The NPR website had a fascinating article a couple of weeks ago about the history of rock and roll in the Soviet Union.
The focus of the article was on the Leningrad Rock Club: a 600-seat theater that opened in the early 1980s where bands could be seen and — more importantly — watched.
The club was run by a committee of musicians who selected the best underground bands of the day, organized concerts, and negotiated to keep the gigs rolling. KGB agents monitored lyrics and surveilled the audience during concerts from a balcony.
“I dealt with three KGB agents regularly,” says Nikolai Mikhailov, who served as the club’s elected president starting in 1982. “We’d meet and talk about twice a month.”
Occasionally, Mikhailov says officials forced him to suspend groups from performing when they broke the rules — such as playing unsanctioned songs. “The bands understood. They knew the rules,” says Mikhailov.
But more often there were workarounds — such as claiming questionable song lyrics were in fact a veiled critique of U.S. policies in Latin America or the Middle East. This was still the Cold War, after all.
“I’ll get hanged for saying it — but these KGB guys in some ways played a positive role,” insists Mikhailov. “They kept their bosses in the Communist Party or the police from shutting us down.”
The acoustics? Terrible by all accounts. The soundboard? A fire hazard on its best days.
But the club offered musicians a long-sought-after stage —- and the public everything official Soviet culture could not: groups that played hard rock, metal, punk, ska, blues, new wave, and more.
Bands had to audition before a committee that judged talent liberally. “We took everybody except for those who really couldn’t play,” according to Olga Slobodskaya, the club’s secretary. She paused for emphasis. “I mean really.”
The club was wildly popular. With membership limited and tickets hard to come by, young Soviets would gather on the street outside its entrance at 13 Rubenstein St. — with some fans even crawling through the lavatory windows to sneak a show.
By the late 1980s, there were over 100 such clubs in the USSR.
The Leningrad Rock Club moved locations several times before finally shutting its doors in the mid-’90s, but the bands of the Club remain among Russia’s most revered — even if many of its rock heroes didn’t live to see the extent of their fame.
One such singer was Viktor Tsoi who was killed in a car accident in 1991. Tsoi was a singer and songwriter who co-founded Kino, one of the most popular and musically influential bands in the history of Russian music.
Born and raised in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Tsoi started writing songs as a teenager. Throughout his career, Tsoi contributed a plethora of musical and artistic works, including ten albums. After Kino appeared and performed in the 1987 Soviet film Assa, the band’s popularity surged, triggering a period referred to as “Kinomania”.
Here is a video clip from that movie featuring Tsoi and Kino singing their song Peremen, which means Changes. The song begins at about the two-minute mark.
I think the song has a nice driving beat to it, and the lyrics are powerful. Tsoi reminds me a bit of a cross between Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey.
Fortunately, there are English subtitles to the song!
First performed by Tsoi in the summer of 1986, Peremen quickly became an important political song, an embodiment of the spirit of the Perestroika. It remains a powerful political song, prominently used during 2020–2021 Belarusian protests.
*image from Radio Free Europe