Tales of Two Cities: Leningrad/Moscow, circa 1985

Tales of Two Cities: Leningrad/Moscow, circa 1985

by Howard Mandel
Copyright © 1998 Howard Mandel

It's early August, 1985, and Boris Grebenschikov is saying he'd wanted to be a rock star from the time he was 12, "Because there was no place in society for someone like me," he says in fluent, British-accented English. We're sitting in the kitchen of his communal apartment in central Leningrad, eating plates of thick spaghetti with soy sauce and vienna sausages with mustard; the long-past-sunset glow of early August 1985's "white nights" lights the rooftops visible from his open windows. I'm on a three week trip to the U.S.S.R., visiting my brother and his family during his first posting as a U.S. diplomat, and I've made some new friends.

Boris wears his hair nape-long and shaggy with a headband; he has clear, calm eyes, a charming smile, and the gentle, attentive manner of a recent father - when he met me at the door he was drying his infant son, fresh from a bath. Now in his early 30s, Boris has achieved his ambition; he's the leading rock star of the Soviet underground, or unofficial, scene. Which means he doesn't produce records, tour or appear locally in formal concerts, can't buy equipment through the government-sanctioned musicians union, but neither must he win its approval for his songs, or depend upon its bookings for his career.

Officially, Boris has no career - he has an undemanding, low-level, part-time day gig. He's not working as an engineer, the profession for which he's trained, and he's residing in this desirable if dim and ancient fifth floor walkup only by virtue of his wife's teaching job (she's his second wife; he doesn't see or speak of his first, or his older child). Nonetheless, Grebenschnikov's music is widely known.

"I make my albums on tape," he explains over tea heavily spiked with sugar - Boris and his friends drink enough tea even on a hot night to cure downtown Manhattan of the February flu. "I give the tapes to my friends, and they are duplicated on tape, and passed on, all over the country. I know this because I get letters from fans. Perhaps there is only one person in a town who writes to me, but letters come from everywhere in the Soviet Union."

He's unaffectedly proud of his reputation, and even prouder of the four-track tapes he plays for me over a battered reel-to-reel machine, which he slaps every time one of the stereo channels goes out. One tape cannibalizes early '70s Kinks hits for Dave Davies' lead lines; Boris says he's just hearing albums like Arthur now. He's conconcted his own version of Sgt. Pepper, borrowing George Martin's chorus of French horns, changing the melodies but retaining the phrasings. He's fascinated by Celtic lore, believing there's a link between early Anglo-Saxon and early Slavic peoples, and for his research he studies The Lord of the Rings, among other fictional fables. Considering himself a non-denominational Christian, a spiritual person in a culture where "People would deny there's a sun even if they're standing in the sunshine," Boris listens avidly to the Incredible String Band and UB40. He apologizes for never having gotten into the Clash: "In theory, I liked them, but I couldn't enjoy listening to them."

Boris is somewhat less interested in American rock than in British pop, though he knows our oldies, too. Another tape he plays for me is his openly improvised, heavily electronic take-off on the Doors' "The End," with orgasmic wailing by gypsy vocalist Valentina Ponomareva, who used to participate in the underground rock and avant garde jazz culture, but recently accepted official status. (While relaxing one afternoon in my brother's spacious, well-appointed apartment, I get a call from Alex Kan, a sophisticated critic of U.S., European, and Soviet official and underground music, literature, and art, my volunteer guide to what's happening in Leningrad. "Turn on the television," he says. There's Ponomareva, daubed with ghastly makeup, singing an overwrought ballad and dancing in a tutu.)

About half a dozen people besides his immediate family share Boris's apartment; they come and go through his "office," an unassigned room he's appropriated, as though it's everyone's den. Does he get along with all his commune-mates?

"Well," Boris hesitates only a moment; he wants to be candid, he has nothing to hide. "The young man who just looked in on us, for instance. He was lately released from prison, where he served four years for burglary. Sometimes I think the KGB has put him in this apartment to keep them informed of what I'm doing. He's very curious, wants to know everything, asks a lot of questions. But he's a very fine man, and we get along well. So what can I do?"

