restricted access Cartoon Jazz: Soviet Animations and the Khrushchev “Thaw”
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Cartoon Jazz:
Soviet Animations and the Khrushchev “Thaw”

In the years following World War II, jazz held as culturally fraught a position in Soviet animation as it did in society more generally. Although Stalin reportedly liked jazz, the repertoire and performances of Soviet jazz musicians were strictly controlled and censored, as was the music’s use in film scoring. As David MacFadyen has noted, the “rhythm and movement” of animated figures in films released even before the war could be “criticized as excessively syncopated according to jazz rhythms and not those of ‘local’ emotional processes” (MacFadyen 2005:73). Jazz was understood as ideological imposition: it was not only a precariously American music but also a form of cosmopolitanism, which the Soviets interpreted “as a product of Western imperialism” (Yurchak 2005:163).

Nevertheless, jazz itself became a Soviet tool for strategic and creative responses to changes that occurred in culture and politics during the postwar period. Upon the cooling of relationships with the United States that characterized late Stalinism (the late 1940s through the early 1950s), Soviet animators used jazz to depict social corruption. Often reprobate members of Soviet society, the figures animated with jazz typically were addicted to the music and to the capitalist lifestyles associated with it, particularly the American ones.1 Jazz served as the accompaniment to and, in some cases, as an example of infectious consumerism.

Such critical readings of jazz’s deleterious effects on society held their potency even during the Khrushchev Thaw—the period of de-Stalinization famously catalyzed by Khrushchev’s “secret speech” (February 25, 1956), in which he decried Stalin’s rule by terror. If the country’s modest opening-up to the products of Western culture represented one of the outcomes of that speech, the Soviet animators’ critique of American culture actually served to reinforce the U.S.S.R.’s isolationist stance toward cosmopolitan musical exports from the West, the art form becoming, as Laura Pontieri has argued, an increasingly serious exploration of topics geared not only for children but also (and sometimes more so) for adults (Pontieri 2012:3). The greater flow of jazz into Soviet culture became, ironically, the ideal launching point for Cold War cultural criticism because Soviet audiences still perceived the music as quintessentially American.

At the same time, the greater consumption of American jazz inspired new animation aesthetics among artists working for the state-run studio Soyuzmul’tfilm, generating a tension between, on the one hand, the ideological aim of bombarding their mature audiences with the dangers that the reckless absorption of American music posed to their society and, on the other hand, the force of the art form itself upon repressive systems of thinking. This phenomenon was quickly complicated in the early 1960s, however, as cultural warfare threatened to give way to actual violence, as in the heated standoff of the Cuban Missile crisis and in the public struggles over communism in Vietnam, a complication that forced Soviet animators to shift their critique. An infatuation with jazz was now ideologically corruptive not merely to Soviet citizens (graphically symbolized through their transformation into animals) but also to Americans, who in turn threatened to spread this contagion to the rest of the world. This shift coincided with a period of increased Soviet-American cultural contact in the 1960s, most notably through the so-called “jazz ambassadors” who embarked on tours on behalf of the U.S. government (Von Eschen 2004; Davenport 2009). Soviet films countered by characterizing the music of the Americans who were physically present [End Page 24] and musically active in the Soviet Union as a systemic disease. The corpus of these critiques had become the Soviet Union’s own Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel 1956).2

This renewed demonization of the transience and contingency associated with capitalist lifestyles and politics also expressed the concerns that Party officials had with the greater social and geographic mobility of the Soviet intelligentsia itself, members of which, by this logic, had been altered by a plague that made its citizens now alien to Soviet culture. The complaint became official when, on March 8, 1963, after a prolonged harangue against “jazz music that...