The Soviet Union's Unofficial Music Journalism [SPECIAL EDITION]

I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com.

In this special edition, I’m handing things over to Russian academic Kat Ganskaya. A few months ago, I listed some humorous names of Soviet-era groups from a book called Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia. Kat got in touch when she read the list, and we got into a discussion about the Soviet Union’s history of unofficial music journalism. The end result of that conversation is this piece, in which Kat provides a short history of what was going on in the country from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll until the end of the Soviet Union. I hope you enjoy it!

A Short History Of Unofficial Music Journalism In The Soviet Union, 1977 - 1991

The Stagnation (Zastoi) period in the Soviet Union, which lasted from the mid 1960s to 1982, is associated today with economic decline, restrictions on self expression, shortages of goods—including bread and meat—and endless queues. But it wasn’t as if there were no dissenting voices in the country. Western music and news made their way into the Soviet Union primarily through the “enemy voices” of Western shortwave radio stations, such as Voice of America, BBC, Radio Luxembourg, and Radio Liberty. And there was also a print alternative located inside the country, a group of journalists creating samizdat, a word that essentially translates as “self-published.” 

The samizdat came out of a direct need. Developed at the end of the 1930s, the official Soviet press remained basically the same in structure and function until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Concentrated in the hands of the government, the media followed the state’s ideological direction. 

Contrary to popular belief, however, Western products weren’t completely ignored. Thanks to the black market, rock music was widespread enough that the Soviet press was forced to cover it. And while it was forbidden to use the word “rock” itself until 1984, the main goal of the Soviet press wasn’t to “reduce” the ever-growing popularity of rock in the country. It was to provide Soviet listeners with the “correct” optics for perception. In most cases, products of the Western music industry were considered bourgeois and decadent. So, like the music of the late Soviet Union, music journalism was formed in two directions: the official and the so-called underground (podpol'ie). 

Despite the small circulations of these underground publications (some would even come in editions of one), samizdat played a crucial role in shaping the image of rock music among young people. It was also the crucible for the early years of music journalism in post-Soviet Russia; some of the best-known Russian music writers and editors of the 90s and 00s started their career in samizdat.

Most samizdat concerned itself with local music. By the end of the 70s there was no single school, institute, or factory that did not have at least one amateur rock band. And every group had a press facility of its own, so it is impossible to establish the approximate number of publications that were being made. What we do know is that samizdat was usually created by and for young, educated, urban youth—members of a subculture called tusovka. Yet, at the same time, anyone with a pile of paper and a pen or a typewriter could become the editor of his own samizdat. (Women, it should be mentioned, were far less visible in the Soviet rock scene and subculture.)

What’s most important, though, is that samizdat created an alternative space of communication for subcultural youth. As Roxy editor Oleg Reshetnikov put it in 1987, “The main driving force behind [samizdat] was the half-forgotten nowadays ‘joy of human communication.’ It was a thrill to make the magazine all together and to feel like-minded, so the most important thing in the magazine was the idea of a pure thrill.”

Roxy

The first page of the first issue of Roxy
The first page of the first issue of Roxy. The name of the publication has been added by hand: “Рокси №1.” The text is entitled “Editorial Column.”

Created by Boris Grebenshchinkov and Mikhail (Mike) Naumenko in 1977, Roxy was the first subcultural publication in Soviet Russia to focus exclusively on rock music. After its first three issues, Roxy went quiet for a few years—a relatively normal occurrence for samizdat—until it became the “official but underground” publication of The Leningrad Rock Club.

The LRC was founded in January 1981 at the Palace of Amateur Creativity (Mezhsouzny Dom Samodejatelnogo Tvorchestva), with the assent of the KGB. By this point, Soviet authorities had adopted the attitude, “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.” They hoped that an alliance would give them at least the possibility of partial control over unauthorized cultural activities, and figured keeping the entire protest potential of the alternative youth in one place was the best way to do so. After the success of the LRC, similar organizations opened in Moscow, Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), Rostov-on-Don, and Kharkiv—with samizdat to match. 

The LRC and other clubs like it were important because they gave amateur musicians rights and privileges previously available only to the so-called “state collectives”: a safe space to gather, play gigs, and organize festivals (which were more like talent shows, with a committee of juries and awards such as “best band,” “best guitarist,” etc.). Previously, the Russian music industry had been based on the idea that songwriting was the prerogative of professionals who were members of the Union of Soviet Writers and Composers. With the founding of clubs like the LRC, those who played rock could destroy the invincible monopoly of the Soviet Tin Pan Alley.

