Author: J. Frederick Baylin
September 2000

Åkvarium. Boris Grebenshchikov. Å. B.G. These two names and their shortened graffiti substitutes have been central in the development of modern music in the former Soviet Union for almost thirty years. Åkvarium ("Aquarium") has been described as Russia's Beatles, as Russia's Grateful Dead, as Russia's Rolling Stones. Boris Grebenshchikov has been described as Russia's Jim Morrison, as Russia's David Bowie, as Russia's Bob Dylan. He has been the spiritual leader of several generations of disaffected teenagers and former teenagers during the stifling final years of communism, throughout the tumultuous transition of perestroika and now deep into the confusion of modern Russia. 
There was always something better than the world around. There was always Åkvarium. There was always B.G. So there was always something to cling to, to rock to, to dream to, to escape to, to fall in love to. There were always swooning young school girls, red with embarrassment, sticking flowers into Grebenshchikov's passing hand, leaving their poetry at his doorstep, traveling from distant Siberian cities to the center of Leningrad to paint words of adoration somewhere on the walls of his seven story staircase. There were always kids sitting around in some park or in the metro singing for themselves his mystical songs of another world and basking in the inner strength we all feel when we have found a secret path to the truth. There were always Åkvarium's unique musical sounds: akustika ("acoustic") and elektrichestvo ("electricity"): strumming guitar and searing solos; lyrical cello and violin lines; folksy harmonicas; funky homemade percussion and rocking drums; flutes, bassoons, oboes, mandolins, violas, and penny whistles. And there was always the beautiful searching voice of B.G. singing of life on the other side of the glass wall, of the search for enlightenment, of the heroes and legends of mysterious lands real and fictional, and asking: which is the fastest fish in the ocean, where are the bad boys who are supposed to wipe us off the earth, who will you meet the dawn with tonight. There were always the now-famous characters: Gramps Kozlodoev the former ladies man who now wets his pants trying to crawl into old women's windows; Ivanov who gets stepped on hungover in the bus on Monday mornings; the two tractor drivers, one cherishing his Sartre, the other playing Santana and Weather Report; Sergeev the Nightwatchman; Captain Africa; Suvlekhim Takats; General Skobelev; Ivan Bodkhidkharma; Master Bo; the Full-Moon Rebels; Ivan and Danilo; the Volga Boatsman; St. German; as well as the fish, the swans, the eagles, the lions and the calves; the angels and the gems; the wolves and ravens; the whisky and the castles; the stars and the skies; the mirrors and the heavenly cities; the grass and trees; and, most of all, you and me trying to find our place in this life and after it. The candles still burn in the silent audience when Grebenshchikov sings of his love for the ancient Volga towns of Samara and Kostroma in "Kostroma Mon Amour" (included on Territory), while expressing his usual indignation for lack of human individuality, even in reaching for heaven.

So I don't need these prizes,
Don't need any wreath,
It's just shame that we move as a herd,
When to heaven we reach..
All I need is a a carved fence,
And a lace lampshade pure
Oh, Samara, my sister,
Kostroma, mon amour.

And the kids still groove to his reggae anthem "Babylon", expressing his usual ambivalent dismissal of political strutures, by inciting not rebellion, but inner searchings, and by condemning not Soviet (or post-Soviet) power, but the entirety of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he also embraces:

Two thousand years, two thousand years.
We've been living so strangely for two thousand years.
But Babylon is a state of mind, I don't know if it got through to you or not
Why we've been living so strangely for two thousand years.
And this city is a Babylon.
And we live here, and it's a Babylon.
I can hear voices, they are singing for us all,
Yet all around us is a Babylon.

