Rock ‘n Roll didn’t play a significant role in bringing down the Communist system, but it did help shape the economic elites in post-Soviet states, a Western researcher argues.
Sergei Zhuk, Associate Professor of History at Ball State University, examined rock music’s role in the Soviet collapse by focusing on the experience of a single city, Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine, during the late-Soviet era. His findings are contained in his recently published book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985.
Zhuk’s research draws extensively on the reflections of Soviet youth during the period, including writings and personal interviews. It also makes use of official documents, primarily KGB and Communist Party archives. Combined, they relate the spread of Western cultural consumption in the former Soviet Union despite the best efforts of the KGB to contain what it saw as "ideological anti-Soviet pollution.”
Soviet authorities were clearly worried that rock threatened their ability to keep the population submissive. But Zhuk found that such fears were perhaps overblown, at least when it came to the political sphere. Most Soviet youths were very “good, loyal patriots,” Zhuk found, who preferred European rather than American rock groups. Some particular favorites in the former Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s were Deep Purple, Sweet and AC/DC.
Many members of the political elites that now run post-Soviet states trace their roots to the former Soviet Communist Party, or its youth wing, the Komsomol, and were not heavily influenced by rock ‘n roll.
The business sphere is another story. Zhuk suggested that many of today’s economic titans in former Soviet states learned the ins and outs of business through quasi-legal operations in the late Soviet era, operations that depended on illicit payments and protection rackets. In some of these areas rock music was a factor, Zhuk said. He presented his findings at a recent event in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES).
Some of the most entrepreneurial minds in the late-Communist period got their starts by opening speakeasies, underground rock clubs that sought to cater to the musical tastes of the young generation. Since they lacked official sanction, these operations had to pay bribes to officials to stay open, as well as pay protection money to proto-mafia groups. The skills acquired in the 1970s and 80s, helped some of these entrepreneurs survive the tumult of the 1990s and thrive in the 21st century.
Zhuk selected Dniepropetrovsk as the focus of his research because he felt that the Ukrainian industrial center could better reveal trends than either Moscow or Leningrad (St. Petersburg). During the Soviet era, Dniepropetrovsk was a closed-city. Being off limits to foreigners, made it perhaps easier to evaluate the influence of Western rock on Dniepropetrovsk’s population than looking at the experiences of Muscovites or Leningraders, who had a much easier time in gaining access to Western cultural influences.
As was the case elsewhere, young people in the Caucasus and Central Asia found themselves drawn to Western rock music, with various local bands striving to develop their own styles that incorporated various Soviet and local ethnic elements.
Zhuk told EurasiaNet.org that the some of the first home-grown Soviet rock group emerged in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. “Even the people from the Caucasus—Chechen people—who became now very fundamentalist listened to the same music, believe me” Zhuk said.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.