The Bootleg Video Vans of the Soviet Union
I learned English—and Western culture—watching American movies in smoky minibuses. An Object Lesson.
In the U.S.S.R. of the 1980s, as Brezhnev’s stagnation mutated into Gorbachev’s perestroika, the Soviet people started peering out from behind the Iron Curtain at the tantalizing opulence of Western popular culture. It wasn’t unusual for a few government-approved (and heavily sanitized) Hollywood movies to show up in local theaters in Mother Russia and her 14 children-states. An occasional 1960s or ’70s classic—such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather—would even make its way to one of the two central, state-run television stations broadcasting to all 15 republics.
This trend began in the 1960s, under Khrushchev’s “thaw,” the era during which the good people of the U.S.S.R. were allowed to fall in love with Girls Only in Jazz, a black-and-white masterpiece known to most English speakers as Some Like It Hot (Soviet censors found the original title too, well, hot). Even in the ’80s, when I got to see it myself, the American jazz girls of the ’20s, portrayed through the lens of 1950s Hollywood, seemed utterly wild.
But this is not how my peers and I were introduced to our first “real” American movies. Instead of movie theaters or drive-ins, Soviet youth got their Hollywood fix through bootleg video salons hosted in grungy minibuses.
My parents’ generation was born after World War II, which we on the Eastern Front all knew as the Great Patriotic War. That generation was known for a peculiar and creative resourcefulness. They came up with things like “bone LPs,” bootleg records crafted using makeshift recording lathes that cut tracks into used X-ray slides. Under remaindered pictures of rib cages, bone LPs played the Beatles and other banned Western music. As a middle schooler, I remember my mother talking about these and other contraband inventions. I didn’t think much of it at the time. This was just one of many unauthorized things people did back then—like passing around illegal samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago on thick piles of newsprint or surreptitiously listening to Voice of America news on AM radio in communal kitchens.
I grew up in Baku, the capital of what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Just a few years before the U.S.S.R. disbanded, the kids in my neighborhood became fascinated with American movies—or, at least, the idea of American movies. I was 8 or 9 years old, one of the youngest in the mix. We would collect chewing-gum cards and stickers with pictures of action-movie stars and listen to Michael Jackson. I’m fairly certain all these things were bootlegged.
Young or old, everyone felt the increasing cultural vacuum, a painful dissonance of Soviet-produced media and its crumbling ideology. While we still had timeless films and shows based on Russian literature, or rare genius masterpieces such as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, most Soviet cinema and television no longer made much sense, because it amounted to propaganda. Those of us born in the late 1970s and early ’80s had become particularly suspicious of most Soviet-produced entertainment and obsessed with Hollywood, although we had little firsthand experience with it.
That’s where the video van came in.
Just the sound of the word видео (“video”), a cognate recently borrowed from the English language, was distinctly American. We never referred to other things we saw on-screen as “video”; it was just “film,” or “cartoon,” or “program.” Video was something new and exciting. It had a smack of the forbidden fruit to it.
The way we consumed that video confirmed its taboo status. A typical Bakuvian video salon consisted of a minivan or minibus—usually a Latvian RAF model, or “Rafik,” as we affectionately called it—with fabric-clad windows, equipped with a color television and VCR (the latter was uncommon and considered a luxury).
Rafiks were normally used for public transit, an intermediate alternative to buses and taxicabs. A Rafik always felt bigger on the inside. The running joke went, How many people can you fit into a Rafik? One more. Rafiks made getting around town cheap and easy, and Rafik drivers maximized their efficiency through this always-room-for-one-more-passenger business model. The vans were stuffy, dark, dirty, and usually saturated with cigarette smoke. I suspect that some of these van drivers did both jobs—smoke-soaked taxi by day, smoke-soaked movie theater by night.
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.
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.
Hearing the dubbed audio over the original dialogue probably had an impact on language acquisition and cognitive development. Immersed in two languages simultaneously, the original English and the dubbed Russian, our brains strained to make out both and constantly digested a synchronous translation of a new language. I suspect this helped in our English classes. Long after the vans, I perfected English by watching Seinfeld in the original English on VHS tapes—an advanced course.
In the video vans, the characters and the voice-over narrator talked over one another, intersecting and interrupting one another, creating a polyvocal narrative, interweaving languages but telling the same unified story. Add an audience that’s laughing and commentating during the movie in Azeri, the local language, and you get a third. I can only imagine the number that this layered linguistic experience did on our brains.
All this evokes a unique nostalgia in me and my formerly Soviet peers. It is less of a campy, Stranger Things–type nostalgia, and more of a black, comedic one, a memory of coping with post-perestroika trauma. Thirty years later, I can hardly comprehend the impact these video-salon trips had on us. I am certain that they played a direct role in how many of us got so good at English and ended up immigrating to the United States. Eventually I got a doctorate in English, and today I live near Hollywood, teaching writing to American college students. Those shady, smoky Soviet video vans are, at least in part, responsible.