Grigory Libergal (film & popular culture), 1992

Grigory Libergal, Moscow 1992 (?) with his friend, Victor Sumsky
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

MS: Did you try to bootleg records — make tapes of tapes?

Libergal: No. Although it’s a bit tricky. There were no legal rock records here at that time, although Russia didn’t join the Berne convention on the copyright until 1973, in what relates to printed matter and to mechanical rights, which the gramophone records are under, but we simply did not press any music of that kind here. They had a very small amount of imprints from the so-called socialist countries — for instance from Eastern Germany, from Poland, from Hungary — but with the local products. So if you were lucky, by standing 4 or 5 hours in a line you could buy a recording of a Polish group, but only if you were lucky. Three times or 4 times the price and to buy it on the black market. But Western recordings were absolutely out of the question. There were none.

MS: If somebody brought one in, it wouldn’t be confiscated or anything?

Libergal: You know, people had many problems of that kind, but the situation changed from day to day. Today they didn’t allow to bring in more than five. Tomorrow you could bring in 10 but you should pay a custom fee before. This day it might be small, the next day enormous. In a month’s time it was impossible to bring anything in. Then another period of leniency and you could bring as much as you want.

MS: It sounds as confusing as today.

Libergal: Exactly. It’s a very old Russian custom.

MS: I think the thing that shook me us the other day was discovering that foreigners who live here are now supposed to pay 60% of their world income as tax to Russia. It think it would produce quite an exodus if people took that seriously.

Libergal: No, I don’t think it would ever be implemented. Nothing has changed, in essence, here. Only the appearances.

MS: On the one hand I certainly applaud your daring in producing music from Western sources, but at the same time I am troubled by the fact that when I am in a taxi, the only music I hear is American rock music. And that is not just here. I travel a good bit and it is in every part of the world I have visited. I don’t know why it’s true. I am also disturbed by the fact that they have the corner on the whole world marked in television programming — re-runs of old television sitcoms and films produced in the U.S.

Libergal: Television here is still very much nationalist here. I don’t think the market share of American-made programs is more than 5 or 6 % here at the moment, counting all the five main channels. But the radio situation is exactly as you describe it, but it’s another extreme. In 1970 when I started, you could maybe listen to one program once a week for 45 minutes, and could count on hearing on this program 4 or 5 programs by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez.

MS: All protest music?

Libergal: Yes, and it could be one week American protest songs, but without Dylan, without Ochs.

MS: Dylan was not …

Sumski: Not intellectual stuff.

Libergal: No. No! Only very straight, very left wing, preferably linked up with the the left political, this old tradition of masses and mainstream, the continuation of all that in the sixties.

MS: I wasn’t aware that Joan Baez had such politics.

Libergal: Yes, her repertoire that she sang at that time, before she was wooed Dylan into the new protest music, she mostly sang all this hootenanny stuff which was, under Pete Seeger, very politicized, left wing. She mostly sang songs from the Spanish Civil War, Cuban songs of that revolution, all this syndicated songs, you know —

MS: Unions.

Libergal: Yes, unions. All left wing, you know. So the only thing you could listen to.

MS: I began listening to Joan Baez just with respect to the anti-Vietnam War —

Libergal: No, She was better known here than she was in America, I would say, proportionately, because she was the only American singer you could hear.

Sumsky: That all changed once she changed her mind on the boat people. She started singing about Natalia Gorbanevskaya and all that [233]

Libergal: Yes. I met Baez when she was here in 1982. Before that, before ’79, before Afghanistan, she was something like Angela Davis in the Russian press, on Russian radio. Each mentioning of Baez was accompanied by epithets like “great,” “wonderful,” “best artist we know,” etc. etc. etc. From 1979 there was no such singer. ______ She came here and wasn’t allowed to play, she wasn’t allowed to sing. Then she went to visit Okudzhava and Vosnezhensky. And three days later she went away.

MS: I don’t know that first name you used.

Libergal: Bulat Okudzhava is a very well-known Russian poet, writer, but most of all a singer, song-writer, which started it all here in 1957. He was like a father figure and still is, to all the Russian protest movement, folk rock, modern urban romance music, etc. etc.

Sumsky: Gypsy music and rag.

Libergal: He was the source of inspiration for Galich, Vysotsky, and [290 _____________] and the younger guys and even Victor [Tsoy?____]. He had nothing to do with all this folk rock stuff. No, rock wasn’t there. It was purely urban folk.

Sumsky: ________________________ [300]. ___ I mean, his personal impression of himself was —

Libergal: No. Absolutely.

mS: I don’t know what to ask to get you to fill me in because this is an area that I don’t know anything about at all. I know Vysotsky a little, but I don’t speak Russian. I had the impression that there were numbers of people in the artistic community who were quasi-dissident, though able to be accept. Vosnyzhynsky. But please forgive my ignorance.

