‘For whatever reason in the cosmos, I’m connected to Russia again.’ Joanna Stingray brought Soviet rock to the West. We asked her about her old friends and her new book.
Joanna Stingray’s new book Stingray in Wonderland was recently released by the Russian publisher AST Nonfiction. Stingray is a highly significant figure in the history and culture of Soviet rock: she smuggled unofficial recordings of Soviet rock bands out of the USSR and introduced Americans to Russian underground culture. Then, she came back to her musician friends in Leningrad, bringing equipment and instruments along with her. In 1986, Stingray released the record Red Wave in the United States. It included recordings of Kino, Akvarium, Alisa, Strannye Igri, and other legendary bands, and its release essentially enabled the West to discover Soviet rock. Stingray spoke with Meduza about her new book.
In the book, you call the Soviet Union a “wonderland.” What kind of country do you think contemporary Russia is now?
Russia now, it’s like America. You know, the world now is completely connected. What was so interesting back then is that there was no Internet, so you didn’t know a lot about other countries. You heard a little bit. So when you went, it was something new. Now, every store here, it’s the same store there is in Paris, and it’s the same store there is in Los Angeles. It’s one world now. We might have different governments, but it’s less interesting because everything’s the same, you know? So it’s not wonderland anymore.
In your book, you argue that there’s no difference between people on different sides of the ocean. There’s a touching moment when your parents, both wealthy Americans, travel to meet the parents of your future husband Yury Kasparyan on the outskirts of Leningrad. And it becomes clear that Soviet parents and American parents are actually quite similar.
In any city, in any country, there are moms who get frustrated at their kids when they don’t listen and they choose their own path. That’s all true. We all see the world the same way, we have the same problems. We have the same worries about our families. Politics is just something different. And people in politics survive from conflict, survive from power. Ordinary people have a lot more in common than some like to think. We’re all just people and we all want a happy life, we all want to be healthy, we want our kids to be healthy, we want our kids to be educated, we all want the same thing. You know?
I remember how I was in Disneyland around then and I asked some ordinary little American boys what they think about Russia. And they didn’t even have to think about it. They said, “It’s evil, we should burn it down.” And then in 1984, I started going to American schools and putting on video clips of Soviet rock groups. It was a shock for everyone that young people in scary, far-away Russia were the same as in America.
Listen, you can spend hours talking about different forms of government, communism, socialism, capitalism. But the country is the people, and there’s good and bad under everything. You know, capitalism’s not perfect, there’s a lot of bad things. And you know Russians used to say to me, “We want to be like Americans.” And I would say, “Most Americans have a mortgage, a 30-year mortgage on their house that they have to pay every month, and if you don’t pay, they’ll take your house.” So in essence, that’s like being in handcuffs. You’re jailed to this mortgage.
To me, everything in the world is a balance. When you have one thing easy, something else will be hard. So under communism, because life was so hard in Russia, the way Russians treated their neighbors — see, in America, you could never do what I used to do with my friends in Russia. We’d wake up. What do you want to do? Let’s go see if so-and-so’s home. We would not call because nobody had phones; we would knock on the door, and they would tell us, “Come in!” Our friend’s wives would make food, whatever they had. Americans don’t do that. You have to have an invitation, you have to make a plan, you don’t just show up at somebody’s door. So in some ways, this bond Russian people had with their neighbors and people on the street because they had life so hard, I thought it was wonderful.
Has that aspect of Russian rocker life changed at all?
Now, all my friends have their own apartments. And they have cars, and they know how to drive, and they have money, and they can eat at restaurants. It’s insane! Back then, I was all consumed in the moment of trying to get their music for Americans to see. And again, I didn’t know then — I wish I did — but I didn’t know then how legendary that time would be.
When I started writing the book, I was shocked at how carefree I was, how much I missed. I would have just loved to have taken more videos, more photos to capture it. Some people knew what was going on even back then, of course: Alex Kan, Sasha Lipnitsky, they were much more intelligent at that point than I was. You know, Africa probably knew. That’s why he saved the art. But the rest of us did not know. We were just going with the flow, and we were very happy.
