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Impact of Rock and Roll in the USSR on the Downfall of Communist Ideologies

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Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in History

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Rock in the Soviet Bloc

To what extent did the birth of underground rock and roll in the USSR assist in the downfall of Communist ideologies during the Cold War?

Table of Contents

Table of Contents………………………..……………..…………………………………………………………. 1

Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………………………..……. 2

Rock and Roll…………..……………..………….…………………………………………………………….. 3-4

The Birth of Soviet Rock………………………………………………..…………………………………… 5-6

Effects on the USSR citizens………………….….………………………………..………………………. 7-8

Joanna Stingray and Underground Rock……….…………………………………………………… 9-10

The End of the Cold War………..………………………………………………………………………… 11-12

Lessons for the US………………………………………………………………………………………….. 13-14

Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………………………..…………. 15-16

Bibliography……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 17

The Cold War was the geopolitical, ideological, and economic conflict amongst the two world superpowers of the US and the USSR. This struggle between arguably the two most powerful nations of this time is accepted amongst many historians to have begun directly after World War II in 1945. It would continue until the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union on 1991. It is clear that there was an apparent social and political worldwide impact of the rock and roll genre during the 46-year span of the Cold War, specifically amongst the citizens of the USSR. This is proved through primary and secondary documents made by USSR government officials and everyday citizens of the state. This social revolution was because, as a socialist state that had faced social and economic hardship after the Second World War, the citizens of the USSR yearned for a change of social and political standings that were not forced or mandated by the state. During the era of the Cold War, an estimated number of almost three hundred million citizens lived in a state of cultural repression in the USSR.[1] Creativity was stunted by the strict rules of a socialist state. Matters escalated as low rations and materials rose at an exponential rate. After World War II there was now an overall shortage of goods in the east while the west was thriving. This included necessities like toilet paper, clothes, and medicines. Women and men of all ages were cramped in small apartments with two or more other families. All these trials and tribulations found in the everyday life of Soviet Union citizens took its toll, especially with its youth. Across the sea, worlds away from the overcrowded and famine-stricken country, a genre would be born in the United States that would not only change the music industry but the lifestyles of the youth around the world forever. This influence from American music would lead a revolution of change amongst the people of the communist state. The following research will shed light on the impact of the rock and roll genre in the USSR and answer the overall question: how did the birth of underground rock in the USSR affect communist ideologies during the Cold War?

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 To understand the impact rock and roll had in the soviet union, it is crucial to understand the birth of the genre. Rock and roll originated in the United States. It was a time of rebellion and teenage angst. First beginning as a merger between African musical tradition and European instrumentation, rock and roll became clearly established in the late 1940’s.[2] World War II was coming to an end and technological advancements like the electric guitar and stage microphone were beginning to be mass produced in capitalistic nations like the United States, which believed in the power of material goods in the market. This idea forged by US capitalism led rebellious teens in the USSR to empathize with their western neighbors and tended to replicate US values of freedom of speech and expression. Since fuel shortages made trips to see jazz bands extremely uneconomical, three-piece combos that included guitar, bass, and drums, became the common practice because they were much easier to transport and much less of a hassle to amplify.[3] Considered the first American musical tradition, it had encompassed the music genres of Gospel, Blues, Country, Jazz, and R&B. Because of its combination of music from different niches, rock and roll brought people together. It was the beginning of a historical turn that would morph the daily life of the modern world. It was only a matter of time until rock and roll would emerge into the cultural mainstream of America.

Undoubtedly, rock and roll’s most prominent characteristic was the lifestyle that it associated with. Even today, the “rockstar life” is perceived to have a certain fashion, attitude, and overall lifestyle that is unique to any other genre of the time. Leather jackets, gelled hair, and motorbikes were a staple for teens who listened to rock. The US markets and entrepreneurs embraced this rock and roll lifestyle that had entranced the youth. They would use this opportunity to expand revenue with record labels, further introducing rock stars to the youth of America. Rock and roll was arguably the first genre of music to define an age group and this reach would continue beyond the United States and grow worldwide.

