Did Beatle-Mania’s influence on Soviet teenagers contribute to the fall of the Iron Curtain? An argument can be made that Gorbachev’s opening up to the West through glasnost and perestroika was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. However, due to the overwhelming evidence of an underground musical movement amongst the Soviet youth, the demands of a disillusioned youth were the catalysts for these reforms. With this taken into consideration, a major change in the political landscape of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy may be observed through three stages, initial distribution, Soviet push back, and appeasement.
Distribution “Playing the Ribs”
How did contraband music spread throughout the U.S.S.R.? Predominantly through bootlegging, Soviet teens would utilize an ingenious method to record and hide contraband music. Using the streetside phone booths soldiers used to record messages home on black vinyl records, Soviet teenagers would take used x-ray film from hospitals to etch their own flimsy records. When Soviet teens placed the x-ray film on the copying device, they would play their illicit recordings from radio Luxembourg into the receiver, thus creating a copy. These flimsy records (more commonly referred to as “ribs”) implemented a clandestine means of transportation and distribution, as bootleggers would slip many of the xrays in their sleeves.
Why were radio broadcasts the best medium to subvert the Soviet youth? The widespread of use of “ribs” throughout the Soviet youth underground was a success, and in many ways the Beatles were more subversive than the West could ever hope to be. This sentiment is best
described through the Russian rock commentator Artemy Troitsky, who states “In the big, bad, West they had whole institutions which spent tens of millions of dollars for undermining the Soviet system, and I’m sure the impact of all those cold war institution has been much, much
smaller than the Beatles.”Troitsky’s argument is in fact sound, but why? When taken into consideration the medium through which radio waves travelled unrestricted, popular music couldn’t possibly be seen as a threat to an impressionable Soviet youth. With that taken into consideration, a policy of nuclear deterrence on behalf of the West (particularly the United States) for example, would give the Soviet youth justification to be fearful of the West. When confronting the question of other mediums, contemporary Russian writer Mikhail Safonov argues that “the Beatles did more for the break up of totalitarianism in USSR than Nobel prizewinners Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.” This is of great significance due to the fact that the means to produce literature through copiers, or typewriters was heavily regulated by the government. With this taken into consideration, an argument can be made that radio broadcasts of Beatles songs would have a great impact due to unhindered access from radio stations such as Radio Luxembourg.
How did emulating the Beatles contribute to Soviet teenage rebellion? With the popularity of the Beatles on the rise in the Soviet music underground, there was a spiked interest in Western music. Soviet teenagers would often find themselves emulating their idols by building homemade acoustic guitars at school, however, a true disciple of the Beatles required an electric guitar. This would present a problem amongst the would be rockers due to the fact that guitar pickups and amplification were not readily available in the despotic Soviet market, or even the black market for that matter. Yuri Pelyushenov, who after “building a guitar from his grandmother’s table” was able to resolve this problem after reading a young technician’s magazine which “gave instructions on how to build a pickup from a street telephone receiver”. The following day “the receivers were gone, all around the country” Yuri recalls, as the Soviet
youth scrambled to complete their guitars. The next hurdle would be the guitar’s amplification, which would prove to be a riskier endeavor due to the fact that most of the speakers in circulation were propaganda speakers. “Propaganda has to be loud”, and so did the Soviet youth when they played their guitars. Why is this relevant? It’s important to reflect on what is happening at this juncture. Soviet teenagers are removing propaganda speakers to play music by the Beatles, whom the Soviet Union deemed “guilty of antisocial behavior” in a mock trial on broadcast television. The symbolism behind this open act of vandalism is vital to understanding the role that rock music and the Beatles played. Soviet teenagers are figuratively, and literally, tearing down Soviet propaganda and the means it used to spread.
Soviet Push Back
What were the consequences of listening to Western music? “If I said anything good about the Beatles I could be arrested” says an older KoliovVasil recalling his youth spent in the former Soviet Union. Elsewhere, in Georgia, a teenager by the name of Gary Kasparov would defeat Anatoly Karpov in a game of chess. When asked who their favorite composers were, Karpov stated Alexander Pakhmutov, (Laureate of the Lenin Komsomol Award), whereas Kasparov proudly exclaimed ‘John Lennon’. This was a bold statement of Kasparov’s ideas for he “was not afraid to declare out loud the name of a person who could never, ever have become Laureate of the Lenin Komsomol Award.” As time went by, this sentiment would become more relevant as Soviet authorities became concerned with the growing discord amongst the Soviet youth.
