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Video Salons in Late USSR

How Soviet people were exposed to western movies

By Lana V LynxPublished 6 months ago 7 min read
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One of the first video salons in USSR

During the Cold War, very few American, British or western cultural products reached the Soviet people as the USSR government was afraid the capitalist propaganda in the form of western books, movies and music would corrupt the Soviet citizens' minds. The only genre that received an exception was French and Italian dramas and comedies, so Soviet audiences were very fond of Fellini, Visconti, Mastroiani, Delon, Belmondo, Richard, and of course De Funes in his Phantomas series.

Of course, the elite dissidents in Moscow and Leningrad found ways of smuggling in banned vinyls by Beatles, Def Leppard and Rolling Stones; samizdat published and shared unofficial translations of western philosophical (mostly dystopian and satirical) books such as Orwell's 1984, and retold myths and legends about Hollywood. Only those American movies that were approved to be "safe" by the government were shown in Soviet theaters and on TV. When I was growing up in the 1970-80s, I remember watching "Wizard of Oz," "King Kong" and "Some Like it Hot" with Marilyn Monroe, which was prudently translated into Russian as "Jazz with Girls Only." That was one of my favorite movies ever, and even today I'd watch it if I stumble upon it on TBS or another cable channel.

And then two things happened almost at the same time:

1) Michail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985 and started perestroika and glasnost, removing many government controls and giving economic freedoms, including introduction of the Law on Cooperation in 1987 that resulted in people's unprecedented entrepreneurial activity; and

2) VHS VCR was legitimized by the Soviet government in 1986, almost a decade after it was released in the US in 1978 and was illegally smuggled from Japan and western countries until then. The first Soviet VCR production started in March 1986 and reached 60,000 by the end of the year, which was unprecedented for Soviet electronics sales.

Elektronika VM-12, the first Soviet color VCR

These two happenstances merged to produce the trend of what was called "video salons" - crude movie watching rooms that would accommodate anywhere between 4-12 people for a private viewing to large groups of 20-50 seats. All these rooms had was a VCR connected to an elevated regular TV set everyone had at home. But not everyone could afford a VCR and the content to watch at home legally was limited and expensive.

Some video salons were organized through the Houses of Culture, usually associated with Trade Unions, and had better seating and projection equipment. In such salons, people could see "complex and elite films," as the monthly program below shows, and even buy monthly discounted memberships. The movies announced on the program are "Antonioni's 1967 Blowup, Scott's Bladerunner, Bertolucci's 1972 Last Tango in Paris, Eastwick Witches with Jack Nicholson, Fellini's 1976 Casanova, Parker's 1987 Angel's Heart, Clemen's Rain Passenger and Oscar-winning Rainman with Dastin Hoffman (transliterated as 'Raymen')".

November 1989 program at a Trade Union video salon in Belorus, all movies starting at 7:30 pm

Most video salons, however, were small and crude, sometimes make-shift with regular chairs. Unlike traditional movie theaters in the Soviet Union, which were state-owned and subject to strict censorship regulations, video salons were able to screen a wider variety of mostly pirated films, including foreign and independent films that would not have been allowed in traditional theaters. This made them popular among film enthusiasts and those looking for alternative cultural experiences.

The experience of attending a Soviet video salon was quite different from that of a traditional movie theater. The rooms were usually small and intimate, with seating for only a few dozen people. The screening equipment was often basic, consisting of a VHS player and a small television or projector. However, the atmosphere was often more relaxed and informal than in a traditional theater, with patrons sometimes bringing their own snacks and drinks.

A mid-1980s Soviet video salon

Video salon owners had access to seemingly unlimited supply of B-rated and trashy American movies. While official movie theaters were constrained by what they could purchase legally through distribution rights, video salons simply pirated and translated all movies they could lay their hands on, including A-rated movies of certain most popular genres in the 1990s (see the list of genres below). But most movies shown in video salons were cheap and cheesy.

The translation into Russian was often done in such a haste that the movies were dubbed right over the original sound, creating all sorts of noise and delays. At the time, there was only a dozen of fully bilingual interpreters in the entire Soviet Union who had the required level of language knowledge and skill in simultaneous interpretation. One of them - Leonid Volodarsky - has become a person-meme as he is credited with inventing the unique tactic of dubbing through the nose making his voice unrecognizable (in case someone went after him for copyright violation). Here is an example of Volodarsky's dubbing of the Terminator:

Some urban myths say that Volodarsky used a clothespin to stop airflow through his nose when he was interpreting, other sources state that he had his nose broken and permanently damaged when he was young. In any case, his technique created a whole trend of nasal dubbers that continued well into late 1990s. It is estimated that Volodarsky alone dubbed over 5,000 movies in his entire career. He interpreted the movies simultaneously in one take, never watched them in advance, and never listened back to his work. So his translations had plenty of mistakes and gaps, but felt authentic and spontaneous and the Soviet audiences loved them anyway because that was nearly the only way to watch new movies. Basically, we didn't know better. To this day, when I watch popular movies from the 1990s, I nostalgically remember Volodarsky's voice and a whole cottage industry that sprang off from his "nasal dubbing" technique, including parody "Goblin" dubbing. Also, as a college student of the English language I watched some movies multiple times just to learn the words and idioms from real modern speech.

The most popular genres of movies and TV shows shown in the video salons were:

1) Action, adventure and martial arts movies, such as Terminator, Die Hard, Rocky, Lethal Weapon, Rambo and Ninja series, as well as all movies with Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal, Van Damme, and of course Bruce and Brandon Lee;

2) Comedies, both Soviet (directed by Gaidai and Ryazanov) and foreign, including Pink Panther, Police Academy and Naked Gun movies, as well as many B-rated comedies;

3) Thrillers, scifi, and horrors, such as Hellraiser, the Dentist, Children of the Corn and other King's classics, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Robocop, and of course Star Wars, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Aliens;

4) Erotica, which was completely new and fascinating for the prudish Soviet people, in particular The Fruit is Ripe and its innumerable variations, the French Emmanuelle movies, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Two Moon Junction.

My personal fondest memories of movie watching at the time are associated with train video salons. As an English and Literature college student, I worked as a train car attendant in the summers of 1989, 1990, and 1991. When I was off my shift, I would often go to the train video salon, which was a dining car where the tables were removed to accommodate more seats, and two screens were set up on both ends of the car. I remember once I spent my entire off shift watching four Nightmare on Elm Street films one after another. I couldn't sleep well for weeks after and didn't watch another horror movie until years later I saw Devil's Advocate in the movie theater.

A train dining car converted into a video salon, with signage in the window

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, video salons continued to operate in Russia and other former Soviet republics. However, the market for VHS tapes eventually declined as DVDs and digital streaming services became more popular, most countries joined copyright agreements and the cinema going culture was rebuilt. Today, video salons are mostly exercise in nostalgia for Generation X who were their largest audience.

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P.S. While doing research for this story, I found this remarkable video in Russian which is nothing but one long 19-min commercial of Soviet video rental salons that promoted both the domestic content (the commercial is the adjusted popular 1974 Soviet-Italian comedy "Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia" with many inserts of other popular Soviet movies and music) and the first Soviet VHS VCR Elektronika VM-12.

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About the Creator

Lana V Lynx

Avid reader and occasional writer of satire and dystopia under a pen name of my favorite wild cat.

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