It was twenty years ago today...
Two decades after his seminal look at Soviet rock music, author Artyom Troitsky reflects how the spirit of those times has changed.
“The future is bright and unpredictable. Nothing scares us now.”
That was the last sentence in Artyom Troitsky’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” the celebrity journalist’s personal account of rock music in the Soviet Union, published in the U.K. in 1987. Written at the height of optimism caused by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, the book celebrated a phenomena that Troitsky helped form as a music journalist and underground concert promoter.
Twenty years later the book has been republished in Russian by St. Petersburg’s Amphora Publishing House. Troitsky is still subversive, criticizing Kremlin politicies — and some of his book’s main characters, who have turned conformist under President Vladimir Putin. But now he is not sure about his 1987 closing statement.
“As to ‘The future is bright and unpredictable,’ of course, the second part has come true, 100 percent of it. There can be different opinions about the first part, though,” said Troitsky, sitting in a Novotel room rented by his publisher for a series of press interviews.
“Back in the U.S.S.R.” happened to be the first — both in Russia and the West — and one of the very few books about the phenomenon. Originally published by Omnibus Press as “Back in the U.S.S.R. The True Story of Rock in Russia” in the U.K. in 1987, with the author’s name spelt as Artemy Troitsky, the book’s Russian version (published by Iskusstvo), came out in the Soviet Union in 1990, but had not been republished until recently.
The Soviet version was called “Rok v Soyuze: 60-ye, 70-ye, 80-ye…” (Rock in the Union: the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s…), but now Troitsky is happy to have it republished in Russian under its original title.
The story behind “Back in the U.S.S.R.” dates back to May 1986, when Troitsky, with pop diva Alla Pugachyova, promoted the stadium charity concert “Account 904” to raise funds for victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which occurred in April that year.
“I got the idea [of organizing the charity concert], I knew that I could hardly cope with it alone, so I went to Pugachyova, who was my close friend then, and then we went together to Alexander Yakovlev, then the main ideologist at the Communist Party’s Central Committee,” said Troitsky.
“He gave his full approval, despatched a pair of his guys to carry out our every whim, and actually the concert was put together in a week.”
Held less than a year after Live Aid, when the West was in the grip of Gorbymania, the concert, which featured mainly officially approved pop acts with an exception of then-underground band Bravo, received massive international media attention, and Troitsky was picked up by foreign correspondents as “Russia’s Bob Geldof.”
“There were a great number of people there, and a huge amount of money was raised, too,” he said.
“Of course, the maximum number of Western journalists flew in, because too many ‘sweet’ subjects met in one point — the subject of Chernobyl, the subject of the first Soviet charity concert, which was a trendy thing then with Bob Geldof and Live Aid, and the subject of Russian rock.”
In London, Chris Charlesworth, the editor of Omnibus Press and the former editor of Melody Maker, came up with the idea of a book about rock music in the Soviet Union after reading a report by The Guardian’s then-Moscow correspondent Martin Walker.
“Chris Charlesworth, who didn’t know how to reach me, but was subscribed to The Guardian and read Martin Walker’s famous perestroika reports, found Martin Walker through The Guardian and asked Martin Walker, who often wrote about me because we were friends, traveled and hanged out together, to pass his request to me.
“I got the offer in June 1986 and started to work on the book at once, little by little. Traveled some places, taped a number of interviews, got down to work and in spring 1987 the manuscript was ready and even translated.”
Written when few people could predict the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” also profiled music scenes in the Soviet republics, giving a lot of space to the Baltics.
“Actually, that’s the formal reason why I chose not to continue this book. It deals with the U.S.S.R., and now we have a totally different country. Also I’m afraid that I don’t know that much about Baltic, Transcaucasian and Ukrainian music now and simply may not write about it responsibly.”
Twenty years later, Troitsky is critical of some of the book’s characters for conformism and loss of momentum, notably Akvarium’s Boris Grebenshchikov. Intense and subversive in the 1980s, Grebenshchikov now has dealings with Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov and praises Putin’s rule. But Troitsky does not deny Akvarium’s contribution to Russian rock music in the past.
“I think there was a period in Akvarium’s history when this band was interesting,” Troitsky said.
“I would define this period with the dates 1979 and 1983. And that was all. After that I think ‘the air left the body’ for me.”
Troitsky said his current attitude to Russian rock music stems from personal changes, too.
“The whole story about what has happened since then falls into two parts, one dealing with the rock music scene and the other dealing with me personally,” he said.
“I am not that inclined to blame today’s rock music for its worthlessness, lack of talent and lack of right motivations, even if to a certain extent I think that all exists, definitely. But I rather tend to stress that my attitude to this whole story has changed drastically. I started to see things differently.
“As I wrote in the book, I have never been interested in the music of Russian rock; with rarest exceptions, it didn’t impress me. What was more interesting for me was its existential aura, I mean, I was interested in those people, in those situations — dangerous, adventurous and somehow noble — that we all used to find ourselves in.
“But if we’re speaking about the songs, I was more interested in the lyrics, rather than the music. I really think that poetically Russian rock is at least not worse than American, although it’s absolutely different, of course.
“So when this paradigm of the 1970s/80s Soviet rock that was dear to me disappeared, evaporated, inevitably I lost my interest in it. But speaking about the music itself, I always say that we have some quite likable guys, whose work I treat with sympathy and understanding.”
Even though civil liberties and freedom of speech have been gradually stifled under Putin’s rule, there is no new rock revolution in sight, according to Troitsky.
“There are certain speculative, theoretical prerequisites,” he said.
“It’s evident that the current Russian Federation, with the exception of […] its market economy and disappearing democratic add-ons, has virtually rolled back, full-time and full-scale, toward the Soviet Union of the early 1980s.
“So there appears the idea that if there is clampdown, if there is censorship again, this and that, then the young people will get angry and there will be some new rock wave. But practically, nothing like this is happening, at least on my observations. Though I’d be utterly happy if it happened.”
However, Troitsky also traces Russian rock music’s decline to international circumstances.
“The reasons are not fully clear to me, I think in many aspects it has something to do with the situation in global rock,” he said.
“All this rock energy was fed by what was rock in the rest of the world. I can’t imagine Akvarium or Mike [Zoopark’s Mikhail Naumenko] or [Kino’s Viktor] Tsoy without their Westernist music-fan streak. I knew them pretty well. First and foremost, they were fans — some of Lou Reed, some of Marc Bolan, some of Duran Duran — and only secondly they started scribbling their own songs.
“Globally, this inspiring rock situation stimulated rock music here. There isn’t anything like this anymore. What is Western rock now? Linkin fucking Park? It’s hilarious.”
But at least one character, Mikhail Borzykin of St. Petersburg band Televizor, who was famous for his outspoken anti-authoritarian lyrics in the 1980s, did not turn conformist, continues to perform his defiant songs and is now a frequent sight at opposition rallies.
“It’s like a preserved band, I know. Moreover, Borzykin wears the same clothes on stage that he wore 20 years ago. An amazing person.”
Artyom Troitsky’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is published in Russian by Amphora Publishing House.
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