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History of Rock Music in Russia
February 12, 2007 16:49


Through the iron curtain


Rock comes out

Entry into the world scene

Russian rock as a separate phenomenon

Perestroika: rock rebels conforming to commerce

Leningrad as the capital of rock music

Moscow rock

Far from the capitals

Through the iron curtain

Rock-n-roll came to the Soviet Union after the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1957. In the early 1960s rock music here was underground, remaining an aesthetic dessert for advanced music gourmets that established personal contacts with the West and had an opportunity to get records of American rhythm-and-blues and British big-beat - mainly those of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In the mid 1960s there appeared the first Russian beat bands, actually the first rock groups, such as 'Slavyane', 'Stranniki', 'Mify' and 'Skomorokhi' in Moscow, 'Avangard' and 'Lesnye Bratya' in St.-Petersburg, and 'Pesnyary' in Minsk. To gain a legitimate status and access to public at large the first rock-groups had to disguise themselves as 'Soviet variety performers' - in this way there came to exist tens of 'vocal and instrumental ensembles' (VIA) ('Vesyelye Rebyata', 'Poyushchie Gitary') and quasi folklore ensembles ('Pesnyary'). At the same time rock-music permeated to this country through cultural exchange channels from the 'sister nations'of socialism.

LP In the late 1960s the love of the Soviet youth for English and American music (first and foremost for 'The Beatles' and 'The Rolling Stones') became epidemic. At schools, colleges and universities of big cities there spring up scores of amateurish rock-groups (mostly quartets: three guitars and the percussions) performing songs by "The Beatles', 'The Rolling Stones' and other English, American and European groups (for example, the super popular hit Venus by the Belgium rock group 'Shocking Blue')

The first rock festival in this country was held in 1971 in the Gorky city (Nizhni Novgorod). Special success was Alexander Gradsky with his group 'Skomorokhi' from Moscow and 'Ariel' from Chelyabinsk. This was the time when rock-n-roll was represented on the official Soviet variety stage with its more superficial type, that is twist (Soviet variety hits of the mid 1960s, such as Chyorny Kot, Koroleva Krasoty, etc.)


All through the 1970s rock remained an underground phenomenon of the Soviet music culture, along with the creativity of bards (Bulat Okoudjava, Alexander Galich, Yuly Kim and Vladimir Vysotsky). Rock-groups had to perform all but secretly, in flats (kvartirniki, or flat concerts, are a separate phenomenon) or in assembly halls of colleges and universities. New groups became very popular due to singing their cover versions of international hits in the English language, and rarely parforming songs of their own.


The 1970s saw another specific phenomenon, that of magnitizdat, or a whole net of making and distributing of do-it-yourself records of amateurish groups. Those 'magnitalbums' were distributed among hundreds of fans. Magnitizdat had a considerable impact on the development of Russian rock, in particluar it conditioned a certain disregard of intricate acoustic experiments among most Russian rock musicians. For a long time having no opportunity to use good prefessional instruments and up-to-date electronic equipment for recording and sound mixing, Russian rock musicians got accustomed to a peculiar minimalism in music. And so did the audience. Gutar and unpretentious percussion 'beat' - that was practically all to comprise the acoustic palette of Russian rock, which from the very beginning tended to attach the first importance to the lyrics and the message conveyed. That is why the songs by the leading rock musicians, from Grebenshchikov, Butusov and Tsoi to Butusov and Shevchuk are first of all verses of intense social-critical and emotional-moral essence. Acoustic experiments, such as those by Akvarium, for example (bringing in string and wind instruments, uncharacteristic of rock music) seemed awfully bold at that time.

Rock comes out

From the mid 1970s Western popular music (including rock-n-roll) finds its way into the USSR, quite an official way already. Melodia, the only sound house in the country starts releasing albums of the series 'Melodies and rhythms of foregin variety music', among which there happened to be also hits by western pop and rock stars, from Elvis Prestly to Tom Jones. In the late 1970s Kliff Richard, Elton Jones and Bony M performed on tour in the USSR. At the same time Baltic republics held rock festivals disguised as youth festivals of folk music. The spring of 1980 saw the 'Soviet Woodstock', the festival titled 'Spring Rhythms-80' in Tbilisi, with leading rock-groups from Moscow and Leningrad taking part in it.

The Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, just like previously the Moscow Festival for Youth and Students became a powerful catalist for legitimization of rock-music in this country.

First rock clubs appear in Leningrad (St.- Petersburg) and Moscow in the early 1980s. It was the time of formation of the main trends of Soviet rock music: classical rock-n-roll (Zoopark and Bravo), lyrical folk-rock (Mashina Vremeni/Time Machine and Chaif), heavy metall (Aria, Cherny Kofe/Black Coffee, Cherny Obelisk/Black Obelisk, Korrozia Metalla/Metall Corrosion, etc.), punk-rock (Avotmaticheskie Udovletvoriteli/Automatic Satisfiers), hard 'new wave' (Televizor/TVset) and jazz-rock (Arsenal). Some groups came to use elements of post modern mockery (Krematory and Zvuki Mu) and sotsart (AVIA, Brigada S and Auktion).

