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The Curious Tale of the Soviet Voice-Over

The Soviet voice-over was a product of Cold War competition that became a symbol of the capitalist transition's contradictions.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US vice president Richard Nixon at the American National Exhibit in Moscow in 1959. Thomas O'Halloran / Library of Congress

In the late 1980s, a new product appeared on the Soviet black market: the American VHS tape.

The entrepreneurs who imported this contraband faced the same translation problem as TV stations in Western Europe, but they came up with a new, rather odd, solution. Instead of dubbing the movies with the voices of Russian actors, they used a single, male translator.

With the movie’s original sound somewhat muted, the narrator provided a spontaneous translation of the dialogue. Often, he recorded the track while watching the movie for the first time, which precluded lip-syncing. His businesslike performance showed complete indifference toward the actors’ genders and the characters’ emotions.

The practice soon became known as the Soviet voice-over.

To some, it was grotesque — a form of cultural barbarism even. Polish journalist Maria Bninska hated the voice-over style:

This country was kept isolated from the West for 45 years, and many people want access to Western culture and languages. But with these voices, it is impossible. It’s maddening. It’s not entertainment, it’s torture. They have no intonations; they have no feeling in their voices. Voice is a part of acting, and you completely lose this part of any show you watch.

Izabela Cywinska, Poland’s former minister of culture, agreed: “It is a matter of laziness,” she said. “The Polish people deserve better than these idiotic voices who invade films and characters.”

But these “idiotic voices” rarely belonged to idiots: one of the most famous voice-over artists, Aleksey Michalyov, graduated in Asian and African Studies from Moscow State University, spoke Farsi and English fluently, and worked in Iran and Afghanistan as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s personal translator. When he wasn’t narrating bootlegged blockbusters, Michalyov busied himself translating William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and Truman Capote into Russian.

And despite the animosity of some, a wide audience in the former state socialist countries came to expect this kind of translation — even through the nineties, when American culture formally entered post-Soviet states’ economies.

The Soviet voice-over was neither an expression of a peculiar national character nor an instance of “cultural barbarism.” It emerged out of a specific technological and political context in the late 1950s. And its persistence after the Berlin Wall’s fall underlined the contradictions of the new capitalist order.

The Kitchen Debate

In July 1959, the American National Exhibition opened in Moscow, a twin to a Soviet exhibition held earlier that year in New York. Both countries took it as an opportunity to advertise the strengths of their respective systems. The Soviets featured heavy industry and space exploration, while the Americans focused on citizens’ everyday lives and the consumer products that made them more enjoyable.

Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon, who opened the Moscow exhibit hall, confronted each other in the “Kitchen Debate,” so dubbed because it took place in a model American kitchen. “There are some instances,” Nixon said, “where you may be ahead of us — for example in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the exploration of outer space; there may be some instances in which we are ahead of you — in color television, for instance.”

Khrushchev responded skeptically, describing the US exhibits as “merely gadgets, not needed by the ordinary Soviet people.” (The statement crystallized the government’s misunderstanding of the good life: while color television is certainly not one of life’s necessities, socialism always promised to deliver more than just the basics.)

Among the Americans’ unnecessary toys was the Ampex VRX-1000, the world’s first commercial videotape recorder. Introduced in Chicago in 1956 by its inventor, Russian émigré Alexander M. Poniatoff, the device revolutionized television by freeing it from live transmissions and allowing producers to edit the material on magnetic tapes.

Using the novel device, someone filmed the Kitchen Debate and gave a copy of the tape to Khrushchev. But the Soviets had no way of reproducing the recording. The government ordered scientists to develop their own videotape technology as quickly as possible.

Two separate teams, one in Leningrad and another in Moscow, took on the project. The Leningrad team came up with a prototype that would play an 80 mm tape and establish a unique Soviet standard. The Moscow group’s apparatus, however, could play and record American tapes. It won the competition. Choosing the internationally accepted format allowed the Soviets to directly reproduce foreign material, which also opened up the black market to Western entertainment.

Initially, videotapes found a tiny and highly unlikely consumer niche. Upper-party functionaries and KGB agents — who excused their consumption of capitalist propaganda by explaining that they needed to know what the enemy was doing — watched foreign cinema at exclusive theater screenings.

In the 1960s, the State Committee of Cinematography began organizing movie nights, and, unofficially, opened its doors to the well connected. Their alibi remained the same: Soviet movie production should confront capitalist ideology directly; only by gaining access to it could Russian filmmakers criticize it.

The voice-over was born at these screenings. The imported movies were in their original language, and their new viewers desperately needed a translation. Of course, because the screenings continued as an underground phenomenon, the state could not green light an official dubbing or subtitling program. Instead, viewers settled on a live translation.

The voice-over solved specific material and technological challenges for the Soviet elite. But when it made its way into ordinary people’s homes in the 1980s, it took on a new meaning.