What was there in common between a wealthy American girl and a bunch of Soviet underground rockers? Why did they bring you into their circle?
Nothing! I never understood. Especially Kurekhin. You know, Kurekhin was such a genius. He had no tolerance for people that didn’t have talent. And I really didn’t have talent, and I don’t know why time and again, he would bring me up and make me part of the concerts as if he thought I was something special. I really was not that special. So I don’t know.
I think what attracted many of them, including Kurekhin, was that I had this energy. Because Sergey, of course, his brain never stopped, and I think he just thought I was magnetic, that when I wanted to do something, I could do it. I think many of them were totally baffled that I would leave Russia saying, “I’m gonna go record these songs” or “I’m gonna go get you this keyboard,” and I would come back with it. I think time and again, I would surprise them. You know, during the first meeting I had with Boris Grebenshikov, I said, “I’m gonna come back and bring stuff,” and he was laughing because many people from Europe, anybody who met Boris, said they would come back, and nobody came back. So as a joke, they said, well, get me a red Fender Stratocaster like Bowie’s, get me some picks. And their faces when I came back told the whole story. They could not believe I came back. And not only did I come back, I never stopped. I kept coming back and coming back and coming back. So I think they were awed by my strength and my perseverance. But believe me, the whole time, they’re all these magical people, and I kept thinking, “Why are they letting me be around them?” I couldn’t get it!
The biggest thing was that when I was here, I was part of the scene, I was part of the whole life. But there was always this line because I could leave and go back to the West, where I could order food, I had a car, I had a nice house. So that was always strange to me, that I was part of them, but when I would leave, their life would go on. It’s like when my visa was declined. The worst part of the six months I couldn’t get in was that I knew their life went on because Russia has always had hardship, so it never stopped them. My life, when my visa declined, stopped. I couldn’t leave the house. I was crying. I was screaming at my mother, who was trying to help me and tell me I should find work. But it was heart-wrenching to know there were still concerts, they were still doing interviews, the entire West was interested in them because Red Wave came out, and I wasn’t part of it. And it was torture for me, it was horrible.
Kurekhin once said in an interview, “Joanna told us we would all become millionaires!” Why did you believe that?
I don’t remember saying that to Sergey. But Sergey did not speak any English. I didn’t speak any Russian. Most of our communication with Sergey was just making noises. I never knew what the heck he was saying.
But I’m sure that I said, “You’re as talented as any Western musician. You should be making lots of money like Western musicians.” Maybe I said something like that. But listen, it’s the same thing that all these Russians the whole time were saying that my father’s a millionaire, my father’s a millionaire, and it’s my stepfather, not my father. My father did not have money. So people like to come up with things.
After the album Red Wave came out on vinyl in 1986, the Soviet rock bands that were on it started feeling pressure from the KGB. In the book, you write openly about the fact that some of your close friends signed an official letter saying they didn’t give you permission to put out that record, shifting all the responsibility onto you.
Listen, many of the KGB, there was no secret, loved these bands. But still, it was illegal, it embarrassed the Russians that I put it out and they didn’t, so they had to do something. That’s why they asked the bands to sign the paper. But it’s part of this game. The FBI is exactly the same way. All of it is a game. And they said, “We need you to tell us that you did this illegally, the bands didn’t know.” Even when the musicians signed the paper saying they didn’t give me their music, they KGB knew they gave me the music. They even knew that the musicians knew that they knew.
From the beginning, I told all the bands, “If anything happens, throw me under the bus. I’m American, I have an American passport. Do not risk you or your family or anything that’s happening.” I know that the letter caused some divisions and that some of my friends were upset that my other friends signed it. I wasn’t that upset because I told them to do that. You can’t tell somebody to do something and then get mad when they do it. People don’t see the whole picture. There was lots of stuff going on that people didn’t know. The world is changing, Russia was changing. Gorbachev was here. And when the album came out, over time, the pressure decreased. They could make their music the way they wanted, and that’s what they dreamed about their whole lives.
