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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The USSR and all that jazz

I am back from Slovakia now, and had a lovely time thanks. On my final weekend, while football related mayhem reigned in Bratislava, I took a trip northwards to the Czech countryside. I was shown several fine churches, but the most intriguing item of my stay did not involve any sightseeing trips, at any rate not by me. It concerned, rather, one of my host’s first cousins, a man called Karel Krautgartner.

Krautgartner was Czecho-Slovakia’s answer to Benny Goodman, that is to say a hugely accomplished jazzman who could also more than hold his own in the classical repertoire, on clarinet, saxophone and all related instruments. My host played me a videotape of a Czech TV documentary recently shown to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Krautgartner’s death. He looked like a James Bond villain, and played sublimely. He didn’t seem to have been a huge creative musical force. But he was a great band leader and organiser, who inserted successive jazz innovations from America into Czech musical life, and who added middle-European technical polish and discipline to everything he touched.

Krautgartner was only about sixty when he died, of cancer of the colon, in West Germany. He had emigrated there on account of his unwillingness, following the suppression of the Prague Spring of the late nineteen sixties in which he had played a prominent part, to become a Soviet stooge. Concerning Krautgartner’s death my host told me a fascinating and terrible story, which was not mentioned in the documentary, but which my host had learned through being personally acquainted with many of the personalities involved.

Somewhere in the Urals, during the nineteen fifties, a nuclear bomb went off by mistake in a research laboratory, devastating the entire surrounding region, with, as you can imagine, appalling loss of life. The USSR, being the USSR, decided a few years later, in the early sixties, to start repopulating the area, and damn the consequences in terms of human disease, which were appalling too. The USSR was no lover of jazz, but it was willing to use jazz for its own higher purposes, such as to add a dash of glamour to an otherwise wholly dreadful human environment where it nevertheless wanted people to live, and so various showbiz acts were despatched to the area, including a jazz band lead by Karel Krautgartner. And, according to my host, Krautgartner wasn’t the only one to die at about the age of sixty, of cancer. They all did. That’s right. The entire band later died prematurely of cancer. And this after a visit lasting hardly more than a few days.

Now I don’t understand the technicalities of thermo-nuclear pollution, but it seems that it is not something that is evenly spread. It concentrates itself in particular places where it finds it particularly easy to hang around, and as a result there was one happy exception to the collective, delayed death sentence that the band later found itself condemned to.

One of the band members took a more, let us say, American jazzman’s view of his responsibilities, and passed on the sight-seeing aspect of the trip, choosing instead to stay stuck in his hotel room consuming a continuous supply of cigarettes and alcohol. As a result he lived about a decade longer than the others.

I love that. A man’s life is prolonged by his addiction to alcohol and nicotine. True, he eventually died of throat cancer brought on by smoking too much, but even so: hurrah!! Smoking And Drinking Can Sometimes Seriously Protect Your Health.

I treasure this story, because it seems to me to sum up, in a way that is downright artistic, the whole multi-faceted achievement that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics � its obsession with punching militarily above its weight, its proneness to huge accidents; its indifference to human life, including human lives appropriated from far away countries; its hatred of everything popular and western but its willingness to succumb to such things for its own over-ridingly vile purposes; the spectacular poisoning of the environment, far, far beyond the worst of the petty pollutions committed by Western corporate capitalism; the way that the most intelligent thing to do if you got swallowed up in it was to get blind drunk; and the way that it all eventually collapsed amidst a hurricane of plummeting life-expectancy statistics. It’s all there. (Only the arctic death camps are missing, but they’ve been well covered by others.) And I treasure being a Samizdatan and having somewhere to put the story.

What I don’t know is how well known it already is. My host reckoned this hadn’t been written about before, not with regard to these particular musicians anyway. But there must be a mass of reportage of the explosion itself and general surrounding miseries, especially now that the USSR’s successor government has finally admitted that the thing did happen. Samizdata readers are pretty hot on the technicalities of weaponry, so maybe there’ll be some good comments and the story will grow somewhat. I hope so. It’s important to keep reminding ourselves what a good thing it was that the Cold War was won, mostly without severe explosions, by Civilisation rather than by its opponents.

(Come to think of it, fellow Samizdatan Dale Amon knows about weapons and about this kind of music, the way I know about neither. I wonder what he may have to tell us.)

2 comments to The USSR and all that jazz

  • Dale Amon

    I’m aware of a serious radiological accident in the Urals back in “that time frame” but I don’t know much detail beyond that. I believe they also had some biohazard accidents as well. I have never heard of an outright nuclear explosion and would be quite interested in any detail.

    I do know one american musician (Thom Moore) who became well known in Ireland and then became a US arms inspector… and is still living in the Urals, married to a lovely Russian lass with whom he had a (probably now grown) handsome young blonde and blue eyed baby boy. I unfortuneately have no idea how to contact him other than to hope I run into him visiting a fleadh or songwriter get together here some day. Probably before the end of the decade 🙂

  • Yes, that’s me’uncle, that is, whom I never had a chance to meet. He died in West Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, both (his death and the Wall) courtesy of the Soviet communists…