Libergal: The point is that you would be considered a dissident for many reasons. For instance, if you write your poems not in the traditional, approved way, with a different rhythmic patterns, you are a dissident. If you are writing in traditional rhythmic patterns but deviate from an optimistic view of the society and evolution, even in some small way, you can be considered dissident. Case of Yevtushenko. There are some very strange times when you were considered dissident if you were under 30 and writing poems. Case of _________________ [359], who was pro-Komsomol, party line, very optimistic, but he was together with _______ and Yevtushenko, Okujava, on the same parties, on the same political concerts, on the same recitals, so he was also considered —just a small bit — dissident. The same thing with music. You would be considered dissident if you sang lyrics that were not considered appropriate, or accompanied on guitar — you understand? All the shades of how the society looks at you was sometimes extremely tricky to any normal observer. It was crazy.

Sumsky: Even when you take your patriotism a little too seriously. Not exactly reliable.

MS: I see. And was he?

Libergal: Yes, he was serious, I think, because of his evolution in the sixties and the seventies.

MS: What happened to him?

Libergal: He became an official anchor man for the documentary film programs on TV, an official poet for the Komsomol. He became the lyric writer of all the official youthful songs, the ones that big choirs sang, the ones that you could only hear on the radio until midnight, nothing else.

Sumsky: One thing about him, you never had the impression that he sold himself out. He always looked as if he does it ________. This was one good thing about him by the judgment of all those people who were using him.

Libergal: Exactly.

MS: Okay, and what’s he doing now?

Sumsky: Nothing, it seems.

Libergal: I have heard nothing about him.

Sumsky: I’m afraid he is terribly disillusioned now. He never goes on air. You never see him to TV.

MS: He wasn’t canned or anything? Maybe they had enough of things like that and they’d rather see somebody who —

Libergal: Again, it’s not so simple now. I repeat that nothing has changed. And when you say “people” you should understand that we are talking about very different stratas of society, that there are no “people” as such. And there never was and now there are very different people. For instance, some ______ patriotic Nazi poets are extremely popular there, like gods, but only because of the political context of their writing and singing. And there are other people who would not come to them with a ten-inch rod, you know.

MS: Tell me a little about that nationalistic stuff. I had dinner last night with Tair Tairov, who used to be with the World Peace Council about ten years ago, or quite a while back, and quit and actually blew the whistle on the World Peace Council in terms of funding, so he is persona non grata in certain circles. But right now he is preoccupied, more than anything else, with the rise of fascism in certain places, including parliament. He is worried about the red-brown coalition about about the fact that a lot is allowed. People are allowed to publish things saying that Hitler was right, he says.

Libergal: Absolutely.

MS: Nobody does anything like bring them to court.

Libergal: There were only two precedents, I think, of trying to bring those people to court. The first was the Oshtashina [???_ 478__] case, and he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The second one was when someone like ____ [Mylinski?] who wanted to get the [Teres Garcia? 487______] paper, ____ Daily, to publish their [comments?____]. But because of an offence, they published an offence of _____ personally on the grounds of his Jewish origins. But those are two cases I know of, while the precedents are millions.

MS: Does that worry you?

Sumsky: There was a scandal I think also when the Journal of Military History published an excerpt of Mein Kampf.

Libergal: Now it’s published in full. Yes it does.

MS: Well, I can see, depending on the nature of the journal and the purpose— if it had never been published I could see there might be some reason for somebody to want to read it, but I wouldn’t publish it on the front page of Izvestia.

Sumsky: The problem is—

Libergal: The context —

Sumsky: And also the selection of certain passages. I have never seen the publication but I presume that it has some connotation to what is happening here and provokes some very tricky associations.

MS: So that seems to have been their intention?

Libergal: Exactly.

Sumsky: And also this is an isolated case so maybe you can just let it go and let it lag. But if you put it in context and if you bring in these things which Grigory was mentioning, the picture looks slightly different.

Libergal: They have quite a lot of publications. They have at least three national dailies.

Sumsky: There is an absolutely scandalous paper which is called “Dien” [526] — “Day”. This is the stuff you should have read if you knew Russian.

Libergal: Yes, it is something like ____________ [529].

Sumsky: But the problem is that it is published by people with some sort of reputation, writers and journalists, who have some sort of professionalism, but write absolutely terrible things. If you go to the Lenin Museum, you can see a group of people standing there—

MS: Yes, I have seen them. Anyway, I drew you off track. Tell me a little about this music that they are playing, the fascist.

Sumsky: I would not say that they have some special style or genre, no. It is simply that the lyrics of our artists are, shall we say, thought-provoking in a very specific way, mentioning Jews as the source of all troubles for Russia, or maybe the democrats as the bad guys. Kill all democrats and Russia will arise. And the Orthodox cross, you know. The people will be united, etc. etc. etc. So when we speak about this folk situation, the situation we mentioned in the sixties, seventies, beginning of the eighties, it must also remember that maybe in appearances only, there was a semblance of one people which had preferences, likes, dislikes, etc. No, it never was.

MS: These people were all hidden under the rocks, and they just crawled out.

Libergal: Exactly. It all was there — all the things that now are in the open.

MS: I sometimes have the feeling that it was a society that got put in the freezer for 70 years and then all the issues — well, for example, anti-Semitism was certainly in the West but somehow I don’t think it has the same reality right now as a threat in the West. I don’t think.

