showed another important focus of the building of nationalism, the rehabilitation of historical figures, and how they were used by Stalin. The film, directed by the great Soviet director Sergei Einstein, was based on the life the titular man, who played an important role in the 13th century of protecting Russia from invaders. While watching the film, it becomes clear to the viewer that Nevsky in the film was supposed to be a symbol for Stalin in terms of his leadership and guidance of the Russian (or Soviet) people. It fit into the trend of rehabilitating figures that could be used to draw easy parallels to then current Soviet leaders, to add people like Stalin to the long history of those defending the fatherland from outside influences. Interestingly enough, these figures were rehabbed even though they represented the old regime, the old way of thinking about social relations in Russia. While they didn’t represent the social revolution going on at the time, films like Alexander Nevsky represented a link to the past, that allowed the Soviet government and its leaders to link themselves to the greats of the past. They wanted to show they were continuing their legacy of protecting the fatherland and this time, protecting the workers revolution.

The relationship between nationalism and communism was an interesting one. One would think they would not be compatible, as the working class has no singular national identity, as workers are everywhere and their struggles against capitalism are the same. However, Stalin linked the two, almost as a continuation of his policy of building socialism in the Soviet Union. By encouraging nationalism, of that identity of being a citizen of the Soviet Union, he provided another way that the citizens of the nation could tie themselves to it, outside of being workers in a communist society.

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For the Fatherland!

The New Military Oath

Alexander Nevsky


New Country, New Me


The amazing thing about the formation of the Soviet Union was the new possibilities it presented. The Bolsheviks promised a new society, one where the working class, not the nobility and the church, were the center of power. Such a grand political and social revolution presented an opportunity not only for new government and social relations, but also the opportunity for a new sense of self. Gregory Freeze identified that the Bolsheviks, “held that if Russia were to progress from its present condition through socialism to communism, society would have to understand is collective experience in a new way, that is, in terms of the rational application of scientific principles to human development” (Freeze 329). The Soviet government decided to give a label to this new understanding, this new Soviet concept of a person that they called the “New Soviet Man”. The Soviet Union attempted to install this new concept of the Soviet Citizen within the wider movement of the New Economic Policy (NEP). It is interesting to see how the values of the “New Soviet Man”, values of selflessness, hard work, and revolutionary fervor, to name a few, were encourage and how citizens of the Soviet Union reacted to them and how they tried to live them. One source in particular, “Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of Workers” showed how the Soviet attempts to develop these new citizens and how the people of Russia reacted to this new mentality.

“Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of Workers” provides incredible insight into the life of a common worker during the NEP and their reactions to the new values that came along with it. It is a portrayal of the values that the Soviet government wanted its citizens to gain. One example from the article in particular shows the values of the “New Soviet Citizen”. There is a conversation between those doing the reporting and some old women living in a barracks. An important part of the discussion here is how, through hard work and determination, the women had been been to gain the respect of their male counterparts. One of the woman stated:

“And we did it all ourselves…we created the read corner, and it began a whole revolution here. Even the male workers treat us differently. Before, whenever they found out a girl lived in this dormitory, they considered her lost, but now you see, they treat her with respect” (Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of Workers).

The women here benefited from the social revolution and changing in mindsets about people. They could aspire to have the respect of their male counterparts. However, this source does not paint a picture of this being a time where everything was perfect. There was the sharing of a fight between two female workers working. Their fight was evidence that conflicts were still possible, that old attitudes would remain. However, after their fight there is a continued emphasis on the collective struggle that they all face. As members of a nation going through revolutionary change, especially as workers, they face many challenges. But, as long as they remember they are in this together, they will be able to over come. As the preface to the article, this piece is an amazing look into a country and a people going through a powerful, but difficult transition. The values of the “New Soviet Man” are present throughout and the people are portrayed as attempting to show them and live them while their lives continue to be hard. The NEP was not a perfect plan and its flaws are shown here. The people do not live in great conditions and just because you may tell everyone these are the values you should have, it can be difficult to make people change. “Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of Workers” was a power look into the difficulties of personal change in a new nation.

Considering “Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of Workers”, it’s amazing to consider how complete the revolution the Bolsheviks were attempting. Not only where they attempting to change the very social, political, and economic make up with the NEP, they were also trying to change the very core values and attitudes of its citizens. Such change was never going to be easy and the struggles in this source show them. However, “Thoughts…” was also an example of the great excitement about the possibilities that existed in this time. It captures a moment in time where the struggle felt worthwhile and that the future was bright for a nation attempting to position itself as a new city on the hill.