The second issue of Roxy celebrates this potential in an article called “How to behave at a gig.” The answer? “Behave the way you want. Why does a person go to a gig? To spend some time together and also to see and be seen. And therefore, there is nothing to be fussy about, this is not a philharmonic!” It was important for the authors (most of whom were musicians themselves) to separate what they did from the actions of state-approved bands known as Soviet VIAs, who actually did perform in city and regional philharmonics.

The above song, by the band Zoopark (Zoo), is called “A Song of an Ordinary Man.” Some sample lyrics: “On Saturdays I go to the rock club / There are so many good bands in the rock club / I walk proudly with ticket in my hand / And they sing songs in our native language / I love Aquarium / I love Zoopark / I love Secret / I love Strannie Igry / I love Kino / I don't like Zemlyane / I love only amateur bands” Zemlyane, as you can likely tell by the lyrics, were one of the best-known VIA bands. Most of their songs were dedicated to cosmonauts, pilots, and "real men."

Roxy predominantly consisted of what can be described as “theoretical articles”—articles that discussed the meaning and place of rock music in the Soviet Union. These essays considered problems inherent in the production of rock music that were meaningful to both performers and listeners, and anticipated later attempts to explain the cultural meaning of rock music within its Russian-Soviet context. Debates about language, “Russianness,” and the distinction between professional and amateur music-making occupied Soviet musicians and authors from the very beginning of rock culture.

Roxy writers were already arguing for the independence of Russian rock (a term that did not yet exist) from Western influences by 1978. According to the editorial board, this was already evident in the use of Russian language and in music which was seen as non-Western: “We need OUR rock. In Russian language, with a Russian poetic style, with music gradually becoming ours. <...> OURS like our reaction to our lives. In this is the viability and necessity of rock, like any other real art—in the reaction to life in a given country, at a given time, under given conditions.” Similar articles appeared in various samizdat throughout the entire Soviet period.

There was, of course, a certain amount of tension in what Roxy was doing as the “official bulletin” of a rock club sanctioned by the KGB. The authors of Roxy, in response, used an abundance of slang expressions, as well as personal and detailed narration—writing modes unusual for Soviet newspapers and directives. At the same time, rather than subverting the hegemony of the state press, fanzines tried to co-opt and imitate certain elements of “professional” titles. 

Early on, Roxy consisted of 20 typewritten pages of tissue paper held together with paper clips, and the first four issues were printed without a cover or title page. Inside, though, the magazine had an editorial board, uniform design, and a series of columns. Each issue opened with an editorial article, moved on to reviews and other articles, and closed with a gossip section. Although three different “editorial boards” were in charge of the magazine over the course of its 13-year run, they maintained this same system for all of its 15 issues.

Ultimately, the participation of the KGB in the LRC hardly affected Roxy’s physical makeup or its activity. The “official bulletin” remained a typewritten amateur magazine. Nonetheless, circulation grew—from 5 to 100 copies—as did the publication’s length, tracking with growing interest in rock music across the country.

The Mirror

Meanwhile, The Mirror (Zerkalo) was the publication of note at the Rockwell Kent Club in Moscow, which was self-organized by students at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. It was a thick (120-page) typewritten magazine, each issue of which was dedicated to a specific band. The student newspaper was not, however, officially dedicated to music: despite voluminous material about rock bands, most of the pages featured texts by young Soviet prose writers, poets, and playwrights.

When The Mirror was founded in the early 80s, there was only one person to ask to head up its “rock editorial”: Artemiy Troitsky. Today considered to be one of the founding fathers of music journalism in the Russian language, Troitsky gained notoriety in the early 70s as the first DJ in the USSR. At events called discotheques, he would both educate and entertain. First, he would play new music and explain a bit about the group, then dancing would follow. During one of these events, he received an offer to write for Peer (Rovesnik) magazine, an official Soviet state periodical. He became the first author in official venues to call rock music anything other than “music for monkeys” or “ideological sabotage.”

The music portion of The Mirror consisted of materials devoted to individual bands, which “contained not only ‘analysis of creativity’, but also a lot of invaluable information about the group—change of styles, changes of composition, etc.” The first issue, published in 1981 and built around the band Time Machine, was originally intended for publication in one of the official newspapers. (The group was known across the country after winning the previous year’s Spring Rhythms music festival—an event co-organized by Troitsky.) By choosing Time Machine, it was clear that The Mirror was aiming for a wider audience.

The above video shows footage from the 1980 Spring Rhythms music festival. The festival was organized by the Georgian National Philharmonic Society, the Union of Composers of Georgia, the Republican Center for Youth Culture and the Central Committee of the Georgian Komsomol. Among the organizers were Troitsky and the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Georgian SSR Eduard Shevardnadze.

