Essay on Rock Music in the Soviet Union

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I vividly recall, as a child, riding in a car with my grandfather Nikolay, being slightly annoyed that instead of being allowed to listen to Justin Timberlake or Beyoncé, like any other normal teenager would, I had to content myself with sounds of the raw and rusty voice of a long-dead, the bus still very revered, Soviet-time bard singer, Vladimir Vysotsky. Attempting to decipher the heart-wrenching melancholic Russian lyrics, I asked my grandfather what was the artist singing about and why he sounded so desperate, almost frenzied, to which, after a short pause, he unexpectedly responded with, “It’s complicated…”. Only years later, after I became genuinely intrigued by studying my family’s heritage and culture, I began to realize what my grandfather meant by his answer. Like many things within the confines of the former Soviet Union, Russian rock and pop music had a complicated history, always edging on the precarious balance between neutrally non-political, all the while expressing the true undercurrent of raw dissatisfaction and rebellion, simultaneously hoping to provoke a meaningful change, yet risking censorship and punishment by the ruling Communist Party.

Early Russian rock was shaped within the miscellany of the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, comprised of fifteen Republics which were mostly very diverse from one another in language, culture, and traditions, but forced together by the iron hand of the Communist rule following the Great Communist Revolution of 1917, and the following annexations after the end of World War II. Traditionally the so-called “non-Russian republics”, such as the Westernized Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the republics of the Caucasus region, particularly Georgia and Armenia, became breeding grounds for rock music. Due to their relatively remote location from the centralized power located in Moscow, such places became fertile grounds for the musical expression of alternating opinions, not directly sanctioned by the government. Activities such as rock festivals and rock bands, which were absolutely prohibited in Russia- especially in Moscow and Leningrad- were permissible in these republics as they were more insulated from reach by the center of power, thus creating the atmosphere in which Russian rock musicians could hone their craft and disseminate into the realms of the Russia proper.

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Prior to the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Soviet youth did not have rock music of its own, and neither did it have any concept of pop culture or fashion fads. Arguably, the very first culture fad appropriated by the Soviet youth took root in 1953 when “stiliagi” (from the Russian word «стиль» or “style”) first appeared in Moscow. Dressing in a contemporary Western style of the 1950s, “stillage” created a demand for its own new style of music to accompany its exotic looks. The illicit US-born jazz music became their first music of choice and so, it became fashionable for the Moscow “in-the-know” crowd to frequent dance halls and skating, while savoring the tunes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Even though “stiliagi” were often ridiculed in the caricatures of the then Soviet press, harassed in the street by orthodox-minded citizens, and even arrested by the Soviet «милиция» (the police), the movement continued to grow across the Soviet Republics, becoming more influential and managing to produce its own musical stars. Yet another crack in the proverbial “Iron Curtain” insulating the Soviet youth from Western pop culture occurred in the setting of the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students which took place in Moscow in the summer of 1957. Its purpose was to show the international youth and students, gathered in Moscow, the successes, achievements, and superiority of the Soviet Socialist system, and to glorify the struggle against capitalism and imperialism in order to achieve the superior societal state of socialism within their own countries. However, the fallout had an unexpected side effect: among the foreigners flooding Moscow streets were jazz musicians, beatnik poets, and modernist artists- all dressed in vogue fashion, dancing to the latest music hits they had brought along. As a result of this first-hand exposure to the avant-garde stimulus of Western pop culture, the waves of change started to gain strength, forecasting a storm against the dreary background of the forced Stalinist propagandistic culture, devoid of creativity and free ideas. The Russian youth was ready for the creation of its own distinct culture.

The first Soviet rock ‘n’ roll band, the Revengers, began their music career in the Baltic city of Riga, the capital of Latvia, in 1961. They used electric guitars smuggled from Czechoslovakia, and a homemade bass, rigged with piano wires used for strings. Like all subsequent first-generation Soviet rock bands, they performed the well-recognized rock ‘n’ roll anthems, unable to yet cultivate a voice of their own. At school dances, the Revengers played music by Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, and Little Richard, and they sang in bastardized English. The first Soviet singer to perform rock ‘n’ roll, was singer and composer Alexander Gradsky, whose name is indubitably connected with the history of the first period of Russian rock. Simultaneously, rock ‘n’ roll bands were also springing up in cosmopolitan centers such as Leningrad. This was certainly a period marked by adaptation of the Western style of the rock genre, which, at least early on, was marked by eager imitation of the famous rock ‘n’ roll narrative and the particular performance style identified with it. During this time, Soviet authorities did not view this new musical style as an emerging threat, perceiving it as nothing more than a passing fad, a mere distraction for some mod kids to play silly foreign songs with undecipherable lyrics at school dances, clubs, and cafes.

