MOSCOW — Every Sunday night, as many as 180 million Soviet television viewers--children and adults--tune in Walt Disney's cartoons. From Odessa to Vladivostok, teen-agers switch on their radios each week to hear the U.S. Top 20 counted down by a disc jockey from Wyoming who speaks fluent, if accented, Russian. And up to 70% of the films showing in Moscow movie theaters are from Hollywood.
American pop culture has taken the Soviet Union by storm.
"With the advent of perestroika, the influence of American culture grew immensely," says Dmitry M. Urnov, editor-in-chief of the journal Voprosy Literatury and a specialist in U.S. literature and culture. "The same top officials who used to curse American mass culture now welcome it with open arms." In the Cold War era, Soviet officials tried to prevent citizens
from being exposed to what they contended was the West's hedonistic capitalist culture. And they suppressed everything from rock 'n' roll to sex and violence in movies or literature.
So when President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms made available the forbidden fruits of contemporary music, films, books and fashions, U.S. mass culture rushed in to fill the vacuum.
Now, as Gorbachev meets with President Bush in another U.S.-Soviet summit, Urnov laments: "In the center of Moscow, over the head of the statue of our greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, is a huge Coca-Cola sign. Russia's greatest cultural father is doomed to stare straight at McDonald's.
"And by the look on Pushkin's face these days," he sighs, "it seems he's considering whether to take his place in the long queue leading to the restaurant."
But instead of adopting everything that is popular now in the United States, Soviet fads draw on American trends over the last 40 years, effectively telescoping the decades into a single moment.
"We are doomed to be anachronistic," Urnov says. "We are doomed to take things from many different periods simultaneously. We are living today simultaneously in America's '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s."
Rock's founding fathers, like Elvis Presley, are as popular as the heavy metal groups Bon Jovi and AC/DC. Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" and Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" are the two books most in demand, according to Urnov. James Dean dress-alikes abound, as do Madonna wanna-bes.
The Arbat, Moscow's pedestrian walkway and a favorite spot for street peddlers, is a veritable showcase of Americana. Many peddlers wear baseball hats, T-shirts and sweat shirts with logos of U.S. sports teams, universities or even the U.S. flag. Teen-age girls with long, stringy hair and hippie-style clothes eat Baskin-Robbins ice cream as they stroll the mall. A Dixieland band plays tunes as Soviet couples dressed in Levi's or fluorescent warm-up suits wander by.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Nikolai A. Buyanov strutted down the middle of the Arbat wearing tight jeans, a black muscle shirt and yellow tinted wraparound sunglasses. His leather jacket was slung over his shoulder.
"Elvis is my idol," says Buyanov, 45, whose long curly hair is streaked with gray. A bakery technician in the small city of Shuya, about 200 miles from Moscow, Buyanov sees Presley as a rebel.
"I'm trying to dress like him because he thought for himself," Buyanov says. "He always did what he wanted to do, no matter what the authorities said. When I was young and these clothes were in fashion in America, the police would give us hell if we dressed like this."
But now, Buyanov said, "with my clothes, I want to show the independence of Russian people from the socialist ideology of our Communist Party bosses. It's my protest over the stinking system that made us all dress the same."
"The idea of protest is very important in determining what is popular," Urnov notes. "Anything will be picked up if it contains seeds of discontent."
But even the official view of the United States, as presented by newscasters on state television and reporters for government newspapers, has flip-flopped. As recently as five years ago, the America seen here was a frightening place of the homeless, jobless, drug-addicted victims of ruthless capitalists.
These days, the America on Soviet television consists of supermarkets packed with food and people living the good life.
"If before we had anti-American propaganda--and only anti-American propaganda--now we have pro-American propaganda, and only pro-American propaganda," Urnov says. "What is disgusting is that it comes from the same people. Before, commentators would dress head to toe in American clothes and tell the people how horrible everything is in the United States. Now the same commentator talks about how pleasant and beautiful life is in the 'civilized' world.
"They're just fabricating a new false image," he concludes.