The Rooms Off Nevsky Prospect: A Decade in Aquarium

Author: Naomi Marcus
Source: The Village Voice
Date: 1989


Ten years ago, when I first met the Leningrad band Aquarium, they had a great hideout/rehearsal space for an underground Soviet rock group: Boris's rented room, across the lane from a school for deaf-mutes. There, on Stone Island, 18 Birch Alley,

singer Boris Grebenshikov composed songs on the second floor of a wooden house that featured a fireplace, and a donkey in the front yard. Both house and beast were equally rare possessions in Leningrad, and both belonged to his friend of the tuneful  name: Falaleyev.

Falaleyev, the benevolent landlord and an Aquarium fan since the group formed in '75, swore that his grandfather had gone to law school with Lenin, and that Lenin himself had given grand-dad this Abe Lincoln-ish log cabin on one of Leningrad's  most remote and pastoral islands.

I didn't know anyone else in Leningrad who had a house. Everyone I knew lived in squashed apartments or cramped rooms (or tenement-style dorms for foreigners like me, a Russian-speaking exchange student). I figured the only possible way to have a house was to have known Lenin. It made sense. Also, the thought that Lenin was providing a venue for Soviet rock and roll was immensely appealing.

Boris was married to Natasha then, and they had an infant daughter, Liza. Natasha visited Boris, but lived with her parents. There was no place for a baby in Boris's long smoky salon, as it was usually brimming over loudly with people, music, and tea. Endless cups of tea - it was like the Mad Hatter's out on Stone Island. Every new arrival, guest, or musician would be greeted: "So, will you drink tea?" (a line that became the title of one of Boris's more prosaic songs). With tea he offered Turkish delight and lethal sugary nougats from Leningrad's popular confectionery: "Sweets of the East." Friends came by for tea and stayed for days.

Boris was sunny. He played the guitar and looked like David Bowie. Seva was solemn. He played the cello and looked like Christ. Diusha was a gentleman soldier. He played the flute in Aquarium and in a military band (while finishing his two-year service in the Soviet Army). Misha played the bass and was nicknamed "Fun". Once in a while Guberman sat in on the drums, and Fagot would show up as well. (Fagot, ahem, is Russian for bassoon, and that was his instrument and his nickname.) In '79 they were in their mid-twenties, devoted to each other and to the Beatles, without ideology, money, or pretensions.

Boris worked afternoons as a computer programmer. (He has a degree in applied mathematics.) At night the band would meet on Stone Island to play. They could play all night long; the closest neighbors were the deaf students. Natasha (grace among chaos) would come and nurse Liza, whom Boris called "the littlest Rasta". This was during his reggae period.

Stone Island was fine as long as it lasted, which wasn't long. Falaleyev, the music-loving landlord, emigrated to America and the city authorities impounded his donkey. The house went to his mother and aunt. They let Boris live out the summer of '79, then he moved back into town.

The last time I heard Aquarium on Stone Island was that June under the dusky, lavender skies of the White Nights. They played until the 3 a.m. twilight, when the sun dips briefly below the horizon, then we went strolling through the island, among the birch trees. I left my Frisbee there.

That December the Soviets went into Afghanistan. It wasn't a great year for Soviet rock and roll. Though Boris and Co. loved Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull, the young masses (at Leningrad State University's Saturday night dances, and in student clubs throughout the land) were listening to ABBA, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"; but the most popular song of all was this disco number (sung in English) by Boney M:

Rah, Rah, Rasputin,
Russia's greatest love machine
He really knew how to get the job done!
Rah, Rah, Rasputin,
Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat who really swung!



I had come from California to attend Leningrad State University, and, not only did I hate the prevailing pop, I was seriously cold. Everyone kept assuring me that it was an unusually icy winter, that there hadn't been temperatures so low since the winter that froze Hitler's armies. That did not console me. I was living in a segregated dorm (for students from capitalist societies only - the Cubans, Czechs, and Poles were correct and civil, but who were mainly fulfilling their social obligations by consorting with the enemy and reporting our activities. The season looked bleak in the kindred spirit department.

