Music From Behind the Iron Curtain | Christopher Winter
Before you read this article, I would like to firstly thank my friends from China and former Soviet countries who helped me to write it, their insight and knowledge was very helpful to me. I would also like to preface this article by saying that I have attempted to remain as politically neutral as possible whilst writing it. These genres of music are ones which genuinely intrigue me and have been a big part of my life for years.
Music, as they say, is universal. It has been part of every single culture we know of. The oldest known melody in the world is ‘Hurrain Hymn No. 6’ which is written in Cuneiform and is roughly 3400 years old. Almost all Anthropologists agree that prehistoric versions of music existed as far back as 60,000 years ago – Using the voice and simple percussion instruments to create sound. It is staggering to think that even before we had a concept of written word, we had a concept of music. But that is, of course, all ancient history. I think that one of the most interesting and often overlooked part of musical history is the many genres which sprouted from the isolation of the iron curtain. Countries like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and North Korea.
Since about the age of eight, I have been interested in this type of music and I listen to it regularly. But for those of you who haven’t had a chance to jump down the endless YouTube rabbit hole of obscure Albanian music about long dead dictators or North Korean K-pop songs detailing the endless successes of their dear leader, I hope this article gives you a brief insight into it.
I would like to start with Russia. No matter what you think of their current political situation, it is fair to say that a lot has changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet, after only a short internet search, you can find hours of footage of music all the way from the first days of the revolution to the crimson flag being lowered over the Kremlin for the last time in 1991. Initial Soviet music essentially consists of a strange mix of partisan songs being performed by small orchestras and Classical Russian music censored and torn apart by government bureaucrats to remove references to the Tsar or Russia’s past imperial glories. This is very noticeable in the ‘1812 Overture’ in which the booming notes to ‘Bozhe Tsarya Khrani’ (God Save the Tsar) are removed and replaced by a melody from the opera ‘Glinka’. The initial music of the newly created Socialist nation was extremely similar to what had existed beforehand just tweaked and changed.
By the time Stalin took power, this had started to change. New music for the ‘New Soviet Man’ was needed and so we saw the birth of one of the most famous pieces of music to come from the USSR, their very own national anthem. Originally composed in 1938 and remade into an anthem in 1944, it was a song of victory in war, firm and steady leadership under Stalin, freedom from oppression etc. Some of these stanzas, especially ones which referred to Stalin, were revised or removed after de-Stalinisation in 1955.
Few people realise that, as each constituent country in the USSR was considered its own republic, they all had their own individual anthems too. I would highly recommend listening to them as they often go overlooked and often feature an interesting mix of the region’s cultural musical heritage and Russian influences. Some of these tunes are fascinatingly unique and can be equally as stirring and beautiful as the anthem of the USSR.
Composers like Shostakovich were routinely cast out of and brought back into favour within the party for operas which did not conform to the ‘Socialist Realism’ policies of Stalin at the time. They lived under constant scrutiny for new work produced to ensure it was suitable for Soviet Audiences. After Stalin infamously walked out of one of Shostakovich’s performances, Shostakovich feared he had offended Stalin, he was right. Having too high a profile to have been arrested, he was mercilessly ridiculed in ‘Pravda’, the state’s propaganda newspaper.
Mismanagement of collective farms was commonplace after the murder of the Kulaks. Therefore, music was being written which encouraged people to work harder and move to different industries. The 1948 musical ‘The Cossacks of the Kuban’ is an excellent example of this. The film’s songs were written to encourage people to move to collective farms. They include happy and cheerful music filled with the smiling faces of delighted men and women at work on a farm. It invokes a sense of pride in one’s labour. Promising a golden land of wheat and work. Of course, this land was a fantasy, but it was remarkably effective.
After destalinization and opening to the west in the 1960s and 70s, the Red Army Choir became a world-famous troupe which toured across the globe and still exists today in the form of the Alexandrov Ensemble. Their music was nothing short of magnificent. They were known for their stirring recitals of Russian folk and military songs as a large choir with accompaniment by huge orchestras. It was truly a thrill to discover their music as a boy. It is still music I enjoy to this day. Songs such as ‘The Cliff’, ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman’, and ‘Along the Peterskaya Road’ to name but a few are fine examples of emotionally powerful music from that period.
At the same time, many of our geekier parents interested in the hobby of short-wave radio will have happily tuned in to ‘Radio Moscow’ to listen to music being broadcast from Russia. Many recordings made in the 70s and 80s by them still exist and can be found online.
When the USSR’s policy of Russification was relaxed, the individual member states of the union were given the freedom to produce their own culturally unique music. Personally, I really enjoy the music of the Azerbaijan SSR which had a very interesting fusion of traditional Turkic and Persian instruments with more modern genres like folk and pop. It truly is a category of its own in music and I would highly recommend listening to the music of Polad Bulbuloglu, Rashid Behbudov, or the group ‘Qaya’.
