Picks and Pans Main: Video

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sylvester Stallone, hefting a machine gun and with muscles rippling across his naked chest, looms on the screen, opens his mouth—and starts speaking Russian in a high-pitched woman's voice. In the bootleg videotape now making the rounds of the Soviet Union, Rambo has become a character called Rainbow (a mistake in translation) and a woman has dubbed the entire sound track.

Despite such peculiarities, the demand for Western videotapes is huge and has led to a flourishing, and illegal, industry. When Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in America in 1985, the Soviet government and official media harshly criticized the movie for its graphic violence and "anti-Soviet" theme. Naturally that made a lot of Russians want to see it. A few Rambo videotapes may have been brought into the country by visiting Westerners or purchased by Soviets on trips abroad. The tapes found their way to what are called "video garages," usually two-room apartments used as clandestine factories for pirating tapes. In one room Sovietmade VCRs—which use a hybrid of the Western European PAL and SECAM systems—are modified to be able to show VHS cassettes. In the next room a translator dubs the sound track into Russian.

An undubbed, current Western film can fetch about 200 rubles (more than $300) on the black market, while a dubbed film costs about 50 rubles more. Pornographic videos, while illegal and dangerous to possess (the penalty is prison or labor camp), are in even greater demand, perhaps because Soviet society is publicly prudish, almost Victorian in its sexual attitudes, and usually cost 500 rubles ($785) or more. Because of the high prices, the dubbed Western tapes are often rented out by the video garage for as much as 50 rubles ($77) a night. To defray the cost people will invite friends over, charging each a small fee to watch the tape. This is highly risky. Consequently, once a Soviet acquires a VCR, he often finds other owners and joins an informal network of trusted acquaintances who buy, sell and swap films.

A legal video industry is booming alongside the illegal trade, though the Soviet Ministry of Light Industry began manufacturing video equipment only in 1985. A VCR and TV now sell for about 1,700 rubles ($2,670), more than six months' salary for many people. The equipment is poorly made, breaks down often and is difficult to repair, but demand is high, and prospective buyers must wait up to a year to buy a machine. Soviet VCRs have features similar to those used in America; they are programmable and can tape from the TV.

In Moscow only one store, Elektronika, sells the equipment, and three shops, known as "videoteks" or "video salons," sell and rent tapes. They rent only Soviet or East Bloc films or Western movies deemed "acceptable"—usually French comedies. American films are very rare. Most films rent for two or three rubles ($3 to $4.50) a day. Soviet films are released in theaters and on videotape at the same time, which means that the hottest ones, which sell for 40 to 100 rubles ($62 to $157), can be hard to find. At the moment two of the most popular Russian video movies are comedies—An Autumn Marathon, about a middle-age man trying to balance the demands of his wife, mistress and boss, and Irony of Fate, about a man who becomes drunk on New Year's Eve and stumbles into the apartment of a young woman.

Soviet people enjoy their own movies, of course, but Western movies are alluring because they provide a glimpse of life in countries that most will never get to visit. As much as the themes of the movies, Russians enjoy seeing what people are wearing, what their apartments look like, how Western lives differ from their own. It takes at least three or four years, often much longer, for American movies to reach the Soviet black market, but Russian videophiles are aware of which movies are nominated for Oscars, and they'll soon be angling for this year's winners. Recently making the rounds were Last Tango in Paris, White Nights, The Live Aid Concert and Cat People. Interestingly, the all-time favorite underground Western video among Soviets is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The Jack Nicholson Academy Award-winner, about a rebellious insane asylum inmate, is so wildly popular that the government reportedly may soon allow it to be shown in theaters. By that time the hip, video underground will be screening other forbidden pleasures.

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