The Early Years

It all began when the musician inside Boris Grebenshchikov finally defeated the student in him in the early 70's, and the underground acquired its leader. Concerts were of course illegal and impossible then, as were recordings, but everyone in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) had somehow happened to be at the right place at the right time when Å would play in packed living rooms, or dormitory common rooms, and everyone had a friend's lousy copy of a friend's lousy copy of their most recent non-existent underground recording. It was commonly heard at that time that Åkvarium was not a band with a following, rather it was the lifestyle of a generation. Whether you sat among the musicians playing a bassoon or flute or among the audience tapping your foot to the beat at an outside gathering place, you were part of the growing underground phenomenon that separated "us" from "them" throughout many areas of culture in the 1970's and 1980's Leningrad underground. 
The "us" in those years certainly had a lot to share. They were completely alienated from officialdom of Soviet society, and lived on the edge of political oppression at all times. It was illegal not to work, so the young musicians and artists, whose creative endeavors were at best censored and at worst tickets to prison, worked as factory night watchmen. This allowed them to gather safely with their friends during the night "work" hours and play music or arrange unofficial performances and exhibitions. With historical hindsight it seems a romantic time of intense creativity, but in those years the lives of these young people were filled with fear, isolation, and a sense of doom. So-called concerts were regularly busted by police, and one always had to wonder who in their midst had been the "stukkach", literally the "knocker" or informer. In typical Soviet style there was always fear for one's parents -- that they would all fall under repression due to the antics of their non-conformist children. Everyone in the underground was poor, and contact with Western students was risky for both sides and often ended in intimidating meetings with KGB officers. For musicians and artists there were no instruments or supplies -- a walkman was an extreme luxury and recording equipment was practically unheard of. Early tapes were recorded with crude homemade or black-market equipment under great risk, and without a hint of hope that the recordings would ever later appear as LP's let alone CD's. It was in these intense circumstances of oppression that Boris Grebenshchikov began the lyrical song writing career that was to lead him to national recognition, first in the Leningrad underground circles, later throughout all of mother Russia, and now Europe and the world.
The underground tapes, recorded as cassettes and circulated from hand to hand, began in 1973 with The Temptation of St. Akvarium, in which most of the songs were still based on the poetry of Grebenshchikov's school friend George Gunitsky. The Tales of Count Diffizor appeared in 1974 and was followed in 1976 by On the Other Side of the Mirrored Glass. The image of a glass or mirrored wall, transparent and perhaps invisible, was to appear repeatedly in many of B.G.s hundreds of songs throughout the next twenty five years. This image is vital to an understanding of the young poet's work, in that it paves the way to an appreciation of the sense shared by the entire underground that there was something better, more beautiful, just around the corner, through that window, on the other side of that mirror. 1978 saw the emergence of All Brothers are Sisters in which the early unique acoustic sound first found the light of day. 

Canonical Åkvarium: The Early Eighties

While Å's reputation had spread among the Leningrad underground in the 1970's, it had still to reach the wider expanses of Russia. With the 1981 release into the underground circles of The Blue Album, the first of the 11 cassette albums of the "canonical" period of Åkvarium, Å's reputation began its journey to the point that Grebenshchikov is now a household name, and fans ranging in age from 15 to 60 crowd concert halls from Petersburg to Vladivostok and from New York to Jerusalem. The Blue Album is reminiscent in musical style of early Dylan ballads. Already on The Blue Album, in "Heroes of Rock 'n Roll" B.G. states "I'm tired of being the ambassador of rock and roll in an arythmic country". This album demonstrates Å's wide acquaintance with the folk music of the world, especially the wide influence of Jamaica's reggae music, led by Bob Marley, who died in 1981. "Jah Will Give us Everything" and "Rootsman" underscore the pervasity of this theme at the time of The Blue Album. "River" underlines B.G.'s eternal theme of things greater and longer-lasting with its chorus "a river, a mountain, grass, a hand" and was used by the authorities as an excuse to try to dismiss Grebenshchikov and Åkvarium as derelict drug addicts, a fine example of the inability of Soviet censorship to recognize a political and societal non-threat. 
Later in 1981 Å released its famous, surrealistic album Triangle, which perhaps comes closest to the West's psychedelic Pink Floyd-influenced music of the period. Various bizarre and mythological characters are first found here, and the voices of Olga Pershina and Seva Gakkel make solo appearances. This album was a mind-bending experience to those reared on the acoustic twang of Åkvarium's previous work. In 1981 the first collection of previously unreleased work was recorded in the form of The History of Åkvarium, Volume 2: Elektrichestvo ("Electricity"). For the first time, Åkvarium fans were presented with the other side of Å's work: the electric music, with heavy guitar and few strings, that was to become the balancing half of the more famous and more original "acoustic" work. Side 1 of Elektrichestvo is a concert from the legendary Tbilisi 1980 festival at which Grebenshchikov's outlandish stage antics permanently destroyed any hopes (or fears) of official participation in Soviet society. The reggae influence reaches its peak in "White Reggae" and "Babylon" the allegorical reggae chant of Leningrad that became one of Åkvarium's anthems known throughout Russia, and whose effects are even found in modern Russia: It is this song that led to the appearance of "Babylon" stores in St. Petersburg selling high class Western goods. 
Volume 1 Akustika ("Acoustic") of The History of Åkvarium appeared a year later in 1982, and is perhaps the most representative work of the B.G.'s musical poetry underscored by lilting flute, violin and cello, for which Åkvarium is most famous. Many of Grebenshchikov's ballads of love and nature appear here, including "Why doesn't the Sky Fall?", "The Second Glass Miracle", "Ivanov" and "Hold on to the Roots". Later in 1982 the album Taboo was released, continuing the electric direction found in Volume 2 of the History of Å. Songs of alienation such as "Piece of Life" and "Empty Places", that were to heavily influence other musicians such as the legendary late Victor Tsoi of Kino, appeared here. By this time, Åkvarium's reputation has spread mysteriuously across Russian, and the famous Å symbol could be found chalked on pavements, spray painted in curtyeards and on fences, across the vast Soviet homeland.

