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Music

Rock ‘n’ roll and McDonald’s: How western culture breached Soviet Russia and whether it will survive the war

It is January 1990, the Berlin Wall fell a few months ago and western culture is already weaving its way eastward. A thin frost covers the statue of Alexander Pushkin beneath the darkened 4am sky. On this fateful morning, the gaze of the revered poet is cast on a new fixture, as a few foolhardy folks are embroiled in the excitable hubbub of queuing to be the first customers in a Russian McDonald’s. Had there been a pretentious scoffer present, then they may well have quoted the bronze sculpture towering above them: “Happiness can only be found in communal pursuits.”

The excitement of the early carb-craving revellers was testimony to this age-old Russian notion of cohesion and collectivism, but the many journalists and commentators standing slightly further afield were noting down the response to something decidedly un-Russian: The presence of western culture being accepted by a liberated mass. Times were hard for everyone in this noble old city, in fact, a Big Mac, fries and a drink was about to set most of them back half a day’s wages, but the usual grin-and-bear-it stoicism had been subsumed in the excitement of newness, and the hungry mob brandished smiles in the cold. 

Those with notepads looking on from across the road scribbled about a moment in history, a definitive image that went way beyond hungry bellies being fed. They were half right. As far as a vignette goes, this was the snapshot that you’d place on the cover, but the prelude had already been written a long time ago. In typical Soviet style, it had been written in secret and, as a result, with the upmost subversiveness. McDonald’s might have signposted western culture with a literal logo, but in truth, this incursion was more akin to a centipede taking its fingers off the many cracks already chiselled into the dam.

For some, McDonald’s was an odious sight—a comical betrayal of thousands of years of cultural traditions. In an inadvertent fashion, the Canadian McDonald’s president, George Cohon, who was present that day, would essentially highlight this when he ventured that if Pushkin was still alive and scribbling, he would write an ode to the inaugural burger flipping festivities, exclaiming, “I think he would probably write a magnificent poem saying that in this day and age it’s nice when the people can get meat, bread, potatoes and milk of the highest quality.”

It’s a quote that is befittingly incongruous. Passed down tales from the day sound like fabled fiction akin to the moment that Bob Dylan went electric amid the near Amish ideals of the Newport Folk Festival, as Russians were reportedly rushed to hospital with their faces fixed in bewilderment like a Picasso painting in turmoil as their mind’s had been bombarded by an overdose of smiles from the highly trained staff and they wondered whether the world had gone daft and become as abstract as the concept of love. 

However, as it happens, Dylan is a more pertinent touchstone to how western culture came to be in Russian than the opening day of America’s most famous greasy franchise. You see, anything that wanders into Moscow from further afield has the potential to produce pandemonium. As Mikhail Bulgakov’s truly magnificent novel, The Master and Margarita, decrees, when things are amiss in this ordered city, they can wreak untold havoc. In the premise of the book that is when the devil comes to town, but if you probe at the subtext, Satan may well be as simple as a difference of opinion.

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That, in short (to say the least), is the ultimate ethos of rock ‘n’ roll. It might have challenged the conservative bourgeoisie in Russia when it infiltrated its ranks, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that did the same in America. It was in the USA where it was originally dubbed the Devil’s music. The reason for this was two-fold. Firstly, when the great depression hit, a blues player’s open guitar case was direct competition for the same kindness of strangers that ensured church collection boxes were filled.

Secondly, if the church offered a sense of belonging and exultation from the woes of the world, then music did much the same in an alternative way. Without indoctrination, this daring music offered up a new way of life, as Pete Townshend once put it: “Rock ‘n’ roll might not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” When the hard times of the Depression took over, that dance was an appealing prospect, and the secularism of today is testimony to how many folks took the floor for a good old twist and shout. 

When McDonald’s opened and Bruce Springsteen played beyond the Iron Curtain, Russian concerns were much the same as the churches—the drummed-up devil was on the loose. However, he had been preaching there in private long before he made his presence known. If you enter the right record store over in Moscow, you will find evidence of this in something called a ‘bone record’. 

Formerly, when the Soviet Union stood tall, western music was outlawed. The USSR banned the sonic illness of western rock ‘n’ roll because it spread disgusting “capitalist and imperialist messages”. At first, the only way that those living under Soviet rule could hear the post-WWII expansion of western music was via the American propagandist radio stations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which were broadcast into the USSR from just outside the Eastern Bloc. Naturally, this was thrilling, and the magical sounds reverberated underground. 

There was a taste for rock in the air. Black market sights began to bravely pop up in the 22.4 million km2empire. The issue with vinyl, however, is that it is bulky and unmistakable. If a KGB officer caught you with a 180g 12” LP, you could hardly just tuck it up to your sleeves and makes haste unless you had a jacket like Gandalf’s. 

The solution to this was genius and, frankly, ineffably cool. Some clever folks in St Petersburg and other port towns realised that you could press the vinyl onto X-ray film, making a discreet primitive flexi-disc. And the other benefit to this bounteous practice was that it was cheaper and even more discreet to press it onto used X-ray film sheets. 

Thus, the sounds of Little Richard were etched onto sheets of cracked ribs and shattered shin bones. If that wouldn’t add an allure to the already endearingly dangerous oeuvre of western rock, then nothing would? And if you were stopped by the KGB and they searched your possessions, you simply affected a limp and said you were off to get your broken Tibia checked, and ‘Tutti Frutti’ would go unnoticed. 