Libergal: Exactly. Anti-Semitism wasn’t a physical threat in post-war Russia, for instance, but it was the way of life in that you couldn’t get education, you couldn’t have a career, but it wasn’t a physical threat to your physical existence, while in prewar Russia it could have been a threat to your physical existence even in the twenties, despite the fact that half the politburo at that time was Jewish. But I do not have an impression that this country was frozen for seventy years. No, I have an impression that it was frozen for 500 years. (We laugh.)

MS: I went to the opera the other night and saw A Life of the Tsar, and the climax just turned me off. I am not what you’d call a devout anything. I think I’m religious but it doesn’t show. And I came away from that feeling that if I had been trying to create social change in 1917 or thereabout, certainly I would have said I was an atheist. The close association between religion and the monarchy just shocked me and disgusted me. I felt that at the end of the opera the whole point was to get this guy crowned.

Libergal: yes, that this is exactly the version of this opera as when it was first produced in the late 1860s, but for 70 years it was produced in a totally different approach, where all this finale grande was not so much a time for church and Tsar but a time for common people and the idea of a united country.

MS: But they didn’t have a guy running in with a red flag, did they?

Sumsky: It was one step from that! That was the only thing they lacked.

MS: Okay. But I did get the feeling that I understood something that I hadn’t grasped before — the extent of identification between religion and the monarchy.

Libergal: It was two faces of the same thing. Actually, one of the three faces of state, bureaucracy, church. You know, they never have revolutions in countries where everything is fine.

MS: I suppose. Yeah. A friend told me that the chorus at the end was used for the inauguration of Yeltsin.

Sumsky: Yes. It is the new hymn of Russia.

Libergal: Yes, the new national anthem.

MS: Oh!

Libergal: But you must understand that Yeltsin should take into account all these levels of the moods and aspirations, the different types the population has. He has sometimes to turn his face toward those people; there are many of them.

MS: I was actually here last year but, as at present, I knew less about what was going on in Moscow than I do in Toronto, where at least there I get Moscow News and CNN, and here there’s nothing.

Libergal: CNN? There is one in the next room.

MS: Okay, but we don’t have it where I am staying.I was here when Yeltsin was inaugurated, but I understand that the church blessed him in some way. What was that like?

Libergal: It was a solemn service in which the Russian patriarch of the Orthodox Church came into the White House where it was all held, put the cross, and blessed Yeltsin.

MS: Yeltsin hasn’t changed to be a Christian?

Libergal: No.

MS: But he doesn’t take exception to it when anybody blesses him.

Libergal: No, it’s a very strange situation when people, all the media, are trying to promote this official Christianity just exactly to the same amount that they tried to disgrace it in previous years.

MS: It’s all Russian Orthodox?

Libergal: No, some other churches emerge. Some of them existed before, in the forties and fifties, but they were extremely small and were taken on a very tight leash. Now they are freer and they have some rebellious groups, you might say? Because there is a big dissent inside the Russian Orthodox Church.

MS: I didn’t know that.

Sumsky: It’s not very influential.

Libergal: No, but it is gaining strength.

Sumsky: It is sort of ecumenical — people who support things that are coming closer together with Rome. A dialogue with the Catholics.

Libergal: Also, a movement that accuses the Orthodox Church of being the agents of the KGB, paid party members, all the time etc. So it is a bit of power play.

MS: Well, whether or not you can prove that they were KGB agents, they certainly were not outstanding in defending the undertrodden.

Sumsky: By the way, have you seen Yeltsin’s visit to Berettia? There was a moment when he visited a very famous [Buddhist?} monastery.

Tape runs out here before being turned over. Sumsky tells about how Yeltsin genuflects properly in a Buddhist setting and how eventually we will include that in the array of liturgical displays that are to be made.

Then I talk about the report of Bob Williams on visiting the burgeoning Baptists, with their lack of theological sophistication.

MS: He was dismayed by the theological lack of sophistication, but he says it is a booming business.

Libergal: yes, now it is. You have theological literature in abundance, but how can there be enough sophistication in religious matters when you cannot have even a Bible to read? It was unattainable 2 or 3 years ago.

Sumsky: Even today, for some of us.

MS: Okay, I’ll buy some Bibles and see if I can smuggle them in. (Joking.) Tell me about Illuzion.

Libergal: Illuzion was also regarded as a dissident centre because before 1966 there was no outlet in the city where you could see any Western films except for those 5 or 10 per year which were in general release in all theatres. But with the opening of Illuzion, you could have seen, oh, many pre-war Hollywood films, old silent German masterpieces, old Russian films by Eisenstein, [Pudofkin?_ 69] a prerevolutionary classic, and some new stuff because there were some retrospectives — films by Bergman, Fellini, [Azurini?___81], Bunuel, etc. etc. So it was always full, 6 screenings a day and never a ticket at the boxoffice. So people were absorbing that kind of culture — many different cultures. Illuzion showed trash, pulp, B-grade, even Z-grade Hollywood movies, alongside with really brilliant works, which were food for thought.

Sumsky: Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance.

Libergal. It was very gratifying because you could see immediately the results of your work. You don’t have applause in the movie theatres — only on the occasion you have some critics or artists there. you shouldn’t applaud, but in Illuzion it was very frequent. And even now, when all the Cinemas are doing rather badly at the moment here now it is —-

MS: When did it start?

Libergal: In 1966.

