|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 couldnt 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
couldnt 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,
Act of Dissent
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
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 partys 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 Right to Play
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 didnt want to fight the KGB, I didnt 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 Gorbachevs 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.
Music is Power
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 couldnt 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 Trains 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.
Czechoslovakias 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.