The influence of Western popular culture in lesser-known regions of the Soviet Union was simultaneously covert, yet powerful. At an 18 October 2010 discussion of his book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985, author Sergei Zhuk, Associate Professor of History, Ball State University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, focused on the historical period that served as the inspiration for and subject of his work.
As a former resident of and teacher of American history in Dniepropetrovsk, Zhuk explained that the city served as an ideal location to analyze the clash between Soviet ideology and Western influence. Located in southeast Ukraine, Dniepropetrovsk served as the Soviet Union's main site of metal factories that specialized in manufacturing missiles, rockets, and aerospace machinery. Because of its military industry, Dniepropetrovsk was a "closed city"—one in which foreigners were not allowed without official permission—from 1959 until Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The government's tight grip on Dniepropetrovsk allowed Soviet officials to track the import and export of all products, including those intended for cultural consumption. By regulating what exposure to Western culture the city's population could have, the Soviet government attempted to manipulate the mindset of the populace.
As a result of being a closed city, Zhuk concluded, Dniepropetrovsk represented a duality in the Soviet mindset: it exemplified how the population actually received its minimal exposure to Western culture differed greatly from the Soviet government actually expected. The popularity Western culture enjoyed in the city made the Soviet regime nervous; by controlling the flow of information, the Soviets decided to use Dniepropetrovsk as, in Zhuk's words, a "testing ground for many KGB-sponsored ideological campaigns." Furthermore, by implementing directives from Moscow related to cultural consumption, the Soviet government attempted to regulate how residents of the closed city understood the West – and, in turn, how they understood their own identity.
The cultural exposure Dniepropetrovsk did experience, however, did not generate the result the Soviet government anticipated. While the population did covet Western cultural entities, they were not used as means to challenge the regime's authority; rather, Dniepropetrovsk residents used their few examples of Western culture to understand their own identity. The environment present in the closed city prompted cultural consumers to find their preexisting Soviet identity in examples from the West. This, Zhuk explained, allowed Ukrainians to bring "fresh air to Soviet nationalism" in their construction of self-identity through the lens of Western cultural influences.
Further, the popularity of various forms of Western culture – specifically rock and roll –had a lasting impact on the economic and power dynamics in the Dniepropetrovsk region. As the demand for rock and roll grew, the market for selling Western music quickly became a lucrative business opportunity. Those who controlled the flow of cultural information into the closed city – Soviet officials – easily increased their personal wealth by participating in the business of selling rock and roll to residents. By the time the Soviet government relaxed the regulations on Western popular music, these young entrepreneurs had gained notable wealth and influence that allowed them to become prominent leaders in the Dniepropetrovsk region and national politics. Ultimately, Zhuk concluded that the enthusiasm with which citizens of such "forgotten regions" molded their self-perception helped forge post-Soviet Ukrainian national identity.
Copies of Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985 are available for purchase through the Woodrow Wilson Center Press website.
By Amy Shannon Liedy
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute
- Associate Professor, Department of History, Ball State University,