After the initial Beatle-Mania reached the Soviet Union, a push back from the government was exerted. Seen as “Western pollution”, local militias and neighborhood watches were formed to suppress clandestine Beatles aficionados. When taken into custody, Soviet teens were submitted to the humiliation of having their long hair completely shaved. Mikhail Safanov recounts one such brush with the authorities. Ironically, immediately after receiving a silver medal for his achievements in school, he was “seized by police officers and pushed into their pillbox.”Their justification? They looked no further than “his hippy haircut.” Is it possible that at this point the Soviet youth was fed up with their treatment? The overbearing relationship between the Soviet government and it’s youth would grow, but the younger generation would become less maginalized as they came of age. Change would occur with the appointment of Mikahil Gorbachev as the U.S.S.R.’s premier. Its notable to mention that Mikhail Gorbachev, the first Soviet premier who was born after the events of the Bolshevik Revolution, introduced reforms such as Glasnost and Perestroika, thus opening the Soviet Union to the world. The first premier to relax his stance on Soviet norms quite possibly did so due to the fact that he was not of the same generation of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, nor cut from the same cloth.
How did the Soviet government open up to the Soviet youth prior to the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev? Giving into the demands of the Soviet youth during the 1970s, the stance of the State began to change. Compromising their traditional Soviet views of society, and quite possibly to turn a profit, the Soviet state would begin its mass production of musical instruments such as guitars. The state recording company (and only recording company) “Melodiya”, would completely disregard international intellectual copyright law, and begin to produce pirated Beatles records under the title of “Folk Songs, played by an anonymous vocal instrumental group”. “The Communist Party went into the bootleg business.” As this unofficial stance of tolerance was embraced, the age gap between the young and the old generation was closing at a more rapid pace. As the 70s came to a close, the teenagers who grew up during Beatle-Mania
would come of age and enter the workforce. Now, eager for change, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev would shock the world stage with his call for change through Perestroika and Glasnost.
Russian rock as a mirror of Western music
What was the idea of Russian rock movement: blind copying of western models or incredible fusion that gave birth to new cultural shifts? It is possible to say, that it combined both trends mentioned. The first Soviet rock bands appeared in the mid-1960s in the wake of Beatlemania, and until the mid-1970s they produced basically an imitation of the music of foreign artists. Among the groups, formed in 1970, best known are Mashina Vremeni, Aquarium, Autograph, Picnic. Like the bands of that period, the early rock band distributed their albums only through samizdat (underground publishing, also used by Soviet dissidents) and were considered amateur. Common form of performance was kvartirnik - a spontaneous concert at the home of musicians or their friends, inviting only close friends.
In those days fanaticism both musicians and the audience was so great that the sound quality was not nearly irrelevant. The most important was the feeling that encompasses and integrates all participants in underground rock concerts; if the musicians played devotedly, it always appealed to the audience, no matter of which quality the sound was. Rock underground began with spontaneous emergence of bit clubs at ordinary Soviet Houses of culture, where unauthorized concerts of first bit groups were given, popularly called "sessions." Incorrect Russian pronunciation of the English word "session" (seshn) was long a symbol of "self-made style" of everything that was happening. However, in the "sessions" reigned genuine enthusiasm and selfless devotion to the favorite hobby.
The Golden Era of Russian rock fell on the 1980s and the beginning of perestroika and glasnost. Musicians got the opportunity to perform live without fear of prosecution for private enterprise or parasitism, as it was before. In the USSR rock clubs opened their doors, new and partly still active rock bands were formed, first rock festivals were conducted (Tbilisi-80, Lituanika 85-89, Podolsk-87). The genre of "new wave" greatly influenced the Russian rock of the 1980s. Also there were first Soviet bands in the genre of heavy metal and punk rock. The most successful bands of the 1980s were Kino, Alisa, Aria, DDT, Bravo etc. Russian rock transformed into an original genre, which had a lot in common with Western rock, but synthesized Russian folk motives, classical and Soviet elements.