My luck changed during that freezing winter when I met Diusha, Aquarium's flutist. We rode on an icicle-caked trolley to Stone Island for tea and sympathy, and then to one of the band's first informal, intense concerts. Someone had a key to a lecture room at the Institute for Applied Mathematics. Lenin busts to the right of us, Lenins to the left of us. The room was draped in red bunting that bleated: THE PARTY IS THE MIND, THE HONOR, AND THE CONSCIENCE OF THE PEOPLE. The lights were shut off, and the band played by candlelight.

The audience was a beautiful assortment of long-haired young men and women in mufflers and knit caps. They smoked furiously and listened with passionate attention. Boris was singing then about rumors of flying saucers over the drab industrial town of Petrozavodsk: "If I were a saucer/I wouldn't be caught dead over Petrozavodsk." He sang a love song, "Why the Sky Doesn't Fall", and a beautiful anthem to Leningrad, "My Heart Bears the Scent of Nevsky Prospekt".

We had gone in the front door and up the stairs like civilized concertgoers, but had to leave through the windows when the night watchman came on. Though the concert was illegal, it wasn't underground actually, but on the second floor. As hoarse Russian voices urged me to hurry up and jump down into the snow, I realized I wasn't cut out for inaccessible art. Nevertheless, the music that night was my first revelation about the Soviet Union.

The cellist Seva said, "For two years we had no real place to record or rehearse, but we didn't worry about it. We just played wherever and whenever we could, because someone or other was always being drafted into the army. First Misha, then Diusha, then Fagot".

Aquarium gave free acoustic concerts in cafes, parks, factory recreation clubs, culture palaces, institutes. They began recording homemade cassettes. They would even hit the road sometimes (by proletarian train, the cheapest "hard-class" cars), playing at Vyborg near the Finnish border, or south, in resort towns by the Black Sea. They rarely went to Moscow, where it was harder to get away with state-threatening activities like playing rock and roll. When I asked winsome Seva about girls and fans and possibilities, he smiled mildly, "But we've got Misha for that sort of thing."



After Stone Island, Aquarium headquartered themselves at Misha's, in his large room in a communal apartment on Leningrad's Vassily Island. One of the attractions of this flat was the wineshop below it. (Maybe that's why they called him Fun.) Sweet Georgian port had replaced tea as the beverage of choice during rehearsals. Down the block a beer wagon stopped. It dispensed hangover brew in the mornings for Misha and other desperate neighbors, who would line up with their own glasses or pails. Or they would sweat out their hangovers with a long morning in the local banya, the sauna where they'd beat each other with birch branches.

At Misha's, noise was a big problem. His neighbors would pop out of their rooms to peer down the gloomy communal corridor each time the doorbell or the communal phone rang. They were furious at the shaggy, guitar-toting multitudes who sang in

Misha's room till early morning. These hooligans used the building's one bathroom, didn't they? And they would even burn potatoes and cook mushroom soup in the overcrowded kitchen. Misha's neighbor in the next room was a tough old drunk, in and out of jail, who would pound on the wall with a frying pan until they appeased him with a bottle.

An ace schemer with ginger eyebrows, Misha was the most financially solvent of the group, so it was natural to gather at his place. He had the best (Soviet made) stereo, and a color TV. At one time he even owned a car, a Soviet-made Fiat that never went more than a block or two at a time. He was always trying hard, against the odds, to achieve a standard of gracious living. It was touching. Once, I brought him a Japanese tape recorder. He looked at it, looked and looked at the delicate machine, and said, "God! How, how ever, do our Soviet planes even get off the ground?" Besides designing computer systems for the Leningrad Geological Institute, he made jeans at home on an old pedal sewing machine and sold them for a handy price. He dressed well, and took his role seriously as the heartthrob of Aquarium. (Maybe that's why they called him Fun.)

In 1980, when Aquarium played at the Tbilisi Rock Festival in Georgia, Misha danced on stage with Boris. They writhed and twisted and did innocuous rock-festival things. Their behavior was judged "scandalous" and "anti-Soviet" and letters were sent to the Leningrad Party Committee accusing the band's members of being antisovietchiki and Boris, the leader, of being the biggest antisovietchik of all. Upon returning to Leningrad, he was thrown out of Komsomol (Communist Youth League), fired from his programming job, and the group was banned from performing.



Boris said, "The best thing that ever happened to me was when I lost my job. I was free to make music all the time." To avoid the law, and the charge of "parasitism" (i.e., unemployment, i.e. living off the state), the band took jobs for a few hours a week.