MS: What was your role there? The first two years I was “young scientific researcher.”

Sumsky: The role is “research fellow” on a minor scale. Not the sort of deep research.

MS: We don’t have anything like this is our movie theatres.

Libergal: This is something special. Illuzion is a branch, a department of the National Film Archive, which is a scientific organization — an institute of some kind, and that have not very big but good research centres there — three — and people at Illuzion formed the fourth one, so this junior research workers is actually the title any student who had received his diploma at the institute gets when he does his work.

MS: So were you doing analyses of films?

Libergal: Right, I was forming programs, I was making catalogs, I was making filmographies, writing the introductory lectures, delivering these lectures, etc. but also I translated because the bulk of the films were never in Russian general release and because of that they are not in Russian dubbing or Russian subtitles. They are in their original English and you have to translate them simultaneously for the people there.

MS: Victor says you have a special translating technique or that he was impressed by your translations.

SumskY: I was just speaking about your translation style. It was always very polished and very —

MS: But that is individual. We do not have a school of that kind, so it’s —

Sumsky: He was my school.

MS: I’m interested in how all this affected political culture. And also I have another interest. I had some sense of what the discourse was among certain parts of the dissident community. I want to fill that in a lot more, but I also have some sense of the decisions that were made by politicians on such questions as military policy, nonintervention in foreign countries, democratization, attitude toward the United Nations, etc. I can see these two sets of conversations going on but I can’t find people who bridge them. If there are people in between who had a foot in both camps, or friends in both networks, they may have been links between those networks. Those friendships are particularly interesting to me.

Libergal: I cannot be an authority on that subject because in the circles where I was in the sixties and seventies and even eighties, there was no active interest in politics. The sense was: you can do nothing, so better leave it alone. As for the level of dissent, some people were going into active dissent. There were in absolute numbers quite a lot of them, but in relative numbers this was only a small fraction of one percent. So in that sense I also cannot help because I never knew those people who were leading the dissent.

Sumsky: Oh, on the first question, let me give an example. Let’s take Taganka, which by itself was never influential in real politics. But there was another aspect of it — people in power took interest in Taganka and some of the liberals in political circles. Well, I will just give one example: Delusin, the assistant to Andopov and his major China specialist, was part of what Taganka called their “big artistic council” and he was having a close relationship with Lyubimov and in that circle there was quite a number of people like that, who were a sort of protection for the theatre when it was in trouble. Or I think that in that sense Illuzion also had its role because people were coming and seeing all that stuff. I am not saying they were bringing any direct influence, but their mind was —

Libergal: Yes, I can see what you mean but in that case, you can say the same thing about anything. For example, about the time when Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was published. All the cultural institutions which were exhibiting something which transcended the very tight orders of what was officially permitted and presented by the national press, national book publishing, national screen releases, and national TV, everything which went outside this circle actually formed a new mentality. That’s obvious. And in Illuzion very many people of high rank, people prominent in politics, in culture, in arts, they were the patrons for our theatre and many of them still are, but now video has changed the situation a bit and God only knows what they acquired there in the way of making their views change.

MS: Why don’t you give me the names of these people. This person who was Andropov’s —

Sumsky: Deliusin. He is still available and you can talk to him. He is with Bogolomov’s institute. Just one more other thing before you start calling names. Sometimes places like Taganka also had their interest on higher political spheres because they were always pressed by the Minister of Culture. In order to have a kind of protection they had to bypass it — to go to a higher level because when the Ministry was having something against them they could rely on their friends. There was some sort of movement the other way around too.

Libergal: But it was very different with Illuzion. The situation that you described just now, in a ____ way it related—

Sumsky: Tarkovsky.

Libergal: Yes, Tarkovsky, he was in Illuzion very frequently. It related more to the production of new films, which were considered or which may become dangerous, and all this power play in high circles was centred around the new films. Illuzion was considered a small operation, an outlet for film historians, for those crazy people who were interested in old stuff — why bother?

Sumsky: —- the point of showing movies to them? Somethings bringing that stuff —

Libergal: Exactly! But how can you evaluate it? What did Tarkovsky take from Illuzion? Because he was most influenced by Kenji Mizoguchi, a great Japanese film director, who had become his mentor, although they had never met and Dzaguchi died in the 1950s, and Tarkovsky was simply flabbergasted by his films. So, yes, I can see the influence of Mizoguchi on Tarkovsky’s mind, in his structure.

MS: I don’t know who Tarkovsky is. How do you spell it?

Libergal: Tarkovsky. He is absolutely the best film maker in the world after the second World War. He is much more important than Bergman, Fellini. He is extremely highly respected. He is dead for six years now. He is considered to be the Number One film maker of the second half of this century.

MS: Well, that shows you where I’ve been — in the library.

Libergal: Yes but even in the library —

MS: I could have known who Tarkovsky is.

Libergal: He has had some four or five dozen monographs devoted to him, one of which is published by Toronto University Press. It is a compilation of his articles, speeches, lectures, and there is also an English translation of the script of The Stockyard.

MS: Can you give me a sense of what he was about?