Formation of post-Soviet economic elites
How did Western music help to form the post-Soviet business elites? Other point of view on the role of Western music in the Soviet Union is represented in the research of Sergei Zhuk.
Rock and roll has not played a special role in the collapse of the communist system, but promoted the formation of economic elites in post-Soviet states, says the Western scholar.
Assistant professor of history at American University Ball State University Sergei Zhuk studied the role of rock music in the fall of communism on the example of one city, namely the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk in the last years of Soviet power. His conclusions he outlined in the recently published book titled “Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985”.
In his study, the researcher to the great extent based his conclusions on the reflections of the Soviet youth in that period, including written sources and personal interviews. He also used official documents, mainly archives of the KGB and the Communist Party. All this information in general considers the spread of Western culture in the Soviet Union despite all the efforts of KGB, aimed at creating artificial barrier in the way of this "anti-Soviet ideology."
Rock was a threat to the Soviet authorities trying to keep the population in submission, so they could not omit the popularity of Western culture in the U.S.S.R. But, as suggested by Zhuk, those fears were largely exaggerated, at least when it came to political life. As Zhuk discovered, many representatives of Soviet youth were "patriots, loyal to the authorities", but giving preference to European and American rock bands before Soviet singers. Immense popularity in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s was held by the groups Deep Purple, Sweet and AC/DC.
It is also important to note that the fear of the Communist Party officials and aversion of mainstream population to the new counterculture were caused not so much by reaction on the music itself, or even the lyrics as by the rejection of everything else - appearance, way of life and, most importantly - a more liberal way of thinking, more interior freedom. Even the glance of a counterculture representative could be irritating. This meant separation from the common herd, but this was never allowed in the history of Soviet society, moreover to such great extent, that was coming like storm from the Western mass culture of teenagers.
Many members of the political elite, now standing at the head of the post-Soviet states, came from the ranks of the Communist Party or its youth organization, the Komsomol, and rock and roll had little influence on them.
Quite the opposite the things were with the business community. According to the researcher, many of today's economic titans of the former Soviet republics studied the basics of business in Soviet times, being engaged in semi-legal enterprises with payment of bribes to officials and racketeers. Here rock music played a role, said Sergei Zhuk.
Some of the most flexible men of enterprise during the late Soviet regime began its ascent from opening underground bars and rock clubs, aimed at satisfying musical tastes of the younger generations. Without any legal authorizations, they had to pay tribute to the officials who allowed them to continue their work, as well as give money to criminal gangs for protection. The skills acquired by these entrepreneurs in the 1970s and 1980s, helped some of them to survive in the turbulent 1990s and thrive in the XXI century.
Zhuk opted for Dnipropetrovsk in the process of research, because he believed that the Ukrainian industrial center can better identify existing trends in those years than Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). During the Soviet era Dnipropetrovsk was a closed city. Foreigners were not allowed to reside in the city, so his example suits better to evaluate the influence of Western rock music on Dnipropetrovsk than the example of Moscow or Leningrad, which had much more possibilities to join the trends of Western culture.
As in the rest of the USSR, Western rock music appealed to the youth of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and a variety of local bands tried to create their own style with elements of Soviet, local and national traditions.
Growing up in the Soviet Union was a trying time, just as it was for most teens. However, when considering the strains of an overbearing government, the subversion of Western music was so powerful, yet so innocent. As this innocent curiosity began to blossom, a boldness arose in the mindset of the Soviet teenager as they began speak their mind more frequently. Soviet teenager’s fondness of the Beatles would ultimately be the U.S.S.R.’s undoing, as a coerced younger generation called for more transparency. Labelling Western music as “dangerous” would no longer suffice as a reason for an all out ban. When this generation came of age, their cries for more openness would be heard when Gorbachev promoted reforms such as glasnost and perestroika. A mere six years after the implementation of these rules, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. The Beatles, had unintentionally albeit successfully subverted the U.S.S.R. in such a way that cultural change was inevitable. The Beatles had torn down the fabric of Soviet society.
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