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30 Years since Moscow’s Monsters of Rock Remembering Russia’s biggest-ever rock festival, featuring Metallica’s all-time greatest performance and miraculously zero fatalities

Source: Meduza
Massimo Alabresi / AP / Scanpix / LETA

On September 28, 1991, the Tushino Airfield in Moscow hosted the Monsters of Rock international music festival. AC/DC, Metallica, the Black Crowes, and Pantera all performed, while the metal band Electro Shock Therapy represented the Soviet Union. The event attracted a crowd of more than 500,000 people, making it the largest rock concert in the history of both the USSR and the Russian Federation. There were also violent clashes between the public, the police, and even the military, which was summoned from neighboring areas to maintain order. Journalist Alexander Morsin gathered accounts from the festival’s organizers and headliners and tracked down what was written abroad about the event in its glorious aftermath.

In September 1991, Moscow music fans were preparing for the most improbable concert of their lives: The Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, the Eurythmics, and Peter Gabriel among other world-class musicians would soon perform in the capital (Moskovsky Komsomolets and Kommersant listed 11 artists). And they were set to play at the same event: an “international freedom festival” to celebrate democracy’s recent victory over the State Committee on the State of Emergency in the failed August Putsch. 

One of the first musicians to speak out in support of the “defenders of the Russian White House” was Rolling Stones vocalist Mick Jagger. The Daily News quoted a letter from Jagger where he wrote, “We’re rooting for you!” in a column titled “Mick and Boris: What a Team!” referring to future Russian President Boris Yeltsin (then the leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic). 

Soviet music critic Artemy Troitsky (who had already published several books in the West at the time) received a letter from Jagger “celebrating Boris Yeltsin’s impressive triumph.” During the coup attempt, Troitsky was the one most often in touch with foreign celebrities, and he negotiated their travel to Moscow. After the crisis, Troitsky reportedly said, “Mick’s support means more to young Soviet people than any politician’s pledge.”  

By mid-September, however, the list of confirmed headliners for the festival was significantly reduced, and the event itself was postponed by at least a week. Several days later, plans for a massive rock concert at either Luzhniki Stadium or Manezhnaya Square collapsed entirely when organizers couldn’t finalize agreements with any of the performers who’d been announced.  

A large-scale concert nevertheless took place, albeit somewhere else with a completely different lineup. 

Ties to the government and actor Yuri Nikulin

In parallel with Troitsky, BIZ Enterprises director Boris Zosimov and his business partner Eduard Ratnikov were working on their own rock festival. 

This was their second joint musical project on the heels of the Putsch. In late August 1991, they organized a large televised concert with performances from A-Studio and Moral Code X among others. Now Time Warner was asking them to plan a Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow. 

Slade guitarist Dave Hill at Monsters of Rock in the UK on August 22, 1981
Michael Putland / Getty Images

Monsters of Rock was held in England and in other countries between 1980 and 2016. The overwhelming majority of performers always played hard rock, heavy metal, or thrash. In 1991, Monsters went on tour around Europe with a group of headliners. That year, the 12th and final show was set to take place in Moscow.

By Ratnikov’s account, it was Tristan Dale (an American diplomat and businessman acquainted with both Yeltsin and Time Warner management) who reached out to him. Dale offered Zosimov the chance to spearhead the project in Russia. “Time Warner wanted to give freedom- and democracy-deprived Soviet youth the concert as a gift,” explained Ratnikov. “They wanted to shoot a film about it and then release it through its own channels.” Zosimov agreed. A few days later, production manager Jake Berry (who had coordinated some of Madonna’s and U2’s best-known shows of the time) was on a plane to Moscow.

To confirm the format and, more importantly, the venue, Zosimov needed to meet with Moscow Deputy Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Film star and Tsvetnoy Boulevard circus director Yuri Nikulin helped set up this meeting. Zosimov later recalled in an interview, “Everyone made fun of me and said, ‘Maybe 100 people will come to see your rockers.’ I spoke with Yuri [Nikulin], knowing that he had a good relationship with Luzhkov, and brought him to the meeting. Nikulin spoke out, saying, ‘Let young people have some fun.’ Luzhkov told me, ‘Boris, I guarantee that no more than 200 people will show up.’ And I answered, ‘I guarantee that more than 100,000 people will be there!’”

