Alex Abramovich | Yellow Submarine LRB March 24, 2022
Pirated Beatles tapes began circulating in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, but when a group of students gathered in Red Square to celebrate May Day 1967 by dancing the Twist, Khrushchev called the militia come out to disperse them. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Soviet establishment reluctantly recognized rock and roll as anything other than a “cacophony of sound”. Under Communism, Russian rock bands were divided into two categories: “official” bands, which registered with the Ministry of Culture and were “invited to write and perform songs on topics such as the heroes of space or economic success”, and the unrecognized “amateurs” who have been scorned, scolded and threatened with prison for social parasitism.
“I called my group Aquarium,” Boris Grebenshikov said in 1986, “because here in the Soviet Union we are in a giant fishbowl. Since we cannot travel freely to other countries, we we are like fish in an aquarium, swimming and pressing our noses against the glass, trying to see the rest of the world.
But when Grebenshikov compared himself to Andrei Makarevich, who sang for the officially sanctioned band Time Machine, it was without complaint. “They sometimes come after their big concerts at 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’m broke and I I have an old guitar and rotten amps, everything I play is my best and comes from my heart. I’m freer than Andrei, with his limo and his prestige, and I prefer that.
At worst, Aquarium and Time Machine looked less like rock outfits and more like pit bands in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. But there was a big difference in their attitudes. And in the music these bands played, attitude was everything. Aquarium members supported themselves as fruit vendors and furnace stokers while their more flexible comrades lived in luxurious apartments and enjoyed the privileges of party membership; it was a matter of attitude. Members of East Germany’s Klaus Renft Combo, or Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe, endured arrest and imprisonment, and the attitude is why their songs, which Renft described as weapons to ‘scratch the marrow’ of the regime, survived these regimes.
I was three when my family left the USSR in 1976. One of my earliest memories is saying goodbye to my family and my parents’ friends at Sheremetyevo airport. We were convinced that we would never see these people again. By the time perestroika came, my mother, her mother, my grandmother’s sister and many others were dead. But my father and I came back, as soon as we were allowed, at the end of 1988.
Russia did not yet exist; or rather, Russia still no longer existed. This was the Soviet Union, where trucks outnumbered cars and pensioners struggled in dirty snowdrifts with mesh bags full of cabbage. Everything was either rust red or army green, as if those were the only two colors that came out of paint factories. But, in a way, we were at home, and we stayed in Moscow as long as we could – about two weeks, I think. I had just turned sixteen; old enough to go out alone on New Year’s Eve, which I spent with the twin daughters of family friends.
They were a few years older than me. They had dark memories of me when I was little. I had no memory of them, but they felt – and still feel – like my sisters. They took me to a friend’s apartment and we all met in the kitchen. Someone had brought a guitar and we drank and sang Beatles songs, the lyrics of which we all knew. A little before midnight, we went out for a walk.
We found ourselves in Red Square, walking arm in arm so as not to slip on the icy cobblestones. We seemed to have the whole place to ourselves and started singing “Yellow Submarine”. Not loudly, but not quietly. Of them military appeared next to us. They slipped their arms into ours. We continued to sing, nervously now. As we came to the final chorus, the military added their voice to ours.
The Wall hadn’t come down yet – it was still ten months away – and I can’t speak for the friends I was with. (Maybe I misremember it myself, the feeling of that moment inspired me.) We all knew the Soviet Union was untenable. But for all we imagined, it would continue to be untenable for a hundred years. Certainly, for decades. So it was my first feeling that soon we would all travel freely and speak our minds; that we finally fall into the future instead of falling helplessly into the past.