History of Soviet and Russian Rock Music
History of Soviet and Russian Rock Music
This text was written by Mark Yoffe and Dave Laing for Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of The World: Locations, John Shepherd ed., London, 2005. It is published here with permission of Continuum Encyclopedia.
Russia Population 143,752,000 (2002)
The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, with a land area of 6,480,000 sq miles (16,588,500 sq km). It has borders with Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine to the west, Kazakhstan Mongolia and China to the south and North Korea to the east. The whole of the northern border is an Arctic Ocean coastline.
Russia comprises 26 autonomous republics and five large geographical regions. The European region is the richest and includes the capital Moscow (Moskva), with a population of 8,793,000 (2003), and St Petersburg, with a population of 4,656,900. The Ural region extends from north to south and has mineral and oil deposits. Siberia is sparsely populated but rich in natural resources. Caucasia is an enormous steppe that extends northwards from the Caucasian mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Finally, the Central Asian region consists of deserts, mountains and steppes. Russians comprise 82 percent of the population. There are over 100 other nationalities, of whom the most populous are Tatars (4 percent), Ukranians (3 percent), Chuvash and Bashkirs (1 percent each).
The Russian Empire had been established over several centuries by such rulers (tsars) as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik communist regime set up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that retained most of the territory of the Tsarist Empire but gave nominal autonomy to 15 non-Russian republics including Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. However, Russia remained the largest by population and the dominant republic. After the disintegration of the USSR in the early 1990s, the Russian SSR became an independent nation state.
Popular Music before 1917
Under the Tsarist regime urban popular music took a variety of forms. Vaudeville, derived from French comic opera, was a mixture of comedy routines, popular song and the latest dance fashions. Music publishers disseminated European-style schlagers (popular ballads). Many restaurants and bars employed gypsy bands. The so-called ‘gypsy’ songs were deeply emotive when sung by Varya Panina at the Yar restaurant in Moscow and by Anastasia Vyaltseva. Gorodskoi romanz (city ballads) and blatnaya pesnya (underworld song) sentimentally depicted the world of the criminal or semi-criminal milieu, and influenced the emergence of the ‘bards’ or singer-songwriters of the 1970s. The most renowned performer of blatnaya pesnya was Alexander Vertinskiy, who left the country in 1917, returning in 1943 to help the war effort by giving charity performances.
By the early 1900s, the latest trends from the United States had reached Russia, partly through gramophone records: the first disc manufacturing plant was set up in St Petersburg in 1899. Military bands played ragtime and cakewalk tunes. The band of the Sumskoi Hussar Regiment recorded ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ The cinema was another source of Western influence: Russian audiences enjoyed movies imported from the United States, and Russian musicians accompanied the films in movie theaters and played between shows.
Popular Music 1917--1953
In 1919, a national Centrotheater organization was set up to license and control variety shows and vaudeville. The Moscow Soviet assumed power over all entertainment venues and performances in the city. Centrotheater was superseded by Gosestrada (the state variety agency) in 1935. The subsequent fortunes of the various forms of popular music were closely linked to the different political and economic phases of USSR history. In 1921, the New Economic Policy brought about some relaxation in state control as it permitted small-scale private enterprise to operate in all industries including entertainment. This policy was sharply reversed in 1928 with the announcement of the first Five Year Plan. State control over music making was re-asserted, private music publishers were nationalized and only ideologically-correct music was to be given official approval. The possession of US jazz or dance music records was criminalized. The Five Year Plan was followed in the mid-1930s by another period in which controls on popular music were modified and Western-inspired music returned. The political purges and the Moscow Trials of the late 1930s encouraged actions against US-inspired elements in popular music, including the deportation to labor camps of foreign-born or Jewish musicians. The alliance with the United States during World War II caused that policy to be reversed, but the postwar deterioration in international relations brought another swing of the pendulum. In 1948, cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov decreed that ‘the influence of contemporary Western European and American music’ must be eradicated.
As music of the people, folk music performance was actively fostered by the Soviet regime. In 1936, the government instituted Dekady, ten-day festivals of folk music across the USSR. Houses of Culture (under the control of trade unions) and Houses of Folk Art were established to encourage artistic activities among the workers and peasants. There were star folk performers such as Lidia Ruslanova, a peasant singer from a small village near Saratov. Professional folk ensembles were also encouraged. The earliest of these, such as the Pianitsky Choir, organized in 1910, maintained a fidelity to local styles, but the Stalinist cultural policy of the 1930s demanded a more homogenized ‘USSR folk’ style. The ensembles often combined newly composed revolutionary lyrics with material derived from traditional sources. Their arrangements of traditional dances were often based on an approach devised by the classical ballet based choreography of Igor Moiseev for his own folk dance troupe.
During the civil war of 1918 to 1920, numerous military choirs were formed to sing older peasant songs and new ones like ‘The Red Army’ and ‘Iablochka’ (Little Apple). They were early examples of agitmuzyk (agitprop songs) derived from chastushki (folk songs). By the 1930s, the newly composed mass songs were linked to films and jazz-influenced melodies. The leading composer was Isaac Dunaevsky, who wrote hits like ‘Sportsman’s March,’ and provided scores for over 20 musical comedies such as Volga-Volga, Circus and The Happy Guys, combining swing-influenced music with optimistic Party-line lyrics. During World War II, new mass songs were composed by patriotic amateurs inspired to contribute to the war effort. These wartime songs and many written soon after 1945 often expressed loss, longing, love, friendship and martial heroism connected with this enormous tragedy. Many remained enormously popular among even very young Russians. Military music played an equally large role and, even in peacetime, it featured strongly in the Soviet soundscape by accompanying large-scale parades.
The first Russian jazz concert was staged in Moscow in 1922 by Valentin Parnakh’s Jazz Band. The band was soon given an onstage role in a musical show directed by Vsevolod Meierhold. Benny Peyton’s New Orleans style jazz band and the first US touring jazz revue, Sam Wooding’s The Chocolate Kiddies, played Moscow and Leningrad (the renamed St Petersburg) in 1926.
