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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fifty Years Since Sax Hit the Soviet Union

Itar-TassBritish delegates being driven through the streets of Moscow at the festival's opening ceremony on July 28, 1957.
Alexei Kozlov got his first professional saxophone lesson 50 years ago.

It was in the summer of 1957 and, for two weeks of gorgeous hot weather, Muscovites caught a glimpse of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain as 34,000 foreigners streamed into the Soviet capital for the Sixth World Youth Festival.

The festival, which opened 50 years ago this Saturday, took place at a time when talking to foreigners could lead to a prison sentence, memories of the gulag were fresh and Stalin's body still lay in the Lenin Mausoleum.

Khrushchev had decided to host the festival in Moscow to showcase how much the Soviet Union had changed since Stalin's death four years earlier. He also wanted it to dwarf the five previous World Youth Festivals, a set of socialist-themed events that had all taken place in Eastern Europe.

Among the foreign visitors was a British jazz outfit called the Jeff Ellison Quintet. Kozlov, then 21, snuck past the KGB guards after the band's first concert and introduced himself. He impressed the musicians with his knowledge of U.S. jazz legends, especially sax player Gerry Mulligan. Since the band members couldn't pronounce his real name, they dubbed him Gerry.

For two weeks, "Gerry" Kozlov became the quintet's sixth member. He got into all their festival gigs by convincing the guards he was part of the band. He also learned the proper way to play a saxophone from baritone sax player Joe Temperley.

"Before then, the saxophone was repressed as an enemy instrument," Kozlov, now a prominent saxophonist and jazz historian, said in a recent telephone interview. "And nobody could show me the correct fingering."

An unprecedented event in Soviet history, the festival shaped a whole generation of Muscovites, including many who later achieved fame in media, the arts and the dissident movement.

It began July 28, 1957, with a grandiose opening ceremony. Muscovites flocked to the streets to watch thousands of foreigners waving the flags of their respective countries as they were driven in trucks toward Lenin Stadium, now called Luzhniki stadium, which had been built the previous year.

Some 60,000 Soviet delegates joined the 34,000 foreigners. Along with substantial delegations from Africa and Asia, there were 1,600 visitors from Britain, as well as 160 Americans who had traveled to Moscow against the advice of the U.S. State Department.

As the Americans drove through the city, crowds of Muscovites swarmed their trucks and bombarded them with souvenir pins, candy and ice cream, shouting the festival's slogan — "mir i druzhba," or "peace and friendship" — said Robert Carl Cohen, a U.S. documentary filmmaker who attended the festival.

"It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my 76 years," Cohen said by telephone from his home in Colorado. "Three million people were out in the streets. The police could barely hold them back."

The mob scenes on opening day were the first sign that events might spin out of control, as numerous Muscovites got the chance to have free, unstructured contact with foreigners outside the supervision of the authorities.

Alla Gerber, head of Russia's Holocaust Foundation, then 25, was a new journalist whose first assignment was to cover the festival. But in the chaos of opening day, she missed her ride and got pulled into a truck full of laughing Italians, she recalled in a telephone interview.

She was initially terrified because of the danger of contact with foreigners. And she had good reason to be afraid: Under Stalin, her father had been sent to the gulag for purportedly being part of a Zionist plot, and he had only come home the previous year. "So I wondered, what would happen to me now?" Gerber recalled.

But the fear left her over the course of the festival. She befriended fellow journalists from Poland and France, and in conversations with them she expressed her hope that the festival marked the dawn of a new era. "I had the same feeling as when my father returned," she said.

Before the festival ended on Aug. 11, 1957, it presented a broad array of concerts, carnivals, dances and athletic competitions. One event, an art exhibition at Gorky Park, gave Muscovites a chance to see abstract painting, which was not normally permitted in the Soviet Union.

"The festival influenced the visual arts very much," illustrator Viktor Chizhikov, 71, said in a telephone interview. Chizhikov, who is best known for designing Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Olympics, was a student at the Polygraphic Institute during the festival.

Chizhikov recalled meeting foreign artists at the Gorky Park exhibition and talking about a range of subjects, from drawing techniques to sports. Politics never came up, he said, although the Russians asked the Western delegates for news about emigres, like composer Igor Stravinsky, who were rarely mentioned in the Soviet press.

In turn, the Westerners asked why the quality of life in the Soviet Union was so poor, Chizhikov recalled. "It was hard for us to explain to the visitors why everything was so shabby," he said. "Although I guess the answer was fairly simple, because the country was still recovering from the war."

Not surprisingly, the KGB and police tried to discourage Soviet citizens from talking to foreigners. But the sheer numbers of visitors made it difficult, and there was plenty of informal interaction on the streets.

"Various clusters of people would stand on the pavement of Ulitsa Gorkogo [now Tverskaya Ulitsa] in the bright evenings, and in the center of each cluster there would be a few people hotly discussing some subject," Kozlov wrote in his memoir. "The others, surrounding them in a tight circle, would listen in, slowly coming to their senses and getting used to the process itself — the free exchange of opinions."

It wasn't just free speech that frightened the Soviet authorities. They were also alarmed by the possibility of sexual liaisons between locals and foreigners.

Cohen, the U.S. documentary filmmaker, befriended a young woman at the festival, a student at the VGIK film school. Their relationship never progressed very far: nothing beyond a kiss on the cheek and holding hands in public, he said. But even that was too much for the prudish Soviet authorities.

While the two were walking down the street one night, Cohen said, a policeman suddenly arrested her. Cohen followed them to the police building, where he raised a ruckus until an English-speaking official showed up and she was released.

The next day, Cohen met a group of journalists from Pravda, Izvestia and other Soviet newspapers, and he asked them why she had been arrested. "After the youth festival in Warsaw two years ago," he recalled them saying, "there were many, many Polish girls who gave birth to babies from foreigners. We don't have a concept of illegitimacy, but we do not accept prostitution, and many of their delegates had brought nylons and cigarettes and things like that to prostitute our girls."

Brief, torrid liaisons between Soviet women and foreign men were common during the festival, according to Kozlov, who called it a "unique sexual revolution" in his memoir.

Much of the steamy business took place at hotels located on the edge of Moscow, where nearby fields and woods offered privacy, Kozlov said. Security guards could stop the women from entering the hotels, the musician said, but they could not stop the foreigners from going out. "Girls would meet up with them, and within a moment they would go into the night, out to the farm fields," he said, adding that the women were especially attracted to Africans.

In response, the authorities organized brigades of citizen patrolmen who drove out in trucks specially equipped with spotlights to illuminate the couples and detain the women, Kozlov said. The musician said he witnessed one such raid, after he and a friend, tempted by curiosity, paid a visit to one of the notorious hotels.

Although the freedoms of the festival were short-lived, its impact would be felt for decades, especially in areas like music and fashion. Blue jeans, for instance, made their first appearance in the Soviet Union at the festival and were soon in high demand among Soviet youth.

"The idea of organizing this festival in Moscow was a big mistake by Khrushchev and his circle," Kozlov said. Since the festival gave Soviet citizens a chance to see what life was like elsewhere, he continued, "it was at this moment that the Soviet system began to lose strength. Because a whole generation of people stopped believing in the ideals of communism and started just pretending."

The parade of concerts, dances and festivities offered a break from the seriousness of Soviet life, said Chizhikov. "Only 12 years had passed since the war," he pointed out. "There were still fresh memories of the war, and people didn't really know how to have fun yet."

Gerber described the festival as her first taste of freedom. "It was the first real, serious breach in the Iron Curtain," she said. "We simply tore it to pieces."