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“Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of Workers”

Russia: A History Gregory L. Freeze

The Red Army’s Help to the Working Class


With the Bolsheviks coming to power in 1917, there was no guarantee that they would be able to keep and hold power. World War I was still on going and, possibly even more importantly, there was still significant opposition to the Bolsheviks within Russia itself. The Bolsheviks needed to find a way to show the Russian people that they were the political party best suited to lead and rebuild the nation after the disaster of World War I and help bring Russia into the modern era. One way the Bolsheviks went about doing this was through their use of the Red Army, the military force for the Bolsheviks. Two orders in particular, “Order to the Third Red Army-First Labor Army” from January 1919 and “Establishment of the First Labour Army” from January 1920, show the Bolsheviks attempting to move from a revolutionary movement to an actual government by trying to appeal to the people.

The “Order to the Third Red Army-First Labor Army” from January 15, 1919 was an important step in the movement from revolutionaries to actual government. In the order, Leon Trotsky was ordering the Third Red Army would become a new sort of army group called the First Labor Army. Their mission would be to help support workers in areas facing great difficulty. They would do this by bringing food, building barracks for workers to live in, and other activities to help support workers around Russia. According to Trotsky, the First Labor Army served an important propaganda tool as well. In attempt to inform the Russian people of the Bolsheviks’ plans, the army was supposed to handout, “Hundreds of thousands of printed appeals and speeches must be distributed to make clear to the most backward of the Red Army soldiers and all the surrounding workers and peasants, the idea of the great work which the Third Army is entering upon” (Trotsky). Another order almost a year to the day further outlined the work of this group.

In “Establishment of the First Labor Army” from January 15, 1920 was a more explicit in lining out the responsibilities of the First Labor Army. In the order, Lenin expanded who the army was supposed to help, what their mission was, and went into great detail about who was supposed to be in charge of the army. The army was to ensure that labor was conducted and people were in the place where the need was greatest.


Reading these sources, one has to wonder how the militarization of the labor force was an important step in transitioning the Bolsheviks from a revolutionary group to a legitimate government. The use of the military as a tool to organize the working class was a great idea to give a more public and equitable disposition to the army. Previously, the army had been part of the government that had oppressed the common Russian population. With these reforms, the military was now working to both help build the working class and Russia as a whole. Instead of being a tool of oppression, it was now a tool to building Russia into a modern, more equitable nation. Additionally, the militarization of the working class in this manner gave them (or at least the perception of) greater power. No longer was the military a separate entity. Now it was an organization to work for the working class. All of this goes to the Bolsheviks attempting to further cement themselves as the future government of Russia. The working class in Russia at the time had many different political groups fighting for their support. These orders were an important step for the Bolsheviks in their attempts to gain their support.

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Establishment of the First Labor Army

Order to the Third Red Army-First Labor Army

Leninism and Class: Recognizing the Class Issues


Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”- Vladimir Lenin

To understand the rise of Marxism in Russia, especially after the Revolution of 1905, one needs to understand the life and ideology of Vladimir Lenin. He is widely known as one of the central leaders of the Revolution of 1917 and as the early leader of the Soviet Union. His ideology formed the basis of a form of Marxism known as Leninism. Lenin’s book What Is To Be Done? is an important part of understanding Lenin’s version of Marxism, especially his views on the organization of the working class. Two chapters in this book, “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the
Consciousness of the Social-Democrats” and “The Primitiveness of the Economists and the Organization of the Revolutionaries”, provide important insights into Lenin’s views on the organization of the revolution. In these chapters, Lenin shows a great amount of elitism, condescension, and puts great emphasis on how misguided the working class is by focusing on “economism”.

In the section entitled “Organisation of Workers and Organisation of Revolutionaries” from “The Primitiveness of the Economists and the Organization of the Revolutionaries”, lays out several of his criticisms of the organization of workers and the relationship between trade unions and political parties. Lenin states that, “The workers’ organisations for the economic struggle should be trade union organisations” (What Is To Be Done?). Lenin throughout both articles is very particular about how economism (focus on tangible gains, which are in Lenin’s view “short term, such as the 8 hour work day) should only be focus of the trade unions. This argument brings up an important point we brought up in class and is a central issue with both of the readings: the importance of class in directing the revolution. Many of the people who were in the political parties during this time were of the intelligentsia class. The members of this group, while having shared political beliefs with those in the trade unions, did not have the same need for “economism” type reforms. These members of the intelligentsia criticized the emphasis on economic gains from a position where these changes would not work to benefit them. Lenin took a condescending tone towards those who were in need of these changes.