 In the 1940s, the Soviet Union was viewed as the country that had not only aligned themselves with the Axis forces but opened the bloodiest war in history: World War II. Although the USSR was among the Allied forces throughout the rest of World War II, they attained the highest casualties in the war contributed by battles such as Kursk and Stalingrad.[4] The aftermath of the war left the Union broken and discouraged, forever having tensions with the west, so much so that it is apparent today with US and Russian relationships. The birth of this tension can be found in 1947, which was arguably the realization of the Cold War to the world. The Soviet Union and its allies had initialized the signing of the Warsaw Pact, forever changing the political landscape and creating the Eastern Bloc.  Two years later, in 1949, NATO would form the Western Bloc[5] and the war based on the east and west ideological differences would only amplify to further ideological conflict through the means of intimidation and influence.

 By the 1950s it was apparent that the creation of the Soviet Bloc led to all communist parties to control almost all aspects of the people’s lives. The police, political and societal organizations, and economic structure were all controlled by the Warsaw Pact communist agenda.[6] The iron curtain was vast and effective in controlling the will of the people and succeeded in protecting them from the capitalistic temptations of the west, at least for a time. However, while the iron curtain protected physical contact between the Eastern and Western Blocs, no government institution could stop the media from reaching its citizens, especially at a time period like the Cold War era where technology and the media would flourish and continue to be developed.

 This leads to the question historiographers ask about the prevalence of rock and roll in the USSR. How did rock music go mainstream in a country without the freedom of expression? The answer: the birth of the worldwide phenomenon created by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Established in Liverpool 1957, the Beatles were an English rock band that shook not only their nation but the world. It was inevitable for their music to land on the front door of the USSR. The Beatles came crashing through the iron curtain like it wasn’t even there.[7]

 Through personal contacts and the media, musical diplomacy also created subtle musical, social, and political relationships on a global scale.[8] Sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Presentations Program thousands of musicians from America traveled the world. Performances implementing the more popular genres of classical, rock ’n’ roll, folk, blues, and jazz music competed with traveling Soviet and mainland Chinese artists, enhancing the prestige and diversity of American culture. It had truly shown the benefits of having a state with the freedom of expression and the ability to represent multiple cultures while being united by one nation. Documents collected by historian Danielle Fosler-Lussier showed these concerts offered audiences around the world evidence of America’s improving race relations, excellent musicianship, and generosity toward other peoples.[9] While the USSR government saw these performances as threats towards the citizens of their own state and the assault of their ideals, these bonds were in themselves great diplomatic success for the US and represented of America’s power during the Cold War. These archival documents by Fosler-Lussier show that musical diplomacy had differing meanings for its performers and listeners. These participants included government officials, local musicians, concert agents and promoters, and audiences from all parts of the world.

 After Stalin’s death in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev began a process of Destalinization and launched a period known as the Thaw. This was a time of reassurance for the Soviet citizens. Millions were released from captivity, the more open discussion was allowed, and new cultural, social and artistic freedoms would flourish.

The American National Exhibition six years later showed US domestic appliances, television, cars, clothes, boats, sports equipment and homes. It was propaganda to promote the superiority of capitalism, but it had an impact by showing the flaws of communist, at least under the leadership of Stalin. Khrushchev launched consumerism in an updated, Soviet spin. Vacuum cleaners, beauty products, and washing machines began appearing in the shops of Berlin and throughout all the state.

Optimistically, Khrushchev predicted that Soviet consumption would outstrip that of the US.[10] His reforms also improved housing, with a shift away from the collectivist ideals of Stalin. Twelve million new city apartments were promised to the people and seven million rural homes. These new homes morphed to traditional family patterns, more private housing and individual kitchens, becoming increasingly similar to US homes.

Goods available to the people were often limited in supply and this did not bode well for government popularity in an increasingly rebellious state. They were often cheap and, worst of all, most they did not function well. This was because, during the Stalin era, the Soviets had focused on production rather than consumption, and the system was very slow to change. Popular clothing, make-up, and televisions were available only to officials. Western cigarettes and coveted blue jeans with Western labels were rare for the people of the USSR.

