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A Haven For Soviet Rock And Roll Is Long Gone But Its Music Still Resonates

American Joanna Stingray, center, with Soviet musicians in an album promo shot for <em>Red Wave: Four Underground Bands from the USSR.</em> Leningrad, 1985.
American Joanna Stingray, center, with Soviet musicians in an album promo shot for <em>Red Wave: Four Underground Bands from the USSR.</em> Leningrad, 1985.

Updated August 28, 2021 at 5:05 PM ET

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In early 80s Leningrad, change was in the air — if you knew where to look.

For Natasha Vassilieva-Hull that was through her lens. Then an aspiring young photographer, she found herself at a small apartment gathering where she spotted a guy with long hair. Two sticks. A drummer.

"And when he started actually playing and I heard it close up?" says Vassilieva-Hull.

"Oy ... this is different," she thought.

For years, an underground rock scene had quietly been gaining momentum in the city's shadows — despite few places to perform or record.

In basements and small apartment parties, groups like Akvarium, Alisa and Kino were honing new sounds and their own sense of style. And they were all doing it in Russian — having long ago overcome stereotypes that rock music had to be sung in English.

The bands were rarely political but authorities viewed rock music, which lay outside the official cultural establishment, as inherently anti-Soviet. Police raids on underground concerts were common.

But as the scene grew in popularity, chasing down acts in every corner of the city became increasingly impractical for the authorities. Something needed to be done.

"There was a KGB agent who had an idea: why not create a place where all alternative culture could be gathered together and controlled?" explains bassist Alexander Titov, who played with several bands of the era.

The Leningrad Rock Club was born: a 600-seat theater where these bands could be seen and — more importantly — watched.

An understanding between artists and the secret police allowed rock to thrive

On the one hand, KGB agents monitored lyrics and surveilled the audience during concerts from a balcony.

On the other, the club was run by a committee of musicians who selected the best underground bands of the day, organized concerts and negotiated to keep the gigs rolling.

"I dealt with three KGB agents regularly," says Nikolai Mikhailov, who served as the club's elected president starting in 1982. "We'd meet and talk about twice a month."

Occasionally, Mikhailov says officials forced him to suspend groups from performing when they broke the rules — such as playing unsanctioned songs. "The bands understood. They knew the rules," says Mikhailov.

But more often there were workarounds — such as claiming questionable song lyrics were in fact a veiled critique of U.S. policies in Latin America or the Middle East. This was still the Cold War, after all.

"I'll get hanged for saying it — but these KGB guys in some ways played a positive role," insists Mikhailov. "They kept their bosses in the Communist Party or the police from shutting us down."

The acoustics? Terrible by all accounts. The soundboard? A fire hazard on its best days.

But the club offered musicians a long-sought-after stage —- and the public everything official Soviet culture could not: groups that played hard rock, metal, punk, ska, blues, new wave and more.

Chickens and goats even occasionally wandered the stage in performances by Pop Mechanics, a genre-defying ensemble led by the avant-garde composer Sergei Kuryokhin.

"There were 50 to 60 bands and nobody was like anyone else," says Olga Slobodskaya, who worked as the club's secretary in charge of everything from securing equipment, scheduling and collecting dues from members.

Bands had to audition before a committee that judged talent liberally. "We took everybody except for those who really couldn't play." She paused for emphasis. "I mean really."

Well-known to locals, the club found an international audience

The club was wildly popular. With membership limited and tickets hard to come by, young Soviets would gather on the street outside its entrance at 13 Rubenstein St. — with some fans even crawling through the lavatory windows to sneak a show.

Soviet punks outside the Leningrad Rock Club, 1989. The KGB launched the venue with the idea of keeping an eye on what it considered anti-Soviet behavior within the budding rock underground.
/ Natasha Vassilieva-Hull
Soviet punks outside the Leningrad Rock Club, 1989. The KGB launched the venue with the idea of keeping an eye on what it considered anti-Soviet behavior within the budding rock underground.

"I wouldn't have known there was a club there if I didn't see the crowds outside" says Joanna Stingray — who as a young American musician discovered the scene while traveling in the USSR in the mid-'80s. "It was the place everyone wanted to belong to and be part of — including me."

Stingray would become the rare western musician to perform at the club — but far from the only female act. The all women's punk collective Situatsiya (Situation) was already well-known to club members.

But the bands were on their way toward wider audiences.

