View Full Version : 1990s Soviet bowlback

Jun-25-2009, 2:58pm
This is a mandolin my brother bought in the waning days of the Soviet Union. It's a bowlback, and nobody's ever done anything with it. I know nothing about mandolins and actually haven't looked at it in years -- had my father take a photo of it (it's stored at their house), since I'm thinking of trying to do something with it. Does it look vaguely playable to you guys? My brother thinks it's just a tourist trinket, but it actually looks a lot better than I remember.

ETA: He bought it in 1992, but god knows when it's from. I don't think it's an antique, but on the other hand, I don't think it had an air of shiny newness when he bought it.

Jim Garber
Jun-25-2009, 3:00pm
Prob a shallow-bowl, what some call Portuguese style? The bridge is in the wrong place. The bridge should basically be the same distance from the 12th fret as the nut.

Jun-25-2009, 3:04pm
Well, that's not good. I guess whoever glued the bridge on didn't want to ruin the little picture. Thanks.

I think it is a shallow-bowl, yes.

Jun-25-2009, 3:19pm
I should have asked -- does it seem worth tinkering with to fix? Is it even fixable? Hardly a luthier here. I do think the bridge might just be glued on.

Paul Kotapish
Jun-26-2009, 2:50pm
It looks like one of the souvenir instruments (cheap balalaikas, domras, and mandolins) that they sold at the Beryoshka stores in the state-controlled Intourist hotels for foreigners in the Soviet era.

I did a couple of tours of the Soviet Union and met a lot of musicians there--including several bluegrass bands--and the mandolinists were mostly playing really crummy instruments. It was very difficult to find anything decent at all in the way of player instruments. Many of the best instruments for Russian and Ukranian trad music were actually being made in other countries. I left a bunch of picks and strings over there.

It's always worth a closer look, of course, but my guess is that it's a wall hanger.

A slight digression:

One of the bluegrass mandolinists I met in Moscow was part of one of the hot folk/bluegrass bands on the local scene. He was good player and was very unusual in that he was playing a vintage Gibson H-4 mandola with a custom tailpiece, nut, and bridge. It was strung up with special strings so that he could get them to pitch at the longer scale length. This combo didn't actually sound all that great at mandolin pitch, but he was very proud of his instrument. He claimed that during the "Great Patriotic War" (aka WWII), his father (or maybe grandfather) had swapped his balalaika with an American G.I. when the two forces met up and partied on thebanks of the Elbe in April, 1945. The two soldiers apparently hung out and jammed and then traded instruments. Who knows if I got the story straight--or if he was telling it straight--but it was an interesting yarn, in any case. The band was called Кукуруза (which translates as "corn") actually made a few tours of the U.S. and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.


Bill Snyder
Jun-26-2009, 3:10pm
The bridge should not be glued on. It should just be held on by string pressure. Not a big deal to loosen the strings a bit and position it properly.

Jun-28-2009, 11:08pm
Thanks, all. My brother emailed me back and said he got it at a shop in the bohemian district rather than a Beryoshka. Even so, am fully prepared for it to be a wall hanger. At least it's pretty.

Fascinating story, Paul. Wouldn't be surprised if it were true!

Plamen Ivanov
Jun-29-2009, 12:45am
Nothing more to add. Just to confirm that those flatback mandolins are basically cr#p (personal experience). You can ask your father whether this particular one is made of wood and not plastic. In both cases - a wall hanger. The only good russian mandolin that i played was a bowlback, which seemed to be hand made. The ones that we are talking about are mass souvenir production. And they were pretty cheap.

Jun-29-2009, 6:12pm
It definitely is wood, and it is a bowlback. So who knows... I'm not optimistic, but I will have to go look at it. My brother's away, so I can't ask if he got it at a shop selling tons of them, or maybe a store with vintage stuff -- he did buy some little older souvenirs there.

Keith Erickson
Jul-01-2009, 12:53pm

I enjoyed reading your perspective on this. I don't know if you remember, there was a country/ bluegrass band from the old Soviet Union called Bering Strait.

Interesting history behind the band. You're post about Corn just joggled my memory of another group of talant from the old USSR.

As for taking a mandola into battle......I just can't imagine taking something like that into battle. Wouldn't that get in the way? Sort of like saying, "I never go into battle with lose change in my pocket"....thank you Dr. StrangeLove ;)

As for the Mando....

It's still pretty. If it can't be salvaged that would truly be sad. St. Basil's Cathedral on a mando during a jam would be a nice conversation piece.

Plamen Ivanov
Jul-02-2009, 2:17am
What i see on the picture isn't actually a bowlback.

Jul-02-2009, 3:44pm
I don't know much about the technical terms, but let me put it this way: the back is rounded, definitely not flat. Maybe it's bowlback-ish.

Keith, your post made me laugh. Kind of like those old Fender ads, where people had guitars in all kinds of ridiculous situations. "You won't part with yours either."

Jul-03-2009, 7:50am
I have many of my instruments hanging on my walls anyway, both players and non-players. My regular sized domra and balalaika are both pretty much souvenier style so they are up there, but so is my bajo sexto and bass guitar except when I'm playing them. Our 2 double basses round out the tableau in the corners by a non-functional chimney. It keeps them at hand and also keeps them in sight where I'm more likely to get them out. I just got a bunch of those guitar hangers at a reduced price and we've been slowly hanging things up....don't have it all up yet and can't really figure a place for my guitarron that it won't be in the way! But by your picture, that mandolin is pretty enough to be a wall hanger AND a player anyway....so maybe it will never be worth alot, who cares? You can still strum it and play it AND decorate your room at the same time! Yvonne

man dough nollij
Jul-04-2009, 2:37am
Yvonne, it must be nice to be able to hang players on the wall. The relative humidity (RH) here in the dorms hovers around 1%. When I'm back in the real world, I'm usually in Montana, where it's not a whole lot better. Forced air heat in a little house in southwest Montana yeilds pretty low RH in the house, especially in the winter. I keep my Eastman in a plastic hard case with two Oasis humidifiers, and have been fine so far. Fingers crossed!

Vladimir Seleznev
Jul-04-2009, 8:53am
Well, most of soviet instruments made at the end of 80s beginning 90s were completely unplayable. Except very rare occasions. There were many political and economical reasons for that. Long story. But on the other hand they have significant historical value :) Because, mandolins were relatively rare thing in SU. Mass production was only on one factory in Leningrad, and not much of them were produced. Only classic bowelbacks were produced. Most of pro players do not use them anyway because Czechoslovakian mandolins (now Strunal brand) were available and were better.
So keep it. It is rare thing :)
Also this post reminds me that I have not herd about Kukuruza for many years... So I checked, they still play on occasions... Their site - http://www.kukuruza.info/index.shtml

Jul-06-2009, 1:03pm
Thanks all -- I'll have to come back and let you know what the verdict is when I take it to get set up, probably in September. My brother is coming to visit in early September, and I will get him to read the label then, too (I don't read Russian).