Russia’s Eurovision killer? The controversial Soviet ‘Intervision Song Contest’ experiment

·11 min read
Intervision was first launched in 1965, in Czechoslovakia - YouTube
Intervision was first launched in 1965, in Czechoslovakia - YouTube

There are few purer tests of musical talent than Eurovision. The annual contest is, as everyone knows, a celebration of music-making unconcerned with outlandish outfits, garish stage shows and gimcrack novelty. The judges are models of probity, unswayed by freebies, national bias or geopolitics.

Whoops, sorry, must have been reading my notes upside down – Eurovision is, as everyone knows, a hideously partisan affair with more realpolitik than the Italian Renaissance. It's Machiavelli’s The Prince, dolled up in mohair and rhinestone. Talent has almost nothing to do with success.

It didn’t have to be this way. In fact, there was a European music competition which was genuinely international, outward-looking and decided on merit. Intervision – which ran in two series, first in Czechoslovakia between 1965-1968, then in Poland from 1977-1980 – is often portrayed as the Soviet Union’s wheezy-chested rival to Eurovision. Myths about it abound: that it was decided by benighted voters flicking their lights on and off; that it was dominated by vigorous women in hairy shirts warbling folk tunes. And that it was sponsored by USSR apparatchiks to enforce Party discipline: a bracing antidote to corrupting influence of Western pop.

“There is so much rubbish written about Intervision, especially in the British media,” says Dr Dean Vuletic, author of Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. “Intervision was never established to compete with Eurovision. [In fact] it was conceived of as a bridge between east and west. It was a reflection of the policies of liberalisation and international openness of the Czechslovakian and Polish Communist parties at the time.”

Intervision was first proposed by the International Organisation for Radio and Television, the eastern European equivalent of the European Broadcasting Corporation, in 1965. The death of Stalin a decade before had led to a period of increased openness. While the Berlin Wall had gone up in 1961, intellectuals in Eastern Bloc countries began to look westwards – and to have the confidence to celebrate their own artistic traditions.

Pioneer: Jiří Pelikán, organiser of the first Intervision song contest - ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Pioneer: Jiří Pelikán, organiser of the first Intervision song contest - ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

It was in this spirit that Jiří Pelikán, the pioneering head of Czechoslovak Television, and a fierce champion of media freedom, founded the Intervision song contest. Pelikán may have drawn influence from Eurovision, which was established that year too, but he never saw it as a direct rival to trump the contest. In fact, Eurovision was broadcast in the Soviet Union throughout this time, and the International Organisation for Radio and Television even proposed a joint east-west song contest in 1964. But it was rejected because Eurovision was seen as a poor partner.

“Eurovision has always been criticised for being expensive, having poor quality songs and unfair voting – and this was the case in the 1960s too,” notes Vuletic. “They weren’t even sure they wanted to continue with Eurovision then.” It’s a tantasing thought: if history had taken another turn, might we be gearing up for the annual Intervision contest this Saturday?

It wasn’t to be, though. Pelikán was one of the main movers behind the Prague Spring of 1968 when the reformist leader Alexander Dubček tried to open the country up. His efforts sparked mass protests and Czechsolakia teetered on the edge of democracy and economic liberalisation. The Soviets brutally hauled it back towards Communism, though, sending in more than 500,000 troops to suppress the unrest. Dubček’s government was deposed, and Soviet puppet leaders installed. And Intervision – a poignant symbol of what might have been for the country – was never broadcast by Czech television again.

Uprising: tanks in the streets of Prague, 1968 - LIBOR HAJSKY
Uprising: tanks in the streets of Prague, 1968 - LIBOR HAJSKY

In fact, it went off air until 1977 when it reappeared in a different country and under a different name. The Sopot International Song Festival was first held in 1961 in Gdańsk shipyard, in Poland, before moving to an open-air amphitheatre in Sopot, a town 20 miles away. It was established by Władysław Szpilman, a Polish jewish musician, who, decades later, would become the inspiration for Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist.

Szpilman worked for Polish radio and his rendition of Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor was the last live music broadcast before the Nazi invasion of 1939. He was rounded up with his family, and confined to Warsaw’s ghetto. But when they were sent to Auschwitz, he escaped and spent the rest of the war in hiding. After 1945, he became a prominent figure in the Polish music scene, organising the Sopot festival as a showcase of Eastern Bloc talent – and briefly reviving Intervision between 1977 and 1980.

As with its Czech iteration, the new Intervision sought to thaw east-west tensions through music. The Sopot festival had become the most popular music festival in the Eastern Bloc and executives at Polish TV saw a chance to prove their technical expertise and dust down Communist musical talent, showcasing them to western record companies.

So Intervision became two simultaneous competitions: the usual Eurovision-style run-off between national competitors and another where record companies would sponsor acts. Plenty of air time was given to western acts, too, with household names such as Gloria Gayner and Petula Clarke keeping viewers tapping their feet during intervals.

Russian singer Alla Pugacheva, who scandalised Intervision in 1978 by signing the cross on stage - YouTube
Russian singer Alla Pugacheva, who scandalised Intervision in 1978 by signing the cross on stage - YouTube

But what did the Soviets think of this Capitalist cuckoo in their nest? Mostly, they were unbothered. The Soviets, after all, had their own song contest, Song of the Year. And, barring the occasional grumble in behind-the-scenes reports about entitled Soviet acts, Intervision’s organisers were wary of it becoming a forum for anti-Soviet dissent. Instead, the criticisms had to be more subtle – in fine Eurovision style, it was the presenters' barbed comments, and audience behaviour that proved most wounding.

“Of course, I knew the rules,” the presenter, Jacek Bromski, told the BBC in 2012. “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.”