Stingray smuggled recordings out for release in the U.S. with Red Wave, a 1986 album intended to show the West what she'd seen bubbling up from the Soviet underground during her travels. "I was like a missionary," admits Stingray, pushing an alternative USSR on TV and radio as well as newspapers and magazines.

What she later realized — and details in her recently published memoirs —- was that her efforts had ricocheted back to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

"Validating these underground bands in the West just put a lot of pressure on the Soviets," says Stingray. "That opens up everything."

Attention abroad ultimately pushed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to legalize the rock underground at home — just one of a series of reforms under his program of perestroika aimed at opening up the USSR and pacifying restless Soviet youth.

But those who documented the era argue the Kremlin was trying to contain an unstoppable push in Soviet society for more of everything: history, literature, news, art and — of course — music.

Rock clubs similar to the one in Leningrad were soon popping up in cities across the USSR — Moscow, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk. "By the end of the '80s, there were over a hundred clubs across the country," says Mikhailov, the club's president.

Akvarium performing on the Leningrad Rock Club stage in 1985. The banner says "ROCK CLUB 85."
/ Joanna Stingray
Akvarium performing on the Leningrad Rock Club stage in 1985. The banner says "ROCK CLUB 85."

With them came bands that pumped out songs that served as the soundtrack to a country in the thralls of change and, ultimately, dissolution.

"It took another 10 years for Soviet power to collapse after the rock club," says photographer Vassilieva-Hull. "This is not by accident. It was cause and effect. Reason and result."

A new generation celebrates an older generation's music

Today, the bands of the Leningrad Rock Club remain among Russia's most revered — even if many of its rock heroes didn't live to see the extent of their fame.

Kino singer Viktor Tsoi was killed in a car accident in 1991. Pop Mechanic's Kuryokhin was stricken by cancer in 1996. An ongoing photographic exhibit of the Leningrad Rock Club at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg is filled with other departed heroes of the era — Mike Naumenko, Igor Letov, Alexander Bashlachev. All gone.

"The club is a religion," says Roman Karetnikov, a young musician whose group Nikovo Nyet Doma (Nobody's Home) openly pays homage to the Leningrad sound. "It's the cathedral of the Russian underground," says Karetnikov.

The club itself moved locations several times before finally shutting its doors in the mid-'90s. The truth was, post-Soviet Leningrad — and rechristened St. Petersburg — offered other new venues with better gear that looked more what a rock club should be. Today, the old building at 13 Rubenstein St. houses a respected drama theater.

This year, a series of events have marked the club's legacy 40 years on — both as legendary stage and as a pivot point between what people wanted and what the state would allow.

Fans at the Leningrad Rock Club's 40th anniversary concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2021. Celebrations were delayed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Charles Maynes / NPR
Fans at the Leningrad Rock Club's 40th anniversary concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2021. Celebrations were delayed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, issues of freedom and control have dogged the club's birthday celebrations as well, though because of a virus, not politics. A 40th anniversary concert was finally held earlier this month on the city's outskirts — and in scaled-down fashion —- after multiple delays due to outbreaks of COVID-19. Present-day St. Petersburg remains among the Russian cities hardest-hit by the pandemic.

Instead of the KGB, burly men in suits patrolling the aisles were there to make sure fans remained seated with face masks on.

"The Rock Club has always had to survive under restrictions!" joked the evening's host, Oleg Garkusha, front man for the art rock collective Auktyon. "By the way, I've been vaccinated ... twice!"

Stingray — the American — was at his side.

"Forty years ago the Leningrad Rock Club first opened its doors. It was unlike any club I've seen in the U.S. or Europe," said Stingray. "It was totally unique!"

Those behind the Rock Club say it was always about more than an address or a stage.

"To me, the club was always a symbol — a symbol of freedom," says its one-time president Nikolai Mikhailov. "And it will continue to exist as long as there are people who are ready to support that idea."

Indeed, even in a new era of government pressure, songs from the Leningrad 80s music scene, most notably Kino's Peremen (Change) remain a staple at protests in Russia, Ukraine — and most recently Belarus, where crowds have been seen chanting the song's soaring chorus as they protest rigged elections from last year:

Change demands our hearts

Change demands our eyes

We're waiting for change

The Leningrad Rock Club — like the Soviet Union — is long gone, but the tension between authority and youth has never gone away.

Perhaps it never will.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 1, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
A photo caption incorrectly described a concert by the band Alisa as taking place in the Leningrad Rock Club. The concert took place in a larger venue as part of a Leningrad Rock Club festival amid the emerging freedoms of the perestroika era