This will be long, and potentially boring, so grab some coffee and brace yourself. . . I was not so popular with the crowd when I was a kid. A geek, too skinny, too tall, too goofy, too shy, wearing some recycled clothes donated by my aunt. . . When we were pre-teens and young teenagers, Levi’s jeans just started showing up in Soviet Union. My parents got me some Turkish-made knock-off pair, so I felt a little bit more popular. Otherwise, my mom would take some very old-fashioned outfits from my aunt take them in here and there, modifying them, but I always felt like an old grandma wearing those auntie clothes to school dances. And then, oh Lordie, horror of all horrors, I had to wear eye glasses! Good thing, some popular singers, like Vytautas Kernagis, about whom I will write below, wore glasses too, made me think I am a little bit cool.
The big hair of the 80s and early 90s started. We did not have or maybe could not afford hairspray, so home-made concoctions worked just as well. We would dissolve some sugar in a bowl of water, and sugared up our hair to make it stand up big, it surely was sticky! I just remember messing with that hair in frustration for a long time, but boy, did I think it was worth it! Then little flakes of sugar would flake off the hair as it dried out.
Grandma told me her stories, from her youth, how they did the same thing, except that back then, she did not even have sugar, so they did it with honey. She said she put honey on her hair, took a walk across the village to meet some suitable men, and instead of suitors, she was followed by some bees buzzing around her like a flower. Nothing new under the sun, I suppose.
One of the most memorable and my most disliked summer activities of the 80s was picking off Colorado potato beetles and their larvae off our potato plants. Lithuanians grow and eat crazy amounts of potatoes. Potatoes fried, potatoes mashed, potatoes with sour cream, potatoes with bacon, potato pancakes, dill potatoes, potato salad, potato dumplings, potatoes stuffed with potatoes. . . They are cheap, easy to grow, and keep all winter. And the only problem with potatoes was the Colorado potato beetles. Grandpa would give us some tin cans, and we would walk, row after row after row of blossoming potato plants picking off the beetles and mushy larvae and throwing them into the cans. They figured it was kids job. Then he would burn them. Sometimes my cousin would smash them with rocks. That was our pest control. I watched with a bit of horror those buggers burn. . .
And here is the kicker of the story. The potato beetle is a pest that spread to Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, and in the Soviet Union it was rumored to have been introduced by an American plot. A huge political and agricultural propaganda against this American potato beetle started in the Soviet Union. They claimed that the bug was introduced to East Germany and Poland by the United States as a form of entomological warfare. Communists claimed that the insects were being dropped from parachutes and balloons to cause famine and economic crisis. The war against the potato beetle was so heated, as if conquering the potato beetle was beating the American capitalist himself. In East Germany, children’s books were published to encourage kids to gather as many of those nasty American beetles as they could. Posters were hung depicting the stripped potato beetle with white and red stripes and white stars on blue thorax, marching across Germany – take a look here. They claimed that these beetles are smaller than atomic bomb, but just as dangerous.
As we picked our nasty hungry potato beetles, eerily pinching up the gooey soft larva with our bare hands, I remember my dad would joyously sing: “We’ll smash into pieces those Colorado beetles!”. I later heard this song over and over again, eventually singing it along the crowd during our singing revolution of 1989-1990. The iconic song, Colorado Beetles, was released in 1983 by Vytautas Kernagis.
Kernagis, like the Polish bard Marek Grechuta, pioneered sung poetry in Lithuania, songs which placed more emphasis on words than innovative melodies. He started his singing career around 1966, in high school rock band, after listening to records of Rolling Stones and the Animals sent by his American uncle (remember, no foreign songs on TV or radio at that time, all had to be underground). His high school band became quite popular (despite his thick-rimmed glasses!), and although the English words they sang were quite incomprehensible, Soviet police recruited spies among Kernagis’ classmates to compile a file of all his transgressions. Even worse, they sent a provocateur to have Kernagis sign a founding statement of a fictional organization called Free Lithuania. This was a crime of course in the eyes of KGB. His schoolmates were further manipulated into a vote to expel him from the organization Komsomol. This would mean he cannot be admitted to a university. He left school and enrolled in an evening program. Here he founded a new band, and in 1971 released a famous song, “Song of the Road” – “if we have hearing, we hear a song”, which became popular in an autobiographical role he played in 1971 film Small Confession, in which he played Ben, a student expelled from school for “silly reasons”. The public very well understood, that “illegal” story-line made into a film.