The "Rock Club" Festivals and Emergence from the Underground

Rolling Stone's 1989 article about Grebenshchikov reported that "by the early Eighties, Aquarium had gained a sizable following whose devotion rivaled that of the most obsessive Deadheads. Grebenshchikov's dingy Leningrad apartment became a shrine to which the faithful flocked, paying homage to the band and its charismatic leader." Led by Å, Russian underground rock began to grow rapidly, in part due to the emergence of the Leningrad Rock Club organization that was reluctantly condoned by the authorities in recognition of the popularity of the movement. The Rock Club held a festival every year beginning in 1981 in which the leading illegal bands all perfomed, and the entire underground community converged on Rubinstein Street in downtown Leningrad to witness one of the formative cultural events of the late Soviet period. Entrance passes to these festivals were as difficult to obtain as to the world famous Kirov Theater. The festivals began to attract international attention, leading to the 1985 American release of Red Wave containing songs by Å and three other bands. This album was the first western appearance of Russian underground music and quickly led to increased contact with the western world of rock 'n' roll.
In 1983 Radio Africa appeared. In the form of songs appearing on some African radio, Åkvarium fans were once again exposed to a wide variety of new and unexpected sounds that stemmed then, as always, from Åkvarium's broad acquaintance with the music of the world. Radio Africa includes legendary songs such as "Captain Africa", "Take me to the River" (title only taken from the American soul classic/ Talking Heads song) and "It Snowed all Night." Radio Africa also contains one of Grebenshchikov's most famously ambiguous songs, "Rock and Roll's Dead" in which the solidarity of the Russian underground with the rock 'n' roll movements of the English-speaking world is simultaneously exalted and condemned:

Elbow to elbow, a brick in the wall,
The prouder we stand, the harder we fall,
For those who walked with us, for those who waited for us, 
Änd for those who will never forgive us, that
Rock 'n' Roll's dead, but we are still here,
Rock 'n' Roll's dead, but we . . .
Those who love us watch us disappear,
Rock 'n' Roll's dead, but we are still here.