You’re being optimistic and saying that nothing could happen to you, but you risked a lot. You smuggled your friends’ recordings out of the USSR in the heels of your boots, and you smuggled in equipment. The way the Red Wave record got into the USSR is really almost a spy novel. Did you ever feel hurt? Was there a sense of ingratitude?
Never. Never. They loved everything I ever brought them. And you know, human beings feel the best when they can make somebody else happy. And I hit the jackpot because I could go buy punk bracelets for one or two dollars, I could buy markers, I could buy paint, and for them, I was Santa Claus. Listen, this is what people say when people do charity work. People who go to hospitals and work with sick kids every day are the happiest people in the world. Because we as humans, that’s what makes us happy. I got to do that. I got to make all these people happy. I couldn’t get enough of what they wanted. I kept saying, “What else do you want? What do you want next year?” I even have this note from Viktor Tsoi that is so funny: he was saying he was sorry he missed me on this trip, and on the back, the note said, “But can you get me some white go-go boots?” It’s like the craziest thing ever!
And you don’t think that they used you?
No. No. I got so much more from them than they ever got from me. How they thanked me is they all gave me their art. So believe me, I got more in this bargain than they ever got.
Your book turned out to be very open: there’s sex, betrayal, love… Is there anything you intentionally did not write about?
I’m still deciding, in the second book, whether to talk about whether some of my friends were gay or not gay. In Russia, that’s still a very taboo thing.
Generally, though, I’m pretty open. In fact, when I made my website with all the Russian photos, my friends in America kept saying to me, “You’re so stupid! Don’t put up all the photos when you can sell them later.” But that’s not me. When I feel like doing something — say, making a website and putting on photos so Russians can see them — I put on every photo I had. It just so happens now that I found some slides I never copied. But I don’t usually hold back on things. Again, are there some intimate moments here or there that maybe I would never write about? Maybe. But not many, not many.
What are you living on nowadays — what are you working on? What are your dreams now?
I’m married, I have a very nice house, and I have a good, calm life because I’m really a homebody. I don’t like to go to parties. I don’t drink. I do work to make money in the States, but I’m very satisfied in my life, and somehow, writing this book a year ago brought back this fire in me, this sense of purpose. Red Wave was a mission. It gave me meaning in life that I had to put this record out. And to me, this book became this new purpose.
So now I’m just trying to finish the second book because we’re trying to get it out by September. And then I’m so excited for the third book because I thought I put every photo I had on my website, but I had some slides and stuff transposed not long ago, and there’s photos that aren’t on the website, really cool photos that aren’t posed. There’s this photo of Yury [Kasparyan] and Kinchev facing each other, the two of them looking at each other. I don’t even remember them ever being together, so I can’t wait to share that. And I really can’t wait to share the full interviews I did with everybody. I never transcribed the interviews, ever. I’ve only seen these interviews this year. Thirty-five years after. And now, in perspective, to hear what the fans were saying, what Boris said, what Vitya said — these interviews are so insightful.
What’s in these books feels like the culmination of the most important parts of my life. So this cyclical thing where all of a sudden my life is all about Russia when for the last 20 years it wasn’t, it’s crazy. Again, everything in my life just happened. I never planned to come to Russia, I never planned to meet musicians, I never planned to take their music out. I never planned it; it happened. And for whatever reason in the cosmos, this is my time that I’m connected to Russia again.
When you were working through these memories, these histories, what did you learn about yourself and about that time?
When I was working on the book, I found out that after Red Wave came out, someone put the record in front of Gorbachev, and Gorbachev looked at it, and Gorbachev said, “If these bands can be put out in the West, why can’t they be put out here?” And for some reason, it was the first time ever that I actually felt that I did something important. That was really when Russian rock started getting out of the underground, getting recorded, and these musicians started going on tour and even performing abroad. There have been articles in the past saying things like, “She helped bring down the Iron Curtain!” They said it, but I never felt it. And when that was made concrete to me, I thought, “Wow! I contributed to doing something important in the world.”
English version prepared by Hilah Kohen