Libergal: It is very difficult. He ____ rather fluently although he made only seven films in all. In some way it was an evolution which the country’s mentality followed. He simply preceded it. In 1962 he made a film called Ivan’s Childhood: Memories of War. Very strangely produced, very diabolic, I would say, in its image system. Then he made Andrei Rublev, which you must surely have heard of.

MS: I go to one film a year, read a novel every three years and a poem every ten years. So you see — but I will do my homework after I go home.

Libergal: You can see his films there commercially. Everything he has ever done is — you can get cassettes in a boxed set. But all the time he made his films he was considered extremely dissident, all the time there were problems. And although for his first film he won a Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival, which was the first time in the history of Russian cinema, which should have added some weight to his position here, nevertheless, from film to film there were an abundance of problems. His films were cut. They made life very difficult for him.

MS: What did they see in his films that put them off so much? Was it overtly critical?

Libergal: No, I would say freedom of expression, freedom of thought.

Sumsky: Like what you said about the three poets — like Vosnysensky, he was applying the wrong style, like Yevtushenko he was too gloomy and like ___ he was a genuine patriot. (We laugh.)

Libergal: He was too original. He never wanted to compromise, although he had to, to make his films shown. For instance, with Andrei Rublev [The Passion According to Andrei] which was made in 1967, which won the Cannes prize the same year, which was in general release worldwide the same year, from a pirated print because the USSR didn’t want to sell it outside the country and they didn’t release it here. it was a typical film from the shelf, as they call it.

MS: They didn’t release it here? So the average citizen never saw his work?

Libergal: Actually, it was released three years later in a modified version but Tarkovsky declined to make changes and the film laid for three years on a shelf. Then he made Andrei Rublev; then he made Stalker; then he emigrated and his two last films were made in Italy and Sweden respectively. He died in Paris.

MS: So, relative to the most popular Russian films, what proportion of the population would have seen any of his films?

Libergal: I would not say a big number, but strangely, the commercial smash hits made a lot of money and then are off. Those by Tarkovsky are constantly shown and gain new generations. The same thing with the Godfather and Gone with the Wind or even David Wark Griffith films. Tell me how many people saw these films? No one knows. Or Walt Disney films. Because actually they are box office champions but nobody takes the trouble to count all those small screenings in universities and film societies, etc.

Sumsky: Remember, we were talking of Sakharov coming back in 1986 and this being a sign of something. Also in 1986 there was another important sign of something. Tarkovsky was dying in Paris and all of a sudden his films started to emerge again. At that moment it could not have been done without some sort of political decision. It was an indication that change was coming.

Libergal: If you want an example of cultural change, I feel that the most striking example, which is the story of Repentance, which was produced in Georgia by ______, the famed Georgian film director, which was violently anti-Stalinistic in its approach, though it was done as a metaphor — although a very thin metaphor. The main character looked like Beria but he wore a black shirt like Mussolini, he had an armband like Hitler, he spoke in Stalin’s voice, etc. I still don’t understand how they could produce the film in 1984. It wasn’t released and they didn’t even try to get it released. Only when Shevardnadze became a big political force here, he made the film ministry release this film nation wide and they gave the film a big push. During the first years of perestroika it was THE event of the year. It was discussed more widely than Sakharov’s coming back. It was in Georgian with Russian voice-over.

MS: Not dubbed.

Libergal: No, no. ___ recorded the voice-over, exactly as we are doing with the American films now.

MS: You prefer that to dubbing?

Libergal: Dubbing is abysmal. Dubbing kills two things: In case the film is good, in case the film is a work of art, you cannot take the voice from an actor and hope to replace his voice. That’s one of the problems why European films, even when they are 100 times better than American films, the American films usually sell better in distribution because they are dubbed, and poorly dubbed at that.

MS: I noticed in watching television that —

Libergal: Yes, we are doing the voice-over, and now more and more people in Europe are doing it. Because there are films which you can subtitle without any compromises — films with very few words spoken. Otherwise you are reading all the time and don’t have time to watch anything.

Sumsky: — subtitle in Woody Allen —

Libergal: Exactly. Subtitle in Manhattan. You simply wouldn’t know what the heroes look like. Otherwise you should do the voice-over.

MS: Can we go to the people who were around Illuzion and wht kind of friendships they had — what kind of protectors.

Libergal: Illuzion was formed as a result of the ministry decision. There were some people who were the “Illuzion lobby” because the Soviet Union was the only country that didn’t have that sort of film theatre before because everywhere in the world there is a national film theatre with special rights regarding copyright. It has the right to show practically everything in films which haven’t been legally acquired from distributing companies. And as far as I can see, the fact that it was opened so late, in 1966, when the film archive was established in 1927, it is explained only because the people at the wheel understood that it would also open a new window onto the world and that’s why it took so long. But during this Khrushchev thing they started lobbying for opening it. Again, the reasons they published in press were that we should have a theatre which could bring the Moscow audience the chance to see the best revolutionary films, the greatest ones of our great Soviet cinema — [ Man with a Movie Camera?] , all this propaganda stuff. But actually they understood that instead of [Man with a Movie Camera?] people would be watching, I don’t know — Jack Benny or Citizen Kane. And the Illuzion also had the same problems with its repertory that I had with this rock program in 1970-72 because we understood that some films are definitely out.

MS: Tell me some that you could not show.

