I love this.
Rock ‘n’ roll has always been rebel music. Or at least that’s how it started out anyway. And nowhere was it more rebellious to be into western rock music than the Soviet bloc of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a place where authoritarian leaders frowned upon western pop cultural icons like rock bands and blue jeans.
In the USSR, the government saw itself as all-powerful, and what it said went. This was reiterated by the two major media organs of the state: Pravda (or ‘Truth’), the official voice of the Russian Communist Party, and Izvestia (or ‘The News’), the official media outlet of the Soviet government.
These were powerful papers, but many Russians naturally took their on-message pronouncements with a rather large pinch of salt – hence the old Soviet joke that there was no news in the Truth and no truth in the News! It seems in some ways almost inevitable, then, that western music – the Beatles in particular – would have such an impact on Russian youth culture.
Ignoring Lenin’s dictum that music under Communism should not be left alone to “let chaos develop as it pleases. We must systemically guide this process and form its result”, young Russians began forming bands and creating an underground rock scene that eventually, towards the end of the Communist era, went as mainstream as it was possible to get in Soviet Russia.
By the mid-1980s, the hardline government attitude to this kind of popular culture was beginning to relax somewhat, and Soviet rock ‘n’ roll finally and rather bizarrely got what was probably the closest it would ever get to official, on the record, state-sanctioned approval. In October 1986, Pravda itself rather sniffily pronounced:
Rock and roll has a right to exist but only if it is melodious, meaningful and well-performed¹.
That’s rock ‘n’ roll told, then.
I dread to imagine what Lenin would have thought of all that…
¹ Quoted in: ‘Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945‘ by Tony Judt (London; Vintage Books, 2010), p.602.