Boris was a night watchman. Diusha, the flutist, sold watermelons at an outdoor stand. Seva, the cellist, cut weeds along the railroad tracks. Misha, of the respectable income, was still at the Geology Institute. I was a tour guide, impatiently tramping American groups around Red Square, to the ballet, and through various czarist palaces. When the tour hit Leningrad, I'd dump my charges into the ministering arms of Intourist and escape to my friends, with all the loot I'd brought them from the world: pennywhistles, Jew's harps, guitar strings, cowbells, maracas, Rolling Stones, Walkmans, crystals, Celestial Seasonings teas, Jiffy Pop popcorn, songbooks, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (for Boris), dried pineapples, and enough blank cassettes to sink a ship.

Boris left Natasha and moved in with Liuda, a lissome, sullen, green-eyed beauty who for three years had been Seva's girlfriend. She had a small room in a communal apartment, at the top of a steep eight-story staircase on Sofia Perovskaya Street, off Nevsky Prospect. Boris and Liuda burrowed into that tiny hobbit shell of a room, filling it with icons and mirrors, glass ornaments and beads, empty bottles of Bailey's cream sherry, posters of Bob Marley, and paintings of Russian demons done by their friends. There was no hot water, and no telephone, but they were at the center of town. And the view from their roof, of blue canals and golden spires, was like a watercolor.

To get there, you tiptoed through the kitchen, nodding politely at the flat's other inhabitants, as they fried eggs or ate jam while wearing housecoats and slippers. ("No English," Liuda warned me, "the neighbors called the police last month because we had too many foreigners in our room"). Then you climbed on the radiator and out the kitchen window. Bliss on the roof.

In the next seven years, Boris and Liuda gradually took over the kommunalka. Each time I'd visit, I'd notice, they'd taken over yet another room. One more neighbor had bailed out, had fled the Americans on the roof and the harmonicas in the kitchen. Boris had managed to empty the place. One room became his writing studio, one room was devoted to laundry, and another was a crashpad or, more urgently, a trysting place for whoever needed it that night.

During that winter, they rehearsed at a friend's dacha (country home) on the Gulf of Finland, outside Leningrad in the settlement called Solnechnoye. Dressed in shaggy fur, they would take the electrichka (commuter train) laden with instruments and provisions, tromp through the snowy streets, and play the night through. Boris remembers, "It was Dima's dacha, and we used it mainly in winter, when no one with any sense was out there. Dima is a lazy guy, and he never lit the fire. We'd arrive and he would be lying under three blankets with ice on the windows, ice on the glasses, ice on his beard. It would take us hours just to get the fire going and get warm enough to play."

Though banned from the stage, Aquarium was prolific on tape. Through an engineer-friend, Tropillo, they had access to a recording studio at a Pioneer Palace (a recreation club for kids). They recorded three albums that year: Triangle, The Blue Album, Electricity. From the masters, they made 50 to 100 flimsy cassettes and cast them out on the vast Soviet sea, like messages in a bottle. Boris's lyrics were taking on a steely glint: "It's high time I found some peace/ I'm weary of being the ambassador of rock in the country that can't feel the beat." (Young Punks)

And me, as I trekked around the country in and out of Aeroflot planes - how do they get off the ground? - I was surprised to hear Aquarium's music on cassette decks in Irkutsk (Siberia), Kharkov (Ukraine), and Samarkand (Central Asia). Those little tapes multiplied like viruses.

Liuda, Boris's girl and Seva's ex, wore paisley and a rim of eye shadow around her fiercely guarded , enormous eyes. She pouted because there was never any money.

Guberman, the drummer, left the group in a huff, and young, curly-haired Peter was on a concentrated hunt for a foreign bride (the freedom railroad out of there), and he asked for my help. I declined, but admired his hustle. Seva, the cellist, quit drinking, which made his life considerably harder because he was often the only sober one in the room. Then he quit smoking and gave up meat. He began to hear voices, in his state of heightened purity, and he felt he could heal people. He began to talk, to everyone's alarm, about giving up music.