Libergal: Oh ho ho! The list would be immense. (changed tape here. A little is lost.)

For example, all the films with Yves Montand were absolutely put on the shelf, in spite of the fact that beforehand, he was considered a big artist, extremely popular in this country — the first one to come here after the Stalin time and even during the Stalin time he was the number one foreign actor in this country.

MS: This was because of one film [by Saslavsky?]

Libergal: Exactly. It is called La Rue. You couldn’t show Dr. Zhivago, for example. Even people who were connected with this film were considered —

Sumsky: Julie Christie, Alec Guinness. The director.

Libergal: Exactly. The guilt of directors were always considered the greatest.

MS: I see. So when would you have seen that for the first time?

Libergal: Zhivago was brought here only in 1989. The official screening.

Sumsky: When did you personally see it?

Libergal: I personally saw it when it was made. I don’t know — it was released in London, I have seen it in Moscow in 2 months.

MS: So there were copies around. How would you have seen it, for example?

Libergal: I was working with the film acquiring commission as an interpreter I was translating. They were discussing whether to buy or not to buy this film. The print was sent here by the distributor.

MS: So it was legal for you to —

Libergal: Absolutely. For me but there were 10 or maybe 20 people like me, including all these members on this commission who were deciding to buy or not to buy.

MS: When did you see it, Victor?

Sumsky: Interestingly, I saw it for the first time on a home video.

MS: When did videos become common? I guess it was not so different from in the West.

Libergal: You know, it was even more rapid here. It was obvious. Here was a great means of opening your mind without being controlled by the society at large. It was in a way a technical means of obtaining freedom — at least in one respect, that you could watch films that the state prohibited you to see.

MS: Well, let’s see. I haven’t had one very long and I’ve only used it about ten times. I have had mine about four years. I am trying to remember when the average person got one.

Libergal: About 1984, I think.

MS: Here?

Libergal: No, but they were extremely expensive. Something like an automobile. But still, people would like to sacrifice and buy one.

MS: How would illegal videos circulate?

Libergal: The same way they are circulating now. Something like a gray video business. But at that time it was a bit more chaotic, not so widespread as now, when you can buy anything you want in any kiosk on the street. At that time you could get jailed.

MS: I don’t think I can make copies of videos on my machine.

Libergal: If you get two machines.

MS: Any two people can do it if they get their machines together? I see. So that potential probably did not escape people for very long.

Libergal: But with deterioration of quality. Someone would bring in a cassette bought in the West. And then it simply went out.

MS: One of the techniques used by the Ayatollah while he was still in Paris was to make large quantities of audiotapes and distribute them.

Libergal: With the video, it was simply repeated the pattern established by audiotapes here in the sixties. Somebody brought in the latest one by the Beatles and in four weeks, all the country had it with a tape machine.

Sumsky: Without the tape recorder, the Vysotsky phenomenon would have been impossible. And Okujava.

MS: But it was dangerous. Very dangerous?

Libergal: With printed matter, it was very dangerous. With the writings of Solzhenitsyn, for example, you could get in jail if you were caught with it. They were reprinted on usual typewriters. Then with audio, only some very provoking songs were considered dangerous but if, for instance, if the dean of an institute would know that some students were too much involved in listening to Western music, it would create problems. With video again, before ’95 it was very dangerous because people were sent to camps. The state understood that video is potentially much more dangerous than an audio track from a song. That was their mistake, obviously.

Sumsky: There is one more liberating force: the fax machine.

Libergal: And now the computer, obviously.

MS: This dean who would have thrown his students out or got them in trouble for listening to too much rock music, would he have seen the films too in his home?

Libergal: Exactly.

MS: Everybody was doing it?

Libergal: Everybody except for those— the numbers cannot be great—who were truly conservative in their heart.

MS: The person who would have punished somebody for it but who did it himself, that is real doublethink.

Libergal: Yes, sure.

MS: Would they have assertively tried to hunt down people who were doing what they were doing?

Libergal: Sure.

MS: Real hypocrisy.

Libergal: Exactly. The films on video were originating from the ports where the confiscated them from the people they sent to jail. The products, the cassettes, are for them, and again for distribution. The same thing with music records. But not printed matter.

MS: Printed matter was too risky. Why? What’s the difference?

Libergal: I think the main difference is the situation. In the minds of those who governed, printed matter was a very serious thing because they knew how Lenin, Trotsky, etc had started all these things by using leaflets. But nobody knew how Belanger started the revolution with his song.

MS: Who was Belanger and what revolution?

Libergal: The second French Revolution of 1848 and Belanger is a very famous French poet and songwriter.

MS: Thank you. Excuse me, I can’t help it, I’ve just been in the library. We never quite got the piece that you were started in the other room about your radio program.

Libergal: It started in late 1970, continued until mid 1972. It was a weekly program so we had something like fifty shows, with 5 to 10 songs a show. We played a bit of Russian rock, which was only emerging at that time. It was even more difficult than to play the Beatles. The Beatles were forbidden but somehow we managed to squeeze them in.

Sumsky: But you started with Let it Be.

Libergal: Yes, sure.

MS: What is the significance of that?