They chose Tushino Airfield as their venue. Its size and convenient location suited the organizers’ needs, but it didn’t have even the most basic infrastructure necessary for a major music festival. This time, Zosimov asked the government for help. “All of the decisions were made at the top,” said Ratnikov. “Zosimov gave me a magic slip of paper from the White House on Prime Minister Ivan Silayev’s letterhead, demanding full cooperation with the document’s bearer in all things.” The document allowed him “to solve all sorts of problems” — even securing lightning-fast approval of 300 entry visas for musicians, managers, and technicians.  

A Time Warner accountant and the site coordinator for the festival came to Moscow to supervise the construction of the stage, which rose nine stories. Boris Zosimov brokered the passage of 24 truckloads of lighting and sound equipment through Belarus without any customs documents. “I should admit that most of the work was really done by Americans,” noted Ratnikov. “They brought in a ton of equipment and used the marines to build everything; they were working days and nights without sleeping.” 

In Europe, organizing the festival usually took about six months; this time it was organized in three weeks. 

Police batons and helicopters

Entry to Monsters of Rock was free. Alcohol was not sold on the premises, but it was permitted, and no one was checking bags. Reports from the concert included numerous accounts of three-liter glass containers, glass bottles, and plastic canisters full of beer. 

“Lots of people were drunk. They were just lying there dead to the world for the whole concert; believe me, a real metalhead wouldn’t have let himself get that drunk on such an important day and slept through his favorite band’s show,” argued the magazine Estrada & Tsirk.

According to the Moscow City Police Department, the size of the crowd at Tushino reached 300,000 people by noon and soared to nearly half a million by the evening. Organizers estimated that the festival actually drew an audience of more than 700,000 people. To oversee the event, there were 11,000 soldiers, police officers, hired security guards, and riot police.    

The first band to play was the American metal band Pantera, performing what by Soviet standards was an extremely aggressive set and immediately setting the concert’s tone. Toward the end of their set, fights broke out at the edges of the floor. The police tried to disperse the crowd and drive attendees away from the barricades.

“It wasn’t just police there; there were Interior Ministry internal troops — conscripts. They were given clubs and they decided that they had to use them. It was a nightmare!” recalled BIZ Enterprises VP Sergey Chistoprudov. “Soldiers and young concertgoers were just hitting each other.”

Riot police arrest a Monsters of Rock concertgoer
AP / Scanpix / LETA

In the documentary “For Those About to Rock: Monsters in Moscow,” released a year after the festival, Pantera’s 30-minute set is half fights, jostling crowds, and clashes between leather-jacket-clad youths and men in uniform. 

To avoid injuries and deaths, producers from Time Warner were prepared to take extreme measures and even stop the show. “The situation is out of control. If you want to see the other groups perform, calm down!” Boris Zosimov implored the audience, asking that they “cease all disturbances.”  

“In any case, by four or five o’clock, music wasn’t the issue. Violence was,” wrote Troitsky in an article for Rolling Stone. “I saw no less than a dozen bleeding people, a couple of policemen among them. I saw police cruelly beating up kids, with or without a reason. I saw a rain of empty glass bottles thrown at police lines from the audience. I saw soldiers kicking a guy, lying on the ground, with their monstrous boots.” 

“What does police and military presence look like at a large rock concert and demonstration in the Soviet Union? These are structures created to take repressive measures, to suppress,” reasoned Eduard Ratnikov. “They didn’t supply security or help people, they had only one aim: oppression and retribution.” 

The Black Crowes, an American blues-rock group, initially defused the tense situation and then the Moscow-based anarcho-metal group Electro Shock Therapy sang the first Russian songs of the evening.

Electro Shock Therapy concert
Scanpix / LETA
Festival attendees
AP / Scanpix / LETA
AC/DC’s set from Monsters of Rock
Alexander Nemenov / TASS

By the time Metallica took the stage, the clashes had mostly petered out: No one wanted to miss the main act, not the punks or the police (who, it turns out, were also big fans).