If Boris and Liuda's room was a hobbit hole, Seva's room was a chapel. He was becoming pretty saintly himself. Seva lived on Insurrection Street near Insurrection Square and the Insurrection Subway Station with his blind, widowed mother. His room was narrow, with one window on the far wall, a light at the end of the tunnel. Along one wall was a couch for guests; his place was opposite, an armchair. Between, there was a small round table for the teapot and the snacks that Seva served: gingerbread, sliced cheese and raisins, beet salad with sour cream, pickled cabbage, breadsticks. Crowds never gathered at Seva's, out of respect for his mother, but he had intimate afternoon teas for a few good friends. The godfather of at least three of the five children born to band members, Seva is beloved for his gentleness and the fussy concern he lavishes over everyone.

"When we are all together, it's okay. That's fine for Seva," Boris said. "He wants to have everyone together all the time. And he hates chaos."

Boris would drop by and try out songs with Seva, just the two of them in Seva's sanctuary. They improvised while Seva's mother fluttered around them.

The band released a new cassette: Radio Africa, which includes "Tibetan Tango" and "The Music of Silver Spokes Spinning." As Aquarium acquired status and renown in Leningrad, Seva grew concerned over artistic standards. If rehearsals were too chaotic for him, he would sullenly pack his gear and leave. (Dramatic exits aren't easy when lugging a cello.) A hundred times he walked out, but he always came back.

1983: ROK KLUB

The Leningrad authorities recognized they had to do something to control the numbers of rock and roll pick-up bands around town and the growing crowds who were gathering to listen in impromptu settings. They designated an old downtown theater on Rubenstein Street as the Club of Amateur Rock Bands. The Rok Klub, as it was familiarly called, was permitted two blow-outs annually: the opening of the season concert in May, and the closing of the season in October. All bands had to submit their songs to a censorship committee beforehand. The concerts were called "festivals," though the atmosphere was hardly festive. Gray-haired babushka ushers, frowning grannies in red armbands, took tickets and checked coats. Police, in gray uniforms and black boots, patrolled Rubenstein Street. Fans thronged the street, trying to buy extra tickets. A let's-not-rock-the-boat atmosphere prevailed.

Aquarium, whom time had unbanned, was the town favorite. Liuda had dyed Boris's hair a shiny gold, so it would glow on stage. He sang to rapt audiences in Leningrad, "This town is Babylon. We are living in Babylon." (Babylon) The sound system crackled and whined, the audiences rocked in their seats, and the babushkas scowled in the aisles.


The komandir brigadaz (customs chief) personally gives me the going over whenever I fly out. What does he think I'm going to try to take out: Faberge eggs? I'm suspect by association with rock criminals.

He hands me my purse, as if it were a dirty sock. "Open, please." He removes my Aquarium cassettes. "What is?" "Music." "Anti-Soviet music?" "Certainly not." "We keep." "But why?" "We keep."



Boris was practically commuting on the Red Arrow night train between Leningrad and Moscow, where things were loosening up and rock scenes percolating. He played around and about the capital of the Motherland in disheveled, crowded living rooms, occasionally bringing Misha along on bass, or Diusha on flute. Word of mouth brought the audience, who congregated at the nearest subway station. Down on the train platforms, under the chandeliers and stained-glass windows of Moscow's showcase subway, young people carrying backpacks and records (signs of their tribe) drifted toward each other.

"You're going to hear him?" "Yeah." "You know where?" "Not exactly." "I heard it's on Sadovaya Street."

In an atmosphere illicit and charged, Boris played by candlelight to quiet audiences on the floor. Someone passed a hat. Someone brought him a bottle. Someone took care of bribing the custodian, or the suspicious neighbors. If they were stopped on the street, or in the elevators, the fans always said they were on their way to a birthday party, one of the few accepted excuses for large gatherings.

"I always could sell a few cassettes in Moscow, but I sold them for seven rubles, and they cost four rubles blank. Back home, I used to sit at the kitchen table and paste Aquarium's photographs on empty cassette boxes. The biggest little label in the world. Hah! What happened: I would arrive with no money, make enough for my train fare back, come home with nothing."

Boris wore rings: garnet and moonstone and turquoise. They glinted in the dim light. His voice had a fatigued quaver. He sang for hours without a break, without applause. In the hothouse atmosphere of those jammed living rooms, no one clapped.

They were listening too hard. They sighed deeply at certain lyrics, including the relentlessly unrepentant "Steel".

