Perestroika Rebels

I am delighted to be back writing again for this great rockin’ magazine. This is not a magazine that deals with non-rock’n’roll issues and for sure this column will focus on Russian rock’n’roll, not Russian other-issues. Suffice to say I love the country that I am living and working in and long live Russian Rock’n’Roll !

This month I want to take you back in history, with a very Russian story. It’s the story of young rockers in the 1980s who were pioneers of our great rock’n’roll culture. Their history is an admirable one. It’s also one on the wild side. Let me tell it to you.

The 1980s in Russia was a very historic time. It was the period of Perestroika and Glasnost i.e. openness and re-structuring. This was the final chapter in the history of the communist Soviet Union. Huge social changes took place during this decade, finally leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s. These revolutionary social changes also involved rock’n’roll. 

In order to understand this period, it is necessary to go back a bit further in time to see how the situation in the 1980s came to pass. During the 1950s in the USSR some people were playing rock’n’roll records but mainly at home. Then in 1957 the Soviet authorities organised a huge youth and student festival in Moscow. They invited musicians from the USA and the UK to come and play, comprising mainly rock’n’roll and jazz bands. One notable performer was none other than Tommy Steele ! The influence of this festival on some young Russians was immense. It kick-started a significant youth culture movement in Russia, centred on St Petersburg and Moscow.

But the communist authorities made it clear that whilst they were happy to allow a one-off festival, fraternising with the “class enemy” and engaging in “decadent” capitalist culture was still forbidden. However after this festival some of the youth refused to be intimidated and began a youth culture of their own. Foremost in this Movement from the early 60s was the Stilyagi (based on the Russian word for “style”). 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.

This rebellion continued up to and into the period of Glasnost and Perestroika, which began in the mid-80s (These were the terms used for the momentous changes in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev).

And from 1979 a new phenomenon – a group openly calling themselves Teddy Boys ! Based in St Petersburg they were formed from out of the Stilyagi movement. In 1982 they formed their own club “the Leningrad Teddy Boys Club”, based in the centre of the city. Their unofficial leader was Anton, known as “Teddy”. He was an icon amongst the youth at that time and a well known figure in cultural circles during the 80s. The Teddy Boys’ Club was very knowledgeable on western youth culture and were instrumental in giving information and advice to the rockabilly rebels of that period, on such things as the correct style of dress, authentic sound of music, etc.

The Teddy Boy Club lasted up to 1984. Unlike in the UK, the youth identities were much more fluid: By the mid-80s these Teds who were still very much part of the Stilyagi culture had adopted other styles such as punk, biker, rockabilly or new wave, etc.

During the 80s, both before and during Perestroika, violence between these youth groups escalated. There had been trouble before dating from the 1960s. But by the beginning of the 1980s gangs of Stilyagi, Teds, punks and bikers became more organised and the aggro between them developed into real gang warfare. Whilst not idealising violence, there is one interesting aspect to this “warfare”. There was a code of honour amongst the gangs that no weaponry such as guns, knives, etc., was permitted. And this code was adhered to ! This was deeply rooted in Russian culture, something along the lines of “you defend yourself by yourself alone” with no unfair advantage. That’s not to say there were no deaths; there were, from beatings and the like.    

In the 90s in true youth culture tradition the Stilyagi and the Rockabillies had serious feuds and fights against each other. This included many criminal arrests, mainly in St Petersburg. Russian friends who lived through those times tell me this violence was inspired mainly by what the 2 groups had learned about British rock history e.g. 50s Teddy Boys’ aggression, Mods vs. Rockers, Teds / Rockabillies vs. Punks / Skinheads, etc. In other words they felt this was what they were expected to do. So this was another famous British export !

These Russian pioneers of youth culture deserve praise. Supporting rock’n’roll (and even more so in the period before Glasnost and Perestroika) at that time carried dangers with the authorities so they were real rock’n’roll revolutionaries. Their rebellion was social, not political.

The history of the old Soviet Union meant that most members of the bands never grew up with the authentic r’n’r sound like we did in the UK i.e. listening to it on the radio, TV, or other mass media outlets. So what they did was play and re-play vinyls of the original r’n’r recordings when they became more available from the 1980s onwards. After countless hours of such “homework” the musicians finally acquired the authentic sound, adding on their own individual styles. And the results were impressive.

From the above one can see the importance of the Stilyagi in the history of Russian youth culture. In the 1980s their numbers markedly increased, as did the numbers generally in this youth “rebellion”. Many movements sprang from them, for example the Teddy Boys in the early 1980s. Teds did re-appear again in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union but their numbers were small and those involved soon gravitated to other styles, similar to the way the members of the Leningrad Teddy Boys Club did in the mid-80s. The Stilyagi had some rockabilly influences – later in the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s another group established itself, decidedly more hep cat in style. They were more clearly identifiable than other Stilyagi as being rockabilly, with regard to their clothes and the music they followed.   

This leads us to the personal stories of rock’n’rollers, focusing on the 1980s, a wild and revolutionary time socially in the new Russia that was born out of the final days of old Soviet Union. These are the lives and reminiscences of the young Rockers from St Petersburg (Russia’s second largest city). Most of the material was collected by my friend Sergey Kuteynikov, leader of the legendary Russian rockabilly group the Great Pretenders. This was the result of personal interviews he conducted with those involved from St Petersburg. They are interviews with the wilder guys from the 1980s. I guess the nearest equivalent to them in the UK would be the original Teddy Boys in the 1950s. 

So hang on to your hat for a wild ride ! And I’ll tell you all about it – next month !