 As discussed prior, times in the USSR were grueling at best. At times there were two or three families in small complexes, prompting fights and congestion. Coal was the principle source of warmth in Soviet pre-assembled lodging, which delivered serious contamination over the Soviet Union. Even the water from the taps could once in a while be harmful. If you were one of the fortunate people who possessed a vehicle, it was regularly defective. Petrol and spares were very hard to find and the one place you could get them was on the black market.[11]

With very little in state-run shops, unofficial open-air markets of every kind sprang up in the big cities. In USSR cities like Moscow, Leningrad, and Odessa these sprawling “bazaars” catered for seemingly limitless demand by the people. Infamous US rockstar, Joanna Stingray, who travelled the the USSR multiple times described the state’s markets as the result of the shadow economy of bribery and barter, which allowed you to buy almost anything, from chocolate and perfume to Western booze and cigarettes, all at a higher price than what Russian-made goods would charge.[12] After Destalinization, it is not entirely surprising that the first Soviet forays into the capitalist way of life displayed this same ruthless, cynical, street-smart agenda. This was because the communist citizens were so used to the short food rations mandated by the state that the pseudo-capitalistic way of life would be hard to adapt to. Ironically, decades of shortages and suppression under communism had schooled its citizens well.

As an import from the West that was deemed a threat to the system, rock and roll music was a political tool by US artists to sway the in the Soviet Union to develop more capitalistic values. Joanna was a musician in Los Angeles who decided to travel to the USSR in order to make a name for herself. In a Moscow Times article from 1983 Stingray reoccounts, “I realised that I had this ability to show the world something they hadn’t seen,” says Joanna, who is now 57. “We were brought up being so afraid of the evil empire and Russia.[13]” Her decision to show the world that an American can establish herself musically in a part of the communist state of Russia proved that the iron curtain was beginning to weaken with Khrushchev. Joanna Stingray spent most of the 80s in Leningrad with underground rock royalty, Boris Grebenshchikov of the rock group Akvarium. Stingray filmed their original music videos, concerts and even their nights out. Most importantly she began exporting music of multiple underground USSR rock bands beyond the confines of Russia. Joanna pulled open the iron curtain with an album called Red Wave, one of the first glimpses of Russian music around the world and certainly for the America, whos prior beliefs was that the USSR was as stone cold as ever in regards to their social freedom of expression. In the Moscow Times article she explains her understanding of the Soviet Union was not that much different from what an average American believed. Seen as an unforgiving, cold, bleak and miserable place, Stingray reoccounts thinking, “Oh boy, this’ll be fun, there can’t be any rock in Russia. This is going to be a joke. Wait until they see me.[14]” In the surface, Russia seemed to be deserted of any kind of foreign media and this was mainly because everything had to go through the state or had to be approved by sensors and the KGB. But, nonetheless, rockstars made it happen in cramped communal apartments, in abandoned buildings, on rooftops. Stingray had unearthed the underground movement of rock which was out of sight of the Kremlin and the KGB. “They didn’t like the way rock looked. I think they didn’t like the way that it riled up the audience. I think they thought like a lot of people did, that rock and roll led to rebellion and led to craziness.[15]” This craziness is what most historians believed to be a more openness towards the culture of the US. This overall weakened the pull and social control Russia had on its people.

 As William Jay Risch and his authors contend, Soviet bloc governments feared rock’s latent political influence upon restless and resentful youth.[16] The renowned rock critic Robert Palmer featured in Risch’s publication claimed that rock and roll at its best was subversive and insurgent. Risch argues that Communist authorities did not necessarily ban the music despite its perceived capitalist degeneracy; instead, they attempted to co-opt it and give it a “socialist beat.[17]” This provides historians with the indication that rock, like nationalism, was modular. Despite the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, music and fashion permeated and began to consume to the East, evoking its youth’s imagination and attraction of the West. As the support of Destalinization became fully realized capitalistic lifestyles became more compelling as the Soviet system aged ungracefully.

There were more than fifty thousand Soviets that visited the United States under various exchange programs between 1958 and 1988.[18] Most came as scholars, scientists, engineers, writers, government and party officials, musicians, dancers, and athletes from all parts of the Soviet Union. Among them were more than a few KGB officers that would never see the Soviet Union the same. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War explains exchange programs, which brought an even larger number of Americans to the Soviet Union, raised the Iron Curtain and fostered changes that prepared the way for Gorbachev’s Glasnost, the practice of more open consultative government and wider spread of information, and perestroika, the policy of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system. Both of these ideas established in 1985 would shortly be followed by the end of the Cold War. This final act during the end of the Cold War era poured salt on the wound found in the slowly disintegrating communist ideology.