Here, they've developed the fine art
Of staring out windows and jotting down the names
Of all those who aren't sleeping
If you are not guilty, then who's the one to blame?
The main thing is to be the first one there
With your confession.
And when Aleksander Sergeevich [Pushkin]
Wandered mistakenly into this house,
With his torn and bleeding mouth
They crucified him
They mistook him for Christ
And discovered the error a day later.

That spring, Boris was invited to play a solo set at a concert of Moscow bands. The word went out in the street. This was not soulful, elegant Leningrad, but raggle-taggle, mix-'em-up Moscow. The crowd was enormous and excited: a chance to see the man behind the tapes. When he arrived, he was told that Moscow authorities had canceled the whole concert, rather than allow Boris to take the stage. "It was the best concert I never got to play! All the ticket holders came, plus hundreds more who were hoping to squeeze in. I was mobbed. I signed autographs and answered questions about my music, and I couldn't get out of the building. The poet Voznesensky was there. I've had many concerts get canceled on me, but this was the best!"


Aquarium had expanded to include a violinist, two conservatory students. The group had become, as Boris put it, "not simply a band, but a way of life." Unfortunately, that life was wearing thin. Diusha, the flutist, had been diagnosed with a chronic disease and was on a small disability pension. He married Galina and moved into her one-room apartment, with the bathtub in the kitchen. That wasn't such a terrible thing in itself; when friends came over they would perch like pigeons on the tub's rim, and flip their cigarette ashes down the drain. Galina roasted a goose for everyone at New Year's, stepping gracefully around the bathtub and the hungry musicians.

But, generally, there was no money, and it was hard to survive. In fact, with the exception of Peter the drummer, and Seva the cellist, everyone had picked up kids and wives along the way, and you couldn't feed them or clothe them on underground glory. They were stars with all the hassles and none of the privileges.

Though this was the first year they were allowed honorariums for their music, each of them only got 18 to 25 rubles a concert. In 1985, 18 rubles bought three bottles of vodka, or one month's rent in a communal apartment (including utilities), or two kilos of strawberries in the expensive private farmers' markets. Big deal.

Boris, meanwhile, asked for hours and hours each week of rehearsal time. As Aquarium's fame spread, he demanded more devotion and professionalism. The band recorded two more albums on cassettes: Children of December and The Day of Silver. Reader polls in youth newspapers attested to the popularity of those albums, even though, paradoxically, they didn't exist officially. One of the loveliest ballads from Day of Silver is "Until the Jazz Begins":

At the trolleybus depot, they've been dancing for five days.
Laughing gas is spilling out from the kitchen faucets.
Pensioners in the trolleys are at the trolleybus depot.
They've been discussing Star Wars.
Hold me.
Be with me.
Shelter me, until the jazz begins.

In 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party, the authorities stopped paying so much attention Aquarium. Boris was no longer summoned by the Leningrad KGB. They had dealt with him in the manner of stern probation officers, reprimanding the wayward bad boy. They would ask why he was leading the youth of the Soviet Union astray, and suggest that it was in his interest to stop.

"We had to submit our songs to a sort of censorship committee," Boris said. "Then, before one concert at the Rok Klub, no one came to check us. Well! So we played everything we wanted to. Nothing happened to us. No scandal. No outrage. So, we never submitted our programs t the censors after that."



Joanna Stingray, an aspiring singer from Los Angeles, traveled in the Soviet Union during the mid-1980s. She met Aquarium and was so impressed with their music that in 1986 she smuggled out their cassettes, as well as those of three other Leningrad bands. Back in the United States, she released an LP of selected songs, "Red Wave: Four Underground Bands From the USSR," essentially Aquarium's U.S. debut. The Soviets were mad. For over a year, they refused Stingray a visa to go back and marry her Leningrad fiance.

"When Joanna released Red Wave in America," Boris said in January '87, "finally Melodiya [the Soviet recording monopoly] had to answer. First, because of the publicity Red Wave was getting in the West, and secondly - because of all this perestroika, they had to get money. Melodiya had to produce something that would sell. After years of ignoring us, years, they took our old tapes of Children of December and Day of Silver, and they released an album of songs from both. I went to Moscow and I begged them: let me remix those old tapes. No, no budget, they said Can I put new material on the album? No budget for studio time, they said. So, the album went out and I hated it."

The album, called "Aquarium," sold out almost immediately. A friend of Boris's designed the cover, elegantly simple, white with a blue border. Andrei Voznesensky wrote the liner notes. Peter, the drummer, was courting a secretary from the West German consulate at the time the album came out. He thought it would impress her that he was the famous drummer from the famous band Aquarium, with a hit record out on that famous label Melodiya.