Besides Moscow and Leningrad, there came to exist other regional 'schools' of rock music: the Ural rock represented first of all by groups Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif, Urfin Juice and Nastya from Sverdlovsk city (now Yekaterinburg), DDT from Ufa, Siberian rock (Kalinov Most) and Vladivostock rock (Mumii Troll).

It was also the time when leading rock groups recorded their best albums.

Entry into the world scene
Red Wave

It was the Red Wave album released in the USA in 1986 that played an important role in legalization of Russian rock and bringing it out into the world music scene. That double LP contained songs by four groups from Leningrad: Akvarium, Strannie Igry/Strange Games, Alisa and Kino. After the realease of this album Soviet rock musicians got an opportunity to tour abroad. Thus, Kino made a tour in France and Japan in 1988-1989. The band Zvuki Mu released its album (Zvuki Mu) in France in 1988 and then went on tour around England and the USA.

Boris Grebenshchikov, the leader of Akvarium, recorded the album Radio Silence in the English language in the States in 1988. Getting out of the underground rock musicians become cult figures: Viktor Tsoi, the leader of Kino was ackonowledged the best Soviet cinema actor of the year for the main role in the film Igla/Needle. The Soviet movie Taxi Blues with Peter Mamonov, the soloist of Zvuki Mu, performing the main part, got the Gold Palm Branch at the Cannes Festival.

Russian rock as a separate phenomenon

Unlike rock music of other European countries, which generally remained in the English language (like in Holland or Skandinavia) Russian rock constitutes itself as the Russian music phenomenon. Rock poet and singer Alexander Bashlachev played an important role for Russian rock to advert to the roots of Russian music folklore. However, along with the interest in Russian folklore tradition (in particular, with such groups as Kalinov Most), Russian rock induldges in manifest kitsch a-la-Rus (ear-flapped caps, balalaikas, accordions and Russian shirts of Brigada S band). Bent for transformation of 'Soviet variety' music was evident with such retro groups as beat quartet Secret, rockabilly band Mister Twister and especially Bravo with its charismatic female soloist Zhanna Aguzarova. Those groups were extremely popular in the 1980s. Heavy metal groups, such as Cherny Kofe/Black Coffee, Aria, Cherny Obelisk and Korrozia Metalla enjoyed a success among urban teenagers. Especially striking were performances by Korrozia Metalla, often going as far as sensational happenings not without elements of strip-tease show.

Perestroika: rock rebels conforming to commerce

Along with perestroika the late 1980s witnessed rock groups strangely transforming into commercial projects. It became feasible due to large-scale tours around the cities of the country, great stadium concerts and recording of 'legal' albums at the state sound studio Melodia. This regarded, first of all, the 'pioneers' of domestic rock music, such us Mashina Vremeni/Time Machine, Zoopark, Aquarium, Kino and Alisa. The concerts and records of these groups in the late 1980s gave rise to the pop-music industry of Western type in the USSR.

The 1990s saw the Russian pop-music industry finally assuming its shape. Once imbued with powerful pathos of non-conformism and social or moral rebel against the established order, Russian rock movement turns into a bunch of more or less commercially successful enterprises. Commercialization of Russian rock brought about its inevitable dissolution in the mainstream of shallow pop-music (from Philipp Kirkorov and NaNa group to sweet-voiced ensembles, such as the Lyceum trio and the 'scandal girl' Zemfira, a commercial imitation of Zhanna Aguzarova).

Leningrad as the capital of rock music

The rock club opened in Leningrad in 1981 not only united the rock groups that existed in the city at the time (Aquarium, Automatic Satisfiers, Zoopark, Tambourin, Myths, St. - Petersburg and others) but also gave an impetus for the generation of new bands, which later become the stars of Russian rock: Kino, Alisa, Strange Games, Televizor/TVset, Noll/Null, Object of Mockery, Auktion, Pop-Mechanics (Sergey Kuryokhin), etc. From 1983 Leningrad hosted annual rock festivals thus becoming the unnoficial capital of Soviet rock movement.

Moscow rock

If Leningrad was the capital of the Soviet rock music of the 1970s, in the 1980s, the time of perestroika, Moscow took the lead. Rock musicians of 'the first generation' of the late 1960s went on their activities here (for example Alexander Gradsky and Bari Alibasov) and the new generation rockers show up (among them Zvuki Mu, Brigada S, Dialog, Autograph, Forum, etc.). Amidst the first rock groups that appeared in Moscow in the late 1960s - early 1970s the most remarkable and influential was Mashina Vremeni/Time Machine.

Far from the capitals rock music was also bubbling over. Rock clubs appeared in many big cities such as Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok to unite student rock groups that spontaneously sprung up here and there. Some of the rock unions became real 'schools' of rock music.

After Moscow and Leningrad the industrial Ural centre, the Sverdlovsk city became the third significant centre of Russian rock, with such groups as Chaif, Urfin Juice, Nautilus Pompilius, Nastya, etc.

Look also:
 The legends of Russian Rock Music
 Punk Rock & Alternative Rock in Russia

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