Radio Africa is pivotal in the development of Åkvarium's music in that it presented a fusion of the two previous directions, acoustic and electric, that characterizes Å's sound to this day. By the middle 80's Åkvarium concerts no longer fit neatly into the acoustic/electric division. The development of these two styles had characterized the early years, but by Radio Africa the two had come together into a kind of layered, rhythmic, rootsy rock that was both hard and lilting, simultaneously intense and soft. This was the combination of sounds that underlay that special sense of uniqueness felt at an underground Åkvarium concert in 1985 and it is the sound that still separates Åkvarium's music from the pop music overrunning Russia today: On the one hand rock 'n' roll, on the other hand folk music; on the one hand the influence of national music from Ireland, from Jamaica, from Mongolia, on the other hand startling originality.
Radio Africa was followed in 1984 by an acoustic concert recording called Ikhtiologia ("Ichthyology") containing more of the poetic acoustic classics for which Å is most famous including "Christmas Carol", "Keys to her Doors" and "Movement in the Direction of Spring". 1984 also saw the appearance of Day of Silver with the rocking hit "Moving On" and the lilting ballad "The Sky is Growing Closer". In 1985, Åkvarium's December's Children appeared, including the huge blues hit "She Can Move Herself", the painfully autobiographical ballad "I'm a Snake" and the ska-influenced "212-85-06" (included on Territory), whose title phone number inspired fans to try calling to reach Grebenshchikov, in vain, for years to come. (The phone number has even found its way into introductory English textbooks for Russian as the best known number in the country.) The cycle of acoustic albums continued in 1986 with Ten Arrows, whose title song by the same name is one of the great Åkvarium mythological ballads. Ten Arrows also includes the mythical songs "City", "Crystal Balls" and "Knocking at the Grass Doors". Åkvarium's popularity and influence grew to the point that they made cultural history in 1986 by initially refusing to play a concert attended by members of the British reggae band UB40 until audience members that had been taken out by security for "rowdy behavior" (read: dancing). The vindication of their self-proclaimed strike was the release of the rowdies to the thundering hall, and led to an extended 20 minute version of "Babylon" on stage together with UB40 members, Viktor Tsoi, and practically half the audience. Everyone in the hall that night know that the Åkvarium movement had grown to the point of no return, and there was a strange intoxication in the feeling that it was possible for to intimidate Soviet authority with the popularity of underground rock music alone. Soon after Åkvarium began to break through the veil of censorship, and to play semi-official concerts, including a set of 8 at the Jubilee Sports Hall in Leningrad, each of them packed to capacity with 6,000+ mad chanting fans, dizzy with a sense of power over the Babylon regime.
In 1987 the "canonical" period came to an end with the surprising Ravnodenstvie ("Equinox") including the famous rock ballad "Adelaida" (included on Territory) as well as the semi-political appeals of "The Generation of Nightwatchmen and Yardsweepers" and "The Full Moon Rebels" (included on Territory), betraying B.G.'s attitude to the then emerging reality of Perestroika -- the people have the power, but they must move to change through beauty and creativity, not rebellion and destruction:

Who is our master, and where is his lash?
Fear is holiday and guilt is his sash.
We'll only sing our song.
But oh my love, we'll open up the door.
The full-moon rebels are riding again,
My place is here.
The underground rebels are riding again,
Let them ride on.

In the West

With the underground time coming to an end, Western producers got wind of Åkvarium, (one of whose voices can be heard at the beginning of Territory's "Babylon") and tried to make a sellable western product of Grebenshchikov, but the resulting Radio Silence (1989, CBS records, produced by The Eurythmics' Dave Stewart), with songs in English, was quite out of character for B.G. although it was somehow appropriate for the age of Perestroika. (It was only much later, in 1998, that Grebenshchikov finally produced in the West the Dylan-influences album he had always dreamed of, with his Russian ballads accompanied by members of Dylan's "The Band" on Lilith.) The final and crowning act of the underground period, however, came in the summer of 1988 when all of Åkvarium's members were granted exit visas (the ultimate victory over Soviet officialdom) to play an international pace festival in Montreal with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The true musical peak, however, came at the local Montreal blues bar Les Beaux Esprits where Åkvarium rocked local blues musicians and had the bar's waitresses dancing on the tables during an impromptu and unprecedented appearance. 
Although the Montreal trip put Åkvarium on the Western musical map, it also indirectly led other original band members to head into independent careers (Diusha Romanov and Misha Vasiliev with the band "Trilistnik", Seva Gakkel with club management, Andrei Reshetin with classical music, and Slava Egorov with a recording studio in Montreal). But drummer Petr Troshchekov and bassist Sasha Titov remained with the band into the 90s, and the number of musicians who at some time have played with Åkvarium reminds one of Bob Marley's famous quip: "Anyone who plays with me is the Wailers". Grebenshchikov has been surrounded by scores of wonderful Russian musicians, and Territory is a tribute to all of the 25+ musicians who have been and still are Åkvarium, but especially to the original violinist Sasha Kussul' and original flautist Diusha Romanov, who are no longer with us, but whose artistry will never be forgotten.

