A Brief History of Soviet Rock and Roll

Was the subculture's birth a CIA plot, as one Russian legislator recently claimed, or a genuine musical phenomenon?
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Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

A pro-Kremlin lawmaker spawned a tsunami of scorn in Russia this week by alleging that Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi's Perestroika-era anthems were composed by CIA operatives trying to destabilize the Soviet regime. 

Friends, acquaintances, and fans of the late frontman of the legendary band, Kino, call the claims ridiculous. But the U.S. government was keenly aware of the power of rock and roll to rattle its Cold War rival, according to Free to Rock, a new documentary that explores the impact of rock music on Soviet society.

The White House, in fact, played a hands-on role in this soft-power strategy when U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s administration helped send the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to the Soviet Union in 1977 for the first tour of an American rock band on Soviet soil, said Jim Brown, the film’s New York-based producer. "Carter was more involved than any of us thought,” Brown told me. "He thought rock and roll could kind of undermine the system."

Carter is one of several former officials and prominent musicians from both sides of the Iron Curtain interviewed for the film. Others include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose perestroika and glasnost reforms allowed the country’s vibrant underground rock scene to explode into the mainstream in the late 1980s.

“He was a fan of Elvis Presley, he liked rock and roll,” Brown said of Gorbachev. “He felt rock was for young people and that young people wanted rock ’n’ roll. And I think he takes pride in the fact that after wasting, you know, trillions of dollars on weapons, that words and actions and culture brought these two countries together.”

* * *

A rock subculture had been percolating in the Soviet Union for decades by the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, fueled largely by bootleg basement recordings that spread hand-to-hand across the country’s 11 time zones. And the cradle of this movement was in Riga, the capital of Soviet-controlled Latvia, according the prominent Russian rock critic Artemy Troitsky.

The Revengers in Sigulda, Latvia, in 1963. (Valery Saifudinov via RFE/RL)

That is where a 13-year-old boy named Valery Saifudinov and his band—with the grammatically challenged name “The Revengers”—took the stage in front of 700 factory workers at a New Year’s Eve party in 1962 and electrified the crowd with Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry covers.

The boss was less enthused. “The director of the factory wanted to turn the electricity [off],” Saifudinov told me. “He was outraged, jumped on stage and was yelling and screaming. You know, the workers just never heard anything like that. They loved it. And they got him drunk and let the party go.”

Saifudinov went on to rock the Riga scene in another band but eventually managed to emigrate in early 1970s after years of hounding from Soviet authorities over his music and the circle of longhairs he moved in. He eventually landed in California, where he has run recording studios since the 1980s.

It was about a decade ago that Saifudinov began mulling a documentary about rock and roll and its impact on him and his erstwhile Soviet compatriots. “My original idea was to have a kind of a documentary, or the story, to show Americans that, I think, forgot what an incredible impact it had on the world,” said Saifudinov, who is now based in San Diego.

He teamed up with a singer-songwriter named Nick Binkley and began working on the idea about seven years ago before they eventually brought on Brown, an Emmy Award-winning producer and director. In 2011, the project secured a $550,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities.

Brown, who produced a documentary currently airing on Showtime about American rock musician Billy Joel’s 1987 performances in the Soviet Union, said he sees U.S. public broadcaster PBS as a potential platform to air the new film. His company has reached an agreement for Hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland to narrate the documentary, which was originally titled Rockin’ the Kremlin, Brown said.

Valery Saifudinov, a pioneer of Soviet rock music, sings at his last concert in Riga in 1974 before emigrating to the United States. (Valery Saifudinov via RFE/RL)

One of the difficulties Brown encountered was tracking down video footage of the underground years of Soviet rock. The stars of the scene, after all, were largely unacknowledged—at least officially—by the government-run recording label. Some rare footage, however, was gathered by Joanna Stingray, an American musician and producer who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1984 and ensconced herself in the world of Leningrad’s most popular rock musicians.

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Stingray would go on to befriend artists at the vanguard of the Leningrad scene, including Boris Grebenshchikov, the front man for the band Akvarium, and Tsoi, the late Soviet rock icon accused recently by Russian State Duma member Yevgeny Fyodorov of collaborating with the CIA.

In a video that surged through the Russian blogosphere this week, Fyodorov claims that in the final years of the Soviet Union, Hollywood writers composed songs for Tsoi as part of a CIA operation to chip away at the authority of the Soviet government. He alleges that the United States has employed similar tactics to engineer unrest in Ukraine.

As evidence he cites the whimsical tone of Tsoi’s earlier songs, such as “Aluminum Cucumbers,” compared to Tsoi’s politically tinged later work in songs like “Peremen” (“Change”). (Below: Viktor Tsoi and Kino playing "Peremen.")

Fyodorov states that Tsoi’s alleged CIA links were uncovered by KGB operatives tracking the Leningrad rock scene. It’s unclear from the video whether Fyodorov is suggesting that Stingray was involved in a CIA plot to control Tsoi. She is, after all, from Hollywood. And she did pen English-language lyrics to Tsoi’s songs.

Stingray, who now lives in Beverly Hills, was the producer of “Red Wave,” which in 1986 became the first album of Soviet rock artists to be released in the United States. She told me that the allegation that Tsoi worked with the CIA is absurd.

“I was too much a part of all that,” said Stingray, who was previously married to the guitarist in Tsoi’s band, Kino. “There’s no way that could have been going on without my knowing.” The CIA declined to comment on Fyodorov’s allegation. But one U.S. official disputed the claim, saying it “smacked of Russian propaganda.”

Stingray, 53, said a typical day during her first years in Leningrad would include hanging out for hours in the apartment of an underground artist or musician, where eventually someone would take down an acoustic guitar hanging on the wall. “It was so creative and so magic. And what’s interesting is that was when it was still communist. It was two years before Gorbachev,” she said. “So ’84 to ’86 I found to be an incredible time there creatively. What these people were doing behind closed doors was amazing.”

Even behind closed doors, the KGB was keeping a close watch in the former Czarist capital, according to former KGB officer and defector Oleg Kalugin, who is interviewed in Free to Rock. “As renegade Western rock culture began to grown in Leningrad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Communist Party officials became increasingly alarmed,” Kalugin wrote in his 2009 memoir. “It was believed to present a danger to Communist ideology, and the Party bosses wanted the KGB to stamp out these insidious influences.”

The KGB’s machinations against rock music—which included secretly running Leningrad's legendary Rock Club—proved feeble after Gorbachev loosened restrictions and enacted a private entrepreneurship law in 1988 that allowed musicians to legally make money from their art. (Below: Joanna Stingray interviews Tsoi and members of Kino.)

Numerous Western rock acts began traveling to the Soviet Union to perform, including at festivals featuring some of the biggest hard rock bands in the world at the time. On September 28, 1991, hundreds of thousands of fans packed the Tushino airfield outside Moscow to hear hard-rock bands like Metallica and AC/DC at a concert sponsored by Time Warner.

The concert, which Brown says features toward the end of Free to Rock, came five weeks after an unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev by Communist Party hard-liners and three months before the Soviet Union collapsed. “I think we make a compelling argument that rock and roll was a factor—a contributing factor of many—in ending the Cold War,” Brown said.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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Carl Schreck is a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent.

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