Libergal: The significance of that is that in very first program I put in the Beatles song in the history of Russian radio, Soviet radio, but it was the last song recorded by the Beatles. By the time they were heard in this country — it’s the national network, it’s the voice of all this machine, you know — and it played the Beatles but the Beatles were disbanded by that time. So in some way it was an irony.

MS: You were very popular. Victor didn’t have to tell me that. I had already heard that rock music was very important to a whole generation, the nonconformists.

Libergal: Exactly. It could be seen by the amount of letters we received each week. It was something like 10 to 20,000 a week, which was absolutely unheard of at that time, and even more so now, due to the high prices for the postal service now. That was also one of the reasons why we were shut down so quickly because, should we play at all and be unpopular, it wouldn’t have had offended anybody, but since we were extremely popular that meant that other things were unpopular.

MS: How did you feel your way into doing this? Did you start with the idea that that’s what you were going to do and see how far you could go?

Libergal: yes, it was all the time trying to raise the plank of, shall we say, freedom in that field. All the time we were being forbidden to do that but you could gain, step by step, step by step, the things which were unthinkable in January ’71, but August 71 they were more or less commonplace on my program. I wouldn’t even try to play hard rock —it is noisy stuff —in January ’71. I played it in ’72, so we were gaining.

MS: Who pulled the plug?

Libergal: The plug was pulled by the Minister of Broadcasting himself. He was Sergei Lagin — a very very big figure. Usually people who are heading national TV and radio are very big in the government. I think that for some time he simply didn’t know about this program. You know, the feedback to this level takes time. Then he understood all that and said no more.

MS: How did you get to the point of view that you began with? What was your history before you became a disk jocky?

Libergal: I was in the Moscow University in the Fine Arts Department. I was interested in film history since I was a child. I was working at the museum while still at the university. I became interested in rock music in 1963 because of the radio. I didn’t have a tape machine at that time, I didn’t have anything, but a friend of mine in school (I was in the 9th grade at that time) did have a big German radio which could pick up all the Western programs despite all this jamming and that’s how we knew about the Beatles when they were only known overseas in the states and Canada. Then he started his tape machine and started recording it from the radio, from short wave. You can imagine the quality, still it was extremely interesting. Then I picked up all the information I could get about films, about rock music, etc. and in 1969 I was considered by my friends, people who were also interested in these things, I was considered to be sort of an authority. And then absolutely by chance I was invited to help produce one program of a totally different orientation on the radio, but a musical program nevertheless. They liked me, offered me this program, which wasn’t originally conceived as a rock program, obviously. No, it was easy-listening stuff. And they saw ti as an opportunity to put — it was called “Tape it Down.” That’s how it st arted and to some extent ended. There was constant fighting to make this thing go, and it was a thirty minute program but we had to re-do it maybe 4 or 5 times a week before our final version could pass all this red tape.

MS: Did every program have to go through red tape?

Libergal: Every program had to go through red tape but if you are making a program on Russian folk choir, you don’t have any. You just do it and they broadcast it. But if you are doing a program on the Beatles — oh yeah! — quite a lot of red tape.

MS: What was there about the Beatles that put anybody’s antennae quivering?

Libergal: But the Beatles were a very well defined embodiment of mental freedom. That’s what they’ve done to the Western society; that’s what they’ve done to the Eastern society — both Russia and the satellite countries — and although it was very difficult to pinpoint what this influence exactly was like, it was felt by everybody. By the youngsters who felt it as a great liberating force, and by the conservatives who couldn’t understand the music (it was very alien to them) but who could understand the threat that it spelled for the old ways.

Sumsky: The Beatles were a cosmopolitan force. Everywhere in the world people were going crazy. Of course, they were rather apprehensive of letting this thing —

Libergal: Yes, sure.

MS: Politically, where were you at that point?

Libergal: I was extremely liberal. Obviously I had quite a lot of information. I listened to the Western stations all the time. I knew 7 or 8 languages by that time.

MS: My God. You just dropped that in — a small little thing. What languages do you know?

Libergal: English, French, Italian, also Polish, Serbian. It was important because it was the only source of information on many things when I started in 1960, in 1961, only if you could read Polish could you know something about what is happening in the films. Because the Russian language publications, there were only 2 or them and all the information was measured with very small calibres so you shouldn’t know anything you shouldn’t know. But in Poland it was much freer at that time and so you could obtain quite a lote of information from the Polish film magazines, or Czech film magazines or even Yugoslavian magazines because they were absolutely free, just reprinted all the stuff from the German and American magazines in to Croatian. So we had to learn all these languages simply as a means of obtaining information. Except for Polish and to some small extent, as you see, English, I have never had an opportunity to speak these languages but I understand them quite well.

MS: What about traveling?

Libergal: I have been abroad once. Until 1990 I was absolutely not very welcome to travel. Now it is only a problem of me having enough money to travel on my own or the companies I work with having enough money to send me to make some kind of deal, but at that time it was an extremely — It was a closed state. To get out you had to be screened by the KGB for many, many weeks, etc. Jewish people were —

MS: It was more difficult for you to travel then than if you hadn’t been Jewish?

Libergal: 100% more.