After the 1968 Czech revolution, Soviet censorship of public concerts was intense. Electric guitars and drums were still allowed, but words like “rock and roll” had to replaced by “contemporary youth music”. These underground rock musicians were not under supported, paid (and therefore not officially censored) government institutions, so they were a threat. Kernagis’ songs were not allowed on radio or television. He wrote around two hundred songs, many of them humorous. His song on Smashing the Colorado Beetles exaggerated the Soviet propaganda campaign against the beetles into an absurd parody. The heroes in the song, like the brigadier, milkmaid, and accordionist are all caricatures of the Soviet Kolkhoz, Collective Farm.
The greatest irony is that people loved the optimism of the song. Most of his songs expressed happiness. “I rescue people,” his character Ben remarked in that 1971 film. Indeed he did, his music rescued Soviet people from hopelessness, routine. One of his contemporaries once said, “He changed people’s attitudes about things in life that were not going to change soon, but it was possible to laugh a bit, because ‘we’ll smash it into pieces’! He rescued you simply because with him, you felt the power of togetherness.”
He was sort of local Bob Dylan for Lithuanians. “My politics,” recalled Kernagis, “were always based on the idea, that, in critical situation, a human with a good soul will choose the correct path. What sung poetry accomplished was a movement of the soul, and this was very big politics, particularly in the so-called frozen period.” (quotes from book The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution, 2013 – great book)
And here is the Colorado Beetle song we all sang “from the heart” while collecting those Colorado Beetles. It may not make sense to you, it is written in hyperbolic irony, exaggerated irony, for the Soviet people, when a song could not be a direct criticism of something, and had to glorify the system, while secretly poking fun at it.
Up on the blue and lofty river shore
It’s nice to dream a bit and drink;
The Kolkhoz workers will arrive and sing
And tell about the annual harvest,
And the report on task completion methods
Will be presented by brigadier Rapolas;
He’ll tell about the new potato species
That doesn’t fear the Colorado Beetle.
The willow trees on both riverbanks
Will hear and sigh about their happiness.
The head accordionist will play and
Accompany a song that he created.
We’ll smash into pieces
Those Colorado beetles,
And potatoes will bloom again!
And having advanced agriculture
In our dear Kolkhoz, we
Will sing from the heart.
A wandering star above a twittering nightingale,
The moon shall reflect in the bottle,
And on the old and lengthy railroad tracks
With little sparks a train shall glimmer.
And going out into the Kolkhoz fields
I’ll take a horse, a milkmaid, and a lyre.
Now she is singing, and with her sing I,
And a tractor is singing in the sky.
We’ll smash into pieces… (repeat chorus)
RIP Vytautas Kernagis (May 1951 – March 2008)
Those were the days of big sugar hair, fake Levi’s and smashing Colorado Beetles. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Potato Beetle is still endemic in those parts of the world, unfortunately being fought with more pesticides. Bug warfare was used since ancient days, bees, hornets, wasps, scorpions introduced to enemies and enemy armies (Mayan stories, Roman stories, Biblical stories abound – the book Six Legged Soldiers has some interesting accounts on bug warfare and history). The most ironic thing, when I lived in the Soviet Union, I thought Soviet propaganda about Colorado beetle was such incredible non-sense. Now that I had lived in the USA and had seen America’s behavior in the world, I still do not believe the bug story, but I don’t think Soviet story was that far-fetched. After all, Britain, Germany and France, all considered using potato beetles in WWI and WWII as warfare.
Singing revolutions came and went, changing things, yet keeping them exactly the same. My only wish is this: hopefully the big hair never makes a comeback.
Czech Propaganda Film on “American Bugs” (look a the amount of DDT they are spraying..)