History remembers autocrats mostly for their conquests, slaughters, purges, inquisitions, persecutions, re-education camps, and collections of severed limbs. But I wonder about their off-duty diversions. Did Napoleon like to whistle in the morning? How much yak meat could Genghis Khan consume at a sitting? Did a day of impaling affect Vlad’s libido that night? Who was a better ballroom dancer: Pol Pot or Idi Amin?
Still, if pressed, I’d have to say that my first choice in the “What was he really like?” survey remains Josef Stalin. Even Hitler, on the top of so many fiends’ lists, privately called Stalin “one of the most extraordinary figures in world history.”[i]
So, with that settled, we have to ask: how did the Soviet strongman relieve the pressures of mass purges and forced collectivization?
He might start with dinner at his favorite Moscow restaurant (“Prague”) enjoyed with his favorite Georgian wine (Kinzmarauli). But what next?
Here, we can be almost certain that the evening would include a screening of the film he never seemed to tire of—the 1938 musical-comedy, Volga-Volga, a film so pleasing to Stalin that he watched it over 100 times and even sent a gift copy to President Franklin Roosevelt. What was the charm?
Filmed at the height of Stalin-era purges, Volga-Volga tells the story of a group of amateur performers who overcome petty bureaucracy to travel to Moscow for a music contest. Most of the story takes place on the riverboat carrying the performers up the Volga River, where the action unfolds through a series of comic situations, catchy tunes, and lively dancing.
Grigori Aleksandrov directed the film, which stars his wife, Lyubov Orlova, and the veteran player, Igor Ilyinsky. The film’s name was drawn from a popular Russian folk song, “Ponizovaya Volnitsa,” about a seventeenth century Cossack leader, Stenka Razin. Reportedly, it was Charlie Chaplin who suggested the title to Aleksandrov while they were out rowing together.
Volga-Volga was standard Alexandrov escapist fare. The director was known for churning out films that reflected Stalin’s famous 1935 dictum that “Life has become better, comrades… life has become more fun.”
Also standard was Alexandrov’s wife, Orlova, playing a leading role in his film—in this case a mail carrier named Strelka. The hero is Byvalov (Ilyinsky), an itinerant musical-instrument manufacturer who dreams of forming his own orchestra.
The film’s climax turns on a boat race on the Volga, at which point Strelka and Byvalov pledge eternal love to each other.
Volga-Volga gained massive success across the Soviet Union and made a mega-star of Orlova. A showcase of Soviet virtue, the film celebrates the joys of teamwork as well as the mettle of perky Strelka who, much to everyone but the audience’s surprise, unleashes her untapped talent as a composer.
The fall and rise of Volga-Volga
After Stalin’s death in 1953 and his falling out of favor with Soviet leaders, his favorite film—at least parts of it— fell under the ax as well. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev addressed the 20th party congress to denounce Stalin’s excesses, and soon after Volga-Volga felt the censor’s cut.
From then on, Russians could only view a shortened version in which the censors had snipped all references to the former leader, including scenes that showed the riverboat passing a giant statue of Stalin standing at the entrance to the Moscow-Volga canal as well as the name of the Volga riverboat itself: the “Josef Stalin.”
But in 2006 the new Russian powers decided to colorize the original black and white film and, at the same time, recover as many of the deleted scenes as possible. Most of the deleted references to Stalin were restored, and the Technicolor makeover was finished in time to premier on the Russia 1 channel during Valentine’s Day 2010.
A Stalinist fantasy—and message
Stalin was so taken, some say obsessed, with Volga-Volga that he could recite every word of its dialog. He entertained visiting dignitaries with screenings and gave it as a gift to heads of state.
Franklin Roosevelt saw a hidden meaning in its presentation to him in 1942. After watching the movie with a translation, the president observed that one song in the film spoke of an old boat, a gift from America, that belched too much black smoke and ran much too slowly (“A very nice boat… it’s just afraid of water”).
Roosevelt saw here a criticism from Moscow about the quality of the equipment the U.S. was leasing to the Soviet Union for the war effort. It also, he suspected, could have been a prodding from Stalin to open up the Western front in Europe to ease the pressure on Russia.
Does Volga-Volga reveal an optimistic side to the Stalin Era—or just a Soviet-style Potemkin village? Either way, the movie should be savored as a halcyon cruise through Russian song, dance, and now color. In the meantime, we’ll always have Fred and Ginger.
Here’s the madcap final scene, when the two lovers come together and the entire cast signs off with—what else?—a rousing song. Picture Uncle Joe singing along…
[i] Hitler’s Table Talk 1941–1944. Translators: Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens. Enigma Books: New York (2000).