I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
This month, I’m taking a break from the regular format to present a series of special editions. Earlier this year, Russian academic Kat Ganskaya wrote an article for the newsletter about the Soviet Union’s unofficial music journalism. Kat and I were so excited about the reaction to the piece that we decided to explore the official side of things, too. Needless to say, it’s a very different story.
“Rock music is a slow-acting poison, a spiritual and physical drug. Under the influence of such music, the activity of the right hemisphere of the brain decreases.” Juri Filinov was not alone in this sentiment, but he wrote those words far later than you might expect: 1988. It was many years after rock & roll had essentially taken over the world. But Filinov was a journalist for Komsomol Truth (Komsomolskaya Pravda), a Soviet youth publication, and the party line needed to be maintained.
Filinov’s take on rock & roll was hardly novel in the pages of official USSR media; there was, in fact, music journalism happening throughout the country’s history. Similar to the rock music of the late Soviet Union, music journalism in the USSR was formed in two directions: the official and the so-called underground. The history of official printed musical materials developed in the same way as officially authorized music. The advertising market did not challenge the state press, and it was provided with constant high circulation and stable financial support. Up until 1991, party leadership formally defined acceptable language and topics, as well as the performers about whom it was possible—or, rather, “needed”—to write.
While music from the US and UK was for a long time impossible to obtain legally, the popularity of “bourgeois” rock music continued to grow, forming its system of economic and social ties, which were simultaneously outside and inside of official channels. And, since it became impossible to ignore the new musical phenomenon, the Soviet press was eventually forced to start covering it.
The media, however, primarily served the Soviet Union’s interests, acting as the mouthpiece of the policy pursued by the CPSU Central Committee. So while there is no documented evidence of orders or circulairs on how journalists should write about contemporary music, one can assume that most of the writers had internalized early Soviet patterns. Epithets such as “decadent,” “bourgeois,” and “so-called music,” used in the first half of the 20th century in relation to jazz, continued to be widely used to describe the rock of the ’70s and ’80s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first popular band mentioned in Soviet media was The Beatles. In January 1964, The Shift (Smena) newspaper published an article in which an anonymous Soviet critic described the group’s performances as “howling to the music performed on the washboard.” He also referred to Beatlemania—long before the first release of The Beatles in the USSR—as a “mental illness” which suddenly turned out to be “extremely fashionable.”
By 1988, it may have seemed like not much had changed. “Nobody called rock from the West. It came by itself, climbed into the window like a thief, and began its work,” wrote Valentin Chistyakov and Igor Sanachev in Our Contemporary (Nash Sovremennik). “And the culprits of our state of affairs are not only fools with their forged boots, but also fools who at one time desired to be monkeys according to the Western model, in ignorance, they despised their native culture. And no one trampled on Russian rock, because there is no such thing, there has not been and cannot be.” Most state media left popular music alone: news and criticism were only published infrequently in social-political and youth newspapers and magazines. For Soviet authorities, the feeling was, “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.”
Early on, when rock music was mentioned in state media, it was often limited to “incriminating” materials that were supposed to open the eyes of an honest Soviet music lover to the rotten culture of the capitalist world. Rock music, commercial at its core, was considered ideologically alien to the regime, so it was common to see writers savoring the horrible details of the music business. Soviet readers were, for instance, well aware of payola scandals. The press organ of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, Labour (Trud), informed its readers: “Business is naturally alien to patriotism… The song has become one of the most critical elements of the younger generation’s indoctrination. Bourgeois propaganda, by all means at its disposal, is trying to divert young people from the acute problems of social struggle, instilling in them individualism and egoism, a sense of doom in the face of a crisis.”
Some authors were even more creative in their efforts to expose bourgeoisie rockers. In March 1964, Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaya gazeta) published an article titled “From the life of bees and dung beetles.” The text consisted of a supposedly translated diary of an American roadie for The Beatles, who worked with the band during their tour in Washington, D.C., and wrote about the hardships of working with the Liverpool quartet.