Back to the Roots

With the mysterious appeal of the forbidden West finally and necessarily dissipated, B.G. returned to Leningrad (soon to become Petersburg again) and entered perhaps his most creative period, which continues to this day. No longer on the run from authorities or having to hide his creativity, B.G. was exposed to wider possibilities leading to various film soundtracks and the release on LP and CD of previously unrecorded older work on Archive Volume Three (1991), and Babylon Library: (1993), comprising the 3rd and 4th volumes of The History of Åkvarium. "Don't Stand in the Way of Great Feelings" (from Archive Volume Three) is included on Territory and shows even more of Åkvarium's musical diversity, with the Carribean influenced mythic tale of Romeo and Juliette on the open sea, while betraying B.G.'s continuing ambivalence to the changes happening around Åkvarium in the Perestroika era:

Last night on the city square
The inquisitors burned someone alive,
Couples danced to the light of the flames,
Then someone's voice commanded "Fire!"
Typical start for a new era --
Celebration of progressive ideas.
We could have gone down in history,
Thank God we stayed right here.

But the post-America period is best characterized by religious and narcotic searchings, taking Grebenshchikov and his fans well beyond Western influences, deep into Russian Orthodoxy with a psychodelic flavor. In 1992 The Russian Album appeared, bringing B.G. closer to the land and the people than he had ever been before, with songs such as "The Mares of Total Abandon", the "The Volga Boatsman" and the haunting "Wolves and Ravens", included on Territory. Here, Grebeshchikov's lovely verse and lilting voice brings his huge following away from the materialistic pull of the West and deep into the search for creativity, self-understanding, and spiritual fulfillment with a mythic twist:

Look at that Cathedral with its darkness under dome,
All eyes have searched there and all have seen but naught,
I would like to place a candle, but they're sold right out of candles,
I'd light some liquor in my hand but where can it be sought?

And the snows lie all around us on each of the four sides,
Barefoot through the snow: no problem if your soul is pure,
We would have disappeared for good but for the wolves and ravens,
They asked us where we're going, to that star so warm for sure?

The cathedral can be taken to represent the downtrodden Russian Orthodox church in the modern world, with its deficit of candles and liquor, and the snow the harsh conditions that can be overcome only be inner purity. The wolves and ravens can be taken to represent the Soviet exploiters, who oppressed the people but at the same time inspired them, but are also symbols of Grebenshchikov's own generation ("I'm such a black bird myself") and its influence on the following generations:

And perhaps it is still true that there's no path but the travelled one,
There may be no hands for miracles but those so clean and sure,
Yet all the same we were warmed only by the wolves and ravens,
And they blessed us all the way to that star so pure.

The Russian Album remains B.G.s most popular album, at least according to a recent poll on Åkvarium's web site (www.aquarium.ru), perhaps because of its embracing of deep Russian roots in the face of Westernism, or perhaps because of its post modernism ("we've seen what it's like with silver, let's see how it looks with acid") In any event, The Russian Album kicked off a set of Åkvarium albums in the 1990s: both compliations of older unrecorded and live material: Captain Voronin's Letters (1992),The Sands of Petersburg (1993), Kunstkamera (1998) and, most important, a run of new albums, including Ramses the 4th's Favorite Songs (1993), Kostroma Mon Amour (1994) (including "Kostroma Mon Amour" and "Gertruda" on Territory), Navigator (1995), Åkvarium's best selling album to date, including three songs on Territory, "The Final Turn", "The Fastest Plane on Earth" and "Garçon Number 2", Snow Lion (1996), including "The Great Railroad Symphony" on Territory), Giperborea (1997), Lilith (1998), and Psi (1999).