These bands inspired the formation of local bands in Russia and the Ukraine, notably the First Concert Jazz Band of Leningrad pianist Leopold Teplisky, who had gained official support to visit the United States to hear jazz and collect scores.
After a period of official disapproval swing bands emerged in the cities, often playing at restaurants. The fox trot caught on in the late 1920s, as did the Charleston, tango and black bottom. Factories provided free fox trot lessons for their workers. A Leningrad-based jazz orchestra led by classically trained Yakov Skoromovsky appeared in Soviet films, and several bands recorded for the state record company. In 1939, an official guide to the organization of song and dance and jazz orchestras was published. In Moscow, jazz bands played between shows at movie theaters. The top Soviet jazz musicians of the 1930s were Leonid Utesov and Alexander Tsafsman. While Utesov adapted foreign influences to national tastes and styles, Tsafsman adopted those influences to create a cosmopolitan, Westernized music (Starr 1990, 132). In 1937, many of Tsafsman’s band were transferred to the newly-formed State Jazz Orchestra of the USSR .
During World War II, Soviet jazz benefited from the alliance with the United States. Many jazz scores were sent to the USSR from the United States and the swing musician Eddie Rosner, a German-born refugee from Poland, made the Belarus state jazz orchestra the most admired in the country. With the onset of the Cold war, however, jazz was prohibited. In 1949, the Moscow authorities confiscated all saxophones and many musicians were arrested and sent to the gulags.
Pop, Folk and Jazz since 1953
The death of Stalin in 1953 was followed by a slow liberalization of cultural policy. In particular, jazz re-emerged and the first modern jazz group, The Eight, was founded by Igor Berukshtis in Moscow. A few years later, officially tolerated jazz clubs were opened, and the first Moscow Jazz Festival took place in 1962. Russian jazz was stimulated by the broadcasts of DJ Willis Conover on the US government controlled Voice of America station. Despite some policy swings back towards anti-Americanism (notably a 1964 speech by party leader Kruschev condemning modernism in the arts), jazz in Russia developed steadily in the 1970s and, by the 1980s,there were bands in all the big cities. Later trends included folk jazz, jazz-rock and free jazz.
Officially sponsored professional folk music and dance ensembles remained central to Soviet music policy after 1953. Each republic had its own ensemble, and there was an All-State Folk Ensemble of the USSR and a Red Army ensemble that toured outside the USSR. In reaction against the continued homogenization of folk culture, a return to authenticity and diversity was pioneered by Dmitry Pokrovsky, who formed his own choir in Moscow in 1973.
Pop ballads (estrada) dominated the airwaves and the record stores in this era. The leading singing stars included Lev Leshchenko, Sofila Rotaru, Edita Pek’ha, Valeri Leont’ev, Irina Ponorovskaya and Alla Pugacheva (who was said to have sold 200 million albums and was often compared with Barbra Streisand). The first Western pop acts to play in Russia included the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1976) and Elton John (1979).
Under the Soviet system, the Union of Soviet Composers had given some bands licenses to give concert performances, while others were restricted to restaurants and dances. This two-tier system crumbled away during glasnost and, after the imposition of free market economic policies, a commercial music industry quickly sprang up. Foreign multinational record companies either opened branches in Moscow or set up joint ventures with Russian labels. MTV established a Russian-language service. The shortlist for Best Russian Act at the 2002 MTV Europe awards included a power metal band (Epidemiya), a teenage R&B singer (Ariana), a pop dance group (Discoteka Avariya), a hip-hop group from the industrial city of Rostov-on-Don (Kasta) and the European chart-topping girl group T.a.t.u .
Rock since 1953
Russian rock was shaped within the confines of the multiethnic Soviet Union. 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. Activities that were absolutely prohibited in Russia, and especially in Moscow and Leningrad, were permissible in the republics due to their distance from the center of power. Rock festivals and rock bands flourished in these republics, creating an atmosphere in which Russian rock musicians could develop their craft.
Prior to the death of Stalin, Soviet youth did not have music of its own, and did not have pop culture or fashion fads. The first Soviet youth fad began in 1953 when stiliagi (the ones with the style) appeared in Moscow, dressed like 1950s Western zoot-suiters. Although this fad mostly involved dressing in a contemporary Western style, stiliagi created a milieu hungry for its own new music. US jazz became the first music of choice. In the early 1950s, fashionable Moscow girls and boys went to dance halls and skating rinks to dance and skate to the tunes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and, above all, Glenn Miller. Even though stiliagi were often ridiculed in the Soviet press and harassed in the street by orthodox minded citizens, the movement spread across the Soviet Empire, became more and more sophisticated and produced its own musical stars such as saxophone player Alexei Kozlov and band leader Latsi Olakh.
A further break in the isolation of Soviet youth from the West occurred at the Seventh International Festival of Youth and Students that took place in Moscow in the summer of 1957. Its purpose was to show the international youth and students who gathered in Moscow the successes, achievements and superiority of the Soviet system and to instill in these foreigners a desire to struggle against capitalism and imperialism in their own countries. However, there was an unexpected side effect: among the foreigners flooding Moscow streets there were jazz musicians, beatnik poets and modernist artists, all dressed in the latest fashions and dancing to the latest hits that they had brought along. After this unexpected breath of fresh air, there was no going back to the dreariness of the Stalinist cultural and musical landscape. Russian youth was ready for the creation of its own distinct culture.
The history of Russian and Soviet rock can be broken into four basic periods:
1. Cover Versions (approximately 1961--1968)
2. Search and Struggle (approximately 1968--1980)
3. Struggle and Victory (approximately 1980--1991)
4. Identity Crisis and Self-re-discovery (after 1991)
The first Soviet rock ‘n’ roll band, the Revengers, started to play in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in 1961. They used electric guitars from Czechoslovakia, and a homemade bass with piano wires used for strings. Like all subsequent first generation Soviet rock bands, they performed covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards. At school dances, the Revengers played music by Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Little Richard, and they sang in bastardized English.