The Mirror and the other “student” papers deliberately emulated the syntax and style of Soviet state teen-magazines. They translated song titles and group names, and avoided conflict with the accepted official discourse. The word “rock,” for instance, was written in quotation marks, and the word “ensemble” (used in the official press to refer to different kinds of VIAs) was preferred over “band.” Using the word “ensemble” was also likely to promote a positive comparison to state ensembles, implying that underground musicians were just as skilled. One can assume that all of this was due to their status as  “student newspapers,” which obliged the authors to adopt a cautious, self-censoring type of writing.

It didn’t matter. Like many things in the Soviet Union, the form was more important than the content. The Mirror claimed to be affiliated with the University (via their connection to the Rockwell Kent Club), and the magazine was eventually accused of publishing without permission. (Litovanie was another crucial trait of Soviet cultural life: every work of art had to be seen by a censor or, in Soviet terms, “obtain a litovka,” before being published.) When the magazine was shuttered, it was officially due to “the very low quality of materials” and, amazingly, an “excessive abundance of references to Marx and Engels.” 

Luckily, that was not the end of the story. The authors renamed the magazine The Ear (Ukho) and continued their work. At first, they continued to devote issues exclusively to one group, but translated materials were also a significant part of The Ear, including, for example, chapters from Nik Cohn's Rock from the Very BeginningThe Ear is also considered to be one of the first magazines to pay attention to bands from far-off areas in Russia, including Sverdlovsk, Ufa, Arkhangelsk, and others.

Many samizdat from this period did not have traditional covers. The first page simply listed the title and contents. This page is titled “Chamber Music Organ Model ‘The Ear’, №2, circulation 4 pieces.”

Describing a definite period of stagnation in Moscow rock, one author noted: "One is bound to get the impression that in Moscow after the year nineteen-seventy-nine there came nineteen-seventy-ten, then nineteen-seventy-eleven… And the '80s are too long in coming." In reality, the 80s did arrive, and, at least according to legend, members of The Ear were identified and interrogated by the KGB, which led to the closing of the magazine.

Post-Stagnation

Although their clandestine status meant low circulation and long breaks between issues, fan-made samizdat rapidly built networks of contributors and distributors across the country. According to the memoirs of the translator Maxim Nemtsov—editor-in-chief of the fanzine DVR—samizdat eventually ended up “where the magazine definitely could not get, because we did not send it there.” This remark more or less describes most Soviet DIY music magazines. Every author featured in a magazine received their own copy and then rewrote (or retyped) it for “personal usage,” which was then passed on to friends who also copied and sent it further.

DIY production and free distribution of publications wasn’t a conscious, ideological choice. It was the only choice. The sale of these types of products was called “speculation” and was punishable by law. The same principle applied to unofficial gigs, better known as kvartirniki (small gigs in safe houses), often organized by samizdat authors.

From 1964 to 1982, a period known as the Stagnation, the government and the people more often than not ignored one another. But after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, the growing popularity of rock naturally provoked the authorities to tighten control over cultural institutions. This led to rock and the zines covering it losing their invisible-to-the-State status.

A 1987 article in Young Communist magazine explained the state of play at the time. “We did not notice how a huge subculture has emerged across the country, whose representatives have common interests, occupations and channels of information exchange. They even have informal clubs uniting all strata of young people—students, schoolchildren, workers, engineers—and specialized samizdat magazines such as Ear, Roxy and Kot have emerged, in which amateur journalists publish articles about music recordings of Western and Soviet rock bands and translations of articles from the Western music press. These magazines are copied multiple times on typewriters or by photographic capture, and copies of them are distributed throughout the country like musical recordings.” 

The problem for Young Communist (and presumably the authorities) was not so much that articles about music were circulating, but that amateurs were doing the writing. Much like the music-making itself, it was expected that all texts were to be written exclusively by professionals with the appropriate education.

The situation changed dramatically when Gorbachev took power. His politics of perestroika and glasnost, which began in 1986, resulted in a bunch of reforms, including the mitigation of cultural censorship. More freedom was given to musicians to speak about politics and even express frustration considering their everyday lives. At the same time, rock moved from kitchens in communal flats into large stadiums and—naturally—became highly politicized. 

This video shows footage from the final concert by Russian rock stars Kino at Luzhniki Stadium in 1990. Luzhniki was the largest stadium in the USSR, with an official capacity of more than 80,000.

Today, Russian rock and subsequent underground activities from this period are perceived as the main opposition to the regime and sometimes even as part of the reason that Soviet empire collapsed. What’s important to understand, though, is that by the end of the 1980s, the heroes of the first publications were the real rock stars: they appeared on TV, were interviewed by the state press, featured in documentaries, and took on starring roles in films.

