Behind the Iron Curtain: Western Music and the Soviet Collapse

V. Karakashev: The Needle (1988) Poster for hit movie: “The Needle”

The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to General Secretary of the Soviet Union ushered in a time of general reform in Soviet Russia.  This reform was not out of want, but rather out of necessity.  The volatility of the international oil and natural gas markets, along with the ups and downs of the ever-struggling agricultural sector, put the very existence of the Soviet Union in jeopardy (Freeze 454-55).  Gorbachev’s attempts at reform forged closer relationships between east and west and opened the U.S.S.R. to certain aspects of western culture.  One of the most important western influences on the culture and people of the Soviet Union at this time was western music.  This mid 1980’s were the first time in which western acts were allowed to tour in the U.S.S.R. and even in Soviet Russia itself.  Western music encouraged and nurtured the new sense of freedom and individuality that was growing at the time.  It also served as a means of protest against the failed Soviet regime.

Though the influence of western music on Soviet Society was perhaps at its zenith during the Gorbachev era, this does not mean that western music was previously unavailable or unpopular in Soviet Russia.  From the 1950’s onward there had been some form of a counterculture movement in the Soviet Union based around western Music.  Soviet society was not immune to “Beatlemania” in the mid 1960’s, which laid the foundation for future social unrest.  As Mikhail Safonov states, “when a person had educated himself in the culture of the Beatles, he found he could no longer live in lies and hypocrisy” (Safonov).  Western rock music continued to garner an underground following throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s.  Russian musicians eventually began playing rock music themselves, “Rock ‘n’ roll entered the Soviet Union stage as an English phenomenon. The early rockers sang American or English songs, often not understanding what they were singing about” (Wells).

Though rock music continued to have an underground following in Russia, the Soviet government made continued efforts to eliminate it, due to its perceived subversive effects.  A “blacklist” of banned (or “not recommended”) musical groups, formally titled as “The approximate list of foreign musical groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions”, was regularly updated and disseminated by the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s Youth Wing (The Scotsman).  A copy of the list circa 1985 and its english translation can be seen below.

List of forbidden music in the USSR circa 1985. Taken from Alexi Yurchak’s “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More”
The list pictured above: translated into english

Despite the previous efforts to contain and control the effect of western music in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of detente, glasnost, and perestroika made western culture more accessible and desirable to the soviet population.  Even before Gorbachev the musical barriers between east and west were being broken.  In 1984 the metal band “Iron Maiden” became one of the first western bands to tour the Soviet bloc.  Though the band did not play in Russia proper, they did play five shows in Poland and a handful of others in Hungary and Yugoslavia.  The bands experience was captured as a documentary titled “Iron Maiden: Behind the Iron Curtain” (  Two years later the american artist Billy Joel went on tour in Soviet Russia.  Playing shows throughout the Soviet state, including shows in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Leningrad, Joel’s tour was immensely popular with the Russian youth, many of whom now saw that there was nothing to fear from western culture.  The live album “Концерт“, the first live rock album ever recorded in Russia, captures one of the Leningrad shows on tape, along with the cheers and appreciation of the Russian people.

Russians themselves also began to make rock and pop music.  The Gorbachev reforms brought much of the musical underground into the light of day.  As James von Geldern says, “[n]ow the Moscow City Council and the Komsomol sponsored concerts, and rockers were even invited to play at the Victory Day celebration, the most traditional Soviet holiday” (von Geldern).  Russian bands such as “Aquarium” found themselves embraced by the community that had previously persecuted them.  

The sudden change in policy in regards to western music foreshadowed further reforms and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Day by day, the Soviet populace became more entranced by western products and culture, and the notions of individuality and freedom that were inspired by western music helped to shape the Russian state after the fall of communism.

Works Cited

Adams, Brett. “Iron Maiden: Behind the Iron Curtain.” 2014. (accessed December 5, 2014).

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Safonov, Mikhail. “The Beatles: ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’.” History Today, 2003.

The Scotsman. “They were banned in the USSR.” The Scotsman News. June 24, 2006. (accessed December 5, 2014).

von Geldern, James. “1985: The Leningrad Rock Scene.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2014. (accessed December 6, 2014).

Wells, Katie. “Rock Goes Russian.” 20th Century Russia. November 17, 2014. (accessed December 6, 2014).

Yurchak, Alexi. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Princeton University Press, 2005.