The first Russian to perform rock ‘n’ roll was singer and composer Alexander Gradsky, with whose name the history of the first period is closely connected. In 1963, at the age of 13, he sang his first concert at the International Club of Moscow State University, accompanied by a Polish student band called Tarakany (The Roaches).
The first actual Russian ban, Brat’ia (Brothers), was formed in Moscow in 1963 and disbanded after playing for less than a year. It was followed by Sokol (Falcon), which existed from 1964 to 1969, basing its act on covers of songs by the Rolling Stones and, later, the Monkees. The third such band was Slaviane (The Slavs), also formed in 1964, which was joined by Alexander Gradsky as its lead singer, performing covers of Beatles’ songs.
Simultaneously, bands were established in Leningrad: the first one was the Wanderers (in 1964), followed by Lesnye Brat’ia (Forest Brothers) and Argonavty (The Argonauts).
This was a period of the adaptation of Western rock genres and styles that, in the beginning, was limited to performing covers of Western songs and learning the required musical techniques. During this time, Soviet authorities did not view this new music with a great degree of suspicion, seeing nothing wrong in kids playing some foreign songs with undecipherable lyrics at school dances, and in clubs and cafes.
In 1966--67, Alexander Gradsky was working with three bands, Slaviane, Los Panchos and Skify (the Scythians). However, a strong rift developed between him and his initial band Slaviane 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 for failure.
As a result of this debate, in 1967, Gradsky creates his own band, Skomorokhi (Jesters), that became the first Russian group to play original songs in Russian. Since 1968, Skomorokhi has performed only in Russian, becoming a trailblazer and developing a very enthusiastic following in Moscow and throughout the country. In his search for a way of achieving the ‘Russification’ of native rock, Gradsky explored the national folkloric legacy, and with a high degree of success. This was a daring initiative at a time when Russian folk music was not in vogue with young people, who mistrusted the ‘folksy’ tradition that was for so long usurped and tainted by Soviet propaganda and the world of official, ‘grown up’ composers and musicians.
What helped Gradsky in his efforts to create a national rock tradition was a parallel movement of 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 the cities by thousands of former prisoners returning from Stalinist labor camps. This new trend was made popular by such bards as Iuz Aleshkovsky, Bulat Okudzhava, Iurii Vizbor, Iulii Kim, Alexander Gorodnitsky, Evgenii Kliachkin, Novella Matveeva and, most of all, the enormously talented actor and bard Vladimir Vysotsky. For the first time during the Soviet era, these singers-songwriters created songs that dealt with intimate human emotions, the complexities of human relationships and issues of social injustice, honestly evoking ‘the power of the truth’ in a simple vernacular often spiced by regional elements, dialects, criminal jargon and, at times, obscenity. Borrowing from the rich national treasure-trove of musical traditions, bards blended music elements drawn from Russian folk song, urban romances, gypsy tradition, classical song, cabaret, jazz and more.
Under their influence, and in the process of searching for their own musical identity, Gradky and other bands that were working in Russian, such as the Moscow band Vetry Peremen (The Winds of Changes), moved down the path of fusing Western rock with musical elements drawn from their own national tradition. In addition, they were writing fundamentally new lyrics for this new kind of music, lyrics that could not only be understood by their audiencse, but lyrics that also dealt with issues that were close to everyone’s heart.
Once Soviet rock musicians started singing in Russian, establishing rock’s relevance for the national cultural landscape, the ideological watchdogs sensed rock’s subversive power. This signaled the end of the ‘period of innocence,’ when rock musician singing in English were left to their own devices. The growing Soviet rock community found itself under increasing pressure from the authorities.
First, the authorities tried to subvert musicians with money by recognizing them as professionals. Amateur musicians, including the majority of Soviet rock musicians, did not enjoy the right to legally earn money for their performances. They also did not receive any government support with regard to touring, booking and acquiring equipment. Professionals, though, could earn good money for their work, but were subject to very heavy censorship of all aspects of their work, from their lyrics to their haircuts and outfits to the specifics of their guitar sound and the degree of ‘heaviness’ of their drum beat. These professional bands were called Vocal Instrumental Ensembles (Vocal’no Instrumental’nye Ansambli or VIA), and generally produced lightweight pop with only a very minor allusions to rock music. However, many talented musicians who learned to play as amateurs chose this means of earning money, abandoning with it real rock music, and producing only a very deluded version of it.
Although bands such as Poiushchie Gitary (Singing Guitars), Veselye Rebiata (The Jolly Lads), Golubye Gitary (Blue Guitars), Ariel, Samotsvety (The Semi-Precious Stones), Plamia (The Flame) were now creating a parody of the rock they used to play, they became quite popular among blue-collar young people in Russia, as well as elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Amateur bands that did not want to sell out found it increasingly difficult to secure space for rehearsals and venues in which to perform. Many of the rock musicians were invited into the offices of the KGB apparatus responsible for ‘curating’ youth music, and were advised to tone down the social criticism in their lyrics, to turn down the volume of their amplifiers and to purge their music of any religious overtones.
The end of the first period of rock music coincided with a major change in the ideological climate of the country when the cultural ‘thaw’ ushered in by Khrushchev came to an end in 1964 with his dismissal as the leader of the Soviet Union. The much more conservative and cautious new General Secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, who governed until 1982, is remembered for creating in the Soviet Union an atmosphere of cultural and economic stagnation, a period free of brutal Stalinist excesses, but a period also of tight ideological control over all aspects of Soviet life. This was a period of the intensification of anti-Western propaganda, the escalation of the Cold War, and of a severe clamp down on the political dissenters, artists and musicians who deviated from the Party line. For young people the Brezhnev era, which spanned the entire 1970s, was marked by a tragic isolation from their Western peers and by a hopeless feeling of boredom.
