Beatles tapes

The bootlegged Beatles tapes that began floating around Russia in the mid-1960s contained the first rock songs most Russians heard, & for many, they became an only window to the West. Khrushchev's response to the music was two-fold: First he called it "a cacophony of sounds with which listeners are assailed and which is dignified with the name of music only through a misconception." Next, he called the militzia out to Red Square to disperse a group of students who'd gathered there to celebrate May Day, 1967, by dancing the twist.

Only in the 1970s did Soviet power recognize the music, and then only grudgingly. Under Communism, Russia's own rock bands were forced into two categories: emasculated "official" groups, who registered with the Ministry of Culture and were "urged to write and perform songs on topics such as space heroes or economic achievement," and officially unrecognized "amateurs," who were scorned, scolded, and occasionally threatened with jail terms for "social parasitism." "I called my band "Aquarium," Boris Grebenshikov said in 1986, "because here in the Soviet Union we are in a giant fishbowl. Since we can't travel freely to other countries, we are like fish in a tank who swim up and press our noses against the glass, trying to see out at the rest of the world"

But when Grebenshikov compared himself to Andrei Makarevich, who sang for an officially-sanctioned group called Time Machine, he did so without complaint: "They come over sometimes after their big concerts in the Palace of Culture," Grebenshikov said. "Sitting around my kitchen, they play some of their best songs, songs they couldn't play in public because the censors didn't like them. When I play in public, even though I am broke and have an old guitar and lousy amps, everything I play is my best and from my heart. I am freer than Andrei, with his limousine and his prestige, and I prefer it this way."

To be honest, Aquarium and Time Machine both sounded less like rock bands than pit bands in a provincial produiction of Jesus Christ Superstar. But the difference in attitudes explains why the members of Aquarium were willing to support themselves as fruit-stand vendors and furnace-stokers, while their more pliable comrades lived in lux apartments and enjoyed party-member privileges, why members of East Germany's Klaus Renft Combo, or Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe, endured arrest and imprisonment in those countries, and why their songs, which Renft described as weapons designed to "scratch at the marrow" of their regimes, outlived those regimes. Why did the music translate so easily? And how did it come to mean so much, to so many? Those are central questions in the book I'll be returning to as soon as I'm done with this post.