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Politics, Community, and Entertainment: The Reception of Soviet Guitar Poetry in Poland

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ABSTRACT: Soviet guitar poetry (avtorskaia pesnia) enjoyed popularity in communist-era Poland, with Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotskii as the most famous singers-songwriters. This article, based on a series of oral history interviews, explores why Poles listened to this genre of music and what meanings they ascribed to it. I analyse the relationship between guitar poetry (listened to in non-official contexts) and – respectively – politics, community building, and entertainment. The position of guitar poetry on the spectrum of official versus oppositional art was ambiguous, placing the genre in a “grey area” between the two. Furthermore, this position shifted depending on who listened to the songs and in what circumstances. Performing and listening to guitar poetry could be imagined – and indeed deployed – as a gesture of anti-establishment resistance (as discussed in this article), but also as a morally acceptable form of compliance with the authorities (as shown by other researchers). This flexibility made guitar poetry particularly attractive to a wide spectrum of people with anti-establishment views – from those engaged in active resistance to “armchair dissidents”. A specific characteristic of Soviet guitar poetry was its foreignness, which on occasion made the lyrics, style, and references incomprehensible to Polish speakers. This sometimes discouraged Polish audiences. At other times, however, this very ambiguity meant that even if the lyrics were in no way anti-establishment, the performers, songs, and objects associated with them (such as cassette tapes and vinyl records) could be imagined as and turned into what I call “tokens of resistance”, constituting “symbolic defiance” (after James Scott). While many young Poles engaged with Soviet guitar poetry without any political agenda whatsoever, the forms of socialising and artistic expression that the genre encouraged were often parallel – if not contrary – to the forms promoted by the authorities. In Poland’s authoritarian context, engaging in such alternative activities could be interpreted as passive resistance, even if this was not what the participants intended.

Keywords: Vysotskii – Okudzhava – Poland – dissent – protest song – tokens of resistance



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Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

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Franz Steiner Verlag

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