The Russian rock community entered the 1970s having learnt to sing in their own language, but split in two by having some talented musicians defect into the sphere of the tightly controlled VIA groups. This decade resulted in probably the most uninteresting and insignificant music ever produced by Soviet rock musicians. There is a variety of reasons for this: first of all, the authorities made it increasingly difficult for amateur bands to play, and especially to perform publicly. To receive a permit to perform was becoming increasingly difficult. And the punishment for unsanctioned performances could be quite heavy. Student rock musicians could be expelled from their universities for such offenses, and with that loose their draft deferment. Not too many were eager to join the ranks of the military. In some extreme cases, rock musicians were subjected to punitive psychiatric treatment. Obtaining quality equipment was often a problem. Many musicians retreated into their basements and garages, and the acoustic ‘apartment concert’ for a ‘chosen few’ friends flourished.
An important role in this relative musical stagnation was also played by the kind of Western music that was listened to and that was very popular among the elite cadre of Soviet rock devotees who were shaping the national rock scene. By far the most influential types of Western at this time were British and European art rock, techno rock and progressive rock. Bands such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Procol Harum, King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Yes, Focus and Exception, as well as performers such as Rick Wakeman, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Roxy Music were extremely popular. To make such music within the confines of an apartment was impossible, though Soviet rock musicians attempted to play deep, overblown, philosophical art rock. The general direction that Soviet rock took at this time can be characterized as following the traditions and attempting to approximate the stylistic features and techniques of Western progressive rock bands. This constituted an international rock trend that remained very influential in the Soviet Union during the 1970s.
Several first generation bands from the 1960s, such as Mify (Myths) from Leningrad, Skomorokhi (Jesters) and Alexander Gradsky and Mashina Vremeni (The Time Machine) from Moscow, continued to play through the 1970s. While others, such as Leningrad’s pre-eminent band Sankt Petersburg (St Petersburg), disbanded early in the decade.
Classically trained vocalist and composer Alexander Gradsky remained a musical guru and a moving force in Russian rock throughout this period. He was one of a very few musicians who managed to bridge the gap between his own artistry and the realm officialdom, retaining his iconoclastic underground status, but at the same time producing work that appeared on records issued by the government record label Melodiya, and being occasionally played on the radio, as well as writing music for a popular Soviet film.
Several other important bands of the 1970s also traversed the gap between official and unofficial music. 1950s jazz saxophone player Alexey Kozlov established his acclaimed jazz-rock fusion band Arsenal in 1972. To avoid the tight ideological control musicians were subject to in Moscow, the band accepted professional status in the provincial city of Kaliningrad, from where it traveled around the country relatively unharassed.
Moscow’s Mashina Vremeni (The Time Machine), a melancholy bard rock (singer-songwriter) band created in 1969 gained a cult following beginning in the mid-1970s, largely due to the lyrics of its talented leader, Andrei Makarevich. Mashina Vremeni experimented with a variety of music styles, beginning with Beatles-like songs, moving to hard rock and ‘white’ blues in the mid-1970s, and then to jazz-rock fusion at the end of the decade. Never becoming an official Soviet VIA, Mashina Vremeni nevertheless was allowed to perform to large audiences, had recordings made on the Melodiya label and recorded music for several movies.
Another legendary band, Araks, found for itself an initial niche playing music for the Moscow Theater of Lenin’s Youth, and later recorded music for films. The band gave close to 300 concerts per year in the late 1970s.
One of the most significant events on the underground scene during the 1970s was the creation in 1972 by Leningrad singer-songwriter, guitarist and composer Boris Grebenshchikov of his enormously popular perennially cult band Akvarium (Aquarium). Throughout the 1970s, Akvarium went through a very intensive period of self discovery and experimentation, flirting with jazz, art and hard rock, reggae, Baroque music and Celtic and Russian folk music, and working entirely with either acoustic or purely electric sound. All this initial work paid off in the 1980s when Akvarium emerged as a leader of Soviet rock.
By 1979, it has become apparent that sticking to art and progressive rock traditions has become an artistic dead end for Soviet rock. The arrival of punk rock was initially received by the Soviet rock community without enthusiasm. Soviet rock musicians had no tradition of playing loud, dissonant, ‘dirty’ music not based on attractive melodies. They were still enamored of a ‘clean’ sound, melodic tunes and elaborate arrangements, and striving for a rich musical palette. The liberating power of punk was not evident to them at first.
With a few exceptions, punk rock as such was not picked up in the Soviet Union and Russia. There were very few punk bands. Leningrad punk rocker Svin (Swine) -- aka Andrey Panov -- and his Sex Pistols-like -- though far less energetic -- band Avtomaticheskie Udovletvoriteli (Automatic Satisfiers) were one of the few exceptions. What happened instead was that punk’s influence became evident and important not in the kind of music that was played, but in the attitude that rock musicians displayed towards their music, their audiences and life. ‘Punkish’ tendencies began to manifest themselves not in the music as such, but in the outfits that musicians wore, in hooligan-like antics on stage, in ‘absurd,’ nihilist and socially critical lyrics, and in a ‘careless’ manner of playing. At the same time, bands often continued to play heavy metal, electropop, folk and pop rock, but were thinking of themselves as ‘punk’ because of their new attitude.
