stories

They say Russia's crackdown on hip hop concerts today is like something from the USSR. Is that true? Meduza speaks to two Soviet rock musicians about KGB blacklists

Meduza
The rock group “Bravo” at a concert in Moscow on October 15, 1988
The rock group “Bravo” at a concert in Moscow on October 15, 1988
Vladimir Yatsin / TASS

“I used to love 80s rock, and I’m having constant deja vu from what’s happening now. It’s all come full circle: again it’s executive committees and bans… It’s a lot like the 70s and 80s,” Miron Fyodorov (better known as the rapper “Oxxxymiron”) said on November 26 from the stage at “Glavclub” during a concert in support of Dmitry Kuznetsov, the rapper “Husky,” who spent several days behind bars in Krasnodar, where he defied police and performed for fans atop a parked car. Fyodorov was channeling the frustration felt by many Russian fans of rap and hip hop, among whom it’s become increasingly common to compare today’s banned and disrupted concerts to the crackdown in the early 1980s on underground Soviet rock music. For example, the Federal Security Service’s alleged “blacklist” of contemporary musicians recalls similar lists drawn up by the Soviet police. To find out how close today’s environment really comes to the music scene 35 years ago, Meduza spoke to two musicians whose concerts were broken up by the police in the early 1980s.

Vasily Shumov

“Center” frontman

In my opinion, the main difference between the USSR in the early 1980s and today is that concerts back then were completely underground. There was no promoting, they didn’t sell tickets at any box office, and there was no information at all. And to shut down a concert like that — let’s say, by sending a police bus with officers to arrest all the musicians and people in the audience — the police had to stage a whole, drawn-out operation. And the only charge they could bring was for selling tickets, because private enterprise was illegal. Today, all concerts are advertised and announced officially, and that’s a huge difference.

Back then, you put on concerts at your own risk. You never knew if they’d arrest you or not. Everything was always in jeopardy. But at the same time, you had to be a complete idiot to organize a concert that failed to come together. There was a whole system. Usually everything happened on some kind of holiday, and there were plenty in the USSR: March 8, May 1, New Year’s… This way, nobody really understood what was going on. For a long time, even the secret police didn’t really get involved, because they were busy catching, I dunno, speculators. The underground managers were some cunning people, and they were very smart about how they organized everything.

Also, for bands like “Center,” selling tickets and making money wasn’t the main reason to put on concerts. We wanted to perform, and young people wanted to come listen. We needed some funds, of course, at least to get to the venue (back then, everyone had their own equipment that they needed to bring with them). But the rest of it… Eventually, even in the blacklist era, Center was able to perform on New Year’s at the SEV — the Mutual Economic Assistance Council. First they had the official program (with magicians and circus acts and comedians), and then the underground bands performed. Once, Center even played at the Foreign Ministry building in Smolensk. As I understand it, there was a lecture about the evil influence of Western rock music on the minds of young people, right before we went on stage. And then we performed for the same audience!

I personally attended the concert [on March 18, 1984] where the band “Bravo” was arrested. I think it was in [Moscow’s] Beskudnikovsky [district], at some totally remote, Stalin-era rec center. I think it was on a weekend and the concert was during the day, at around two or three. Some other musicians and I went there — everybody would go to each other’s concerts. We got there and the concert hall was packed. Since we already knew all the band’s songs, the guys and I hung out at the coat check, just talking and drinking. And then a bunch of uniformed cops run right by us, and that was it. The concert was shut down, and they started grabbing everyone in the room, and loading them onto police buses to take them somewhere for questioning.

The officers decided that we’d organized the concert because we weren’t in the main hall. This was their reasoning: some guys were hanging out at the coat check, and so they must be the organizers. They started writing up a police report against us right there, but we didn’t have anything to add to the report. We were passing by, we saw that there was a concert, we went inside, and the main hall was full, so we took a seat in the coat room and listened through the wall. And that was it. So they took our statements, and it was clear that there was no reason to charge us. We didn’t even have tickets!

