Alex Abramovich | Yellow Submarine · LRB 24 March 2022

Bootlegged Beatles tapes began floating around the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, but when a group of students gathered on Red Square to celebrate May Day 1967 by dancing the Twist, Khrushchev called the militsiya out to disperse them. Only in the 1970s did the Soviet establishment grudgingly recognise rock and roll as anything more than a ‘cacophony of sounds’. Under Communism, Russian rock bands were forced into two categories: ‘official’ groups, who registered with the Ministry of Culture and were ‘urged to write and perform songs on topics such as space heroes or economic achievement’, and unrecognised ‘amateurs’ who were scorned, scolded and threatened with jail for social parasitism.

‘I called my band Aquarium,’ Boris Grebenshikov said in 1986, ‘because here in the Soviet Union we are in a giant fishbowl. Since we can’t travel freely to other countries, we are like fish in a tank who swim up and press our noses against the glass, trying to see out at the rest of the world.’

But when Grebenshikov compared himself to Andrei Makarevich, who sang for the officially sanctioned group Time Machine, it was without complaint. ‘They come over sometimes after their big concerts in the Palace of Culture,’ Grebenshikov said. ‘Sitting around my kitchen, they play some of their best songs, songs they couldn’t play in public because the censors didn’t like them. When I play in public, even though I am broke and have an old guitar and lousy amps, everything I play is my best and from my heart. I am freer than Andrei, with his limousine and his prestige, and I prefer it this way.’

At their worst, Aquarium and Time Machine both sounded less like rock outfits than pit bands in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. But there was a big difference in their attitudes. And in the music these groups were playing, attitude counted for everything. The members of Aquarium supported themselves as fruit-stand vendors and furnace-stokers while their more pliable comrades lived in lux apartments and enjoyed party-member privileges; that was a matter of attitude. The members of East Germany’s Klaus Renft Combo, or Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe, endured arrest and imprisonment, and attitude is the reason their songs, which Renft described as weapons to ‘scratch at the marrow’ of the regime, outlived those regimes.

I was three when my family left the USSR, in 1976. One of my earliest memories is saying goodbye to my relatives and my parent’s friends at Sheremetyevo Airport. We were convinced we never would see these people again. By the time Perestroika came around, my mother, her mother, my grandmother’s sister and many others had died. But my father and I returned, as soon as we were allowed to, at the end of 1988.

Russia didn’t exist yet; or rather, Russia still didn’t exist any more. This was the Soviet Union, where trucks outnumbered cars and pensioners struggled through filthy snowdrifts with net sacks full of cabbages. Everything was either rust red or army green, as if those were the only two colours coming out of the paint factories. But, in a way, we were home, and we stayed in Moscow for as long as we could – two weeks or so, I think. I had just turned sixteen; old enough to be out on my own on New Year’s Eve, which I spent with the twin daughters of family friends.

They were older than me by a couple of years. They had dim memories of me as a small child. I had no memories of them, but they felt – and still feel – like my sisters. They took me to a friend’s apartment and we all ended up in the kitchen. Someone had brought a guitar and we drank and sang Beatles songs, which were the songs we all knew the words to. A little before midnight, we went out for a walk.

We ended up in Red Square, walking arm-in-arm to keep from slipping on the icy cobblestones. We seemed to have the whole place to ourselves, and started singing ‘Yellow Submarine’. Not at the top of our lungs, but not quietly. Two militsyonery appeared beside us. They slid their arms through ours. We kept singing, nervously now. As we came to the final chorus, the militsyonery added their voices to ours.

The Wall hadn’t come down yet – that was still ten months away – and I can’t speak for the friends I was with. (Maybe I misremember it myself, the rush of feeling that moment inspired.) We all knew the Soviet Union was untenable. But for all we imagined, it would keep on being untenable for a hundred years. Certainly, for decades. So this was my first sense that soon we would all travel freely and speak our own minds; that we were finally tumbling into the future instead of falling back, helplessly, into the past.

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