The appearance of this paradoxical phenomenon is closely associated with Leningrad rocker Boris Grebenshchikov and Akvarium. As Alexander Gradsky was the music guru of Soviet rock through the 1960s and 1970s, Boris Grebenshchikov became the new guru for the 1980s and the most influential and recognizable voice of Soviet rock of that period. In 1979, at the Noginsk II festival in Moscow and in 1980 at the Tbilisi-80 festival in Georgia, Akvarium introduced Soviet audiences to new wave, setting off a Soviet new wave explosion. If ‘pure punk’ was alien to the musical sensibilities of Soviet rock musicians, then new wave became a new liberating style embraced by many bands that came onto the scene in the 1980s. This was as close to punk as the majority of Soviet bands ever came. Akvarium’s groundbreaking role was in introducing Soviet audiences to an eclectic variety of rock influences, among which Lou Reed and Velvet Underground were the most prominent. All along Akvarium was not a typical rock band, as its customary lineup consisted of Grebenshchikov’s masterful guitar, a rhythm section, cello, flute and bassoon. With their rough-edged lyrics and ‘punkishly’ loose stage manner -- together with occasional hooligan-like antics -- they became a breath of fresh air within the rigidly conservative Soviet rock milieu.
The first five years of the decade were not an easy time for Soviet rock musicians in terms of the ideological control and the endless restrictions that the Party cultural apparatus imposed upon them. In 1983, former Soviet KGB Chief Iuri Andropov succeeded the late Leonid Brezhnev as the culturally conservative General Secretary of the Communist Party. After his death in 1984, a new leader came to power -- Kostantin Chernenko -- whose short reign was probably the most brutal period in the history of Soviet rock. The persecutions of rock musicians reached an all time high during this period. In 1985, Chernenko was succeeded by reformer Michail Gorbachev, and the process of the liberation of Soviet culture began. Rock music benefited from this liberalization as no other art form in the Soviet Union. And as no other art form (with the possible exception of literature), it contributed to the final ideological disintegration of Soviet doctrine and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite the restrictions on and persecution of rock music that occurred during the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko period -- or possibly because of this -- Soviet rock experienced an enormously creative period during the early 1980s. During this time two major schools of Soviet rock were born: Leningrad produced major Soviet new wave bands, and Moscow became famous for its idiosyncratic and ‘quirky’ bands, blending national musical traditions with Western influences. Since the rules of the rock ‘game’ under Soviet rule demanded a degree of constant control over the burgeoning music scene in both cities, the rock musicians, in order to be able to perform publicly at all, voluntarily joined city-ran organizations created by the authorities as locales for local amateur rock bands. Thus, in 1981, the Leningrad Rock Club was established. It united the majority of Leningrad amateur bands, giving them a legal venue in which to perform. The Leningrad Rock Club was known in the Soviet Union for its lively atmosphere, relative liberalism and rich and varied rock scene. For many bands it became a vehicle towards professionalism, giving them a place in which to practice and polish their skills. Slower to react to new trends and more ideologically controlled, Moscow followed in 1985 by establishing the Moscow Rock Laboratory, which from the beginning suffered from a dubious reputation, being perceived by many independent-minded rock musicians -- who treated it with suspicion -- as an instrument of control and subversion. It was much less lively than Leningrad’s vibrant Club, but nevertheless provided a venue for many of Moscow bands.
The most important bands to come out from Leningrad, aside from Akvarium, were: Kino, lead by charismatic Viktor Tsoy; Alisa, an aggressive new wave band with tendencies towards heavy metal and a sound with intense drive; Televizor (Television), created in 1984 by keyboard player and vocalist Mikhail Borzykin; and Strannye Igry (Strange Games), one of the most original and creatively daring Leningrad bands of early 1980s.
Kino was formed in 1984, and immediately became a cult band. It was known for its cool new wave sound, detached performance and melancholy lyrics praising youthful bohemianism. Kino came to an end with Tsoy’s untimely death in 1990.
Alisa was formed by its bass player, Slava Zadirii, in 1983. It catapulted to fame in the Soviet Union due to the talent of its lead singer and song writer Konstantin Kinchev, known for his ritualistic conceptualist projects and magnetic stage presence.
Televizor was known for its new wave sound and high level of social criticism. Mikhal Borzykin is credited for single-handedly abolishing the system of ideological censorship according to which every Soviet band was required to submit its lyrics to a panel of censors for approval. During the fourth festival of the Leningrad Rock Club in 1976, Barzykin refused to submit his lyrics to censors. Remarkably, this action led to no negative consequences for the band. After this, the whole institution of rock censorship collapsed. This occurrence had an effect reaching far beyond the rock scene, and led to a further weakening of the power of the Soviet cultural watch dogs.
Formed in 1982, Strannye Igry incorporated into its music elements of ska, an ironic stage show and philosophical lyrics from translated French poets. This was unusual for Soviet rock. Strannnye Igry broke up in 1985, giving birth to two other important Leningrad bands: Igry (Games), that in general continued the experimental direction of Strannye Igry, and AVIA, famous for its futurist-inspired tongue-in-cheek shows that satirized Socialist kitsch. In its music this band used elements from a variety of traditions: jazz, military marches, tango and rock.
Another highly experimental, daring and influential band was Sergei Kurekhin’s Poluliarnaia Mekhanika (Popular Mechanics). Rather than a band, it was a conceptual project, with a very strong penchant for absurdity and satire. Pianist, composer and producer Kurekhin, was creator of Populiarnaia Mekhanika, was its only permanent member and driving force. Populiarnaia Mekhanika was known to include on stage scores of musicians, to utilize army choruses and official Soviet pop stars who were unsuspecting of pranks. Its stage show was absurd, funny and provocative, and its music was a pastiche of music styles and genres, blended by classically trained Kurekhin into a tapestry of sophisticated nonsense. Kurekhin also worked as a keyboard player with Akvarium and, later, until his untimely death in 1996, developed in the West an acclaimed career as a new age composer and keyboard player. An artist with a wide range of talents and interests, Kurekhin was known as a cultural provocateur, an extremist not only in his art but also in his political views. One of his last post-Soviet antics was his open support of the extremist neo-right National Bolshevik party. Kurekhin was also an acclaimed jazz musician and film actor.