"When the record came out," Peter said, "We had to stand in line at the state record stores along with everyone else, just to get a copy of our own album. I mean, we didn't even get one complimentary copy to give our friends and families. OK, so none of us got even a kopek out of it, so what else was new?"

To earn money, Peter worked nights drumming in a restaurant band at the House of Shashliks, a working-class greasy spoon. The menu consisted of ethnic specialties from the East: gristly lamb shish kebabs with prunes, Georgian flat bread called lavash, and a black bean and garlic dish called lobio. People came to drink and dance, wisely ignoring the food. The band dished up equally indigestible requests: sentimental, dreary Soviet pop ballads, and patriotic songs in lugubrious rhythms. Peter went off to work every evening like a condemned man. He thought the album would free him, but he was wrong. He made more money in a night at the House of Shashliks than he got for the record.

Melodiya owed Aquarium nothing. The guys were not in the union of composers. They were an amateur band, whose illegal basement tapes had been benevolently pressed by the state record label. The only one who made any money was Boris; he received 8000 rubles for author's copyrights. Melodiya cleaned up. Boris said Melodiya told him the album sold almost two million copies at three rubles each.


Aquarium went by train in late autumn to play several concerts in Moscow. Their music was now being played on radio and television across the 11 time zones of the USSR, and they had scored two popular Soviet films. Boris wore a cowboy hat and had taken to saying, in English, "Make my day." Following his meeting an American named Ken Schaffer, talk arose of going to America.

Misha of the ginger eyebrows was replaced by a more competent bassist, so he took to smoking a pipe, wearing natty jackets, and calling himself the group's manager. Misha set up concerts, told the others what time to be at the station, found places to stay, and made the financial arrangements.

In the November frost, they stood on the platform at midnight with their instruments piled around them, counting up crumpled ruble notes while their breath ballooned under the neon glow of the station lights. Among them they barely came up with enough for the hard-class seats, overnight Leningrad-Moscow. That meant sitting up all night on freezing benches and arriving exhausted with stuffy noses and throats. Soviet stardom. In Moscow they dispersed to various friends' couches and floors. They played at the theater attached to a Policeman's Union Hall, next to a prison.

Another tour took them to the industrial city of Perm, near the Ural Mountains. They flew on Aeroflot, and were welcomed by the best that Perm had to offer: savory fish pies and the finest steam bathhouse in the city. They were supplied with endless bottles of vodka and, according to Seva the sober cellist, "played eight concerts all stoned drunk. I had to pour them from the hotel onto the bus, pour them onstage, and put their instruments into their hands. Perm!"


Melodiya commissioned a new album, their first to be recorded and mixed in a legitimate studio. Aquarium was given only four hours a day of studio time, on alternate days. The assigned engineer was used to choirs and chorales. He was unable to cope with Aquarium. The album, "Equinox," took months to complete, because of their limited access. The studio environment was almost as chaotic as their sold-out concerts had become. Fans crowded the unmonitored doors - no guest list, no security. Boris was frequently exasperated, Seva frequently high-strung, the others alternately bored and irritable. One afternoon they recorded "Partisans":

There go the partisans,
By the light of the full moon.
There they go. Let them go! My place is here.
There go the partisans
In the light of the underground moon,
Let them go, my place is here!

They tried a four-part harmony and it wasn't working. Seva had a fit. "How can you, how can you expect us to do it without enough rehearsal time?" he screeched at Boris and rushed from the studio out onto the bridge over Griboyedov Canal. The rest piled out and joined him in the early afternoon's winter dusk. They smoked acrid White Sea cigarettes while pacing in the cold. Boris and Seva arrived at some rapprochement and decided to walk through the streets to Boris's for tea.

The others dispersed to wives, newborns, and the daily shopping ordeal. At this hour the trams and trolleys were packed. Holding their instruments above their heads and surefooted from years of lugging burdens around on public transit, they jumped from snowdrifts onto moving buses. As state-appointed "cultural workers," they were now free from having to hold down outside jobs, but there was so little money coming in that they all still depended on in-laws, parents, wives, and occasional kindness of strangers.

That December Boris flew to New York, where Ken Schaffer, had worked out a recording contract with CBS Records.