January, 4. Today I and two more “bees” have devoted laziness to exposing 46 “cousins,” “sisters,” and other relatives who tried to break through to our “bosses” based on fake relationships. I got hit in the face twice. There is little joy.
January, 5. There was a nuisance at a reception at the British Embassy. One of the diplomatic ladies cut off a large lock of Ringo Starr’s hair with scissors. The ambassador’s wife, Lady Ormsby-Gore, had to apologize.
The second part of the text was allegedly written by a famous composer, Nikita Bogoslovsky, who commented on the “bee diary” and gave some advice to the band: “Poor naive ‘bugs’! You are probably firmly convinced that all this—fame, big money, roars and squeals of fans, visits to the kings—all this is deserved and will last forever. But I’m ready to bet that you will hold out for another year and a half, and then young people with even more stupid hairstyles and wild voices will appear, and it’s all over!”
Peer (Rovesnik) magazine was founded in the final years of the Ottepel, or Khrushchev Thaw, a relatively mild period between Stalin’s reign of terror and Brezhnev’s Zastoi. At its start in 1962, its official aim was to provide information about delegations of Soviet students, progressive youth of the Third World, and American peers suffering from decaying capitalism. The magazine ended up doing something different. It became a window to the West, translating foreign articles and covering contemporary popular music and new cultural trends. Under the guise of promoting Soviet values, journalists managed to write about phenomena forbidden in the USSR.
Peer often contextualized Western music culture within a Soviet frame through the publication of translated articles. The authors had private subscriptions to many foreign magazines. According to Natalia Rudnitskaya, one of the editors of the magazine, these issues—ranging from The Atlantic to Rolling Stone—were highly censored before they reached Peer’s authors; many pages were simply ripped out, certainly if they were articles about the USSR.
Nonetheless, translations of articles from these magazines were done not only to help a Soviet audience understand what was happening in the wider world, but more often to make its content—based on state ideology—acceptable to the reader. Additionally, state journalists printed fictional interviews with (sometimes non-existent) artists, a practice popular with samizdat authors as well.
By the mid ’70s, Peer had become a platform for journalists like Artemy Troitsky and Sergei Kastalsky, who introduced Soviet readers to bands such as Led Zeppelin and Queen. Since it was considered not a music title but a youth magazine, only one to three pages in each issue were allocated to cover news of the music world. And texts about contemporary Western bands were diligently “disguised”: such materials were framed by texts about socialist construction projects or reports on the life of foreign peers suffering from capitalist oppression. Igor Chereshkov, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, recalled, “[In between] several articles about construction teams and how Dean Reed washed the American flag at the US Embassy, there was one, for example, about KISS, and God forbid, you will praise them!”
Even though they could write about Western bands, these were still groups whose releases could not be obtained legally. Until the late ’80s, the form of a “rock song” itself remained just as “hostile” as its country of origin.
By the 1980s, Komsomol leadership admitted that the measures taken to prevent the influence of bourgeois culture on Soviet youth had not been successful. So they started to take a different approach. Since it was hardly possible to control home copying of music recordings, the fight against “enemy” music became focused on controlling the repertoire of dance events and officially registered ensembles. The city and district committees of the Komsomol across the USSR began to receive lists of Western rock bands and compositions that should not be played.
The most notable list was titled “An indicative list of foreign musical groups and performers.” The document detailed 38 such groups whose repertoire contained “ideologically harmful works,” as well as an explanation of their exact ideological harm.
KISS, for example, were considered to promote fascism and violence, since two “s”’s in a row were associated with the Nazi paramilitary organization. The works of U2, meanwhile, were regarded as “propaganda of militarism and anti-Sovietism” because their name was the same as the American military aircraft. Tina Turner was prohibited for her “sex-related content,” Donna Summer because of “eroticism.” (The difference between the two was sadly not explained.)
Strangely, the list included Pink Floyd, a band popular in the USSR, but not their entire body of work. What was listed was “Pink Floyd - 1983.” It seems highly likely they meant the album The Final Cut, which was released that year.