Metallica vocalist James Hetfield talked later about how he saw “people throwing, hitting people from the helicopter.” He also witnessed a memorable scene at the front of the audience: “Down at the front there, there were guys in uniforms, it was police, military, same thing, you know. So they’re standing there in their uniforms, and after like three or four songs, they’re like, ‘Fuck this!’ And they took off their stuff, and they’re out there headbanging and having a good time.”

According to Moscow City Police records, 51 individuals were hospitalized during the festival, 49 were detained for disturbing the peace, and about 100 were sent to the drunk tank. Exact figures on the total number of injuries at the concert are not available. 

Metallica - Live in Moscow (1991)
metfan4l

That day, Metallica gave one of its best performances ever, according to the band’s own members. They played songs from their recently released self-titled album Metallica that would later become their best-selling record.

The closing act was AC/DC. They played a stellar two-hour set complete with fireworks, gigantic half-naked blow-up dolls, and their legendary Hells Bell. Musicians from both bands have told stories about how they later got phone calls from Boris Yeltsin inviting them back to Moscow. 

AC/DC - LIVE Moscow, Russia, September 28, 1991
AC/DC Portugal

“No one was killed, and about 500,000 people had what they may call fun,” Artemy Troitsky summed up in Rolling Stone. 

Eduard Ratnikov estimates that Time Warner earned more than $80 million selling the broadcast and distribution rights to “For Those About to Rock,” a documentary film about a free concert for “the young people who defied the tanks” to prevent the 1991 Soviet coup d’état. 

Valery Igumenov

Meduza editor who attended Moscow’s September 1991 Monsters of Rock festival

All of the organizers’ efforts were probably focused on making the concert itself possible, bringing in the bands, and building the stage. Because on the ground nothing was set up: no checks, no barriers, no metal detectors (although before the terrorist attacks, there were never any metal detectors). You just arrived at the venue, walked across the airfield, and got as close to the stage as you could. There were actually a couple of barriers up by the stage. And, of course, there weren’t any toilets, but why worry about a little thing like that?

There were some drunks, but I wouldn’t say there were a lot. In general, people were showing up in a good mood, a little amped up. Up until the last minute, a lot of people couldn’t believe that Metallica was really going to be there (nowadays nothing surprises people, but back then it was a first). It just seemed impossible; it must have been a trick, and they’d tell us in the end that they couldn’t come.

By the time the concert started, there were a lot of people. As far as the eye could see. And a lot of them decided to squeeze closer to the stage. At some point, it turned into a terrifying crush of bodies. People were getting shoved into one another, people were screaming and trying to get out, but it was no use. I remember thinking, “The most important thing is not to fall. You won’t be able to get up. You’ll get trampled.” I remembered Khodynka [when 1,282 people were crushed to death during the festivities after the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II]. It’s a miracle no one died, a real miracle. And I was farther away from the stage, maybe 50 meters [55 yards] off. The worst of it was up in the front.

That’s why the police got so flustered and tried to disperse the crowd, but how could they do it? People would have been happy to spread out, but they couldn’t. People were still pushing in the back. That’s why they came in with batons — it wasn’t out of anger at first; it was desperation. They tried getting into the middle of the crowd to break it up, gathering groups of 20-30 soldiers and policemen to wedge in, hitting people with clubs. People gradually spread out more, but in response, they started throwing bottles (there were a lot of them rolling around on the floor) and tried to hit back or at least get in some kicking. We were yelling at them, and they were yelling at us. The situation got tenser and tenser. It was mutual animosity.

When Metallica came on, the crowd made one last push toward the stage, and the batons came back out. But later on, things gradually calmed down somehow. Metallica was amazing, the sound was fantastic, they played all their greatest hits, and everyone was singing along and jumping with their hand-horns in the air. It was concentrated joy. When AC/DC started to play, I left, because it couldn’t get any better than that. I didn’t need anything more. It was one of the best, if not the best concert of my life.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Alexander Morsin

Translation by Elizabeth Tolley

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