Rusploitation in Yugoslav Pop

Despite the reductive and strangely common view in the West that Yugoslavia was yet another Soviet Communist country, the relationship between SFRY and the USSR was a complex one, especially after 1948, when Tito was thrown out of the Comintern by Stalin. The USSR was undeniably key in the WWII liberation of Yugoslavia and victory of the Partisans, however Yugoslavia, since 1948, very much saw itself as a country that sought to bridge the gap during the Cold War.

Even before WWII, Serbo-Russian relations were cordial, but distant. Many Serbs emigrated to Russia between the destruction of the Serbian medieval state and establishment of the modern Serbia in 19th century, some of them reaching the very highest echelons of the Russian society (Sava Vladislavić Raguzinski and Mikhail Miloradović are the most notable). One the other hand, after the Revolution, many Russian emigres left a huge trace in Serbian culture, and the way Belgrade looks. Still Russia, even then, was something distant and exotic to most Serbs, considerably less familiar than the Ottoman, Habsburg and Venetian cultures and many of these ambivalent feelings are best encapsulated in Crnjanski’s Seobe.

This level of exoticism, and even subversiveness (being pro-Soviet in 1948 could land in the political prison), means that Russia (a shorthand for the Soviet Union) played a large role in the artistic unconscious among Yugoslav musical artists (especially those who adopted more Western styles of music). On the other hand, more practically, the USSR provided a large market for Yugoslav artists (like Đorđe Marjanović) as they could reach it more easily than the Westerners and often performed covers of Western hits.

This contact means that there were several hits that relied heavily on “Ruspolitation” that became big in Yugoslavia, especially made by bands that either toured the USSR (like Bajaga and Instruktori) or were skilled in the language of subversion (VIS Idoli). In all instances however, imagined Russia either serves as a place for deep emotions or a place of sublime strictness and stranegness (as opposed to the mobster-filled aggressive hellhole as depicted in Western popculture).

Romane – Jelena Karleuša (2023)

Jelena Kareluša’s “Alpha”/ “Omega” twin album is the pinnacle of Eurotrash pop- turbofolk, and of course there is a song about romancing a Russian billionaire (Roman) who sells diamonds and uranium set to vaguely oriental sample…

Darja – Bajaga and Miloš Biković (2020)

A song for the soundtrack of “Hotel Beograd” which features Miloš Biković, a Serbian actor who made it big in Russia, is a breezy affair much like the romcom it was made for.

Galicia – Đorđe Balašević (2004)

Another late addition to the Rusploitation canon by Đorđe Balašević, from 2004, describes a Serb soldier fighting in an unspecifed war in Galicia and writing to his girlfriend back home.

MaljčikiVIS Idoli (1981)

A parody of social realist cult of the worker by Idoli, Belgrade’s best art-pop band, is a romp.

Tamara – Bajaga i Instruktori (1984)

Bajaga’s first venture into Rusploitation, released one year before he played in Moscow, is a fantastic song. The lovelorn hero mixes up references to Moscow (Bolshoi theatre) and St Petersburg (the Hermitage museum, the Neva river, the Aurora), but is redeemed by an amazing guitar solo.

Rusija – VIS Idoli(1982)

There is no song that better captures the ambivalent relationship towards Russia in SFRY than this VIS Idoli song. The singer, feels awed and overpowered, but also somewhat stifled and emasculated by his Russian girlfriend.

Moji su drugovi – Bajaga i Instruktori (1995)

One of the most nostalgic and popular songs by Bajaga i Instruktori has a strong Russian vibe, although it is about Serbian 1990s diaspora. Maybe an unconscious connection to Seobe (which deals with the same topic albeit 200 years earlier)?

Ruski voz – Bajaga i Instruktori (1988)

“Train, A sleepy train to Kharkiv, Gomel, Leningrad, I know how far I am from Belgrade” is peak rusploiation by Bajaga. What makes it even better is that the song was actually written while he was touring the USSR thus there is not much of geographical mixing like in “Tamara”.

All songs are available as a Youtube playlist.

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