In the short period between 1966-1967, Alexander Gradsky was working alongside three bands, “Slaviane”, “Los Panchos” and “Skify” (the Scythians). However, a strong rift developed between him and his initial bandmates over the most fundamental artistic dilemma Soviet rock was facing at the period. Gradsky felt strongly that Russian rock had to be performed in the native tongue, and wanted to introduce original compositions in Russian, while the rest of the band believed, as did many other Russian rock musicians of the time, that their language was not suitable for rock songs and that such compositions were doomed to fail. Thus in 1967, as a result of this artistic conflict, Gradsky created his own band, “Skomorokhi” (The Jesters), which became the first Russian rock group to play original songs in Russian. In his search for a way of achieving the ‘Russification’ of native rock, Gradsky explored the national folkloric legacy with a high degree of success. This was a daring undertaking at a time when Russian folk music was not in vogue with many young people, who mistrusted the ‘folksy’ traditions which were for too long co-opted by the Soviet propaganda and the world of traditional, ‘grown-up’ composers and musicians.

What helped Gradsky in his efforts to create the original national rock tradition was a parallel movement of the so-called ‘singing poets,’ or singers-songwriters, known in Russia simply as ‘bards.’ This genre developed in the late 1950s at the juncture of urban folklore traditions, peasant ballads, and the ‘criminal’ folklore brought into cities by the thousands as former prisoners returned from Stalinist labor camps. For the first time during the Soviet era, these singer-songwriters created songs exploring the depths of intimate human emotions, the complexities of interpersonal relationships, and the existential issues of social injustice. They spoke honestly and with passion, evoking ‘the power of the truth’ in a simple vernacular often spiced by regional elements, dialects, criminal jargon, and, at times, obscenity meant to be understood by an oppressed academic, but also relatable to the common worker. Borrowing from the rich national treasure-trove of musical traditions, bards blended musical elements, drawn from Russian folk song, urban romances, gypsy tradition, classical song, cabaret, jazz, and more, creating that singular, inimitable and undeniably very Russian style of vocal tradition.

Deeply influenced by the bard movement, and in the process of searching for their own musical identity, Gradsky and his contemporaries, moved down the path of fusing their native Russian oral and musical traditions with that of Western rock. As such, these artists became capable of writing not only fundamentally new lyrics for this novel kind of music, they produced popular songs that could relate to greater masses, containing lyrics that dealt with actual social issues and therefore evoking social awareness in their listeners. Once Soviet rock musicians singing in Russia established rock’ n’ roll’s relevance to the national cultural landscape, the ideological watchdogs sensed its subversive power and recognized its insidious threat. This signaled the end of the ‘period of innocence,’ when rock music was left to its own devices. The growing Soviet rock community found itself under increasing pressure and scrutiny by the authorities.

First, the authorities attempted to subvert musicians with money and offered them professional titles and recognitions. Amateur musicians, including the majority of Soviet rock musicians, were not accustomed to monetary compensation for their performances, nor did they customarily receive governmental support to cover touring booking and equipment expenses. The status of a “professional”, however, guaranteed prestige and stable financial compensation for one’s work. However, this came with a price, as such artists would be subject to heavy censorship in all aspects of creative work and personal image, including lyrics, the style of a haircut, choice of outfit; even the specifics of their guitar sound and the degree of ‘heaviness’ of the drum beat could be controlled. These professional bands were dubbed «Вокальные Инструментальные Ансамбли» (“Vocal Instrumental Ensembles”) or the “VIA”. They generally produced lightweight pop with only very minor allusions to rock music. Notably, many talented musicians who learned to play as amateurs, eventually chose this dependable means of earning money, abandoning the truth and real calling of rock music, and producing only an oversimplified, deluded version of it. Yet, the amateur bands, which aspired to remain true to their calling and refused to sell out their artistic freedoms, found it increasingly difficult to secure rehearsal spaces as well as venues in which to perform. Many of the rock musicians were involuntarily “invited” into the offices of the KGB apparatus responsible for ‘curating’ the youth music and culture, where they were advised to purge their lyrics of any social criticism or religious overtones, all the while being forced to turn down the volume of their amplifiers.