The Åkvarium Legacy

Grebenshchikov's poetry has been published in seperate literary volumes, along with his fairy tales and novellas, and deserves attention as a literary genre in its own right. Linguistic analysis of the poetry reveals a kind of modern-day Pushkin, Russia's early 19th century poet-hero who is said to have raised the Russian literary language to its modern level by combining old Russian literary tradition with the then current vernacular. Similarly, Grebenshchikov's poetry takes the Russian language into the 21st century by combining the now classical language of Pushkin (B.G.'s favorite poet) with the modern slang of the Soviet underground, of rock 'n' roll, and of the psycholdelic age in general. The Territory songs taken from the 1990's albums combine classical and modern vernacular in a startling way that leaves no Russian ear entirely in peace, with its mentions of the Beatles and hashish, and of the twisted beauty of Russia's unusual cultural development, as in "The Final Turn", a grim vindication of death, backwardness, and creativity:

I'm known here as the Final Turn,
You've known me all these years.
The taste of vodka made from this damp earth,
And bread that's baked from tears.
My house is full of bitter rot,
My broken head won't mend,
I feel betrayed when all is well,
My only home's the wasteland.

No compilation could possibly represent accurately the mythic legacy of Åkvarium for modern Russians of three generations. The selection of songs on Territory is intended to convey to Western ears the essential Russianist of this unique cultural phenomenon while at the same time displaying its musical diversity and romantic internationalism. Thus "The Great Railroad Symphony" is at once an existential lament about religiosity, creativity, and a romantic ballad of the Russian situation:

The young are bored in heaven,
And the old can't get that far;
Buddha wanders round Golgotha,
And exclaims "Allah Akhbar"
I don't know where my place is,
But I'm in this land you see,
The engine driver hasn't noticed
That he's bringing you to me.

Territory contains two new versions of famous Åkvarium songs, rerecorded in 2000 ("Adelaida" and "Babylon"), as well as four new songs, "Mountain Chrystal", "Under the Bridge Like Chkalov", "The Only One I Love", and "A New Song for the Homeland". The latter concludes the album with a look into Grebenshchikov's take on 21st Russia and his own place in its cultural history:

"Yo, kind passersby, have I got a deal for you!" --
Someone so badly needs a drink, he'd sell his heart here in the stalls.
Across this wide earth there ain't nothing like our homeland,
Each would dream of this of course, but hasn't got the balls.
And above the White Lake the clouds are madly swirling,
Either someone smokes too much, or that's just how it is.
The songs come pouring out, bleeding from my gut,
Keep on bleeding out, but somehow never cease.

Master of the Graveyard, Sisters of Long Life,
Trinity of Razor Brothers and the Lord of the Mare--
Please accept my gift of this new Song for the Homeland
And have mercy on our land, 
and all of us
And me.

Boris Grebenshchikov is surrounded by some of Russia's finest instrumentalists. Professional musicologist Oleg Sakmarov, a musical Jack of all Trades, is featured on multiple instruments, all of which he has a true mastery of, including flute, oboe, English horn, harmonium, xylophone, recorder, saxophone, triangle, bells, penny whistle and something new in each concert. Professionally trained musicians Andrei Sourotdinov (violin), Volodya Kudryavstev (bass), and Boris Rubeikin (keyboards) fill out the eerie, haunting sounds unqiue to Åkvarium, superimposed on the rocking drumming of Albert Potapkin. Add to this the mesmerizing African beat of percussionist Oleg Sharrr and the familiar twang of Grebenshchikov's guitar, and you have a band of great musical force, versatility and virtuosity backing up a giant in modern oral folklore in his endlessly creative search for a better world. 

It's so easy on earth;
In Tibet or in Tsarskoe Selo 
Everyone wants the same, it would seem,
But just somehow can't get it--
And they draw themselves a circle, 
Shoot their girls and their friends,
While inside the water of life beats on--
So what stops us from drinking it?

No history of 20th century music is complete without reference to Boris Grebenshchikov and Åkvarium. 

J. Frederick Bailyn
St. Petersburg
September, 2000

(All translations copyright J. Frederick Bailyn and B.G.)

Return To Publications