Richmond’s texts demonstrates that the best policy to pursue with countries we disagree with is not isolation but engagement. Upon interviews with Russian and American participants as well as the experiences of Richmond himself and others who were involved in these such exchanges, he shows that any true analysis and appraisal of the Cold War era requires the blunt formulation of several working definitions and people to carry out this information to the world. In support of this idea, Nichols explains how the Cold War, as is defined, emerged in the eight years between 1945 and how the death of Stalin increased the likeliness that the communist states would begin to morph socially into a less stone-cold state.[19] The Western forces were now seen as the champions of freedom, the protectors of individual rights, and liberal democracy while communists, specifically prior to Destalinization, were now portrayed as freedom’s enemies. This leads some historians to believe the Soviet Union was entirely responsible for the Cold War which ended in a clear and decisive Western victory. While this may be the case in most US centered ideals, it is important to also not the aid of USSR citizens in the social and political downturn of communism in the Cold War.

 The Stalinist origins of the Cold War explains how the “world divided” found its initial expression in communist aggression against the US. Those who believe that the Cold War could have been avoided are mistaken because of the country’s ideological clashes already at play. The Korean War was the first real expression of ideological theory moving into practice in the real world. The danger inherent in “mirror imaging” an opponent’s strategy and calculating an enemy’s next move on the “raw logic of realism” was what continued to escalate the Cold War until finally, the devastation of an ideological war would finally come into fruition through the realization of a possible third world war.

 Understanding motivation clarifies the points of confinement of settling disputes by political deplomacy. The motivation of both sides of the Cold War gets stronger as Nichols’ study focus moves forward in time and concentrates on the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and George Bush administrations.[20] A question is posed that whether or not creating areas in the Third World with an ideological enemy is a dependable strategy or a waste of resources? It is important to understand what motivates an opposition, because ideologically motivated action, rather than action driven over access to lands and materials “presents a special danger for Western policymakers because it falls outside the kinds of more routine patterns of interstate conflict to which Westerners are accustomed.[21]” A realistic view of cataloging of the globe would also fail to determine the full effect of losses for ideologically driven opponents in less important, third world countries. For example, it would be hard to derive an exact number of influences made during the boom of rock and roll music in Russia or to pinpoint the political ramifications of the cultural exchange.

 Historians should be critical with Kissinger’s work in the Vietnam War’s Paris Accords and whoever else trying to rewrite the Vietnam conflict as an adventure without a cause that inflicted a “cost out of proportion to any conceivable gain.” Some even claim to perceive it as a civil war, a local matter, or an example of US imperial expansion. However it was simply a coalition struggle deemed by communists and worthy of full American intervention. This was the ideology that drove the US into the Korean and Vietnam war. In Nichols’ exploration of the Vietnam War, the USSR is North Vietnam’s reluctant ally.[22] A major lesson that Vietnam shows the West is that it is possible to force an ideologically driven opponent to pay for its own policies. This means that democracies are not alone and are willing to pay high prices for their beliefs.

 Detente was limited because it was a policy that “drifted in conflicting directions” and it had no clear goals other than a desire to avoid war. In this end the ideological sway of the rock and roll genre showed to be in the end more effective in cooling tensions. Détente was suppose to be a period of the easing of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1979. It brought an era of increased trade and cooperation with the Soviet Union and the signing of the SALT treaties. Relations calmed furthermore with regards to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It could have been utilized as a successful uneven technique at crossroads when military activity is unfeasible or disliked. The major lesson Detente holds for the West is to beware of disparities and to “resist overselling what few benefits might be expected from a lull in political hostilities.[23]” The program was flawed because it was western driven and the policy produced was prejudicial in its understanding that ideology is final “no match for either the crushing realist pressures of the international system or the siren song of Western culture and material abundance.[24]” The social unrest in Russia, however, was born in a communist state and was only aided by US influence. This was the dividing factor that argues the province social unrest has over the political turmoil that most governments act upon.