And the notion of this being a cool practice must not be underplayed, as the word ‘cool’ so often is in culture by fuddy-duddies who think it means facile. In truth, we might scoff at America sometimes, but the crux of its cultural hegemony is that it is undoubtedly cool. Pushkin and Tchaikovsky might be magnifiqué, but Elvis Presley puffing on a smoke and racing some scantily clad phenom through town on the back of a Harley is always going to get the youth vote—particularly when that youth has been subjugated by stuffy conservatism. In this sense, it is the discourse of politics that has more of a bearing on the lives of the proletariat than policy.

Thereafter, it only took a spark to get this craze of an underground cult worshipping American coolness to catch ablaze. April 14th, 1978, provided cultural ignition in earnest. It was in Tbilisi, Georgia SSR, and people took to the streets. The Soviet powerhouse attempted to change the constitutional status of languages in Georgia to make Russian the official spoken tongue. They had overplayed their hand on this one, and even the threats of the brute force that the State could brandish were not enough to suppress protest en masse. 

The protestors were victorious and the constitutional change was vetoed, but the Soviet leaders had a far bigger problem on their hands. They had effectively pulled a pin on a hand grenade of dissident and mobilised youth, and they were still holding it. Almost overnight, the underground expanded and where previously the subversive force of music was used subtly and tentatively, it now transmuted into an unmistakable snarl. 

To get the youth back onside, a music festival was organised. During which the prime crop of underground acts were officially allowed to play. One such band were Aquarium. Once their raucous on-stage actions were deemed homosexual, which was illegal and persecuted in the USSR at the time, they were banned and blacklisted. However, the repercussions of an oversight that only a state power couldn’t foretell began to unfurl: Anything that is banned immediately gains profound youth appeal. Underground music was now alive and kicking, and it was here to stay.

Meanwhile, at the frontier of the Berlin wall, one man was smuggling punk through to the people of East Berlin. As Mark Reeder explained to me: “To the staunchly conservative East German Communist government, punk represented the failings of the Western Capitalist system. In their eyes, the mass unemployment, strikes and closure of UK industries had helped to create punk and punk sang the song of rebellion and the overthrow of the system.” 

However, as ever, he adds: “The thrill of breaking the rules and flaunting your appreciation of Punk music in front of authority was very Punk in its attitude. These Eastie kids religiously taped John Peel’s radio shows on their rare and coveted Cassette recorders and, in turn, they would share the tracks for others to copy.”

They needed more, and he was steadfast in trying to give it to them. Through happenstance, he learnt that the authorities would never stake out funerals. Thus, he smuggled amps and guitars over in caskets and punks in funeral attire rocked out in churches with the blessing of priests pissed off with the same system. Throughout the whole soviet union, pop culture was proving too much of a force to supress. It was the best weapon that the west had ever produced because it was accepted by the people as a gift to celebrate rather than a force to reckon with.

Mark Reeder in East Berlin. (Credit: Press)

By the 1980s, rock music had made it to Moscow. Soon Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and more would all play there in front of fans who were enamoured and, if anything, were less baffled and blown away than they were by McDonald’s because rock had been there in secret all along anyway. They knew the words and they knew the score, and Mikhail Gorbachev knew that too. When he took charge in 1985, his only option was to go to war with the kids or to open Russia up to a new age. He chose the latter, and the west blew its way over until the wall came down and it could finally plant the flag of McDonald’s on its new frontier. 

However, unrest rules the roost once more and unlike Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin has been willing to go to war with the youth over any subversiveness shown in the face of his despicable Ukrainian invasion. And in May of this year, after 32 years, McDonald’s pulled out of Russia. Where does this leave its spiritual ally rock ‘n’ roll?

Well, it has always been more foolhardy than fast-food and has existed there as more of a valourous essence than anything tangibly conquerable. However, many of the dissident voices of rock ‘n’ roll have left. Recently, Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina fled her spied-upon Moscow flat by disguising herself as a takeaway delivery driver after being told she would face 21 days in a penal colony for “extremist propaganda”. Now, holed up safely in Vilnius, Lithuania, she commented: “I still don’t understand completely what I’ve done. A lot of magic happened last week. It sounds like a spy novel.”

(Credit: Pussy Riot)

However, many of the young musicians still in Russia have been scared into silence by tales of treatments that dissidents have received. Thus, the artists we contacted were unable to give comment even via a western VPN to enable communication because of fears over the fervent crackdown on anything considered subversive over there at present. Just this week, artist Yulia Tsvetkova has been acquitted in court in regards to alleged pornography charges where she faced a possible six years in prison if the sentence was passed. 

While her lawyer has stated that he is certain an appeal will be forthcoming, this tale, if anything, proves that art is still present there. And as Alan Erasmus, the Factory Records founder providing humanitarian aid on the ground in Ukraine, informed me when we spoke: “War creates a different vision. I think there will be some interesting visions that will come out of this. If you want to create something different you have to go somewhere you haven’t been before, and we certainly haven’t been in times like these.”

Continuing: “I would think it would release different avenues of creativity because they will be going somewhere they haven’t been before.” And as his friend Mark Reeder, who helped to ensure rock reached Russia in the first place, added, “After all, music is the only thing that really brings us together.” That notion is still present amid the war. The might of Putin can’t wrestle a lid onto something as free form as an amoeba and doggedly spiritual as a holy cockroach without its head.

The dissident voices may have been forced into a degree of silence for now, but they are not gone. Thus, so long as peace returns, rock ‘n’ roll will never perish in Russia. And when there finally and thankfully is an acquiescence from the currency of power to the virtue of peace, new forms will of creativity will arise from the rubble of a wrecked culture. And the ripples will already begin to quietly reverberate with every court case won and every new artwork produce, it just takes a while to get organised and cohesive, but a collective resolve will ensure that it isn’t extinguished. That is the unifying power of music. As Pushkin said all along, “Happiness can only be found in communal pursuits.” At the moment, you have one man against millions, and in culture, that can’t last long. 

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