One of the brightest stars of the early 1980s single-handedly responsible for the rock music education of generations of young Russian rock musicians who came after him was Michail (Mike) Naumenko, who came to prominence in the Leningrad rock scene around 1978 while working with Boris Grenenshchikov. In 1980, Naumenko created his legendary band Zoopark (Zoo), which left a lasting imprint on the subsequent development of rock in the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, many young musicians, particularly in the provinces, were already learning to play, not by using Western examples as was the case through the 1960s and 1970s, but by using songs recorded by Naumenko during his solo career or his career with Zoopark. His appeal, based upon extraordinary sincerity, simplicity and the timeliness of his songs, was enormous. No other musician before Naumenko managed to achieve such a high degree of accessibility, intimacy and honesty. He managed to re-create in his songs the most striking and realistic images of the good and bad sides of Soviet life. He died in August 1991 at the very end of Soviet era, the bard of which he had become.
Another enormously popular Leningrad band was DDT, fronted by Iurii Shevchuk, who also plays guitar and composes most of DDT’s songs. DDT was formed originally in the remote city of Ufa, in Bashkir Republic on the edge of Siberia, where it gained its initial reputaton but got into endless trouble with local authorities due to Shevchuk’s uncompromising lyrics, which were critical of the social problems that existed during the Soviet period: the Afghan war, and the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of Soviet life. In 1987, in search of more a more liberal and creative climate, DDT moved to Leningrad (since renamed St Petersburg), where it has remained very active and very popular, attracting huge audiences with its blend of progressive rock and ‘metal’ sound.
Grazhdanskaia Oborona (Civil Defense) is one of the Soviet/Russian bands with the greatest reputation for being ‘scandalous’ which, like DDT, became connected with Leningrad by finding for itself an official ‘roof’ at the Leningrad Rock Club when things became difficult in its native Siberian city of Omsk. Grazhdanskaia Oborona was established in Omsk in 1984 by Egor Letov, one of the most charismatic leaders of Russian nationalist rock, a composer and poet of extraordinary talent who is responsible for combining a punk-infused coarseness of sound with traditional Russian bard-rock influenced tunefulness, hard-core aggressiveness, folkish melancholy and biting irony. Grazhdanskaia Oborona and its fans consider the band to be punk. However, this is again manifest mostly in matters of attitude and style. The main thing about Grazhdanskaia Oborona is that it is a Russian band. During the Soviet era, Letov was very critical of what the Communists were doing to his beloved Russia. For these views, Letov suffered endless persecution at the hands of the Soviet authorities, was confined in a psychiatric clinic, spent many months on the run, traveling as vagabond but performing at every opportunity. After the fall of Communism, he became even more nationalistic, supporting together with Sergei Kurekhin Russia’s highly active extreme right, particularly the infamous National Bolshevik Party. While using a variety of Western musical idioms, Letov has often been very critical of Western cultural influences on Russia. He believes that rock is an ‘inherently Russian’ art form, and likens it to Russian ‘pagan religion.’ Grazhdanskaia Oborona is only nominally a Leningrad/St Petersburg band. It has retained a very strong affinity for Siberia and the hard-working, suffering provinces of Russia.
In the 1980s, Moscow did not produce an array of bands as illustrious as that of Leningrad. Nevertheless, there were some important bands in Moscow, some of them among the most influential Soviet bands of the time.
Only one Moscow band can claim popularity equaling that of Akvarium, Zoopark or Kino. Zvuki Mu (Sounds of Moo) has been Moscow’s answer to the musical explosion that occurred in Leningrad. This band is a singular and unique phenomenon in Russian rock, its influence on Soviet culture reaching far beyond the realm of rock music. In a way, Zvuki Mu has become a symbol of Russian culture of the period, a metaphor of the entire Soviet way of life. Created in 1981 as an experimental project by singer-songwriter Petr Mamonov and his brother guitarist Aleksei Bortnichuk, it first performed in 1984 but was disbanded by Mamonov in 1989 after reaching the height of its Soviet and international success. Zvuki Mu is a product of Mamonov’s genius. Its poignant and primitive music, its stage show, its bizarre and profound lyrics, its blend of simplicity and sophistication -- all this, together with exquisite musical arrangements by the band’s classically trained keyboard player Pavel Khotin, create an experience unmatched by anything in Russian rock. Mamonov’s unique vocal style, primitive, almost rudimentary guitar playing and strange body language – which verges on the obscene and is reminiscent of the tradition of medieval carnival jesters -- makes him an extremely effective and mesmerizing performer. He created on stage a grotesque image of a Soviet ‘everyman’: inarticulate, mentally impaired by vodka, sexually obsessed and impotent at the same time and emotionally retarded, but still able to feel pain and to evoke compassion. In 1989, British producer Brian Eno became fascinated with Zvuki Mu and issued their critically acclaimed album Modern Songs From Russia on his Opal label. After successfully touring the United States and Western Europe, Mamonov disbanded Zvuki Mu due to irreconcilable differences between band members. After that, he pursued a successful film and theater career.
Another influential Moscow band was Tsentr (Center), formed in 1980 by singer-songwriter and bass player Vasily Shumov. Tsentr became known for its cool, monotonous, new wave style, Shumov’s detached manner and smart, sardonic lyrics, as well as its elaborate musical arrangements. Since 1989, Shumov has lived in California, where he has worked in electronic music. He has continued to be an important presence on the Russian scene.
Another cult band, created in 1985, was Vezhlivyi Otkaz (Polite Refusal), notable for its ‘quirkiness.’ Its style was permeated with a heavy irony, and the band blended in its music elements of jazz, Russian classical romances, cabaret, progressive rock and even elements inspired by Russian futurists. Vezhlivyi Otkaz greatly benefited from the rich vocals of Inna Zhelannaia, who in the 1990s began her own brilliant career as Russia’s pre-eminent world music diva. Talented showman Gor (Gor Oganesian) created for the band its famously ‘absurdist’ stage show.
