Rock ‘n’ roll first arrived in the former USSR in the mid-1950s, when Jazz was legalised post-Stalin, during Khrushchev’s thaw. Although censorship was still very rigid in Soviet Russia, the rock music that was taking the West by storm still managed to penetrate the Iron Curtain, giving rise to Beatlemania and a beatnik subculture in sixties USSR.

Bard poetry became popular in Moscow; a new style of song writing that was characterised by tourist songs (usually about camping holidays and escapism), and political songs, which were against the Soviet way of life. Towards the late 1960s, many amateur rock groups started to form, such as Machina Vremeni, who were heavily influenced by the Beatles and the new Soviet underground. Their sound was simple and often, due to the lack of instruments available to underground musicians, poor quality. Acoustic guitars were the cheapest option and could be electrified by telephone microphones, which were used as pick-ups. Unable to record their music officially, they recorded on tapes and cassettes which were sold and distributed clandestinely throughout Soviet Russia (this was known as magnitizdat).

In the 1970s and 1980s, a punk movement of young musicians and writers began to form, who, like their contemporaries in the West, were overtly sticking their middle finger up to the establishment. With the tough censorship still in place, they remained very much underground, often in hiding from the KGB, who condemned their work because of its anti-Soviet message and angst ridden lyrics. In the depths of Siberia, Grazhdanskaya Oborona, a punk band formed by Yegor Letov, was notorious for condemning the totalitarian regime with song titles like Ya nenavizhu krasnii svet (I Hate the Colour Red). After spending a stint in a mental hospital (this was and still is a common ‘treatment’ in Russia for political activists), Letov continued to write lo-fi punk music under several pseudonyms and collaborated with singer/songwriter Yanka Dyagileva, Russia’s answer to Nico. In her short life, Yanka produced many albums characterised by nihilism and Russian anguish and posthumously became an important figure of the Russian rock scene. Alexander Bashlachev was a highly influential poet and musician on the underground scene, drawing inspiration from Russian folklore and Soviet Russia at the time. His influences were of particular importance to the development of Russian rock in the 1980s with bands such as Kalinov Most, whose lyrics focused heavily on Slavonic folklore tradition.

In Leningrad (now St Petersburg), the experimental music scene was made up of the likes of the now infamous Akvarium and Kino. Their sound was much more influenced by classic Western rock and the new-wave but also drawing inspiration from the Bard song writing tradition of the 1960s. They enjoyed much success during glasnost (Gorbachev’s years of openness), which saw the relaxation in censorship laws. From the mid-1980s onwards bands were allowed to openly release their music and tour, gaining them much media attention, which gave birth to what is now considered to be the golden age of Russian rock.

Elise Laker

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