The main problem was that underground bands were outside their control. They weren’t registered anywhere. There was a huge number of Soviet vocal and instrumental ensembles who played at sports arenas, put out records, and performed on television. They were all complete sycophants, going through arts councils and getting the censor’s approval for their sets. And they were registered with some state organization. Basically, these people were your conformist-opportunists. Underground bands, on the other hand, were lively and uncensored. And the fact that they were writing and playing their own music was a problem for the system. As I understand it, this is precisely why they later created the rock clubs and rock laboratories — so the whole thing would be at least a little organized, and so they could monitor it.

Vasily Shumov and Center perform the song “Forever” on Soviet television, 1989
Sovetskoe televidenie. GOSTERLERADIOFOND Rossii

Evgeny Khavtan

“Bravo” frontman

They didn’t ban us from doing anything — they just arrested us at the concerts. First they took us to the local precinct, then they transferred us downtown, and the rest was according to procedure. Also, unlike what’s happening today, they also arrested the audience members, who were more confused than anybody about why they were taken.

There was one charge that was absolutely justified, but they couldn’t prove it: the ban on “private enterprise.” You could get between two and five years for that. It was illegal then for musicians to sell tickets to concerts, and the Department Against the Misappropriation of Socialist Property monitored this. It was especially silly in our case: we never actually got any money — all we wanted was the chance to perform. And there weren’t that many concerts. The important thing was just that we were playing somewhere. We’d only played three or maybe five concerts before they arrested us — even then they were already watching us closely.

Other charges were handled at Lubyanka, that is, it turns out, by the KGB. Back then, if you wanted to perform, you had to get the censor’s approval for your lyrics. You went down to the local All-Union Leninist Young Communist League’s regional committee for a stamp on the lyrics you were singing. In our case, the lyrics were completely harmless. So the investigators asked us questions about our song lyrics like “Why are cats unlike people and couldn’t care less about different pieces of paper?” and “Why are you driving by a Chaika?” (The Chaika was a government car.) Really what was happening was they couldn’t justify their own suspicions. They wanted to hear our explanations, but we couldn’t explain, either. We just sang the lyrics and that was it. There was no politics because the band Bravo never sang about politics or social issues. We just weren’t about that. By and large, I think they simply disliked their lack of control over what was happening, and the fact that we were doing something they believed was provocative.

After a while, this blacklist appeared and started circulating among the police agencies. “Aquarium,” “Alisa,”“Alliance,” “Bravo” — it was pretty indiscriminate. As a result, we had a bunch of problems: they kicked me out of college, Zhanna got into big trouble [police found Zhanna Aguzarova, the band’s vocalist, to be in possession of a second passport registered under another name, and she spent more than 18 months in prison, at a psychiatric clinic, and in exile], and some other guys had issues, too. The methods they used against us were quite sophisticated. Thanks to these lists, concerts were totally impossible, because any rec center director also had copies. We couldn’t even find a place to practice! We had to meet at the VDNKh amusement park and practice in some fire safety booth and other weird places. Then Perestroika began and everything changed in an instant. Suddenly everything was possible.

The band “Bravo” performs on the TV show “Musical Ring” in 1986, with Zhanna Aguzarova singing
Bravo

What’s happening now is somewhat similar to those times, but it’s also different. The guys having problems today are still isolated cases. There are others who swear on stage, but nobody goes after them. Generally, the way officials are going about things now is pretty stupid. The people banning these concerts don’t understand youth culture very well, just like they didn’t get foreign rock n roll before. And their approach is hamfisted. Right now they’re failing to get a handle on what’s happening, but there are some serious people involved in all this, and I think they’ll figure it out. They see that these guys have 300,000 or 1 million followers on social media, and these are very active young people and they're an unpredictable audience. So I think the next direction they’ll turn with this work is social media and the Internet.

I really like the benefit they did [in support of Husky], and I think it made history, but it’s probably the first and last event of its kind. That’s the sense I get, as someone who's been around longer than these guys, and as someone with a bit more experience.

Throughout 2018, officials in cities across Russia have pressured concert halls and dance clubs into canceling planned performances by popular musicians. Meduza counts at least of these 23 incidents since February, more than half of which took place this month. See our chart (in Russian) here.

Interviews by Alexander Gorbachev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock