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Stringband: "Soviets are sincere"

Eric Walberg — December 1983

Efforts to limit the danger of nuclear war through arms control can obscure the fact that it is people, not weapons, who wage wars. Greater understanding and acceptance of nations whose political beliefs and social values differ from our own are essential if we want to replace the threat of nuclear destruction with peaceful co-existence.

The pursuit of such increased understanding has prompted many Canadians concerned about peace to visit the Soviet Union to meet directly with its people and their leaders. In the last year, noted political figures such as Waiter Gordon and George Ignatieff have made such trips, as have groups such as the Canadian Institute for International Affairs and Christian Initiatives for Peace.

Another such emissary of peace is the Canadian folk group Stringband, which recently returned from a one-month, 24-concert tour of the Soviet Union. The tour was the brainchild of Stringband’s founder, Bob Bossin.

The idea first crossed his mind about four years ago when he was performing in Timmins Ontario on the same stage as the “mini-Bolshoi” — in the local high school gym. A member of the Bolshoi told him that in the Soviet Union, a city the size of Timmins would automatically have a large concert hall. Now Bossin has returned from Stringband’s Soviet tour favourably impressed with the various “Palaces of Culture” they played in. He said that these halls ranged from 900 to 6,000 seats, the latter an impressive new hall in Tallinn.

Bossin sees the Stringband tour as having two purposes. First, he feels that cultural understanding between peoples is essential to break down the tensions characterising the East/West stand-off.

Secondly, Stringband represented the Canadian peace movement to its Soviet audiences. “A majority of Canadians do not agree that the best way to deal with the Soviets is along the barrel of a cruise missile,” said Bossin with conviction just prior to their departure for the Soviet Union. He told audiences on their tour that “not everybody in Canada wanted to see the new weapons in Europe.”

Moreover, Bossin came back more convinced than when he left that “the Soviets are sincere in their peace overture, both the man in the street and the government. They know what war is about. We played in Minsk, where one quarter of the population was killed in World War II.”

Bossin’s grandfather was born in Kiev, and Bossin made a point of studying Soviet history and culture before setting out. In Stringband’s closing set at the Club Isabella in August before leaving on the tour, he performed a skit where he introduced himself as a Soviet visitor — Ivan Tovarishch. It was a thoughtful and sometimes humorous view of that the world might look like’ from the average Soviet citizen’s point of view.

“Just imagine, after our revolution to imperialist armies invaded us. We fought them off and built up our country. only to have Germans destroy everything in one year. We lost 20 million lives in Nazi invasion. Thai is why we never allow hostile country on our border.”

Bossin could see pluses and minuses in the month that Stringband spent in the Soviet Union. “Culturally it’s better there in terms of preserving their rich folk heritage. In terms of how people live and how creative their lives can be, it is not as bad as it is painted here. There are all sorts of ways of slipping around and through the system.” He was delighted to find a bluegrass band in Tallinn, sponsored by the local shoe factory.

On the other hand, he voiced criticism on the subject of civil rights, in particular “the liberty to explore things artistically.” However, “the issue of peace and war transcends all others. We simply cannot afford to break off contact with a country like the Soviet Union. As we’ve closed down detente, there’s less pressure on them to slack off.”

Their reception on the whole was positive, though by no means uniform. “Minsk in Byelorussia was like playing Alberta. When we did our disarmament stuff there, they raised the roof a few inches.” As for Estonians, they seemed “almost dour.” Bossin found the Latvians to be “the most sophisticated of our audiences. “

The songs they took with them were both ribald and serious, from ‘The Log-Driver’s Waltz’ to ‘Aragon Mill.’ They even performed a Russian version of ‘Down by the Riverside.’ The badges they made up with the logo “From Canada, With Peace” in Russian were a great .success.

Bossin is preparing a lecture on Stringband’s experiences as a peace emissary in the Soviet Union, and has generously offered the group’s services to the peace movement.