By Sydney Kightlinger and Christian Rohrer
The Cold War period ushered in an unprecedented level of competition and division between Eastern and Western ideals. From 1977-1980, the Soviet Union participated in the Intervision Song Contest (ISC). This contest was a response to the Eurovision Song Contest broadcasted in Western Europe. The Eurovision song contest started in 1956. As Eurovision Historian Dean Vuletic wrote, “The annual Eurovision Song Contest has always reflected political changes in postwar Europe alongside cultural, economic, social and technological developments, with almost all European states having been represented in the contest at some point in its first sixty years” (Vuletic 1). In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union started looking for ways to prompt Soviet ideals in a similar format; however, there were numerous obstacles in the formation of the Intervision Song Contest.
Soviet leadership was aware of the Eurovision Song Contest from the beginning, but they were barred from joining the ESC because they were not members of the European Broadcasting Union. In the West, Eurovision had quickly become an important cultural icon that projected an image of unity between Western countries. The Eastern bloc recognized the potential power to influence an audience through a similar production like Eurovision’s song contest. It came to Soviet attention that the Polish Television director was also desiring something to rival Eurovision. The Soviet Union finally got their chance to have a rival song contest in 1977. Every year since 1961, the Forest Opera, an open-air amphitheater, hosted The Sopot Song Festival which was renamed the Intervision Song Contest. The burden of planning and executing the contest fell on the Polish people.
Because of the large geographical area the competition covered, the voting system was difficult to establish. The Eurovision method of a voting system largely relying on telephones was not feasible in many Eastern bloc nations where telephones were not commonly found in most households. The way viewers voted for their favorite ISC contestants was very different from Eurovision. During performances, viewers were asked to turn their lights on when they liked a specific competitor’s performance. Then, the state energy company recorded peaks in electricity consumption, allowing them to determine the competitor who convinced the most people to turn on their lights.
The ISC was certainly more than just a simple song contest. In its four short years of existence, it became a valuable and effective propaganda tool to bring the Eastern bloc together. Piotrowska says, “While foregrounding the entertainment itself, showing different acts coming from the Eastern bloc and engaging in friendly rivalry, gladly competing and undergoing assessment, the authorities behind the contest (among others, the Polish Committee of Radio and Television ‘Radiocomittee’) aimed at presenting the feeling of integration between communist countries” (Piotrowska 127). Even though the Eastern bloc wanted to project unity, there were bitter rivalries amongst the participating nations. A lot was at stake, especially for the Soviet Union that desperately needed to improve its foreign image and reputation. Soviet contestants were pressured to do everything they could to win, and they understood how seriously this contest was to the Soviet Union. In a 2012 interview with BBC News, Roza Rymbaeva, a Soviet contestant from the 1977 edition of the contest, said “That was my first ever trip to Europe. It was a huge responsibility representing such a giant country as the USSR. To return home without a prize would have been very unpleasant” (Rosenberg). Her prize was a decanter and six glasses, courtesy of the Baltic Shipping Company (Rosenberg).
Even though the Soviet Union did not organize or design the contest, it had a strong influence over the production. The presenter of the contest, Jacek Bromski, had to carefully consider his words and actions on stage. Of this experience, he said, “I couldn’t say, ‘I hate Stalin, Lenin and the rest of you communist pigs,’ because they would probably put me in jail. But it didn’t prevent me from saying something between the lines, because that gave you a lot of applause from the public” (Rosenberg). However, sometimes his humor as a host outweighed his caution, such as when he said, “I was calling every capital and asking for their results. One year when I was calling Moscow, there was no answer. So I said, ‘Moscow, Moscow – wake up!’ Then I had very big applause from the audience. ‘Moscow, are you sleeping? Wake up!’ Everyone was laughing. In the end I said, ‘Better let them sleep.’ That bit was cut out afterwards” (Rosenberg).
Even with its tight grip on the ISC, the Soviet Union did allow some Western performers to serve as interval acts. The addition of these Westerners in the show was most likely a deliberate attempt by Eastern Bloc nations to show their own citizens that they were taking the high road compared to their Western counterparts. As one viewer points out, “It was a window to a free world for us. It was like fresh air coming to us. Because suddenly, for these two or three evenings, we had Western stars, we had concerts in a very beautiful place and we felt free. It was fantastic.” Even if the people of the Eastern bloc did not know it, this was just a small taste of the Western world meant to curb any potential appetite for the Western ideas of freedom.
Regardless of this added pressure, the Soviet Union did not clench the top spot in 1977. Of the fourteen entries from six countries: Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Soviet Union, and Spain. The winning entry came from Czechoslovakia with Helena Vondráčková’s Malovaný džbánku (Little Painted Jug). Vondráčková’s performance rivaled Eurovision entries in its aesthetics. Part of Eurovision’s roots as a positive expression of nationalism, traditional outfits with touches of glitter became a common display. Vondráčková played on this trend with her dairy-maid ensemble with hints of modernization: off the shoulder blouse, billowing sleeves and a glitzy skirt embroidery. Fashion played a key role in the performance: “ISC-just like ESC-was something more than a musical mega-event. Its narrative was produced by media for viewers who were equally interested in both listening to songs and looking at costumes, observing the latest trends, and so on” (Piotrowska 132). Just like the addition of Western performers, a focus on costumes and aesthetics added a taste of something different for the average Soviet viewer who rarely had the opportunity to view and discuss new popular cultural trends.
Unlike Eurovision, the ISC did not prove to be a very long-lasting affair. There were only four installments, and the Soviet Union only emerged victorious once during those four years – sauntering off with a beautiful decanter set. Around the time of the 1980 competition, thousands of workers had gone on strike at Lenin Shipyard, protesting communist rule. The situation in Poland deteriorated quickly with riots breaking out in the streets. Due to the relatively short life of the contest, it is difficult to identify any major policy or social shifts that occurred within the Soviet Union as a direct result of the ISC, but the quick end of the contest may hold an important answer. If Soviet officials had believed the contest had a profoundly positive impact, they would have found a way for the competition to continue, even if it was not hosted in Poland.
Piotrowska, Anna G. “About Twin Song Festivals in Eastern and Western Europe: Intervision and Eurovision.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 47, no. 1 (2016): 123-35. Accessed October 14, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43869457
Rosenberg, Steve. “The Cold War Rival to Eurovision.” BBC News. May 14, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18006446.
Tomiuc, Eugen. “Eurovision’s Poor, Defunct, Ex-Soviet Rival.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. May 11, 2016. https://www.rferl.org/a/intervision-eurovision-poor-defunct-ex-soviet-rival/27726563.html.
Vuletic, Dean. Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. Bloomsbury, 2018