Re-Branding Soviet-Jewish Nostalgia—Jewish Culture That Never Was

Dec 4, 2014 by

A few weeks ago, I attended a most interesting talk by Prof. Anna Shternshis of University of Toronto, who presented her research on the ways that elements of Jewish culture are re-branded and marketed in today’s Russia. This post (especially its second half) is inspired by, and largely based on, Prof. Shternshis’ lecture.

Life in the USSR was lacking in political freedoms and many material comforts, yet many people today look back at the Soviet period with a certain nostalgia. A recent article by Anna Narinskaya discusses “ten ways that modern Russian culture is repackaging, glorifying and, far more rarely, criticizing the days of the USSR”. According to Narinskaya, Russian authorities

“tend to play on the idea that “we used to have a great country” (we were feared and respected by other countries, we influenced world politics, and so on), while society leans more toward the idea that “we had a golden age” (everything was cheap, there was no social stratification, life was much easier to plan).”

These two ways of glamorizing the Soviet past are “expressed and interpreted — with varying degrees and angles — in state-sponsored cultural projects, in the works of individual artists and in mass culture”. Marketing specialists in Russia have relied on this embellished collective memory to sell their products. In the socialist redistribution economy there was no room for competition among producers, so as Narinskaya puts it, “the number of existing brands coincided almost exactly with the number of available types of products. There was a joke about a Soviet store where you could buy Cheese brand cheese”. In a true story, some time in the early 1980s my father tried to inquire about the type of cheese available at a store, to which the shop girl responded with the price. When my father repeated his question, stressing the type of cheese, she seemed to fail to understand the meaning of his inquiry. There was no such thing as Parmesan, Brie, or Swiss cheese, and most certainly not five different brands of Camembert, as at my local supermarket here in Santa Clara, California, today. While this may seem extremely limiting from our Western consumerist perspective, many people who grew up in such an environment actually enjoy that one does not need to make a choice at every turn. Life seems simpler that way.


While different types of cheese were distinguished mostly by price rather than flavor, and types of shoes were discriminated based on the country of origin rather than style, some products that were “deemed worthy of having genuine brand names, and at the same time satisfied the not-very-exacting tastes of the Soviet public, lodged themselves so firmly in consumers’ memories that 20+ years after the collapse of the Soviet Union a whole range of them continue to occupy dominant positions on the shelves of supermarkets”, writes Narinskaya. Today, certain Soviet-era brands of chocolates (see image on the left), tea, alcohol, ice cream, sausage, soft drinks, and toothpaste outsell not only competing contemporary Russian brands but even famous Western brands. Incongruously, many of these Soviet-era brands are now produced by Western companies like Danone or Nestle. Ironically, Russian consumers rarely know what went into those products back in the Soviet days, when certain government standards applied to their production (there were numerous jokes back then about what went into the Soviet sausage, which would doubtlessly ruin one’s appetite today). Even less is known about the recipes used now since these standards are no longer applicable. Still, Russians continue to buy those products

“because they believe they’re “ours”, familiar, not poisoned with western genetically modified additives and dangerous toxins: “My grandmother and mother ate Bird’s Milk cake and Radium candy [this radioactive brand predates WWII]. Who knows what’s inside that Snickers bar?””


The memories of “good old days”, habit, or even patriotism make the Russians buy familiar Soviet-era brands, and marketing specialists know that. Another example is the specific reference on the label of the tea, very popular in Russia now, shown on the left: “That very same Indian tea”. Such a label would hardly make any sense in America, as different people would remember varying brands of tea from their childhoods—if they would remember any in particular. But in Russia, it is clearly the same tea as back in the days of the consumers’ youth, the only one type of tea that had a recognizable brand name at all.

While such nostalgia for the Soviet past is a common feature of contemporary Russian culture, a very peculiar brand of what Anna Shternshis calls “Soviet Jewish nostalgia” has recently become an important part of Russian mass culture. Jews, like other Soviet citizens, suffered from the political repressions and economic shortages, but due to rampant official and homegrown anti-Semitism, being Jewish in the USSR was considered by all Soviet citizens—and acutely felt by the Jews themselves—as a great misfortune. Many joke from that time, of which I reproduce two below, compared Jewishness to a crime:

A Jew fills out one of the official forms:

“Have you been a member of any party other than the Communist party?”