Sure enough, when I leave Boris's apartment at 12:30 a.m. to catch the subway before it closes down for the night, a door on the fourth floor landing opens a crack, and the pale young man's face is illuminated by the bulb behind him. He glances at me, shuts the door. He hoovers about during the rest of my meetings with Boris.

Does Boris mind if I write about him? "No, not at all," he insists. He longs for the West's attention. "I'm well known, the government is aware of all my activity. I'm not against the government, in any way; I'm very much for the government. I do not take any money from it; I'm allowed to do what I want to do. Of course, they could stop me whenever they want to, but why should they bother? I'm only a musician. I think I'm working under the best of conditions." He imagines that rock and roll stars in America must find wealth and fame distracting. It's possible he's being ironic - his apartment is squalid even by East Village standards, his toilet paper, for example, being pages ripped from a rock fanzine - but Boris is truly dedicated, without pretense or apparent bitterness.

This attitude doesn't hold for Artiyem Troitsky, a freelance music critic I meet in Moscow. At age 31, he lives with his mother in a modern highrise building, in a room of his own covered with posters of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Peter Gabriel. "Please, just a moment," he cautions me, picking the telephone up off his floor, carrying it to the apartment's entrance foyer and closing his door for further privacy, though it's afternoon, pouring rain outside, and we're quite alone. "I don't like to speak when that instrument is with me."

Artiyem is reputed by young musicians and critics I encounter in Leningrad, Riga, and even middle-aged Muscovites to be the most expert writer about Western pop music in the Soviet Union. He especially likes anything with anger, perverse humor, or punk power in it, and enthuses over the concert he attended the night before, at the social club of the Finnish delegation to the International Moscow Youth Festival.

"It was the first, and probably the only time, there has ever been or ever will be a hardcore band in the Soviet Union," he explains. "They were like Black Sabbath crossed with the Sex Pistols - very morbid, and they did Sid Vicious's version of 'My Way.' I was sitting in the third row, and I was stunned. I had to dance. Nobody else knew what they were hearing." Artiyem is also a fan of Captain Beefheart. "Just to hear how he says those words, 'Fast and bulbous'! I can understand his meaning, even if I don't understand all his language-play." He jumps to embrace whatever's new; he's excited about this evening's show by the British group Everything But The Girl. But he's not into black pop, funk, or soul music very much. "Too smooth," he says.

Artiyem was raised in Prague, the son of a Jewish Soviet journalist and a non-Jewish Soviet woman, who have been divorced now some ten years. His father was recalled to Moscow after the USSR ended the "Prague spring" in 1969. Artiyem was 14. "I couldn't believe Moscow," he remembers. "I hated it. I stayed in my room for the next two years." His mouth twists with a sneer.

He hasn't been allowed to publish an article for more than a year, since his analysis of the Doors' Morrison was denounced by the Central Committee to his editors as overly favorable towards a Western band that praised sex and drugs. Artiyem had a book on rock music in final galleys, about to be published, but then it was rejected. He also wrote two articles advising that nothing could be gained by outlawing Moscow's more than 200 underground rock bands, and that they should be worked with instead of banned.

During the Youth Festival, a city-wide, two-week long event which brings troops of militiamen and KGB agents to Moscow as well as foreign tourists (Soviet kids without special invitations are turned back at the train stations where they arrive), Artiyem's burdened with helping the official concerts run on schedule, though he gets paid nothing and receives no public credit. He apologizes for the little time he can spend with me, and the absence of underground musical activity.

"All the musicians who could leave town have done so," he explains. "No one wanted to get into trouble during the Festival." It strikes me that Artiyem has little to lose, and I ask him if that's so. "I have everything to lose," he answers, his slight stammer becoming evident. "I could lose my freedom." He hopes the service he's doing for the Festival will eventually put him back in official good graces, so he can resume writing for the youth culture magazines.

