Re-printed from Maggie’s Blue Suede News

This month let me take you on a journey into rock’n’roll history. The year is 1957. Something happened that year which changed rock’n’roll forever …… in Russia !

First the background:
During the 1950s in the USSR some people were playing early rock’n’roll records but nearly always at home. Fearful of what the communist authorities would do when confronted with this “decadent” western culture (remember this was the height of the Cold War), no-one dared to do any more than that.

But then it happened. In 1957 the Soviet authorities organised a huge youth and student festival in Moscow. They invited musicians from the USA, comprising mainly rock’n’roll and jazz bands, to come and play at the festival.

Of course this was a propaganda event by the Soviets. It was seen by them as a way to present themselves as open-minded and open to the world, at the same time ensuring they closely controlled the event and got maximum propaganda value out of it. And also the bands quoted above who were invited to the event were only a small part of it. Most of the active participants were card carrying young Russian communists happy to help further the “socialist” cause, who at the festival engaged in marching in parades or watching and listening to traditional folk music. And most of the young foreigners invited to the festival (around 34,000 came in total) were generally communist party members or communist sympathisers. The United States government at the time declared the Festival was part of a publicity campaign, to try and offset the losses in the “propaganda war” incurred by the Soviet Union during its suppression of the Hungarian uprising the previous year.

But ……… the script didn’t go according to plan. Many young Russians, men and women, became enthused as they watched the bands performing. And guess who came over from the UK to perform; none other than Tommy Steele ! It would be very interesting to know what Tommy’s impressions were of it all and if he got the chance to inter-act with some of the young Russians attending the concert.

Some Russians paid a price: Some of the young Muscovite women tried to get to know more about this exciting culture by chatting to the American musicians during the festival and the American men and the Russian women exchanged their experiences in their respective countries. Later the authorities singled out these women and the Militsia (Russian police) arrested them. Their hair was cut and their dresses torn. In other words they were publicly humiliated. It was a clear signal from the government that while they were happy to allow a one-off festival, fraternising with the “class enemy” was still forbidden.

The influence of this festival on some young Russians was immense. It kick-started a significant movement in Russia, centred on Leningrad (since re-named St Petersburg) and Moscow. Most of these rebels centred themselves around a movement they called “Stilyagi”, derived from the Russian word for “style”. After the festival they refused to be intimidated and began a youth culture of their own.

Foremost in this history as it developed from the 1950s onwards, was again the Stilyagi. They were more or less the first real rock’n’rollers in Russia. Their style was not 100% rock’n’roll – they also listened to and followed other brands of music such as jazz – and this was also reflected in their style of clothing. But it was close enough to establish them as the original Russian youth rebels. Their rebellion was social, not political.

These young Russians deserve praise. They were risking persecution by the authorities for continuing to follow this culture, after they had seen something at the festival in 1957 that they didn’t want to lose. I came to live and work in Russia in 2004 and I can remember being shown propaganda films made in the 1950s and 1960s by the Russian authorities, depicting these young rebels as hooligans and layabouts. These same clips also showed well dressed and well behaved young Russian communist men and women, as wonderful examples of what young people should be like ! I enjoyed watching the films hugely – really funny !

With the momentous changes in Russia in the 1980s, things started to “loosen up” for the Stilyagi and the collapse of the Soviet Union by the beginning of the 1990s made things much easier for them to follow their chosen life style.

So it was that a festival organised by the communist government in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, inadvertently kick-started a rock’n’roll revolution.

Today in Moscow you can visit a famous café / restaurant, located right next to Red Square. It’s called “Stalovaya 57” (Stalovaya in Russian means eating place) and is dedicated to that 1957 festival. All the décor, right down to a 1950s juke box, is an authentic re-creation of 1957. Stalovaya 57 is a well known landmark in Moscow and is further evidence of the importance of that 1957 Festival on the history of Russian youth culture. When I brought the UK rock’n’roll group Furious to Moscow to perform on 2 occasions, I made a point of taking them to the restaurant, to give them a taste of Russian rock’n’roll history.

So here’s to those early Russian rock’n’roll pioneers back in the 1950s, who certainly had it tougher than their counterparts in the West, in their efforts to grow and preserve their rock’n’roll culture.

The first photo above was taken at the opening ceremony of the 1957 festival. The other photos are of young Stilyagi, taken during the times covered in the article.

Richard Hume