The first period of Russian rock music, which coincided with a relative cultural “thaw” in the ideological climate of the country, ushered by the coming to power of Nikita Khrushchev, abruptly came to an end when Khrushchev was demoted as the Premier of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1964. The much more conservative and vigilant new General Secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, who governed until 1982, is remembered for crafting an atmosphere of cultural and economic stagnation- a period free of brutal Stalinist reprisals, yet one of tight ideological control over all aspects of Soviet life. This time came to signify the intensification of anti-Western propaganda, escalation of the Cold War, and of a severe clamp down on political dissidents, artists and musicians; in short, anyone who deviated from the pre-approved narration established by the Communist Party. For the Soviet youth, the Brezhnev era, which spanned the entire 1970s and into the early 1980s, was marked by tragic isolation from their Western peers, punctuated by the feeling of hopelessness and stagnation. Meanwhile, the Russian rock community entered the 1970s having learned to sing in their own language, but split into two warring factions, having some talented musicians defect under the auspice of the tightly controlled “VIA” groups. This decade produced arguably the least novel and significant music to have ever marked the Soviet rock stage. The authorities made it increasingly difficult for amateur bands to find venues to perform, especially in public forums. To receive a permit to perform was becoming increasingly difficult, and the punishment for unsanctioned performances was quite severe. Students who were also aspiring rock musicians were being expelled from universities as a result of their “unhealthy” interests and were drafted into the Soviet Army before their academic deferment was due to expire. In some extreme cases, amateur rock musicians were subjected to punitive psychiatric treatments. Securing quality music equipment was often a problem as well, as many musicians were forced to retreat into their basements and garages, thus giving birth to the musical breed of the acoustic “apartment concerts” for a few chosen friends. Heavily influenced by British and European art rock, techno-rock, and progressive rock, made famous by iconic groups such as “Pink Floyd”, “Genesis”, and “Yes”, the elite cadre of Soviet rock devotees were wistful for a similar style of rock, yet to produce and perform the spectacle rivaling in grandeur to the likes of “Queen” within the confines of an apartment was impossible. Though Soviet rock musicians attempted to play deep, overblown, philosophical art rock, for the larger part, this decade was marked with failed attempts to produce mediocre facsimiles of Western progressive rock bands.

By 1979, it has become apparent that merely sticking to well-established progressive rock traditions has become an artistic dead end for Soviet rock. Concurrently, the arrival of punk rock was initially received by the Soviet rock community with skepticism, as Soviet rock musicians had no tradition of playing loud, dissonant music not grounded in melodic harmonies. They were still enamored by “clean” sound, harmonic tunes, and elaborate arrangements, striving for a rich musical palette. Thus, the liberating power of punk rock was lost on them at first. Therefore, for the most part, punk rock as an art form did not take root in the Soviet Union. What happened instead was that punk’s influence became evident and significant not through the kind of music it promulgated, but in the very attitude of its ardent disciples toward music, the audiences, and life in general. ‘Punkish’ tendencies began to manifest themselves in the outfits that musicians wore, in their hooligan-like antics on stage, in ‘absurd,’ nihilistic, and socially critical lyrics, and in a ‘careless’ manner of performing such music. Meanwhile, the new crop of rock bands played the hodgepodge of heavy metal, electropop, folk, and pop rock, but considered themselves as ‘punk’ because of their unfamiliar and unabashed attitude. The appearance of this paradoxical phenomenon is closely associated with Leningrad-based rocker Boris Grebenshchikov and his cult group «Аквариум», (the “Akvarium”). Incorporating and experimenting with diverse music genres such as jazz, art, hard rock, reggae, Baroque, Celtic and Russian folk music, while working entirely with either acoustic or purely electric sound, the group developed its singular sound and style, propelling to the stardom of the Russian pop scene. As Alexander Gradsky was the music guru of Soviet rock through the 1960s and 1970s, Grebenshchikov became its grand arbiter in the 1980s, thus shaping the identity of Soviet rock for that period. “Akvarium” introduced Soviet audiences to the sounds of the “new wave”- inspiring the renaissance of Soviet rock music. If ‘pure punk’ was alien to the musical sensibilities of a typical Soviet listener, the “new wave” represented a welcoming combination of an edgier style, yet harkening to the nostalgia of the prior style of rock, filled with more complex melodies and harmonies. This new liberating style was embraced by many bands which came onto the rock scene in the 1980s. This was as close to punk rock as the majority of Soviet bands ever came.

