Disco Culture and the Ritual Journey in the Soviet 1980s

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Kevin Karnes


This article traces the largely forgotten history of the Soviet disco craze of the 1980s by following the work of one of its pioneering figures, the DJ, musician, and performance artist Hardijs Lediņš (1955-2004). It documents how the movement coalesced amidst creative responses to the gradual opening of the USSR to Western popular culture on the one hand, and to the unique affordances of local political, social, and technological structures on the other. In Lediņš’s case, the response was also shaped by commitments to an ideal of Soviet socialism that persisted despite the grim realities of Brezhnev-era society. Drawing on archival research and oral history, I begin in the loosely monitored space of the Student Club at the Riga Polytechnic, where Lediņš’s talents and ties to elites enabled him to found a wildly popular discotheque in the 1974-75 academic year, one of the first of its kind in the USSR. I follow his increasing investment in a distinctly Soviet form of experimentalist performance art in the early 1980s, in which – inspired in part by local readings of John Cage – the ritualized trek into the countryside became a vehicle for attaining spiritual enlightenment in communion with others. Finally, I consider ways in which his ritual journeys inflected his disco operation in subsequent years, when he reframed his events as experiments in communality – specifically, as means of experiencing, at least for an evening, the enlightening promise of Soviet socialism undelivered by the state itself.

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