The band appears under the heading “perversion of the USSR’s foreign policy (Aggression of the USSR in Afghanistan).” In the song “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert,” Roger Waters sings the line “Brezhnev took Afghanistan.” Apparently this line on its own wasn’t such a problem. It was the comparison of the intervention of Soviet troops in the Afghan conflict with the “imperialist” Lebanese and Falklands wars. In the official discourse, the participation of the USSR in Afghanistan was “fraternal assistance to a friendly regime in order to preserve it.”
Other Pink Floyd albums and songs were not banned and were actually quite popular. In 1988, the cosmonauts of the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz TM-7 chose the band as their official soundtrack. That same year, the group gave five sold-out gigs at the Olimpiyskiy Sports Complex with the USSR State Concert’s support.
In the late ’70s, the first-ever Russian chart was created. Since there was no music “market” in the country and the Soviet Union’s only official record label, Melodiya, didn’t concern itself with sales figures, the only way to establish a chart was to ask readers and listeners directly. Later renamed The Soundtrack Hit Parade, the first Musical Parade was compiled and published based on audience polls. In the beginning, there were four categories: “best singer” (male and female), “best band,” “best ensemble/VIA,” and “best composer.” Eventually, the ruthless editors even introduced an award for “worst song,” a prize regularly won by Valery Leontyev, who is now recognized as one of the most prominent queer artists of Soviet/Russian pop music.
The chart was never limited to Russian acts, which meant that Italian singer Adriano Celentano and UK bands like Uriah Heep and Nazareth appeared alongside Soviet legends like Alla Pugacheva. Censorship had noticeably weakened by this point, but embarrassing situations still happened. In 1984, for example, the editorial board conducted a survey among unnamed experts to determine the best band of the year. According to the majority, it was the Russian group Time Machine (Mashina Vremeni). At that point, they were considered “undesirable” (one of the key terms of the late Soviet reality, meaning that something was neither permitted nor prohibited). The editors excluded them from the list and instead published a list of nine other groups. Anyone who could read between the lines—a vital skill for people in the Soviet Union at that point—understood immediately why the list was composed of nine bands and which group was missing.
Rock music was an early beneficiary of Gorbachev’s policy of increased openness and transparency. With the beginning of Perestroika in 1985, censorship noticeably weakened and the underground rock musicians who had been previously ignored or oppressed by the state emerged into the light. Within six months of Gorbachev coming into power, the first rock recording studio opened in Moscow, and previously underground bands like Kino or Aquarium were accorded respectability by the press. The notoriously conservative heads of the Departments of Culture were replaced by more open-minded officials, signifying a conscious break with the past.
Many folks weren’t quite ready for what that forced exit from the underground actually meant. As rock writer Ilya Smirnov recalled in his memoirs in 1994: “With the collapse of the wall separating rock from the stage inside the show-business, a similar partition collapsed in the minds of the young audience which had no previous underground experience… At the same time, all those structures, indestructible from the outside and very fragile from the inside, that supported the internal system of the rock movement: traditions, rituals, mutual trust, and solidarity were destroyed and in their place, the morals were established not by the ‘bourgeois West,’ but by local bosses.”
All images are from Kat’s digital archive, collected from “libraries, enthusiasts and collectors, weird open sources in Runet, etc.” For an even deeper dive into this history, Kat recommends this book by Alexey Urchak as a good starting point.
And if you simply can’t get enough, here’s great stuff on:
If you have any questions or just want to get in touch with Kat, reply to this email and I’ll get you connected.
Here are three easy ways you can support the newsletter:
Insider Extra - An additional e-mail from me each week, usually featuring job listings, freelance calls, and more
How To Pitch Database - Access to a database with contact information and pitching info for hundreds of publications
Reading Recommendations - Access to a resource page collecting great pieces of music journalism, sourced from great music journalists
Advice - Access to a resource page devoted to collecting advice from journalists and editors on how to excel at music journalism
Interviews - Access to the hundreds of interviews that have appeared in the newsletter, with writers and editors from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and more
Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…