Like an American ice-cream truck, a video-salon Rafik would show up in the neighborhood at seemingly random times. The drivers/projectionists were often trying to avoid the police, and the petty bribe that would be required to get them to look the other way. For that reason, the mobile theater would park somewhere in an alley and entertain the neighborhood kids with dozens of guerilla-dubbed, bootlegged Hollywood movies and cartoons.
As a bright-eyed, 10-year-old Young Pioneer, I attended many such screenings: Tom and Jerry, The Pink Panther, Rambo: First Blood, Bloodsport, and a few other movies with “blood” or “revenge” in the title. The emotional response was complex, almost overwhelming. The raw memories of these experiences consist of dazzling bright colors; hyper-masculine, muscular men; bosomy blond women; on-screen makeouts and bare skin; and a lot of creative swearing—the translation job was stellar in that regard. It all felt intoxicating, naughty, and very alien. Even then, I knew we were learning something culturally significant—a different way of life, a different way of thinking, a different way of relating to the world.
In one of my earliest memories surrounding these video vans, two older cousins and I watched the 1986 film Stewardess School, a title IMDB describes as a “teen pseudo-sex comedy.” I think it was a Police Academy rip-off, substituting hot young “stewdents” for newly recruited cadets. The movie was terrible, and we knew it, but my cousins and I loved every minute of it. We particularly relished the bad B-movie acting and the over-the-top vulgar humor.
I don’t think our parents knew what we were up to. They would have had mixed feelings about the matter, despite cutting their teeth on bone LPs. I’m also not sure where we got the money to pay for the movies. But my cousins and I were getting a small taste of cheeky American culture, and to us it was worth any price.
Read: Life under the KGB’s watchful eye in 1980s Russia
The movies were dubbed by a lone male voice actor speaking over the original soundtrack. This process was incredibly low-tech: You could hear the original English-language audio and the voice-over on top of it, at about the same volume. And the audio quality was usually dreadful, with fuzzy white noise filling silences between lines.
The voice actor acted out all the parts in a single take—male and female, including small children. Because this voice-over work was also illegal, we speculated that whoever the narrator was attempted to disguise his identity by wearing a nose clip. This made Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and their girlfriends all sound a bit like Smithers from The Simpsons. I learned much later, as an adult, that several actors actually did this work, but the voice I hear in my head belongs to Leonid Volodarsky, who dubbed more than 5,000 films. Andrei Gavrilov, the second most recognized video voice, did 2,000. Volodarsky and Gavrilov had day jobs as journalists, art critics, and translators. But millions of people across the U.S.S.R. knew their nasal voices for their illegal-film dubbing. They remain unsung heroes.