Subsequently I learn Artiyem's efforts worked. From a letter posted pre-Chernobyl, in April '86: "I now can see some of my articles published under my own name . . . The general atmosphere in the pop rock area is also brighter, so I was invited for [sic] several committees and councils concerning organizing festivals and sociological research in pop and amateur band problems and developing music video in the USSR . . . There is now one 'Rock Laboratory' in Moscow . . . I'm a member of the 'art soviet,' judging the kids." Of the 50 bands in the "lab," Troitsky is most impressed with "Nicolai Copernicus, a manic-depressive funk not unlike Golden Paliminos and, especially, James White (but with less sex and more schizo) . . . on the popsy side, The Centre (sort of zootsy-punky rock, shades of sixtees [sic] Stones, the Who, or, say, Violent Femmes . . . ), Bravo (a cross between Lene Lovich and the Raybeats - new wavish, twist revivalists, post-modernist image), and Night Avenue (cute electro-pop trio, sort of Soviet Depeche Mode)."

Artiyem and I spend a few hours together in Gorky Park, strolling among the crowds of amusement seekers licking ice cream bars who queue for the slowly rotating ferris wheel and safe-for-children rides. We stop to listen to a pop quartet from one of the Baltic republics. I comment that they're rather mild, not rock-spirited. Artiyem shrugs, "They're some of the best we've got."

Watching one of the televised Youth Festival concert extravaganzas, I get a better idea of what he means. Here's a light chocolate-colored Michael Jackson-look alike - perhaps he's a little shorter than MJ - doing the moonwalk, copping some other Jackson Five moves, fronting a slick troupe of jazz dancers on a soundstage that looks for all the world like the old Gary Moore show set. Though this is far more exciting than the opening day ceremonies, in which delegations from all representated nations paraded around an enormous sports stadium for hours, while trained pigeons flew over packed stands of "youths" - anyone under 50 - practicing card-section routines, it lacks the edge of either originality or spontaneity.

What the hell; the Youth Festival is a big deal for Soviet teens, I guess. The first such gathering, in '57, sparked Soviet kids' interests in Western fashions like jeans and jazz. I go to a jam session with some older swing and trad-style musicians (we play Ellington and Fats Waller standards) who show me a group photo of them taken more than 25 years ago. They were thinner, of course, and had more hair, closely cropped; they wore sleek (sharkskin?) business suits and left their shirt collars unbuttoned. The baritone saxophonist-arranger had his own teeth, not these gleaming steel dentures. They'd like to drink to those days, but they're glum; in accordance with Gorbachov's anti-alchohol campaign, during this Youth Festival it's almost impossible to buy a bottle of booze in Moscow.

I wonder what the school of Zero artists I get to know in Leningrad will be like in 25 years. Right now, they're in the forefront of the avant garde. Perhaps a dozen, all male, they paint violent, vivid, sexually explicit graffitti on shower curtains, so an entire exhibit hung in an unoccupied apartment someone discovered can be removed in a few minutes, folded and carried in a briefcase to another locale. "Can I take some photos?" I ask, and Timor, their leader, responds immediately, "Outside, of course." Before I can same more, he and his cohorts - all male - are ripping the shower curtains and a few canvases from the walls, spreading them in the courtyard downstairs. This stuff would fit perfectly into any gallery East of 2nd Avenue, I'm thinking, when an androgynous blond slip of a guy who all the others hail as "Africa" floats by.

"What's happening?" (rather, the Russian equivalent) he grins.

"Group show," I reply.

"Then group sex?" he asks in English. I demur, "Maybe later," recognizing a potential Loisida star. Later, I'm regaled with anecdotes about "The Idiot's Idiot," a drag-play the Zero group - they stand for zero, nothing - staged in their officially tolerated loft studio. Timor shows me a cardboard crate that the actors crawled through to make their entrances. He points to one word crayoned large on the box side: "AIDS." The boys all giggle.