Nikolai Kopernik (Nikolai Copernicus), a very influential avant-garde band, was also established in 1985. Its founder, Yuri Orlov, formerly a member of the progressive instrumental rock band Dzhungli (Jungle), underwent spiritual training with a shaman in Khakassia, an autonomous region on the border with Mongolia, and derived from there a strong interest in the musical heritage of the aboriginal peoples of Siberia. As a result, his band, fully formed by 1986, created a most exotic and eclectic but, at the same time, artistically powerful mix of new wave music, shamanistic singing, evocative intonations from Russian folklore, arrangements with a psychedelic feel, a sense of a meditative estrangement from reality and a highly polished sound. Until this time, Russia had little familiarity with world musics. Nikolai Kopernik opened up for audiences a whole new world of ‘exotica’ that became enriching for a national tradition often lacking in color and in influences from non-Western musical traditions.
Nochnoi Prospekt (Night Avenue), which first performed in 1985, was created by well-known Russian composer, arranger and keyboard player Ivan Sokolovsky. He left the band in 1989 to begin an illustrious solo career. Nochnoi Prospekt was one of the strongest Moscow promoters of new wave, and was known for its tongue-in-cheek satirical lyrics. Sokolovsky often performed as a duet with guitarist Alexei Borisov, with a background provided by a pre-recorded tape.
In 1986, a very popular band, Va-bank, was formed by a former Soviet junior diplomat to North Korea, Aleksand Skliar, and began to perform its intense and uncompromising mix of R&B and punk.
In the 1980s, Moscow also produced an array of illustrious heavy metal bands such as Ariia (Aria), Chernyi Kofe (Black Coffee), Korroziia Metalla (Corrosion of Metal) and Trizna (Funeral Feast).
Other Moscow bands of importance during the 1980s were Bravo, fronted by the ‘scandalous lady’ Zhanna Aguzarova; Brigada-S (Brigade-S), fronted by the thuggish looking, witty and talented Garrik Sukachev; Krematorii (Crematorium), a sluggish hippie band with an ambition to provide a cult answer Leningrad’s famous Akvarium; the duo Proshchai Molodost (Goodbye Youth), interesting in its mix of rock and classical Russian romances; Biokostructor, an electronic music duo; and Niuans (Nuance), who played a mixture of ‘white’ reggae and funk, at times sliding into avant-garde experimentation.
Two singer-songwriters with similarly tragic fates, a similar cult status, and having an important influence on the shaping of the Russian rock tradition came to Leningrad and Moscow from the provinces, ending there their lives in suicide, then to be catapulted to the pinnacle of the Russian rock pantheon. Alexander Bashlachev, considered to be the most talented rock poet of Russia, was also a strong tunesmith and a very powerful, even ecstatic performer of his own songs. He played alone, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He arrived in Leningrad from the provincial city of Cherepovets and was, from 1984 until 1988, a ‘crown prince’ of Russian bard rock and the poetry-oriented movement of the Russian rock scene. In 1989, he committed suicide by throwing himself out of a tenth-story window.
Yanka Diagileva, wife of Yegor Letov and a leader of the ‘scandalous’ Siberian cult band Grazhdanskaia Oborona, was a ‘princess’ of bard rock. Her act was mostly acoustic. However, she was occasionally accompanied by a drum. Having grown up in Siberia, she was very familiar with the harshness of the Soviet reality. Her songs, though often very powerful, were markedly dark and painful. While in Moscow she drowned her self (in 1991) and joined Bashlachev at the pinnacle of Soviet rock.
Through the 1980s, a number of important and talented bands appeared in the Russian provinces. Nautilus Pompilius, a pop-rock band from the city of Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains was one of the most prominent bands to come from the provinces. Sverdlovsk also produced Nastia Poleva, who started as a vocalist for Nautilus Pompilius and later pursued her own career fronting her band Nastia. The heavy metal band Urfin Dzhus also came from Sverdlovsk, as did Chai-f, a prominent R&B band that has effectively combined elements of Western Russian folk music. Oblachnyi Krai (Cloudy Region) was a prominent band from the northern Russian city of Arkhangel’sk. Vostochnyi Sindrom, from the remote and far eastern region of Magadan was a quintessential Siberian band, tough and uncompromising. Kalinov Most (Kalinov Bridge) from Novosibirsk became well known for its heavy, almost metallic version of folk rock.
One phenomenon that made the 1980s Soviet rock music explosion possible was the creation among underground rock fans of an unofficial ‘industry’ known as ‘magnitizdat.’ Magnitizdat was the private reproduction of recordings often made in clandestine studios. Thanks to this extended network for the dissemination of rock produced underground founded on mutual support, cooperation and help, Soviet rock not only managed to survive its darkest days but eventually emerged ‘victorious.’
The importance of Soviet rock music’s historic role in the process of Russia’s democratization lay in liberating national language and discourse from the ideological restraints and propaganda imposed by years of complicity with the requirements of Party-sanctioned political correctness. Rock musicians were the first Soviet citizens to become free in an ‘un-free’ country. They began to speak like free people, returning to a natural vernacular, thus avoiding all kinds of ideological, ‘new speak’ clichés, and showed the populace how to speak freely and sincerely, and how to express intimate emotions. Their humor and irony hijacked the national discourse, seeping even into the language of television and the major newspapers. Even ‘babushkas’ in the street were quoting rock songs by the end of the decade. Towards the end of the Soviet Union and into the 1990s rock musicians emerged as the most uncompromising and respected leaders in the country where the struggle for culture was concerned. In 1991, they emerged triumphant, together with the forces of Russian democracy.
4: After 1991
With the collapse of the Soviet regime came a rather unexpected loss of identity, a personal and creative crisis for many in Russian rock. Rock musicians suddenly lost their role of spiritual leadership, and from being glorious rebels they turned into simple entertainers, subject to the forces of a free market. No longer was it enough to be a professional hero: in the post-perestroika period the requirement was to be a professional musician. Music and musicians were now judged, not upon their social relevance and their ability to scandalize authorities, but upon their craftsmanship, their artistic achievements.
