Soviets Pursue an American Dream : Trends: Once cursed in the Soviet Union, U.S. pop culture--from ‘Tarzan’ to rap--is where it’s at.


Every Sunday night, as many as 180 million Soviet television viewers--children and adults--tune in Walt Disney’s cartoons. From Odessa to Vladivostok, teen-agers switch on their radios each week to hear the U.S. Top 20 counted down by a disc jockey from Wyoming who speaks fluent, if accented, Russian. And up to 70% of the films showing in Moscow movie theaters are from Hollywood.

American pop culture has taken the Soviet Union by storm.

“With the advent of perestroika, the influence of American culture grew immensely,” says Dmitry M. Urnov, editor-in-chief of the journal Voprosy Literatury and a specialist in U.S. literature and culture. “The same top officials who used to curse American mass culture now welcome it with open arms.” In the Cold War era, Soviet officials tried to prevent citizens

from being exposed to what they contended was the West’s hedonistic capitalist culture. And they suppressed everything from rock ‘n’ roll to sex and violence in movies or literature.


So when President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms made available the forbidden fruits of contemporary music, films, books and fashions, U.S. mass culture rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Now, as Gorbachev meets with President Bush in another U.S.-Soviet summit, Urnov laments: “In the center of Moscow, over the head of the statue of our greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, is a huge Coca-Cola sign. Russia’s greatest cultural father is doomed to stare straight at McDonald’s.

“And by the look on Pushkin’s face these days,” he sighs, “it seems he’s considering whether to take his place in the long queue leading to the restaurant.”

But instead of adopting everything that is popular now in the United States, Soviet fads draw on American trends over the last 40 years, effectively telescoping the decades into a single moment.

“We are doomed to be anachronistic,” Urnov says. “We are doomed to take things from many different periods simultaneously. We are living today simultaneously in America’s ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s.”

Rock’s founding fathers, like Elvis Presley, are as popular as the heavy metal groups Bon Jovi and AC/DC. Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” and Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” are the two books most in demand, according to Urnov. James Dean dress-alikes abound, as do Madonna wanna-bes.


The Arbat, Moscow’s pedestrian walkway and a favorite spot for street peddlers, is a veritable showcase of Americana. Many peddlers wear baseball hats, T-shirts and sweat shirts with logos of U.S. sports teams, universities or even the U.S. flag. Teen-age girls with long, stringy hair and hippie-style clothes eat Baskin-Robbins ice cream as they stroll the mall. A Dixieland band plays tunes as Soviet couples dressed in Levi’s or fluorescent warm-up suits wander by.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Nikolai A. Buyanov strutted down the middle of the Arbat wearing tight jeans, a black muscle shirt and yellow tinted wraparound sunglasses. His leather jacket was slung over his shoulder.

“Elvis is my idol,” says Buyanov, 45, whose long curly hair is streaked with gray. A bakery technician in the small city of Shuya, about 200 miles from Moscow, Buyanov sees Presley as a rebel.

“I’m trying to dress like him because he thought for himself,” Buyanov says. “He always did what he wanted to do, no matter what the authorities said. When I was young and these clothes were in fashion in America, the police would give us hell if we dressed like this.”

But now, Buyanov said, “with my clothes, I want to show the independence of Russian people from the socialist ideology of our Communist Party bosses. It’s my protest over the stinking system that made us all dress the same.”

“The idea of protest is very important in determining what is popular,” Urnov notes. “Anything will be picked up if it contains seeds of discontent.”


But even the official view of the United States, as presented by newscasters on state television and reporters for government newspapers, has flip-flopped. As recently as five years ago, the America seen here was a frightening place of the homeless, jobless, drug-addicted victims of ruthless capitalists.

These days, the America on Soviet television consists of supermarkets packed with food and people living the good life.