I was introduced to other artists in Leningrad, and particularly liked the work of Karrill Miller, a satirist whose success de scandal was a parody of the genre painting of Lenin in the park with the children, an image commonly reproduced by officially-approved arts workers. In a sanctioned exhibition of amateur artists - and anyone with official ambitions must display work in such exhibitions to qualify for initiation into the artists union - Miller hung his version of the bespectacled man on a bench, counseling some youngsters, foliage and a gazebo in the background.

The painting was up for two weeks before officials noticed what most other viewers had been snickering about all along: John Lennon, not V.I. Lenin, was the hero on the bench. The exhibition was shut down, though Miller's painting wasn't confiscated. I saw it in its glory, amid wickedly funny portraits of Pushkin, Dostoievsky, Tolstoy, and Gorky, scenes of Mother Russia returning bottles to a collection cellar with Chaplin's Little Tramp peeking over her shoulder, depictions of hawk-faced peasants playing blind-man's-bluff and running three-legged races, punk rockers entertaining Brahms and Tchiakovsky (posed like "The White Russians Interrogate The Bolsheviks," a Socialist Realist classic), on the walls of the hall of Miller's communal apartment.

I was free to hang out pretty much as I wanted to during my three weeks in the Soviet Union, but I was there during vacation time, and, not counting the officially produced concerts in Moscow during the Youth Festival and the jams I attended, set up or hosted by our USIA officers, there was little opportunity to hear music in a typical setting. I'd reconciled myself to missing Boris Grebenshnikov with his amplified band Aquarium - they held open rehearsals at a factory hall and infrequently mounted performances, promoted solely by word-of-mouth, in the Zero group's loft (situated, by the way, across the street from the KGB's Leningrad headquarters). But on my last night in the Soviet Union, a Sunday, I was invited to a clandestine house concert in an apartment building at the end of a metro line. I wasn't given the address, but picked up at the station by Sergei Kuryokan, a talented pianist-composer- bandleader with doleful eyes, who's always humming and whistling like he's got a Casio implant in his head (Sergei eventually made it to the U.S. to participate in the Thelonious Monk piano competition; he died of "cancer of the heart" in 1996). With him was Boris's pale young neighbor.

Boris sat on the floor of a living room lit by candles, wearing a harmonica rack but shirtless, his acoustic guitar in his lap. His audience consisted of 18 men and women, including two American students who were celebrating their wedding, and had brought bottles of vodka. A violinist, a cellist, and a flutist backed up Boris; he mostly strummed rhythm, and sang his original lyrics in a soft but impassioned voice, reminiscent of Dylan, sure, and Donovan, if not Woody Guthrie; probably Boris himself would cite the Soviet actor-singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotskii, whose grave, on the anniversary of his death, is mobbed like Presley's Graceland mansion.

No one clapped between songs, but we all smiled and sighed and nodded in quieter appreciation. After more than an hour of singing, Boris wanted to quit, but we wouldn't let him. In honor of the Americans, he sang the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," and a Buffalo Springfield number I hadn't heard in ages; then Sergei sat at the piano, and, with Boris, played a simple blues. One of the Americans improvised a lyric - I didn't take notes, and it's now long forgotten, but it was supposed to be funny, a little wry, sad yet protesting, as though we meant to acknowledge we'd all known troubles, but weren't about to complain that life or politics are killers. They are, of course, everywhere.


C o m m e n t s

Mir, druzebah, festival! 1 of 4
London August 03, 05

I was a tourist at the Festival - in Moscow, Kalinin (Tiver) and Leningrad - I have to say I was shocked when on our final night in Leningrad they played some Bruce Springsteen at a meeting with "Soviet Youth" - everything else had been excessively bland.

The USSR is long gone now and the world is a better place for its demise, but that should not allow us to forget there were real people with their own dreams and desires living through it.

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