“Have you remained on any territory occupied by the enemy?”


“Have you been convicted or are you currently under investigation for any criminal activity?”


“Your nationality?”



They proposed a new penalty for traffic violators. For the first offense, the offender gets a hole punched in his driver’s license. For the second violation, he gets another. After the third offense, the fifth item in his passport is to be changed to “a Jew”.

Jewishness was often hidden both on the official and private levels. Another Soviet-era joke illustrates the former:

At the opening of a public concert, the master of ceremonies announces from the stage:

“The Peoples’ Friendship String Quartet is going to perform for us tonight. Let us welcome Comrade Prokopenko, Ukraine; Comrade Karapetian, Armenia; Comrade Abdurashidov, Uzbekistan; and Comrade Rabinovich, Violin.”

Privately, many Jews, especially celebrities, hid their Jewish roots by adopting non-Jewish sounding names. Today, however, many of these previously “hidden” Jews reassert their ethnic identity, and, as we shall below, even some non-Jews promote certain elements of Jewish culture, however distorted.

One example of this is the rediscovery of Jewish identity by Iosif Kobzon, the mega-star of Soviet popular culture, beloved by Leonid Brezhnev and millions of Soviet listeners. Born in 1937, unlike many other famous Soviet Jews, he kept his (Jewish-sounding) name and did not hide his Jewishness. However, he rarely publicly emphasized it either, by performing anything even slightly Jewish in origin or character. According to a Wikipedia page, Kobzon once performed some Jewish songs during an international friendship concert in 1983, but as it resulted in the Arab delegations leaving in protest, he was reprimanded for “political short sightedness” and expelled from the Communist Party. But in recent years, Kobzon has been performing several unabashedly Jewish songs, including “Hava Nagila”:

Particularly ironic is the fact that he is being accompanied by a police choir, which nearly breaks into a traditional Kleizmer-style dance towards the end of the video. Merely 25 years ago, the same police (then known as militsija) would hassle and possibly even arrest people who dared to sing the very same “Hava Nagila” in public, as I have witnessed myself.

Kobzon is not the only artist in Russia today who has rebranded himself as Jewish. The following video is of a performance in a talent competition show by another “hidden yet rediscovered” Jewish performer, Larisa Dolina. Born in 1955 in a Jewish family in Baku, her original surname is a Jewish-sounding Kudel’man. As she explains in this video, she “had to change her surname” because Kudel’man “didn’t sound nice”; her career would hardly be expected to take off if she had retained her original name. Still, in this video, Dolina claims to be proud of her Jewish heritage; yet, the presenter’s reaction to this revelation, in my opinion, exposes a certain surprise, as if one is not expected to take pride in one’s roots—or certainly not in one’s Jewish roots.

Back in the Soviet days, Dolina became a renowned jazz singer—but she never advertised her Jewish roots and did not sing Jewish music. In this show, she performs a potpourri of modernized traditional Jewish songs, including the religious prayer-song “Oseh Shalom Bimromav”, “Hava Nagila”, and “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” (another song that quarter of a century ago caused aggravation from the police if sung in public):

Also noteworthy are the producers’ reasonable attempts at reproducing traditional outfits and choreography—although at times the accompanying “corps de ballet” looks more like a caricature than an authentic depiction of Jewish shtetl characters.

Performances of traditional Jewish music and song in Russia today are not limited to Jewish artists. Another group that is immensely popular both in Russia and among Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel and North America is Turetsky’s Choir, which consists of about a dozen male singers, performing both with orchestral accompaniment and a-cappella. Mikhail Turetsky, the group’s musical director and conductor, is Jewish, but the other singers are not. The group performs a wide range of vocal music, from classical music (their vocal rendition of the orchestral “Flight of the Bumblebee”, starting around 39:30 in the video below, is marvelous!) to American musicals, from opera to patriotic Soviet songs, from Beatles to Russian folk music, and from French chanson to Jewish songs. Notably, they perform the latter not only in their concerts in Israel or for mostly Jewish audiences in the US and Canada, but also in Russia. The following video is of one of their concerts in Russia, and the relevant number begins around 40:45:

In this train-themed potpourri, the choir combines a patriotic post-revolutionary song “Nash paravoz vpered letit” (“Our train flies forward”) with several Soviet-era hits (e.g. “Na dal’nej stantsii sojdu” and the popular children’s song “Goluboj vagon”)—and with a well-known Russian-Jewish tune “Sem’ sorok” (“7:40”). The lyrics for this traditional Jewish song, written in the 19th century, are mostly Russian with some Yiddish insertions, such as אַ היץ אין פּאַראָװאָז (a hits in paravoz) literally translated as ‘heat in the locomotive’ and idiomatically meaning “nothing new”. The Soviet nostalgia aspect of this potpourri number is further emphasized by a famous poster created in 1920, during the Russian Civil War, hanging in the background.

But perhaps the ultimate in “Soviet Jewish nostalgia” is Efim Alexandrov’s show. Born in 1960 in Western Ukraine, in a family of survivors of Bershad ghetto, Alexandrov never hid his Jewish roots. He did change his Jewish-sounding surname, Zitserman, but this was almost de rigueur at the time. In his student days, Alexandrov began performing and directing at the Jewish chamber music theater. In 1993, he recorded his first musical album titled “A hits in paravoz” (for the meaning, see above), a collection of traditional Jewish tunes and some contemporary songs. Next year, the album was refashioned into a similarly titled musical concert film made in a Kiev television studio. In 2001, under the patronage of the International Charity Fund of Yuri Bashmet, Alexandrov produced a show titled “The Songs of the Jewish Shtetle”. Beyond a mere concert, this is a grandiose cultural project whose aim is to “preserve the Jewish cultural heritage” (according to the Wikipedia). A nearly two-hour long show, it consists exclusively of Yiddish songs, which, as the Wikipedia puts it,

“reflect habits and ways, language and music, the soul of the Jewish people. The attitude to parents, children, neighbours, religion, work, native home, the world around and themselves, to life and death – all this is expressed in the art of singing, and each of the Songs of Jewish Shtetle becomes a little music play.”

Alexandrov and his team conducted serious research into Yiddish culture, music, and theater; some former actors from the Moscow State Jewish Theater consulted on the project. Based on this research, several concert programs have been created, and over 150 “The Songs of Jewish Shtetle” concerts have been performed in the North America, Germany, Israel, Australia, Russia, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Yet it is hard to see these performance as purely a preservation and revival of Yiddish culture. Rather it is Jewish shtetle meets Soviet culture—meets Las Vegas! Consider, for example, the song in the following video that begins around 52:00:

The main theme of this musical number is a traditional Jewish song, but elements of Soviet culture are cleverly inserted. At one point, we hear Tchaikovsky’s famous “Little Swan Dance” from the Swan Lake ballet; not merely a well-known piece of Russian classical music, this was the piece played on all the radio and TV channels when Leonid Brezhnev and then every other elderly General Secretary passed away. Later in the number, Alexandrov inserts a few musical phrases from celebrated Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Sword Dance” from the Spartacus ballet. These musical inserts are bound to bring up the same nostalgia for the Soviet past that sells “Bird’s milk” chocolates and “That very same Indian tea”.

But there is more in Alexandrov’s shows, exemplified by the barely-clad ladies with feather headgear, much like in Las Vegas-style shows. Clearly this is a very different vision of shtetle from that of the Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn, New York or Jerusalem. This glamorized vision is not of the real shtetle, which in one interview Alexandrov characterized as “a terrible historical phenomenon: Pale of Settlement, ghettos where a Tsarist policemen could come and do whatever he wanted. Shtetle is pogroms and hunger, poverty and humiliation”. He further explains:

“What musician from a shtetle didn’t dream to play with a symphony orchestra?! He is a hero, a character that lived in a Jewish shtetle and dreamed about something great. … Our music is very deep, very interesting, very melodious, it deserves serious arrangement and a big orchestra with wonderful musicians”.

The project is, as Alexandrov calls it, “an anthem, not a requiem” for the traditional Jewish culture. But like any object of nostalgia, Alexandrov’s vision is of a shtetle that never was.

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