Musicians reflect on the legacy of the Leningrad Rock Club 30 years after its creation.
Published: November 2, 2011 (Issue # 1681)
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
From left to right: Oleg Gusev (Stranniye Igry, AVIA), Mikhail Borzykin (Televizor) and music critic Andrei
Burlaka pictured at a press conference devoted to the anniversary of the Leningrad Rock Club last week.
The Leningrad Rock Club, which is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its founding this week with a big stadium concert featuring DDT’s Yury Shevchuk and Akvarium’s Boris Grebenshchikov, was never really a rock club. There was no bar or nightly gigs, and the monthly concerts were not open to just anyone.
Formed in 1981 under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, the Leningrad Rock Club was meant to be an organization not unlike the Union of Soviet Composers, which made sure musicians did not go too far, censored lyrics and issued performance permits.
On the other hand, the club gave musicians somewhere to meet, discuss their music and occasionally perform to members of the public close enough to the organization or musicians to find out about and get an invitation to upcoming concerts, in the absence of any advertising.
The Rock Club’s history is complicated: Active for ten years, it was essentially a different enterprise when it started in 1981 and when it effectively closed a decade later.
Some believe that the establishment of the Leningrad Rock Club led to the Russian rock revolution, which helped to put an end to the Soviet system, while others — like Akvarium’s former cellist Vsevolod Gakkel, who established Russia’s pioneering alternative rock club TaMtAM in 1991 — see it as a compromise that in fact harmed rock music by taking its “underground virginity.”
According to émigré KGB general Oleg Kalugin’s interviews and memoirs, the Rock Club was formed at the initiative of the KGB’s Fifth Department, which was in charge of “counterintelligence work to fight ideological sabotage” and dealt with dissidents.
The department came up with the idea not to disperse unofficial yet relatively harmless rock musicians, authors and painters, but to let them get together in unions where they would be under the tight control of the KGB, the police and the Communist Party.
The Leningrad Rock Club, the unofficial authors’ Club 81 and the Experimental Art Association all emerged in 1981.
Thirty years later, many people whose lives were connected with the Rock Club and Russian rock movement have only fond memories, perhaps because those were their young and active years. There was also a lot of idealism and youthful energy.
At a press conference last week devoted to Saturday’s concert, Auctyon’s Oleg Garkusha recalled how his band’s members used to go to a remote rehearsal room after their day jobs (Garkusha himself worked as a projectionist at a film theater on Nevsky Prospekt) and rehearsed without thinking about success or money — but simply because they enjoyed the process.
While many were happy simply to play music, Mikhail Borzykin, whose band Televizor was arguably the Rock Club’s most politically radical band, felt he had to speak out against censorship and oppression, describing the era as “a time of muteness and deafness.” Borzykin is as politically-conscious nowadays as ever, regularly churning out protest songs.
“It’s very sad that we’ve come full circle and returned to almost the same situation as 25 or 30 years ago,” he said.
The Rock Club’s long-time president Nikolai Mikhailov said last week that the club still exists on paper, although it has been kicked out of its famous location — at 13 Ulitsa Rubinshteina, close to Saigon, as the former coffeehouse and legendary bohemian hangout on Nevsky Prospekt was unofficially known.
Poet and music journalist Anatoly Gunitsky, who was on the Rock Club’s council, recalled the solidarity between musicians, mutual help and interest in each other that existed at the club.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing like this nowadays,” he said. “That’s what was most valuable about what started 30 years ago at 13 Rubinshteina.”
“Every one of us has their own version of the Rock Club’s development; that’s what makes it great,” Mikhailov said.
But the main advantage of the Rock Club for musicians was its authority to issue permits for concert performances.
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
Borzykin pictured at the event.
The Rock Club was not free from Soviet doublethink, however. Less glorious moments saw Akvarium’s Grebenshchikov get a haircut and allow his band to be introduced as a “musical parody group” to get on local television in 1984, and Kino’s Viktor Tsoi attributing his song lyrics about Russian teenagers to their Western counterparts by renaming the song “We Want to Dance” into “Kings Road Kids” on a copy intended for censors.
In addition to handlers from the KGB, the party and the Komsomol Communist Youth Organization, the Rock Club held auditions at which a commission decided whether bands were good enough to be accepted as members.
Borzykin’s band Televizor — which entered the Rock Club in 1984 as a rather safe New Wave band but quickly radicalized — was banned from giving public performances by the Rock Club’s council twice, each time for six months.
Both times the bans were issues as punishment for Televizor performing songs not sanctioned by the Rock Club’s censors. In one of those songs, Borzykin dared to call on listeners to “get out of control” and “sing about what you see, rather than what you’re allowed to.”
Some fellow musicians disapproved of Borzykin as a “provocateur,” worrying that his uncompromising stance could lead to problems with the authorities, or even result in the organization being shut down. Punishment also followed for unsanctioned gigs.
The city’s best-known punk singer Svinya (The Pig, born Andrei Panov), who led a band called Avtomaticheskiye Udovletvoriteli (Automatic Satisfiers), was seen as unacceptable for the Rock Club until 1987, after Gorbachev lifted many official bans and allowed dissident academic Andrei Sakharov to return from exile to Moscow as part of the leader’s “glasnost” policies.
Further proof of the deep penetration of the KGB into the Rock Club emerged earlier this year, when Fontanka.ru news web site published four black-and-white photographs, two of which featured Tsoi.
The site claimed that former officers provided the photos because they were “moved by manifestations of nationwide love” for the musician.
Some of the photographs, which apparently date back to the early 1980s, had handwritten numbers next to the faces of the people pictured. According to the site, the reverse sides of the photographs bear comments written by KGB officers.
The Rock Club’s best moments, however, included Akvarium refusing to perform when the police arrested cellist Gakkel right before the concert — which led to the audience noisily protesting against the police’s actions, and finally forced them to release him.
The other was Borzykin leading a spontaneous march of musicians and fans to the party headquarters at Smolny after the authorities banned a rock festival under the pretext of fire safety regulations in 1988. The party wavered and lifted the ban.
“The atmosphere, mood and spirit of Russian rock is alive, only it takes some other musical forms,” Borzykin said.
“We’ve lost a lot, but young people are coming, a lot of rappers are coming and in some ways trying to take over this spirit. All the attempts to evoke a response are doomed to fail now, because the wave is not ripe yet. We have to wait a little.
“We were lucky to catch that happy time of resonance, when everything around breathed this energy of freedom. That’s what we’re moving toward now. I’m sure it will be repeated in the near future.”
In March 1991, the Leningrad Rock Club celebrated its 10th anniversary with a rock festival at Yubileiny Sports Complex, but its days were numbered, as were the days of the Soviet Union, which collapsed later the same year.
It was also the year when TaMtAm club emerged, spawning a wave of real rock clubs as we know them today. The need for an official organization for rock musicians no longer existed.
Rock Club’s 30th Anniversary Concert, featuring Yury Shevchuk, Boris Grebenshchikov, Alisa, Piknik, Mify, Auctyon, Televizor, AVIA, NOM, Fyodor Chistyakov, Razniye Lyudi and Nastya Poleva, will take place at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5 at Yubileiny Sports Complex, 18 Ulitsa Dobrolyubova.