“If before we had anti-American propaganda--and only anti-American propaganda--now we have pro-American propaganda, and only pro-American propaganda,” Urnov says. “What is disgusting is that it comes from the same people. Before, commentators would dress head to toe in American clothes and tell the people how horrible everything is in the United States. Now the same commentator talks about how pleasant and beautiful life is in the ‘civilized’ world.

“They’re just fabricating a new false image,” he concludes.

Television, which reaches most of the Soviet Union’s 290 million people, has played a major role in dispersing American culture to almost every remote village in the country’s 15 republics, as well as to the big cities.

The hourlong Walt Disney show is by far the most watched. For a year, the program featured “Duck Tales.” Now, Soviets tune in weekly to watch the antics of “Chip ‘n’ Dale.”

Four-year-old Andrusha Ostroukh has watched the program faithfully since it went on the air. “He can’t hear anything when it’s on,” his mother, Irina, says. “He lives in these films. For a few weeks, he even thought he was one of the little ducks in ‘Duck Tales.’ ”


Earlier this summer, the once wildly popular series “Dallas” made a big splash when state television broadcast it for six days straight. Even grandmothers abandoned their usual spots on benches outside their apartment blocks to get a glimpse into the lives of Texas millionaires.

“I would watch it every day if it was on TV,” says Igor S. Zablyudin, a 30-year-old salesman. “Our television producers don’t do that type of show well. We were really wowed by their lifestyles.”

NBA basketball, sermons by evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and “Adam Smith’s Money World,” a longtime staple on U.S. public television, have been regular features on nationwide Soviet television this year. MTV music videos are broadcast once a week, and American jazz performances are frequently aired.

“We broadcast so much American television that we don’t even notice that it’s American television anymore,” says Viktor I. Oskolkov, head of programming for the State Television and Radio Co.

And not only modern American TV shows attract audiences, he adds. Even films from the early days of Hollywood, like “Tarzan,” are widely enjoyed.

“We missed a few decades of American movies, so everything is interesting to us,” Oskolkov says. “We’re not worried about Americanization like the Italians and the French. We welcome it.”


Movie theaters and video clubs offer more American films than those made by their own studios. Favorites are action films like “Rocky” and “Rambo,” as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger movies--prime targets of official criticism a few years ago.

Radio is further spreading U.S. mass culture. “ ‘The American Top 20’ is probably the most popular show on radio,” says Nellie Alikperova, director of music programming for the two state stations. “Last year it got more than 130,000 letters. No other show gets nearly that much.”

Without audience surveys, it is impossible to know how many people listen to the program, which has been on the air for more than a year.

“American music is very popular here, and we did not have much of it on the radio before,” Alikperova says. “We don’t have records on sale in our stores, so this is a great source of information on new music for our youth.”

Many of the high school and college-age listeners who write letters to Clayton Simons, the American deejay on the show, say they tape “The American Top 20” every week.

“I’ve been listening to your program for almost a year already,” Valeriya Butorina wrote from the Siberian coal-mining city of Novkuznetsk. “These hot hits lift my spirits. . . . I put the radio on the highest volume and dance all day long.”


American music also has strongly influenced Soviet rock, giving birth here to bubble gum pop, heavy metal and even rap groups.

Advertising, perhaps the quintessential American art form, is another key part of the cultural invasion.

Moscow’s city buses sport huge ads for Colgate toothpaste and other American products--which, incidentally, cannot be bought in Soviet stores. A mechanized Pepsi sign looms a stone’s throw from the Kremlin wall, and splices of American television ads are used in rock videos and as jazzy introductions to Soviet variety programs.

Back on the Arbat, 22-year-old Nikolai Baranov sells Russian souvenirs to tourists--but he looks more like an advertisement for America. With short-cropped blond hair, a U.S. flag bandanna around his neck, black Levi 501 jeans and Reebok high-tops, Baranov could fit in on any Midwestern college campus.

“I have an American flag above my bed,” says Baranov. “I like everything American--American philosophy of life, American politics, the American work ethic. Maybe it’s because that’s where I really want to go.”