MS: I don’t think I ever heard anybody say that before. I knew that emigration was prohibited and I guess it made sense to say that Jews would be more likely to stay if they had the chance, but —

Libergal: The synonym for the word Jew was non-traveler. It was a status which was given to secret dossiers. If you were a Jew — there were some exceptions, obviously — but mostly Jews were considered not fit to travel abroad.

MS: What percentage of the people who went abroad would stay?

Libergal: I don’t know but you should understand that the status of those people coming in and asking asylum, you also have left all your family here — your mother, father, sisters, brothers, if you were old enough wife and children. That means that you would have some very bad times there. Also, what kind of people were allowed to travel? Why should they stay there if they are allowed to travel? You must imagine that they were the nomenklatura, they were sitting pretty. They were the bosses of this life.

MS: Let’s talk more about the people who might have been in this bridging role.

Libergal: The people I knew at Illuzion, were mostly people from the film business — film directors, artists, critics, theatre directors — [Rosovsky? ______ ] from Taganka, and some prominent musicians.

MS: Rosovsky was at Tanganka and that was his main —-?

Libergal: Yes. And people from the publishing world. But I don’t know anyabody from power who went to Illuzion. Maybe they were going there, I simply don’t know.

Sumsky: Maybe you were rather going to them, when you were bringing films to show in different offices.

Libergal: Yes, to some extent, but you must remember that there was a special department in this ministry that was showing films to all this high party hierarchy. All the top management people. I didn’t have anything to do with them because I was always at the theatre.

MS: That is interesting — aha — that there was a department that procured films to officials.

Sumsky: There was an article the other day in the papers which said which politburo members were ordering —

MS: Really! Can I see it?

Sumsky: I think I have it at home. Does your host subscribe to Argymenty y Facty? No? I will get you a copy.

Libergal: Only I don’t think it’s true.

Sumsky: It sounds like it —

Libergal: Yes, it sounds like it — it gives the titles, which obviously describe the situation during the last years of the existence of this department, during the perestroika years. What films Gorbachev liked to see, Yeltsin, Ligachev, and so on.

Sumsky: Yes, but they talked about Suslov, about Brezhenev, about Stalin.

Libergal: Brezhnev loved to see everything. Simply everything.

Sumsky: That’s what they say.

Libergal: Stalin was the number one film critic. Not one film was permitted to be released here without his approval. He even gave his okay to all the scripts that were put into production. Not one film was put into production without his visa.

Sumsky: He was a fan of Deanna Durbin and [_____________?].

Libergal: That’s right. The number of films available to them was not so big. All of them watched everything which was in this department — all the new films.

Sumsky: There was a story that Suslov was interested in Bergman and Fellini.

Libergal: No, no, no, no! Never any Bergman or Fellini.

Sumsky: I also got the impression that it was not so many films as videos.

Libergal: Suslov and VIDEOS?

Sumsky: Well, he was a contemporary of videos.

Libergal: No, Suslov died by the time the video thing emerged.

MS: Too bad, it’s a wonderful story. There’s no way to get at the truth?

Libergal: No, I don’t think so because only people who were asked to this department in those years know who wanted to see what. And they like to keep their secrets.

MS: You couldn’t get them to talk?

Liberal: I might try to. I’m not interested.

MS: I’m interested! I’d like to get somebody who could do it.

Libergal: The guy who was the head of this special department is dead now. He died last year. And all the younger guys like Markov, who succeeded him in this post, I know him. He wouldn’t talk now.

Sumsky: Is he still serving Yeltsin?

Libergal: He is head of one of the biggest distribution companies in Russia. [Ostemrassi______?] Alas, he wouldn’t say a word.

Sumsky: But Stalin’s film mechanic is still alive.

Libergal: Yes. Projectionist.

MS: Well, all right!

Libergal: Columbia Tristar just recently released a film based on his memoirs. It’s called “The Inner Circle.” It’s released in Canada and France.

MS: Where do I go from here? Basically, then, artists circulated with artists and politicians were separate.

Libergal: No, I wouldn’t say so. I simply don’t know those people. I never mingled with politicians. I am quite sure and to some extent positive that there were such links. Between film directors and people in politburo. Many prominent film directors had a guardian angel inside the politburo but I am not a source of information. What I know are mostly rumors.

MS: Rumors are good. Then you can begin to check on what is true.

Libergal: yes, but you should go a step closer to where those rumors emanated from.

MS: How do I do that?

Libergal: Find somebody from the filmmakers’ union to contact some Russian filmmakers who are currently abroad. Quite a lot of them are now in the USA, even in Canada. And I will try to find out if, for instance, Alexander Mitta, is back in Moscow. He is a prominent film director and he could tell a lot.

MS: Okay.

- – - –

Later we are talking about “The Inner Circle” and it sounds like he is saying:

Libergal: Heading for my TV book.

MS: What do you not like about it?

Libergal: I think it is not talented enough. Very artificial. Also, they didn’t find the right tone, the right mood to do a thing like this. It is a comedy— a tragic comedy, obviously — and you have to be very careful when you do a thing like this, from the artistic standpoint. I think it’s an artistic flop. They have some directors there.

MS: Have you ever thought of making a film?

Libergal: No, I was a home movie maker when I was ten or fifteen, but not since.

Audio file

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The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books