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The Leningrad Rock Club: The birth of Russian rock and roll

The Leningrad Rock Club remains one of the most important but least talked about scenes in music history. It was the place where Russian alternative culture was truly born. The club itself started in the most paradoxical of ways, but across its ten-year life, it would help to spread the message of rock music across the Soviet Union, and in some ways, help to hasten the end of Communist political hegemony in Russia. 

In the West, since the 1950s, with figures such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley leading the way, rock and roll was about anti-establishment thought, rebellion against oppression, and the sanctity of free will. The influence of acts such as the aforementioned, as well as films like Rebel Without a Cause and books such as The Catcher in the Rye, had helped the younger generation to cast off the shackles of the past and move into a more hopeful future. 

After the 1950s, rock then took off, and in the ’60s, with groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to name but a few, it became the cultural behemoth that we know today. Afterwards, the genre developed into numerous different offshoots, including metal and punk. Whilst the socio-political situation of the West in the ’70s wasn’t great, with the future looking bleak, the younger generation in Russia also had their own problems.

Unlike their western counterparts, their future was already mapped out for them by the communist party. This, in addition to being drip-fed snippets of rock and roll and Western culture, created a feeling of agitation amongst the younger generation, wanting self-determination and creative freedom more than anything. Nowhere else was this feeling felt more strongly than in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Close to the Westernised country of Finland, this was a place where rock and roll was more easily accessible than places such as Moscow or Rostov.

Eventually, rock and roll had spread across the city, and the authorities knew they had to do something to stem the tide; otherwise, they were to risk everything, including what they held dearest, power. In 1990, General Oleg Kalugin of the KGB’s Leningrad division recalled: “A rock club was organised in Leningrad on the KGB’s initiative. It’s single purpose: to keep that movement under control, make it manageable.” 

Although Kalugin’s assertion was a great overstatement, one thing was clear. The Leningrad Rock Club was overseen by the Soviet State and it was under constant surveillance. This was rock and roll, but watered down. Think of a school disco when you were a child; you could have fun, but under the ever-watchful eye of the teachers. There was one huge difference though, our teachers were never going to send us to prison for dissent. 

Attempts to create rock clubs had been made since as early as 1973, but they always failed in the face of authoritarianism and the backwards attitudes of older citizens. Under the direction of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, though, The Leningrad Rock Club was opened in 1981 on Rubinstein Street in the city centre. The kids could have rock and roll, but it had to be contained. 

Watched by the KGB, it became the first legal rock music venue in Leningrad. The Rock Club was also a scene, and it became the largest in the Soviet Union, and here Russian rock blossomed. Significantly, many of the bands who participated in the scene are still some of the most lauded in Russia. 

Although the club was under surveillance, most musicians and audiences accepted this, as this was the most fun they’d ever had. Before, the thought of performing on stage was less than a pipe dream, as was the thought of watching Russians perform rock and roll. Mikhail Feinshtein Vasil’ev, the bassist of legendary Russian post-punks, Kino, said in 2002: “We decided that instead of being jailed or being hit by a car or being killed or put away, we’d rather join that very same so-called Rock Club, and we recieved a stamp that gave the right to perform these songs.” 

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The Leningrad Rock Club was intended to be organised in a similar way to the Union of Soviet Composers, where lyrics were censored and to perform you had to obtain a permit. The authorities put these rules in place as a means of watering down the message of the bands, not wanting anything that was overly critical of the communist party to reach the ears of audiences. Famously, there were also restrictions on which bands could perform at the club, and for the majority of its life, groups had to perform before a committee before they were accepted for performance. 

However, by opening the club, the cat was already out of the bag. All of Leningrad’s creatives – and people from other cities were coalescing around the club – began sharing and discussing ideas. Although the creative freedom they had was limited, to those who were there, this was an unprecedented amount. “There were 50 to 60 bands and nobody was like anyone else,” Olga Slobodskaya, the club’s secretary told NPR. The committee judged talent liberally, she said: “We took everybody except for those who really couldn’t play… I mean really.”

Many of Russia’s most important rock bands cut their teeth at the Leningrad Rock Club. Televizor, Kino, Alisa, Aquarium, Piknik, Automatic Satisfiers, the list is endless. However, as bands became discontent with the small freedoms they were allowed, some started to rebel, which won’t come as a surprise as it is the nature of rock and roll to kick back against oppression. Acts such as Televizor and Svin were banned from the club for breaking the rules. 

Many of the Rock Club’s most prominent artists were also uncomfortable with the fame that it gave them, and they also thought that it meant they had complied with the authorities, which again caused a wave of rebellion within it. “We are so official now, so taken to heart, that the people who were with us before are not sure of us,” Boris Grebenshchikov of Aquarium told The New York Times.

However, after 1987, the restrictions began to gradually lessen under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose perestroika (openness) reforms were leading to greater ties with the West, and many of the State’s longstanding authoritarian rules being repealed. Notably, German hard rock heroes, The Scorpions, performed at the Club in 1988. 

Ultimately, it was under Gorbachev that the Soviet Union would collapse and that the acts of the Leningrad Rock Club would be able to enter the true music industry. Towards the end of the ’80s, the bands of the Leningrad Rock Club were touring the country, performing on television and having their songs played on the radio. It seemed as if they had finally entered the promised land, with the clutches of the State getting smaller and smaller with each day.

However, what the bands of the Leningrad Rock Club found towards the end of communism wasn’t what they had expected. Ironically, they had flourished under the limits of the Soviet State, but now what was a Westernised music industry came with economic and personal rivalries, a far cry away from the unity of the Leningrad Rock Club of old. Duly, it closed its doors officially in 1991.

The times had changed markedly, but Russia now had a Westernised rock and roll scene, warts and all.

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