 In the early years, Pre-Glasnost, rock was officially and sometimes severely discouraged, existing only underground. Soviet rock music was initialized by the Beatles, and many of the first Soviet rock groups were just “live jukeboxes” performing their songs as closely as possible to the original. After the Beatles broke up, hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath were the provisional favorites among Soviet rock fans. Finally, there appeared a band that sang something original: Time Machine. There is little in the music itself that differentiates Soviet rock from its Western counterpart, however, the lyrics echo the lexical and stylistic heritage of the Russian poetic tradition and the name “bard rock” was coined for band, Time Machine. Through the unresting work of the KGB and government officials it seemed to many that rock was only a phase of Russia. The word ‘rok’ in Russian literally means bad fate, and “it really appeared that rock music was doomed.[25]” But the genre has survived even the suppression elicited by punk rock, and under Gorbachev will continue flourish. The social unrest of the people of Russia could finally be controlled by the tools made from the US. USSR citizens had begun to take hold of their own freedom of expression without relying on underground leaked tapes from the United States.

Through the research discussed it can be argued that rebellion and teenage angst was not only a staple of this time period but a political tool used by the US and those who wanted the fall of communism in Russia. A rock subculture had percolated 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 eleven 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.[26]

Rock music played an underappreciated, yet essential, part in the fall of communism by allowing citizens from the Soviet Union to become exposed to culture from the West, humanizing the Americans and discrediting the politics of the USSR. The history of rock and roll music in the Soviet Union is one of significant importance because it gives insight in how one specific musical genre can be used as a means of self-expression for young people. A whole generation used rock and roll as one of the core interests in their lives, expressing on the one hand their passion for life and on the other a form of rebellion towards the communist regime. In a period of constant historical changes, rock music had the characteristics which enabled its emergence in the Soviet Union. It was rebellious and unconventional towards the social structures and institutions of a society. It could also be used as a communicative element between musicians and audience. Through the use of specific lyrics and slang terms, the Soviet rock community had the opportunity to express its ideals and hopes for a better future.

Works Cited

  • Boyarinov, Denis. Joanna Stingray, a California Girl in the USSR. Moscow, The Moscow Times, 2016
  • Brager, Bruce L. The Iron Curtain: the Cold War in Europe. Langhorne, Chelsea House Pub, 2004
  • Fosler-Lussier, Danielle. Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy. Oakland, University of California Press, 2015
  • Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Santa Barbara, Praeger, 2002
  • Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Old Main, Penn State Press, 2010
  • Risch, William Jay. Youth and Rock in the Soviet Bloc. Lanham Lexington Books, 2014
  • Ryback, Timothy. Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990
  • Troitsky, Artemy. Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia. Boston and London, Faber & Faber, 1987
  • Zhuk, Sergei I. Rock and Roll in The Rocket City. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2010

[1] Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Praeger, 2002

[2] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Penn State Press, 2010

[3] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Penn State Press, 2010

[4] Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Praeger, 2002

[5] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Penn State Press, 2010

[6] Zhuk, Sergei I. Rock and Roll in The Rocket City. John Hopkins University Press, 2010

[7] Zhuk, Sergei I. Rock and Roll in The Rocket City. John Hopkins University Press, 2010

[8] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Old Main, Penn State Press, 2010

[9] Fosler-Lussier, Danielle. Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy. Oakland, University of California Press, 2015

[10] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Old Main, Penn State Press, 2010

[11] Troitsky, Artemy. Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia. Boston and London, Faber & Faber, 1987

[12] Boyarinov, Denis. Joanna Stingray, a California Girl in the USSR. Moscow, The Moscow Times, 2016

[13] Boyarinov, Denis. Joanna Stingray, a California Girl in the USSR. Moscow, The Moscow Times, 2016

[14] Boyarinov, Denis. Joanna Stingray, a California Girl in the USSR. Moscow, The Moscow Times, 2016

[15] Boyarinov, Denis. Joanna Stingray, a California Girl in the USSR. Moscow, The Moscow Times, 2016

[16] Risch, William Jay. Youth and Rock in the Soviet Bloc. Lanham Lexington Books, 2014

[17] Risch, William Jay. Youth and Rock in the Soviet Bloc. Lanham Lexington Books, 2014

[18] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Old Main, Penn State Press, 2010

[19] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Old Main, Penn State Press, 2010

[20] Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Santa Barbara, Praeger, 2002

[21] Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War. Old Main, Penn State Press,

           2010

[22] Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Santa Barbara, Praeger, 2002

[23] Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Santa Barbara, Praeger, 2002

[24] Nichols, Thomas. Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Santa Barbara, Praeger, 2002

[25] Ryback, Timothy. Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990

[26] Troitsky, Artemy. Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia. Boston and London, Faber & Faber, 1987

 

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