Staunton, July 3 – Urban legends, involving the mis-readings of song lyrics and other texts and rumors sparked by various events, play a key role in defining how people in the cities of every country view the world, reflect their hopes and fears, and even on occasion define what these are.
That was true in Soviet times, and now a new book by folklorists Aleksandra Arkhipova and Anna Kirzyuk documents this phenomenon. Entitled Dangerous Soviet Things: Urban Legends and Fears in the USSR (in Russian; Moscow, 2020, 536 pp.), it calls attention to an aspect of Soviet popular culture which has seldom been studied.
The Polit.ru portal presents an excerpt from the book which makes three important points derived from the focus Akhipova and Kirzyuk devoted to how Russians in Soviet cities often misread or invented entirely new ideas out of the various items presented to them by the media (polit.ru/article/2021/07/03/ps_arkhipova_kirzjuk/).
First of all, they point out, urban legends were time and place specific. Many things which dominated the mental scene of Russians in this regard are now obscure and must be tracked down along with the legends themselves. Second, often urban legends gave rise to large-scale panic, influencing the population more than government propaganda did.
And third, the urban legends Russians came up with in Soviet times reflected their pre-existing fears. If they were afraid of something or hoped for something, they would find it even in the most unlikely places, something the CPSU tried to counter but only with extremely limited success.
Arkhipova and Kirzyuk give the example of what happened when a West German popular music group, Dschinghis Khan, released a song in 1979 entitled “Moscow.” The song was nothing special, the two suggest; but Russians rewrote the lyrics in their memories to suggest that the Germans planned to destroy Russia and create a new Golden Horde which would pitch its tents where the Kremlin now is.
At first the Soviet authorities felt that if they played the song more, people would learn the real lyrics and stop being so inventive. But then it turned out that the more the song appeared, the more variants Russians came up with for the lyrics and the worse the interpretation the people of the USSR put on the West German song.
Finally, the CPSU banned the song; but that only had the effect of convincing those who had come up with alternative lyrics that they were right. If they weren’t, Russians reflected, why would the Kremlin go out of its way to ban them?