They were the voices of Travolta, Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the Soviet Union

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They were the voices of Travolta, Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the Soviet Union

When the pirate ribbons passed the Iron Curtain, the dubbing was done by a couple of men – with hilarious results.

The race between the Soviet Union and the United States, however, continued at a good pace as the two countries agreed in a sort of exchange – and measurement of achievement – to sponsor two events, one in each country. In the second, at the American National Exhibition, the two presidents sat down for a debate. The setting: traditional American cuisine. The conversation became known as the kitchen debate.

Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon drew from their trump cards. The Russian president bragged about his missiles. The American of the technologies that make life more comfortable, like color television. After the event, Khrushchev received a replay of the debate. The technology required to play the tape did not yet exist in the Soviet Union.

The problem was quickly resolved by a team of investigators in charge of the task. And it was the highest government officials who began enjoying the privilege that was forbidden to the rest of the population. They had the perfect excuse to delve into the banned Hollywood productions: they were investigating the enemy.

However, there was a second problem to be solved. Few spoke and understood English. Then it was decided that these private sessions should be translated live in Moscow’s largest cinemas.

It was a small step from private government circles to secret tours. VHS tapes became popular, the Soviet government gradually opened up to American films – and people needed a solution that would enable them to understand everything that was being said.

“The films were dubbed by a lonely male voice overwriting the original sound. This was a very low tech process. We could hear the original lines in English while listening to the dubbing, both at about the same volume. The sound quality was terrible and noises filled the silence between the lines, ”revealed Professor Elmar Hashimov in a chronicle published in The Atlantic in 2018.

The Azerbaijan-born Soviet experienced the madness with the arrival of the American VHS in the first person. Thanks to this mixture of Russian and English, he learned to master the language and became a university professor of the language at a California university.

“The voice of the same actor played all roles in every take, male or female, and even small children. And because this translation work was illegal, we speculated that anyone who does it is holding their nose to hide their identity. It made Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and their friends sound like Smithers from the Simpsons, ”he explains.

In fact, this work was delivered not to one, but to a couple of actors whose identities were known. At the top was Leonid Volodarsky, who will have fully dubbed more than five thousand films.

He was the most recognized voice in the entire Union. Born in Moscow in 1950, the son of language teachers, Volodarsky learned the basics of English at the age of four. By the time he finished college, he was fluent in Russian, English, Spanish, French, and Italian.

And the nasal voice that Hashimov spoke of was easily explained not by some kind of secrecy trick that was never denied, but by a broken nose as a result of a fight.

It was Volodarsky who was present at the first demonstrations, which were made exclusively for KGB politicians and agents. When cassettes later began to circulate on the black market, he took part in recordings that carried his voice to all corners of the Soviet Union.

Despite criticism of the lack of intonation and the feel it gave the voice overs, the truth is that Volodarsky has become a myth. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he continued to work on films and series – for example, he translated the dialogues from “The Sopranos”. And the status of a cult voice led him to several dubbing sessions in honor of the good old days.

Behind Volodarsky stood Andrei Gavrilov, who is credited with dubbing nearly two thousand films, but who became known as the pioneer of translation technology. He also took part in the simultaneous synchronization, at least until he began to work independently.

In addition to a different style, the translators stuck to different genres. Gavrilov, for example, preferred action films. After the collapse of the Union, he continued to work on site, but also as a journalist – and was even the official interpreter for the broadcast of the Oscar awards on Russian television.

Aleksey Mikhalyov was another of the voices heard on pirated copies, he was President Leonid Brezhnev’s official translator. And his work earned him the honor of associating his name with the national award for best translation in cinema.

Leonid Volodarsky has doubled over five thousand films