Rock It To Russia

Like many things in the former Soviet Union, rock & roll ain't what it used to be.


--St. Petersburg and Moscow

Some nightclubs aspire to the post-apocalypse look. Others, like St. Petersburg's Fish Fabrique, are born with it. Certainly, the club's owners have added to the atmosphere: Tin cans riddled with random holes cover the lights, and a few shaky tables dot the rear of the small club, which stands just a couple of low-rent blocks off Nevskii Prospect, Petersburg's most famous street. Shoddy construction and years of neglect under Communism, combined with an imploding economy under the emerging capitalist order, make it easy for Russian nightclubs to parade an underground, bohemian chic--St. Petersburg's most popular dance club, The Tunnel, is housed in a former nuclear fallout shelter.

Before tonight's band hits the stage, the club begins to fill up with its clientele: young, poor, mainly students. Most smoke harsh Russian cigarettes, but a few pull out packs of Marlboros. At about 90¢ a beer, the bar's drinks are too expensive for many patrons. Instead, people buy liquor at the innumerable kiosks which dot Russian streets. Kiosks sell alcohol (much of it bootleg, some of it dangerous), Coke, and Snickers bars, as well as clothing, records, and odd assortments of other scavenged consumer goods. Inside the bar, the PA is playing Western music, a pretty standard menu of alternative favorites: Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, REM. I talk with a group of three teenagers about the music they listen to. "I like, you know..." a young man says in Russian, and he opens his cigarette case. Inside, he has written the words "PUNK ROCK" in English with electrical tape. His favorite bands are Nirvana and Green Day.

The story of Russian rock & roll since the collapse of the Soviet Union encapsulates the main features of Russia's transition from Communism. Russian views of the market and the West, especially Western popular culture, have changed during this transition. Once these Western forces were seen as liberating, but the reality of their arrival has brought about more ambiguous attitudes. Russians struggle to get innovative music in front of an audience inundated with slickly marketed Western music. In Soviet times, repression bred a remarkable solidarity in the music community. Today, that community has disintegrated, replaced by individual struggles to come to terms with Russian capitalism. Ironically, the freedom of expression which was won with the defeat of the Communist Party has not resulted in an explosion of musical experimentation. Instead, market reforms have taken the social consciousness, and much of the creativity, out of Russian rock.

Before Gorbachev, rock & roll was repressed in the Soviet Union. Beatlemania hit Eastern Europe as hard as it hit the West, and exposed the same generation gap as it did in its homeland. Sounding like a worried American parent, East German head of state Walter Ulbricht complained that "The incessant monotony of this 'yeah, yeah, yeah' is not only ridiculous, it is spiritually deadening." Soviet leaders cheered the youth rebellion in the West, but squashed it at home.

The repression of rock music peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was virtually impossible to hold rock concerts; even when a youth hall or university agreed to stage a show, there was no guarantee that the police would not interfere. Boris Muradov, who played guitar for the band Thirteenth Fog, remembers the police raiding concerts and punishing long-haired members of the audience by cutting off their locks.

Music by the most famous bands of that era, such as Leningrad's DDT and Moscow's Time Machine (Machina Veremin), was extremely difficult to find. Copies were circulated underground, among friends. Rock music was played at private parties with a striking sort of reverence. Ten or 20 people would gather to silently listen to tapes; afterwards, people discussed the music, deciphering the social commentary barely hidden in the lyrics.

The music was political, but in a personal sense. The themes were existential: the difficulties of living in Soviet society, alcohol abuse, and the search for a means of expressing oneself authentically through art. The music challenged the state in two ways: It was made and distributed outside the control of the Party, and the freedom from alienation the music espoused certainly would not happen under the Party's repressive rule. Time Machine, for example, combined traditional Russian bardic concerns with lyrics which stressed individuality and autonomy: "The years are flying past/Soon you and I together/Will leave the town/Somewhere in the dense dark woods/Or on a steep mountain side/We'll build a house together" Andrei Makarevich sings on "Our Home."

Things changed when Gorbachev took power in 1985. Promoting free expression under the banner of glasnost, Gorbachev met with Yoko Ono, and Raisa admitted that she and her husband were Beatles fans. Underground heroes saw daylight and gained huge followings. Fans were less reverent, but there were many more of them. The liberating feeling of perestroika and the liberating impulse of rock fed off each other, raising the music's popularity and giving the impression that rock was an important part of progressive social change. Rockers rode the wave of social mobilization and cultural relaxation that marked the middle of Gorbachev's short reign, a period which now stands as the high point of Soviet rock.

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