Moscow: city of five seas

The 1970s art movement Sots art began before it was invented by Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid. Its sources may be discerned as early as the 1960s on the 16th page of Literaturnaya gazeta [‘Literary newspaper’] which published an endless ‘novel of the century’ by the mythical Yegeny Sazonov, paradoxical drawings by Vagrich Bakhchanyan, and parody announcements such as the following: «Amazing discovery. Engineer Ivanov has discovered that his toilet is — via the plumbing and sewerage systems — a port on five seas.»

Moscow: city of five seas

Since the point of sots art was to play on the principal Soviet stereotypes, this announcement makes clear that the idea of Moscow as the ‘port of five seas’ was an important element in the Stalinist ideology of urban planning. The almost mythical status which water acquired in the age of Stalin cannot be explained merely by economic, military, or geopolitical considerations. Water was present everywhere — in popular songs, the endless fountains, the sculptures of ‘a girl with an oar’, and films.

One such film repays closer attention. The Moskva-Volga Canal was built between 1932 and 1935. The musical film Volga-Volga, which deals with this canal, was created by director Aleksandrov and composer Dunaevsky in 1938. The film is about a couple of amateur musicians who are in love with one another. He — a book- keeper called Alesha — loves German classical music, conducts an amateur orchestra, and counts beats with the help of an abacus. She — Strelka the postman — is fond of Russian folk music. He considers her music primitive, while she thinks his is dull. Both want to attend the national parade of amateur musicians in Moscow and travel there along the recently completed Moskva-Volga canal on different boats, each keen to beat the other to their destination.

The film’s negative character, the bureaucrat Byvalov, supports Alesha and is against Russian choral singing. The viewer expects that Alesha and his German music will come out the worse, especially since Alesha’s book-keeping approach to music may be interpreted as containing a concealed reference to the theories of Arnold Schoenberg. But what actually happens in the film is something completely different. In the spirit of the comedy of situations, a mix-up occurs and Strelka ends up on Alesha’s ship (and she on hers). She begins singing her folksong about the Volga, and Alesha’s orchestra accompanies her. A miracle occurs: the two styles merge in complete harmony. The conflict turns out to be a false one.

The Moscow Canal. Gateway towers on  Bolshaya Volga. Arch. I. Beldovsky. 1937

The Moscow Canal. Gateway towers on  Bolshaya Volga. Arch. I. Beldovsky. 1937

Main images © Arch. A. Ruchlyadev