We All Live in a Yellow Submarine

ys_02The Yellow Submarine’s log book. Image courtesy of Felix and Marina Vinogradov 

We All Live in a Yellow Submarine
Ekaterina Nezvankina
Islands of Freedom (Iofe Center)

Bearing the proud name Yellow Submarine, the commune at 28 Primorsky Prospect [in Leningrad] arose in August 1977 and lasted for just one year. Its organizers were university classmates Alexander Skobov and Felix Vinogradov, who had dreamed about a place where everyone could experience personal freedom, where everyone could distance themselves from the current regime and express themselves freely.

The history of the commune’s emergence as a nonconformist association and, simultaneously, a haven for free thinkers originates in western culture. However, as Skobov notes, there were no concrete prototypes, meaning that its inner workings were shaped by the intuition of the people involved in it.

And so, a commune. What the heck is that, and what has brought us here? For nearly a year, several of us had been building magnificent castles in the air, which unexpectedly acquired an extremely firm earthly foundation. First and foremost, who are We? Let’s identify ourselves in full: students Marina Nikitina (Vinogradova), Felix Vinogradov, Tatiana Komarova, Alexander Skobov, Igor Malsky, Andrei Antonenko, and Alexander Volkov (aka Lupus). [From the commune’s log book]

The commune was located in a private, two-story wooden house (something rare for Leningrad) on Primorsky Prospect that Felix and Marina Vinogradov had rented not long before their son was born. The first people to join them in the commune were Skobov’s university crowd and several acquaintances from their school days. Later, Andrei Reznikov, one of the founders of the so-called Leningrad School, and Alexei Khavin, who was involved in creating the dissident magazine Perspektiva, joined the commune. Then the commune gradually became a refuge for Leningrad hippies and various acquaintances who were looking for temporary housing or simply а “crash pad.”

1009_crAlexander Skobov and Felix Vinogradov outside the Leningrad University history department, circa 1976–1977. Photo courtesy of the Iofe Foundation

One of the motives for founding an “island of liberty” like the commune on Primorsky was the desire to live an independent life and leave home.

“It was a way of dropping out of society,” Skobov said in a 1991 interview.

The commune was created not simply as vehicle for internal emigration and distancing from Soviet reality, but also as an alternative cultural and ideological space based on establishing certain shared values of freedom and mocking certain existing official norms. This was expressed even in the commune’s interior decor, including yellow walls with wild strawberries drawn on them and homemade ironic posters that played off Soviet and western symbols. The parodic decrees and decisions issued by the Yellow Submarine and its separate “holds,” as well as poems and songs that turned propagandistic clichés inside out, were an ironic response to the meaningless words of the official Soviet discourse. One inhabitant of the commune on Primorsky, Igor Malsky, even claimed that the communards collectively invented the folklore genre “sadistic verse.” The peak of the commune’s creative powers is considered the “rock poem” “Lazha” (“Crap”), among whose characters one can recognize the residents of the Yellow Submarine.

ys_10Felix Vinogradov, Seal of the Yellow Submarine commune, 1977. Image courtesy of Felix and Maria Vinogradov

In an interview with us, Skobov said that his idea, subsequently, of engaging in political activity, printing flyers, etc., came to him while living in the commune. Many participants named as their motive for moving into the commune the “total crap,” i.e., the lies that surrounded the celebrations of the October Revolution’s sixtieth anniversary and the adoption of the new Soviet constitution [in 1977]. As for revolutionary sentiments, Skobov said that those went no further than kitchen table conversations “berating the authorities.”

Daily life in the commune took shape as in a large family: arguments periodically arose among its inhabitants. The commune was supported by various means, but everyone tried to contribute in accordance with the main rule, “a little bit from everyone each day”: one person received a university stipend, another was working, while a third person “dragged it out of  their parents.” The refuge itself was a two-story wooden house whose first floor belonged to the “dissidents,” and the second to the “hippies.”

“Two rooms, two kitchens, a wooden staircase. All of it was quite exotic, except for the fact that the decor was even more exotic,” Skobov said when describing the interior. The commune residents took care of decorating and the “cozy touches” themselves.

We can divide the commune into two ideological centers: those who took part in publishing Perspektiva magazine (which was originally Skobov’s initiative), and those who were “Soviet hippies.” For example, Felix Vinogradov, one of the commune’s founders, was interested exclusively in the cultural aspect of the process—art, music, lifestyle, and language. All of it was inspired by western ideas of nonconformism, hence his choice of name for the commune.  His opposite number was Alexei Khavin, another striking member of the Primorsky scene. He was actively involved in the protest movement: he typed up leaflets on a typewriter in the commune and wrote articles criticizing the government for Perspektiva. Khavin was eager to go beyond kitchen conversations and do something more concrete.

The confrontation between the inhabitants of the first and second floors of the commune—the more bourgeois “upper level” and the anarchic “lower level”—at times began to resemble the intensity of a cold civil war, complete with mutual insults, reproaches, and accusations. [Andrei Antonenko and Felix Vinogradov, press release for the exhibition The Yellow Submarine Commune, 1977–2007]

This internal division could not but determine the community’s fate. Felix Vinogradov was the first to leave the house on Primorsky, followed by almost all the hippies.

The KGB took an interest in our magazine: its destruction was imminent, and our commune was threatened along with it. They didn’t nab us at the house itself. The thing was that its residents felt that something was brewing and departed to their own homes. My friend from the university, an idealistic hippie, rented apartments for the commune with me, and his father was a colonel in the Border Guards, and they were under the KGB. He worked in [the KGB’s famous local headquarters] on Liteiny Prospect. It was then a rather widespread phenomenon, not only here but also in Europe: the children of wealthy parents and security forces officers turned into hippies. And so this hippie’s dad pulled up to the house in a small truck filled with soldiers. They loaded up his things and drove him and his wife away. The others understood what was going on, and they left too. [Alexander Skobov, “Our Oppositional Communism Was an Oddity”]

ys_15Alexander Skobov, Tatiana Komarova, and Felix Vinogradov, 1977. Photo courtesy of Felix and Marina Vinogradov

The only residents remaining were those who were primarily interested in publishing Perspektiva and were organizing a meeting of opposition groups, which the New Left group planned to hold on the Karelian Isthmus. But because information about the upcoming meeting was leaked to the KGB, the group’s members were also forced to urgently remove everything from the commune having to do with their political activities. Alexander Skobov and Arkady Tsurkov were soon arrested, and the apartments of other members of the New Left group were searched, while the house on Primorsky Prospect was completely abandoned. After the dissidents left their Yellow Submarine, the house was razed, and no photos of it remain. But the phenomenon of the Yellow Submarine commune itself is one of the most striking examples of the “islands of freedom” adrift in the space of Soviet Leningrad.

Further Reading
Interview with Alexander Skobov, recorded at Memorial Research and Information Centre, 1991. Iofe Foundation Electronic Archive

Juliane Fürst, “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine: Life in a Leningrad Commune,” in Juliane Fürst and Josie McLellan, eds., Dropping Out of Socialism: Alternative Spheres in the Soviet Bloc (New York, 2016), 179–207

Alexei Sochnev, “Our Oppositional Communism Was an Oddity,” Russkaya Planeta, March 19, 2014 [Interview with Alexander Skobov]

A.F. Belousov, “Igor Malsky’s Memoir ‘The Crooked Mirror of Reality’: On the Origin of Sadistic Verse,” Lotman Anthology, vol. 1 (Moscow, 1995), pp. 681–690

Thanks to Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Translated by Mary Rees

 

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