Considering this, it makes the quote above interesting to consider. Here Lenin is acting like the Communism he is proposing in these chapters is something that is immune to class differences. In truth, the opposite is true. Lenin’s unwillingness to form an alliance between the trade unions and political parties is disheartening and acts as if the interests of both can not be achieved together. This divide of the revolutionary left into two groups, in my opinion, foreshadows the authoritarian shift the Soviet Union would conduct after its founding.

Reading these articles, the main issue is the fact that Lenin is telling the working class that it is searching for the wrong things. Lenin shows his class bias in these writings by looking down on those who want revolution, but also realize that it might not happen immediately and that incremental progress might be necessary so as to improve ones living conditions. Improving ones living conditions will enable them to better be able to carry on the fight. Reading these is disheartening and give important insight about the future path the Soviet Union would take.

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Works Cited

Iron Work in the Urals

“Molding of an Artistic Casting” (1909-1915) from Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LOC

Mountains can have many uses for a nation. They can serve as a form of border between two countries, as a sort of natural defensive wall against invaders, provide incredible beauty to a, and as an important source of resources. This last use is shown in the picture above, entitled “Molding of an artistic casting”. The picture, taking by Sergi Mikhailovich, shows three men working in an iron works in the Ural Mountains making molds for  tools. While the work these men are doing is important, the place where they work is just as interesting and noteworthy for its importance in Russia, then and now. The Ural Mountains are an important landmark in Russia for its geographic and economic importance to the country.

The Ural Mountains, also known as the Urals, are a mountain range that runs through Western Russia from the Arctic Coast to northern Kazakhstan. The range extends for almost 1600 miles and its highest point is on Mount Narodnaya at 6217 ft.  The Urals are also divided into several groups along the chain, the main ones being: Polar, Nether-Polar, Northern, Central and Southern. It is considered the dividing line between Western and Eastern Russia, thus it is also considered the dividing line between Europe and Asia. While the mountains have great geographic importance, it also maybe even greater economic importance for Russia, due to its vast mineral deposits.

Beginning in the 18th Century, the Urals began to play an essential role in the Russian economy, a role it has to this day. Iron and Copper works began to emerge early in the 18th Century during the reign of Peter I and their number would only continue to grow over the the two centuries. The Urals provided more than just iron though. It also provided important sources of oil and gas as well.

The picture of the three men working in the iron works shows the change in the Russian economy at the time. The economy was moving away from being mainly a rural, agrarian economy towards trying to become a more fully fledged, industrial economy. Additionally, the fact that these men were working in this factory at the time showed not only the economic, but also societal change taking place in Russia at the time. Only a generation or two before, these men would have most likely been serfs working for a lord. Instead, they were working in a factory. The importance of the Urals would only continue to grow after this picture was taken, as the resources that the mountains provided would be essential to helping build an industrial economy.

One important point we discussed in class that makes this picture especially interesting. It was noted in class that the Russian elites were hesitant to give the serfs political rights, as they had seen what such decisions had done in other places like Great Britain. Interestingly enough, a picture like this shows the fermenting of the revolution that would take place only a decade after it was taken. Looking at the men in this picture, one sees the place where they would begin to hear the calls to organize, to demand greater rights as workers and to dispel a system that continued to exploit them even after reforms. These men did not know it at the time, but it would be men like them who would be part of the revolution only a decade later. Looking back, it is clear why the Russian elites desire to not give these newly freed serfs political rights, as the revolution they so feared did eventually happen.

This photo allows one to consider the importance of a place in the great scheme of the modernization of Russia and the story of a place. In showing three men at working creating casts for tools, it shows the modernization of Russia, from a more agrarian economy towards attempting to become a more industrialized one. It captures a the importance of the Urals towards Russia and it’s movement into the 20th century. Finally, it captures the place and the people who would be essential in forging the Russian Revolution only a decade after the photo was taken: common workers.  The photo allows one to look at main different aspects of Russia’s attempts to become the nation we know today.

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