One organiser, Eugeniusz Terlecki, recalled: “Sometimes even good artists from the Soviet Union were not appreciated and got whistled at by the spectators. Russian people as a nation are fine. But the Soviet Union as a country and as a government did a lot of bad things and we remember that.”

Western interval acts, though, were allowed more licence. Afro-funk band Boney M. gave a joyously hyperactive performance of their hit Rasputin at the 1979 Intervision. The song was banned in the USSR for its reference to the Tsarist monarchy even though it celebrated, as the lyrics had it, “Russia’s greatest love machine”. It was a daring choice, therefore, for Intervision's organisers.

Yet the most dramatic moment of anti-Soviet protest might never have happened at all. According to some accounts, towards the end of her performance the Russian singer Alla Pugacheva, who won the competition in 1978, spontaneously made the sign of the cross on stage – an incident of high moral daring in the avowedly atheist USSR. Polish TV director Jerzy Gruza remembered it thus: “At the end of her performance Pugacheva made the sign of the cross. There was big applause. But the head of Polish Television took me aside and said, 'What a scandal - we're going to cut your pay.'"

But Vuletic isn’t convinced. “I’ve looked for it many times on TV, and I couldn’t find it. I just don’t believe it happened – people remember things the way they want to remember them. To achieve their success, these artists had to at least conform to Communist party principles and such high-profile criticism wasn’t common in Intervision.”

Besides, many artists saw Intervision as a stepping stone to achieving something far more life-changing – success in the West. One such musician who realised this dream was the Czech singer Karel Gott. Fuelled by his exposure at Intervision and other TV programmes, he became the country’s best-selling male singer, releasing more than 100 albums and shifting 50-100 million records worldwide – 23 million of which were in Germany. Gott’s voice, like Intervision’s influence, lilted playfully across the Iron Curtain.

Helena Vondráčková won in 1977 – and met her husband - Helena Vondráčková
Helena Vondráčková won in 1977 – and met her husband - Helena Vondráčková

The contest was also a launching pad for the career of Helena Vondráčková, a fellow Czech. She won in 1977 with the song Malovaný džbánku. “I consider [the win] a great honour. This song became so popular that my fans do not allow me to miss it even once during my performances,” she told me. “But, to be fair, this song proved to be popular in all the other countries I perform in such as Germany, Japan, Canada and many others.”

Vondráčková, likewise, saw little anti-Soviet sentiment. “I have never participated in the Eurovision contest so I cannot comment on that. However, I definitely didn’t spot such feelings during the Intervision festival,” she says. “[Intervision] connected musicians from all over the world and it allowed us to make often life-long friendships.”

Vondráčková ought to know: after her win, the bassist for the East German band Kreis, Helmut Sickel, came up to congratulate her. Shortly afterwards, they were married.

But Intervision’s halcyon promise didn’t last long. In 1980, Intervision risked being upstaged by another mass event: at the Gdańsk shipyards, the original venue of the Sopok song festival, a coalition of unions and workers went on strike. Led by the charismatic metalworker Lech Wałęsa – aka “the small man with a big moustache” – this industrial action became a countrywide movement, Solidarity, which agitated for reform and to escape the Soviet sphere of influence.

There is no evidence Solidarity was inspired by Intervision. But the foreign correspondents clustered in nearby Sopok covering the festival certainly didn’t hurt: western journalists were always keen on a story which talked up the fracturing of Soviet dominance. And the unrest made the organisers jittery.

Leader: Lech Wałęsa addresses workers at the Lenin Shipyard - Chris Niedenthal
Leader: Lech Wałęsa addresses workers at the Lenin Shipyard - Chris Niedenthal

“There was big tension,” Gruza recalls. “I remember there was a big bang up on stage. A lamp had broken. Two minutes later the entire orchestra was sitting in the bus trying to escape. They were terrified by the sound of the bulb breaking. They thought it was a bomb, or the Resistance, or something.”

1980 was Intervision’s final year. The following summer saw martial law imposed across Poland, and tanks juddering through its streets. But, in some senses, its timing was unlucky – five years later, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Party and slowly ushered in the glasnost reforms which pivoted the Soviet Union towards the west. Intervision could have been a hallmark of these policies.

“There’s a legacy of depreciation towards the cultural products of the Soviet Union,” says Vuletic. “But in Intervision, we have an example of common European cultural heritage during the Cold War, and cooperation between east and west.”

Yet 1980 wasn’t quite the end of the Intervision. In 2008, Putin attempted to revive the contest, even going as far as to choose a venue – Sochi – and invite former Eastern Bloc countries such as Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus. Unlike the original Intervision, though, it was explicitly conceived as a rival to Eurovision which, until that point, Russia had never won. Russia was to play the figurehead in a way which it never was in the original competition, and Western countries were excluded.

2008’s Intervision was a dud. That same year Russia won Eurovision, and so gained the right to host the 2009 competition. Putin’s pride was appeased and plans for the revived Intervision were scrapped. And its legacy of pan-European cooperation became one of the many casualties of Putin’s history-distorting machine.

This year more than ever Eurovision’s political kabuki is to the fore: Russia is a pop pariah, excluded from the competition the day after it invaded Ukraine. Ukraine's entry, Kalush Orchestra, meanwhile, has been on a victory lap since long before the final on May 14. “Ukraine has already won,” observes Vuletic. “It won the political and diplomatic battle as soon as Russia was banned from the stage.”

Solidarity – usually in short supply at Eurovision – is the byword of this year’s competition. No matter what happens on Saturday night, Eurovision has finally realised what Intervision sought to prove: that music can bridge east and west. And that, despite linguistic and political barriers, we share more than that which splits us. Even if that’s simply a love of rhinestone, glitter and hairy-shirted women belting out folk songs.

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