Graffiti had grown like ivy on the walls of the urine-scented stairwell that winds up eight flights to Boris and Liuda's. Pilgrims from all over the Soviet Union had chalked billets-doux, love notes, in wild colors to Boris and Aquarium. His address was known. No one protected him, not even a buzzer system in the long-condemned apartment building. On the second floor, in pink: "Boris, we await you in Voronezh!" On the fourth, in huge blue ornate letters: "Bob! You are God! You are ours, Bob!" Sixth floor, in crimson: "Glory to Seva!" There were usually a couple of intrepid fans camped on the stairs. Liuda growled at them when she struggled by with her baby and his stroller.

Motherhood hadn't softened Liuda. Her beautiful face had settled into a grimace. The guys in the band stayed clear. "When Boris went to America," Liuda said, "all of a sudden our apartment was quiet as a grave. No one came over to see me, no one at all, except Seva once to check on me. It was as if I didn't exist without Boris there. Everyone had said - don't worry, we'll stop by, we'll take care of you. We'll help with the shopping. Don't worry, Liuda, don't worry - and then when he was gone: nothing!"



Crosby Stills & Nash heard Aquarium on a visit to the USSR and invited them to play in Montreal, at the June conference of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It was Aquarium's first trip beyond Soviet borders. Their way had been paid, but they earned nothing since it was, after all, a benefit. They played a couple of numbers with Bruce Cockburn and French-Canadian Michel Rivard. They sang "Teach Your Children" with CS& N, and they did 40-minute set in Russian.

They were a huge hit with the 15,000 in the hockey arena. They exercised their English on TV talk shows, and the newspaper reviews were filled with praise: "Imagine a reggae band with cello, flute, and violin, or a British folk-rock group loose in the Russian steppes, and you've an idea of Aquarium's ultimately original style. In Boris Grebenshikov, the band has a full-blown rock star," read The Montreal Gazette.

They spent their three week after the benefit concert doing Western stuff: eating Chinese food, tasting kiwis and papayas, going to jazz joints and rock clubs. They avoided window-shopping, however, because, beyond the short stipend Kenny had worked out, it was so damn frustrating.

"This is a stupid situation we're in," said Misha, the manager. He was helpless. The ruble wasn't convertible, so they had no currency beyond their dinky per diem. Riusha, the young conservatory violinist who couldn't stop eating bananas and pineapples, wanted to try his luck playing Bach and Vivaldi on the streets, but a stern Seva said such busking would "cheapen them, cheapen the image of Aquarium" and persuaded him not to. Riusha disappointedly left his violin in his room.

Sasha, the bass player, spent his money on cosmetics for his wife, and exotic alcoholic fruit drinks for himself. Peter the drummer wandered around in a daze. He went to a strip club and afterwards told the others how tasteful it was. Really, "you can't imagine, it wasn't pornography at all. It was very lovely."

Misha bought computer software and realized how much money a computer specialist could make in the West. Slava, their wraith-thin, cross-eyed sound man, had spent his expense money on camping equipment. He set up his tent in his hotel room, opened a bottle of Stolichnaya, built a campfire, and roasted a few potatoes. The fire alarm system went off. He was ready to go home. Boris gave press conferences, in fluent English, together with Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Bernard Lown and Eugene Chazov.

Seva, to his delight, was given a bicycle, and he rode around the beautiful Montreal parks and discovered all the choices a Western vegetarian has.

After Montreal, Boris spent the summer recording in America. Then, in the fall, he returned to Leningrad saying, "I have to go home. My guys are starving. I'm going back so we can do a bunch of concerts and make them some money." Throughout the autumn they played all over the USSR: Voronezh, Kiev, Kalinin, Moscow, Tashkent.

In Leningrad in November, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics (who produced Boris for his CBS album) and other Western musicians joined Aquarium onstage for two concerts. There were standing ovations for both shows, but longtime fans were not impressed. They felt that Aquarium had grown soft. Afterwards, Boris decided the era was over. He renamed the group the New Abyssinian Orchestra. They quarreled. They made up. They planned a tour to America in the Spring.


For the first time in their lives Aquarium had so much money (from the '88 fall tour) that the guys could afford unthinkable luxuries, like travel abroad. In December Seva came to New York on a private visit to see friends. "This trip is a like a dividing line in my life. I need to think about everything that's happened. I don't think I can play with Boris anymore. Aquarium doesn't exist anymore. I have to find something else."