After the Fall

Voice-over artist Aleksey Gavrilov recalled how the industry changed with the gradual opening of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the early 1980s. “It was not only cinema but a cinema stream,” he said. “For me the line [was] the appearance in our country of video technology.”

The Soviet Union crossed this technological line when it developed videocassette recorders compatible with the VHS format.

The first Soviet videotape recorder was released in the early seventies. Named “Positron,” it could only record in black and white. Some new models came out soon after, but they didn’t catch on both because of their astronomical price and, more importantly, because of the complete absence of content: the Soviet market for videocassettes was nonexistent.

In 1978, the Central Committee called a conference on video technology to decide what tape format the Soviet-made recorders should use: Sony’s Betamax, Philips’s Video-2000, or JVC’s VHS. After fierce debates, they settled on VHS.

As a direct result, production began on a VHS-compatible recorder, called the Elektronika VM-13. It cost almost as much as a car, but it had one indispensable advantage: it could reproduce VHS tapes, which dominated the videocassette market in the 1980s.

By the end of the decade, smugglers were importing more than one hundred thousand tapes with foreign movies each year. These black-market cassettes not only put Russians in contact with new cultural forms, they completely destroyed the Soviet film industry, forcing nearly every movie theater to close.

The government tried to stop the flood of foreign cinema by enacting a new statute. Designed to end “the distribution of pornography and… the cult of cruelty,” the law prescribed three years in prison or correctional labor as punishment.

Because Soviet state programming normally ended at midnight, any TV flickering after 12 AM gave lawbreakers away to the police. Upon noticing the light of American entertainment, officers would cut power to the entire building. That way, perpetrators couldn’t use the eject button and remove the tape before they were caught. In response, people started removing the panels on the top and the bottom of the machine, so that they could reach in and remove the cassette manually.

But even strict enforcement of the law couldn’t stop the stream of foreign movies. While everything about foreign tapes was illegal, the government still allowed their translation. Now sellers could prerecord the voice-over, and many of the performers who started their careers as state translators joined the expanding industry. Gavrilov recounted the process:

Usually it happened at someone’s apartment. . . . At the beginning, as far as I can remember, everything was recorded on a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder and then some craftsmen superimposed that audio track, the actual sound of translation on the VHS tape. We could translate directly on the cassette, but it was too dangerous because when you made a mistake or sneezed, then it would be too late to fix something.

At the end, the original tape was complemented by the translator’s voice, which the importers then copied and distributed.

A massive underground market for foreign cinema soon sprang up. Seemingly everyone participated in this private collectivization in front of a TV screen. Soviet citizens suddenly had access to European and American culture, which they had previously encountered only incidentally or in state-controlled instances.

We can take Garilov’s metaphor of a stream literally. As the ice began to melt during perestroika, new cultural objects flooded into areas that had been isolated for the last forty-plus years. This massive quantitative shift left no space for aesthetic assessments or reflective reception. As Gavrilov recalls:

Never before I’ve seen such a stream of absolute cinematographic bullshit. . . . Never before had we seen such quantities of shit as in the ’90s. I consider that every group of people, every society should pass a stage of the temptation with shit. The fact that in Soviet times this shit was never shown to us was not an advantage. That’s why we lashed out at it with such readiness. . . . Not in vain, Moses led people for such long time through the desert.

Transition and Persistence

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc citizens might have left the voice-over behind in the ruins of state socialism. But the tradition persisted.

More than a technical solution to a linguistic problem, the voice-over became a reflection of ordinary people’s ambivalence about the transition to capitalism, which was less transition and more catastrophe. Advanced capitalist countries celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of ideology, but the people living in former Soviet countries experienced extreme economic deprivation and a rush of cultural capital, both threatening and fascinating. The secret police were thankfully gone, but an ascendant set of oligarchs ruled.

This ambivalence toward the “shit” of the new ideological order explains why former Soviet states did not immediately start dubbing American and European movies. In many languages, this practice is commonly referred to as “synchronizing,” and we can take this idea literally as well: these new cultural products marked the so-called end of history, which required the Second and Third Worlds to adopt what the First World considered universal verities.

Maybe even unconsciously, the voice-over artists stopped short of personifying the voices from beyond the wall, even after it became technically viable, and instead continued to follow the tradition of professional translators during the Communist era. The voice-over’s refusal of synchronicity, both in terms of the actors’ lip movements and in the absence of emotional content, appears as resistance toward synchronization in its historical dimension, when the only concept of progress was getting in-sync with neoliberal capitalism.

In the end, the voice-over phenomenon disappeared, but, rather than accept assimilation, a noxious new surge in nationalist and Pan-Slavic ideology has emerged in rejection of American and European influences. Ultimately, the failed attempt to mediate the bitter end of history in the 1990s posed the same question we face today: is another future possible?