Rock It To Russia


--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.  

But this golden era quickly turned into a lost age. Russian musicians now find themselves in a radically altered economic environment, and they seem unable, or unwilling, to adapt to the new economic realities. The increasing irrelevance of the Soviet generation of rock musicians has left the field wide open for Western music and its Russian lackeys to dominate an increasingly unoriginal popular music scene. In Soviet times, rock gained authenticity through its music and its lyrics. Some bands, such as Time Machine, combined Western rock with traditional themes from Russian folk music. Others had a more direct Western musical influence, usually punk or heavy metal. But Westernized music went hand-in-hand with explicitly political lyrics. In "Get Out of Control," Leningrad punks Televisor sing: "They've watched us from birth, our kind uncles and aunts/We sing what they want/We live how they want...with the Soviet System/...Looking up at the terrorists above/I say, Get out of control/Tear down these walls/Sing what you want, not what you're told/Get out of control, we can be free." Today, such sentiments have been largely replaced with slick pop aesthetics and empty sentimentality.

This can be blamed partly on the fact that rock musicians were no better prepared for the shock of capitalism than other Russians were. And as their identity had been forged as a counterculture to Communist rule, the collapse of that rule took away the Other which they had used to define themselves. Rock musicians in Russia traditionally cared little about commercial success, which was both irrelevant to their art and impossible under central planning. Market forces, in turn, have made social consciousness irrelevant to the success of Russian musicians. Boris Muradov, the former rock musician who is now the rock music critic for the highly respected newspaper Arguments and Facts, laments this lack of substantive content. According to Muradov, "Now all you need is a good video and you are popular. If a band tries to say something with a social sense, people don't like it. Now what kids care about is vodka."

To understand what has happened to rock music under Yeltsin requires an understanding of the new economics of Russian capitalism. Under the Soviet system, the means of production were nominally owned by the whole people, but in reality everything was run by and for the Party; musical production facilities such as recording studios, concert halls, factories that made records and cassettes, trucks that took music from factories to stores, and the stores themselves, were all owned by the Party. The decision to dismantle the old system was made before anyone had a clear idea of what kind of system would replace it, and which path would lead to the new system. In music, as in other aspects of Russian life, the end of central planning meant the end of most productive activity. There was no longer a distribution system to get records into the hands of consumers. With no distribution, factories stopped producing albums. With no sales, musicians could not afford to buy studio time. Record companies and studios could not count on future sales to cover up-front costs. Music production essentially collapsed.

Nowadays, the mafia and banks, both controlled by Party hacks from the old era, have taken control of the recording industry, as they have taken control of most aspects of Russia's economy. Back when these new capitalists were old Party cadres, they had no interest in dissident rock music, and they still don't. The new/old bosses are interested in what sells, and what sells are Russian imitations of Western trends. When shopping at the kiosks and outdoor markets which serve as Russia's record stores, cassette and CD shoppers can now easily buy the music, Russian and Western, that was banned in the Soviet era. Newer Russian music, however, is in short supply, and is almost exclusively radio-friendly pop from a handful of popular bands.

While Russians have long looked to the West for rock & roll inspiration, there is little comprehension of the market factors and cultural specifics under which Western music is created, and even less knowledge of the history of Western rock. A case in point is Kurt Cobain. Many young Russians have Cobain shirts, and Nirvana bootlegs are sold everywhere. But except for journalists, no Russian I spoke with had any grasp of Cobain's struggle with the dual pressures of authenticity and stardom. Instead, what little information circulates about Western music in Russia is sensationalist. Even Muradov, writing for a respected paper, is chided for his interest in the artistic and social aspects of music. Instead, his editors ask for stories about the sordid lifestyles of Western rock stars, which are even more common in the pages of Russia's many tabloid papers.  

Obviously, rock music in Russia has always been heavily influenced by the West. Under new commercial pressure, however, the music has become derivative of the lamest Western pop. Take for example last summer's hottest Russian act, Bravo. Each song on their album is a lifeless reproduction of a Western genre, from rockabilly to new wave to hip-hop. Before making this album, the band kicked out its Soviet-era female lead, Ivanna Anders, whose melancholy voice no longer fits the image of an upwardly mobile Russian band. Well-marketed, with professional videos and lots of radio play, Bravo was in the top 10 for much of 1995.

Furthermore, Western music is often cheaper than Russian music. Record companies won a war with bootleggers in Russia last year, and it is now difficult to find CD bootlegs of Russian music, at least in bigger cities. But bootlegs of Western music abound. You can buy the newest Madonna CD for $4, while a new Russian CD will set you back $14.

There is also, not surprisingly, a new generation gap. The younger generation of musicians and consumers barely remember Soviet times. For them, as in the West, music is more fashion than significant social statement. The desire for money and fame seem much more likely to motivate twentysomething musicians than the artistic and social concerns of the previous generations. To the older generation, the youngsters seem lazy and misguided; the younger generation, meanwhile, find their seniors increasingly irrelevant to the real world of Russian capitalism.

At Fish Fabrique, Winecaster has finished its set. Winecaster is the kind of band that should inspire hope for Russia's rock scene. In true underground fashion, it features three teenagers and a 40-year-old cellist. Their music, sounding like Nick Cave with a touch of Tchaikovsky, fits perfectly with the club's atmosphere. But ironically, the Russian influences in their music seemed to undermine the band's credibility. After asking me what I thought of the band, which I had enjoyed, one student shook his head and said, "We [Russians] don't have what it takes to make good rock & roll."

Perhaps, as Thomas Cushman has suggested in Notes From Underground, his new study of the rock scene in Russia, it will simply take time for innovative music to find its market niche. In a few years, then, a more varied musical scene may arrive in Russia. For now, however, the spiritually deadening sounds of banal Western pop are the soundtrack for Russia's transition to capitalism.

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