One of the first items I coveted from the East Bloc was a pressing of a Beatles’ album on the Soviet state record label Melodiya. On the infrequent occasions that reports about Soviet underground culture appeared in North American media, one would often find mention of Western popular music and its role in fostering an alternative mindset to that prevailing in the Soviet mainstream. All Western artists seemed to have their acolytes in the Soviet Union and there was still a scent of danger associated with listening to this music in that context – at least that’s how it was presented to us.
The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” LP as licensed for release by Melodiya, the largest Soviet record label.
When I embarked on trip to Russia in 1996, acquiring a Melodiya pressing of a Beatles’ LP was at the top of my “to do” list. Forget the Hermitage, Red Square, the Kremlin: I need a vinyl fix. In Moscow I spent a rainy morning battling the effects of food poisoning given me by the Canadian Embassy (!) unsuccessfully trolling through the famous open air in Filovsky Park. In St. Petersburg, we were able to connect with a young film student who offered walking tours of the city and I enlisted him in my quest.
Off the Map and Underground: Western Music in Soviet Siberia
Peter confirmed that Western pop/rock music had indeed been an important part of escaping the realities of everyday life in the Soviet Union and told me how he and some friends gained entry to an informal group of music fans in his Siberian hometown of Samara (a key centre in the Soviet military-industrial complex which appeared on none of their maps). I remember a story of him taking a streetcar out to the end of the line one Saturday morning and then trudging out to find a cluster of garages where a group of music fans supposedly met. Read More
This week’s post picks up where I left off last week and examines the contents of a pair of house books I’ve acquired for two different apartment blocks in the Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s remarkable the way in which a number of facets of GDR history can be gleaned from the entries found in each of these documents . . .
Christburger Strasse 28
- The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper
The house book for Christburger Strasse 28 was started on June 12, 1959 by tenant Käthe Gipson and kept by her through to November 1, 1983. Wrapped in brown kraft paper, its cover was updated at some point as the GDR emblem found here has been pasted on, presumably overtop of the original state emblem which appeared on those house books issued in the early 1950s. It includes a few pages of entries for permanent residents of the address at the front of the book and separate sections for both foreign and GDR visitors. From the markings, it appears that the local Community Police Officer monitored the book on a regular basis through to 1967, but there is nothing to suggest that the book was controlled at any point after this. Despite this, however, Mrs. Gipson continued to fill it out conscientiously including all the details called for by law. Read More
House book for Christburger Strasse 28 in its protective kraft paper cover
Cover of house book for Christburger Strasse 28: note now state emblem has been updated after the original one was phased out
House book for Kollwitzstrasse 71
Recently a friend loaned me copy of German historian Karl Schlögel’s excellent book Moscow (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), the English-translation of Moscow lesen: Die Stadt als Buch (Reading Moscow: The City as Book), a work which originally appeared in 1984. In it, Schlögel used his explorations of the Soviet capital during a visit in the early 80s both as a jumping off point for a number of fascinating essays. Schlögel is a fine writer, and while this book includes excellent pieces on Russian architectural, political and social history, it is most satisfying when the author indulges his interest in the stuff of everyday life such as the signage on Soviet government buildings, second-hand bookshops, post offices and factories. Since I share his interest in such seemingly tangential matters, I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions, but it was a passage on his methodology that resonated most clearly with me. Because it is germane to what I am trying to do with this blog, I quote him here:
“I think that since every detail has a historical dimension, being a product of its own time and bound up with its own time, it is in principle a valid document, a readable letter or even a syllable in the great text that we call history. Every age has its own signature, its own bearing, its own manner, be it flamboyant or restrained. As we know, the reading of old texts enhances our ability to find our way into a period, to gain a degree of intimacy with it. The details are given, they are deposits of stone, marble or iron . . . The text is written. We can not change anything about it. All we can do is approach it with due respect.” (pg. 291)
Amen to that, Karl.
Feeling validated, I turn my attentions to this week’s items of East German ephemera, two “house books” which testify about the society of their origin in a most informative way.