Rock musicians found it hard to adapt to the new mafia-capitalist reality. They went searching for new enemies. Fortunately, they were not that hard to find, as Russia’s newly rich, as well as Westerners profiteering from Russia’s new misery were an easy and attractive target. Thus, some rock musicians went back to the underground, re-establishing their rebellious identity. This was the route taken by Egor Letov of Grazhdanskaia oborona and Sergei Kurekhin, two of the most illustrious and popular leaders of perpetually dissenting Russian rock.
In the early 1990s, it became possible to see major trends developing in Russian rock after perestroika. There crystallized three basic movements: 1) cosmopolitan rock; 2) nationalist rock; and 3) women’s rock.
The cosmopolitan rock movement has been defined primarily by the fact that the musical, poetic and ideological reality of Russian life have been mostly quite conspicuously absent from its songs. The world depicted in the songs of cosmopolitan musicians has been utterly international and can be found in almost any modern country. This is the world of ‘the fashionable,’ of ‘beautiful’ boys and girls, young people who have money, live fast lives, and travel the World enjoying luxuries, sex, drugs and the nightlife. This music is westernized. It is slightly ironic and detached form of cool rock, with a somewhat monotonous but highly polished and well produced sound. This music lacks any reference to Russian traditions, both with regard to Russian pop music and Russian folk music. Highly electronic, the guitar- and keyboard-based sound is reminiscent of Western dance genres: house, trance and techno. The songs are usually highly danceable.
Performers of this cosmopolitan rock are the Moscow bands Splin and Mumii Trol‘, and the solo performer Naik Borzov. Cosmopolitan rock is also performed by Blast, one of the emerging bands that perform only in English and for English-speaking audiences.
Two elements of importance stand out where nationalist rock is concerned: its anti-Western sentiment (this is why Russian nationalist rock frequently does not sound like Western rock), and its carnivalesque conceptualization. Among other things, the ‘anti-Westernism’ of Russian nationalist rock manifests itself in its deliberate amateurism. Amateurism here becomes a form of protest against Western rock perceived as soulless, overproduced and corporate. Nevertheless, as amateurish as Russian nationalist rock is at times, it still borrows heavily from the arsenal of Western rock traditions in terms of the bluesy musical progressions that are often used and in terms of the use of a rhythm section and a full line up of other traditional rock instruments. It is as if Russians are saying: ‘we cannot or do not want to play like you, but we will use what we need from your treasure-trove to make our point. As a consequence, national rock musicians often quite effectively blend Western and Russian traditions by ‘bluesyfying’ Russian folk or pseudo-folk tunes and by using Western-style electronically-enhanced or distorted sound to play music that sounds as distinctly national and ‘un-rock-like’ as possible. The musicians bring into play the rich tradition of native Russian folk and pop genres: prison songs, criminal underworld songs, urban songs, love songs, urban romances, rural ballads, agrarian songs, revolutionary songs, Soviet war and pop songs, traditional Odessa klezmer songs, Russian vaudeville and cabaret songs, Russian Gypsy songs and so on.
Russian nationalist rock is fundamentally conceptual because more often then not it is serving some kind of idea other than a purely musical one. The carnivalesque presumes temporary suspension of the normal rules governing society and the substitution of such rules with temporary new ones. Carnival presumes going back to a national humorist tradition: merry-making, buffoonery, clowning, invoking a circus atmosphere and engaging in the satirizing of everyday reality. It is normal world turned inside out. The carnivalesque deals with things that otherwise are taboo in society: lower body functions, sex and gluttony. Closely related to these taboos is the Bakhtinian juxtaposition of official and unofficial culture found in each society. These carnivalesque elements are the redeeming factor of Russian nationalist rock, which makes it interesting and frighteningly unusual.
Within the realm of nationalist rock throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the twenty-first century can be found the most original and creative and most specifically Russian of the rock bands. However, this is not a new tradition. The tradition had already started to develop back in mid-1960s when Alexander Gradsky created his band Skomoroki to sing only original songs and only in Russian, and when Vetry Peremen started to introduce in their music elements of Russian folk and church traditions. To this trend belonged Zvuki Mu in the 1980s, together with Kalinov Most, Nol’, Brigada-S, the DK band of Sergei Zharikov, Alexsander Bashlachev and Yanka Diagileva and, of course, Grazhdanskaia Oborona. In the 1990s and into the early years of the twenty-first century the best and the brightest of Russian rock musicains are nationalist to some degree. Some, such as Grazhdanskaia Oborona, Kalinov Most, Mongol Shuudan and Korroziia Metalla, lean towards right wing nationalism. Others, such as the new St Petersburg ska band, Leningrad, and Moscow’s lounge-lizard buffoon Garrik Sukachev, are simply patriotic. Elements of nationalism are to be found in the post-Soviet work of Akvarium, Mashina Vremeni and Mango Mango.
Perhaps the greatest artistic divide within Russian rock practice of the early twenty-first century tales place along lines of gender. Female rock musicians, stepping away from the amateurish nationalist post-punk tradition and towards the polished sound of pro-Western bands have managed to blend these two trends into a beautiful and particularly Russian synthesis. Without sacrificing musicianship, good quality arrangements and tunefulness, they have managed to bring into their music an array of elements from the vocal techniques and instruments of folk music to folk music harmonies and melodies. As a result, performers such as Rada Anchevskaya (Rada), Inna Zhelannaia, Ol’ga Aref’eva, Zemfira, Nastia, Umka and the band Kolibri produce an exquisite blend of the national folk tradition and Western rock.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century Russian rock was a very complex phenomenon and was still going through the process of finding its identity.
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Mark Yoffe with Dave Laing
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