Moving away from the USSR, I think it would be appropriate to talk very briefly about some of the smaller Communist nations which remained unaffiliated. Namely Albania and Cuba. These two nations are wildly different in culture and geographical location. One is a small nation on the Adriatic Sea, the other an island off the coast of Florida. And yet the themes expressed in their music is remarkably similar. I think this may be because the implementation of their governments were both quite similar: both countries were taken over post second world war by strong men dictators. Enver Hoxha and Fidel Castro, respectively. Albanian music at this time was set up to build a powerful personality cult around their leader and so was Cuban music. A considerable amount of Cuban and Albanian music is about the glories of their leaders, and their triumphs as guerrilla freedom fighters. (Hoxha fought against Italian Fascist occupation during the second world war and Castro against the Military Junta imposed by the US backed Batista government.) Their music, unlike music from the early USSR, did not try and shy away from using their own culturally unique sounds. Cuban Communist music has a distinct Latin feel whilst Albanian music from the time has strong use of traditional stringed instruments like the Cifteli and Sharki. I would certainly recommend having a listen to some of their songs – many can be found of YouTube – however, be aware that the recording quality of most of this music will be below average (especially for Albanian music) as reproduction of Hoxhaist music seems to be very hard to find.
The last group of countries I would like to talk about are those from the far east, specifically China and the DPRK. These countries, whilst bordering the Soviet Union, were not directly influenced by the decrees of Moscow as they were not satellite states of Russia. Therefore, the expressions of their music remain unique. Chinese music from the pre-Mao era was not as heavily scrutinised as one might first expect and music which extolled values of traditionalism and virtue were praised. It is very common even in modern China to see traditional cultural music like opera being performed very frequently. This form of expression was especially popularised by Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, who planned many ‘model operas’ which were shows written to glorify the People’s Liberation Army and the success of Maoist thought. If you have a spare hour and half, I would recommend watching the 1964 opera ‘The East is Red’. It is available on YouTube and is an excellent example of such a ‘model opera’.
Being the last of the Superpower Communist countries, modern China is a very interesting example of how censorship plays into modern pop music. Since the end of the reign of Deng Xiaoping, modern electric pop music has become very commonplace in China, but the themes of Chinese pop are distinctly different to the rest of the world; this is because it has not progressed at the same rate. Chinese pop music is extremely non-controversial in any sense of the word. The music does not tend to push cultural, social, or political boundaries and remains firmly generic. Most famous singers start their careers as cover artists of older pop music or even as opera singers and dare not invoke the scrutiny of the CCP. It is rare to see anything outside the homogeneous pop goliath. Foreign music is of course permitted in China, but the CCP is infamous for banning bands which criticise the Chinese government’s policy especially on aspects like CCP policy in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinxiang. They also often ban music which would be considered promotion of liberalism, promiscuity, and gambling, etc.
The effect of Chinese censorship has actually seen impacts on music produced in the West. Breaking into the Chinese market means a potentially huge increase in revenue (especially for smaller artists) and certain Western TikTok content creators like Bart Baker have become notorious for doing English language covers of Chinese pop music. Indeed, modern Chinese pop music might not seem very fashionable for contemporary Western listeners, but it certainly is interesting to study how the Chinese Communist Party can make real world effects on not only Chinese content creation, but also on international music production.
This brings me onto the last country on my list. Out of all the nations talked about, this one is by far the most reclusive and secretive – North Korea. North Korean music fascinates me and since the start of the government enforced Coronavirus lockdown, I have been unapologetically listening to it at a near constant basis. The origins of it start in the early days of the formation of the DPRK. During the rise to power of Kim-Il-Sung in 1948, strong advice and guidance was given to him by Stalin on how to build a personality cult. To say that Kim-Il-Sung took this advice seriously would be an understatement. The Kim dynasty operates more in line with a total monarchy than a communist nation. The ‘Mount Peaktu bloodline’ creation myth states that Kim-Il-Sung is the eternal leader of the DPRK, meaning that North Korea is technically the world’s only functioning Necrocracy (a nation with a dead person as figurehead). With the foundation of this country, almost no links at all to pre-revolutionary Korea were permitted to stay. The Japanese imperialists had been thrown out of the land and Korea once again belonged to the Koreans.
This foundation myth envelops almost all music produced in North Korea. A considerable amount of it is literally just about how excellent and perfect Kim-Il-Sung is. This trait is also seen to a lesser extent in songs about Kim-Jong-Il and Kim-Jong-Un. This music has very little cultural link to classical Korean musical style, usually abandoning traditional Korean instruments in favour of Russian style large brass bands, orchestras, and choirs. The music they produced in the early days had a heavy emphasis on beating back Japanese and American invaders alike. This musical tradition continued until the 1980s and 1990s in which the incorporation of K-pop style electrical instruments was introduced.
North Korean K-pop is truly one of the most interesting genres of music I have talked about in this article and I highly recommend you take a listen to it. Expertly written, catchy electric pop music covering topics from bountiful potato harvests to the reunification of the peninsula with well-choreographed music videos of beautiful women in traditional Korean dress or military uniform. When I talk to people about this type of music, they are often shocked to hear that North Koreans listen to this type of music. There is a much greater scope than they first expect. Songs about romance, work, friendship etc. I cannot properly describe to you the truly bizarre and strangely beautiful world of North Korean K-pop. I can only recommend that you listen to it yourself and come to your own conclusions. But be warned, it certainly is an earworm that you will struggle to shake.
I acknowledge that I have only began to scratch the surface of the wide range of musical genres and tastes which were explored by these countries. Indeed, there are many more nations that were subject to Communist or totalitarian governments within the last century and I highly recommend that, if you are interested, you go online and listen to some of them yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much you enjoy them. I hope you have found this article at least interesting.