The Final Say

For increasingly visible musicians and publications, the idea of creating a Russian rock was paramount. For the Soviet rockers, it was essential to build up their own cultural traits in opposition to authoritative, paternal, Western culture. Thus, the authors of samizdat built up a (still very powerful) myth about the “wordcentric” nature of local rock music. Lyrics, in short, were everything.

That myth was cemented in the 1986 manifesto Obtaining a Name, in which the term Russian rock first appeared. The text is extravagant, typical of samizdat. The roots of Russian rock music wouldn’t be found in Western popular music. Sergey Zharikov, frontman of the band DK and the author of the manifesto, claimed, incredibly, that Russian rock could instead be traced back to the church schism in the 17th century. “The tone of Russian culture is nothing more than the tension of the current truth,” he wrote. “It was the power which helped Avvakum to endure incredible trials for the Word, it was the power that nourishes the strength and provides the drive for the underground Russian spirit which today is embodied in what we call the Russian rock.” 

As larger artists and samizdat concerned themselves with such high-minded ideas, a new wave of fanzines emerged. Their concern? The demise of the “indestructible ideals of rock,” the result, in their view, of “rock selling out”—especially musicians connected to rock clubs. These new publications naturally turned to new heroes from local scenes, in addition to experimenting with form and content. The Zombie and The Morel (Smorchok) are among the most striking examples. They went to extravagant lengths to remain undetected by destroying layouts, distributing the magazine using photographic film (each frame contained one page of the zine), and deliberately using wrong issue numbers to confuse authorities. 

Other publications included fake translations from foreign magazines, as well as interviews from non-existent poets and musicians, and fabricated letters from readers, etc. (Imagine a publication about a fictional band called Pink Double-Barrels, a lesbian punk-duo, performing poems written by Sappho while being half-naked exclusively at the kvartirniki in a country “where there is no sex.”) These publications also started to obtain illegal access to printing equipment, leading to design experiments in the tradition of avant-garde artists. Any references to the government were employed ironically. (Some sample samizdat titles include Central Organ of the Independent Association of the Free Mice and Rìbào Bloody Hell.)

One of the most notable samizdat publications of this period was Counterculture (Kontrkultura). The very first issue was published with an unimaginable (for samizdat) circulation and volume: 425 copies, 170 pages each, put together by hand. The name indicated not only opposition to dominant mores, but also a clash with another publication. The title can be read as "counter the cult of UR," which was another samizdat called Urlight (Urlait). The Moscow magazine’s content ranged from gonzo reports and tremendously long interviews with musicians, to philosophical essays on the legacy of Herbert Marcuse.  

As the underground publications became more daring (and even bigger), tension followed. Throughout the history of Soviet samizdat, authors and readers strove for as much autonomy as they could grasp—independence not only from the state, but also from the social mechanisms and the field of power that the state represented. That’s why when censorship was noticeably weakened, the form of unofficial underground publications became crucial. It was the only thing that could easily distance the authors from the established and professional discourse. 

Indeed, the third—and the last—issue of Kontrkultura, for example, began with a kind of preemptive posthumous note on behalf of the collective authors. Having published a magazine of an unprecedentedly high quality and circulation (10,000 copies for this final issue), the editorial board self-liquidated.

The prospect of becoming a professional music publication was considered by the authors of samizdat not as a step forward, but as a betrayal of subcultural values. In their mind, the only way to preserve their autonomy was to stop publishing altogether. It seems somehow fitting that the closure of Kontrkultura not only coincided with the “death” of the Soviet music fanzine movement, but with the “death” of the USSR itself on December 29th, 1991.

——

All images are from Kat’s digital archive, collected from “libraries, enthusiasts and collectors, weird open sources in Runet, etc.” For those looking to dive deeper into the subject, Kat recommends this photo essay from Dazed and this book by Professor Alexey Urchak as a good starting point. And if you have any questions or just want to get in touch with Kat, reply to this email and I’ll get you connected.

I’d Love To See More Features Like This In The Future. How Can I Help?

  • Pitch me an idea!

Not a writer? No sweat. There are also three easy ways you can support the newsletter:

What sort of perks are there for ongoing supporters?

Insider Extra - An additional e-mail from me each week, usually featuring job listings, freelance calls, and more

How To Pitch Database - Access to a database with contact information and pitching info for hundreds of publications

Reading Recommendations - Access to a resource page collecting great pieces of music journalism, sourced from great music journalists

Advice - Access to a resource page devoted to collecting advice from journalists and editors on how to excel at music journalism

Interviews - Access to the hundreds of interviews that have appeared in the newsletter, with writers and editors from PitchforkRolling Stonethe Guardian, and more

The Closing Credits

Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out to me via email at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…