In late June, Boris Grebenshikov's solo album, "Radio Silence," was released on CBS records. Sasha plays bass on most cuts, Seva and three other members play on one. Americans and Western Europeans fill out the rest of the studio band. Two songs were in Russian, the other eight written and sung in English.



The first rock music I heard was the Beatles," recalls Boris Grebenshikov, perhaps the single most popular rock singer in the Soviet Union today. "I was wildly excited at the thought that young people had created something so powerful, so beautiful, so magical. I couldn’t believe it was possible. "In our country, no one had the freedom to make sounds like that, and especially not the youth," he says. We couldn’t express ourselves at all; we were told what to do. And suddenly, over the Voice of America a U.S. government short-wave radio station broadcasting from Washington, D.C. , came these unbelievable sounds. It changed my life, and the lives of my friends, forever."


In 1979, when I met Grebenshikov in his hometown, Leningrad, he had been leading his band, Aquarium, for five years. The strain was showing. Playing rock music in the Soviet Union back then was an act of dissent, a nervy and courageous risk. It made folk heroes of an unlikely set of folk: musicians who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to compose and play the kind of music that reached them over the international radio waves, and through tapes and records brought in by foreign tourists and students (like me).

While Communist party authorities banned rock groups from theater stages and recording studios, Grebenshikov and fellow rockers all over the country kept the music alive by recording their songs at home on flimsy cassette recorders, and then distributing the cassettes for free. People would record them over and over, and the music moved around the country this way.

But the more recognized and popular homegrown Soviet rock became, the worse things got for its creators. Because it was new, different, and out of control, it was a threat to the Communist party’s tight control over its people and their arts. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Grebenshikov was regularly summoned for meetings with the KGB secret police , in which they would ask why he insisted on leading the youth of the Soviet Union astray with his bizarre music, his "foggy and puzzling lyrics. " They warned him to stop his free, impromptu performances in parks, and told him things could go badly for him if he persisted.

Rock musicians were being harassed to an even worse degree in other Soviet-bloc countries.In Czechoslovakia, the leader of the popular underground rock band The Plastic People, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, was imprisoned in Prague for corrupting" Czechoslovak youth with his music. In Czechoslovakia, in the late 70s, there was physical danger to the members of The Plastic People. They were repeatedly beaten and interrogated.



The irony for these musicians is that most of them were completely uninterested in politics. They were not trying to foment revolution or change the established order. But against their will, and in spite of their insistence that they were apolitical, they were thrust into political roles as they fought for the right of their music to exist. Grebenshikov says of that time, "To me the music was this thing of immense beauty that brought me happiness. I didn’t want to fight the KGB, I didn’t need that headache, I just wanted to play."

In 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power two years, the harassment of Soviet rock musicians stopped-a direct result of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or "openness." They were allowed to play small, informal concerts. In 1987, Grebenshikov and Aquarium were invited to play with Crosby, Stills, and Nash in Moscow, at a concert for the prevention of nuclear war. They jammed together, performed together, and became close friends.


One evening in Moscow, the American and Russian rockers gathered in a hotel room to talk. Grebenshikov recalls that night: "We discussed the question of whether music could really change things, could make the difference between peace and war, or could rouse people to fight hunger and social injustice.

Naturally, being from the Soviet Union, I said no, that music couldn’t change anything. Graham Nash and Stephen Stills disagreed; they said music was power and could move people to action.

"I went home to Leningrad and wrote This Train’s on Fire,’ the most openly political song I ever wrote up to then, about the changes happening in my country. Not only did I not get arrested, but that was the year that we got our first official record contract on the state record label, Melodiya. "


Here in 1990, it is hard to recall what it was like back then, during the bad times. With the democracy movement sweeping Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. , Soviet and Eastern European rock bands are performing to great acclaim in huge sports stadiums and concert halls throughout their own countries, as well as in Western Europe and America. Czechoslovakia’s much-persecuted The Plastic People (renamed Pulnoc, or "Midnight") had a triumphant American tour last year, during which an influential New York music critic called their debut one of the most significant concerts of the past decade. All over the Soviet bloc, as the walls crash down and the dictators are removed, the music is blaring.

Noomi Marcus

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