However feverishly Russian rock music was experiencing its revival, and one aspect remained constant- the continuous attempts to encumber and restrain the artistic freedoms of musicians on the part of the ruling Communist Party. In 1983, former Soviet KGB Chief Yuri Andropov succeeded the late Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, as the culturally conservative General Secretary of the Communist Party, fully sanctioning the prosecution and punishment of those who did not adhere to the sanctioned doctrine in their artistic expressions. After his death in 1984, a new leader came to power- Konstantin Chernenko- whose short reign was probably the most brutal period in the history of Soviet rock. The persecution of rock musicians reached an all-time high during this period, forcing many artists to either abandon their true artistic ideals or continue to work in obscurity, away from the unsolicited attention of the KGB. In 1985, Chernenko was succeeded by the self-proclaimed reformer Michail Gorbachev, and so, the process of the liberation – «Перестройка», the “Perestroika” of Soviet order, and by default, the Soviet culture had begun. Rock music benefited from this liberalization as possibly no other art form within the former Soviet Union, with the possible exception of literature at the time, and had contributed to the final ideological disintegration of Soviet doctrine and the consequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

The importance of Soviet rock music’s historic role in the process of the Soviet Union’s democratization lay in its liberation and disengagement of the national language and discourse from the ideological restraints and propaganda imposed by years of complicity with requirements of the Party-sanctioned political correctness. Rock musicians were the first Soviet citizens to become free in an ‘un-free’ country. They began to think like free people, speak like free people, artfully appropriating natural vernacular and folklore, determined to evade ideological, ‘new speak’ clichés, all the while paving the road for self-expression and self-determination with their raw expression of emotions and feelings. Their humor, irony, and at times sarcasm, hijacked the national discourse, seeping even into the language of television anchors and narratives of major news agencies. Even the proverbial “babushkas” in the streets were quoting lyrics from notorious rock songs, cleverly incorporating them into their daily gossip and small talk. Their audacious styles, purposefully provoking and unconventional, meant to challenge the then-desired conformance to the norms, advocating for the interpretation of personal style and risk-taking by the Soviet youth. Towards the end of the Soviet Union and into the 1990s, rock musicians emerged as the most influential, uncompromising, and respected leaders in the country, determined to struggle for “purity” of the culture, uncompromised by propagandistic doctrines. In 1991, Soviet rock and its disciples finally emerged triumphant, when the shroud of the Iron Curtain finally lifted, ushering in a new era of democracy and freedom for millions of Russians.

The collapse of the Soviet regime was followed by a rather unexpected loss of cultural identity, causing personal chaos and an ensuing creative crisis for many in the Russian rock scene. Musicians suddenly lost their hard-earned status as spiritual leaders and cultural torch bearers, transformed from lionized rebels into mundane street entertainers, subject to the forces of a free market and fleeting fads. No longer was it enough to be a professional rebel. To survive the commercialism of the post-Perestroika period, the requirement was to be a professional musician. Artists and their music were now judged not based on their social relevance and their ability to scandalize authorities, but upon their craftsmanship, artistic accolades, and marketability. Rock musicians found it hard to adapt to the new capitalist reality. They searched for new adversaries to challenge, hoping to resurrect their lost identity in the fight. This new villain came in the form of Russia’s unscrupulous nouveau riche and profiteering Westerners, whom musicians began to denounce as exploiting the disadvantaged, acting without impunity within the lawless void left behind following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And so, the re-establishment of their rebellious identity had persevered and adjusted to the unfamiliar landscape of the post-Soviet regime; always adapting, taking new shapes, but always true to its ideas. Whether it be a young Russian rap musician rhyming about the class disparity of the current system, or an all-female rock group singing an anthem to female empowerment, or a middle-aged ballad vocalist romancing the guitar while shouting about political injustice in present-day Russia, they all have a common denominator. Just like their Soviet-era predecessors, they use their art to forward freedom, self-determination, social justice, and democracy. In the current climate of tyrannous aspirations by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, whose ardent desire to restore Russia to the previous “glory” of the former Soviet Empire, through the annexation of neighboring states such as Crimea and Abkhazia, and by viciously suppressing any dissent to his totalitarian rule, these artists are, once again, on the frontlines, enticing political discord and challenging the status quo of despotism. Recalling my grandfather’s retort regarding Vladimir Vysotsky’s lyrics all those years ago, I now understand, however, complicated the issues and contentions so passionately vocalized.

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