Rock’n’roll and Teddy Boys in Russia!
Text and photographs Richard Hume
“Rockin’ behind the Iron Curtain;” the old Huey Piano Smith number has come true (despite the disappearance of the Curtain itself)! Rock’n’roll is alive and kickin’ in Russia. Russia and especially Moscow is one of the fastest growing rock’n’roll scenes in the world.
1983 – Leningrad Teddy Boys Club (in 1983 St Petersburg was still called Leningrad).
As you can see these Teds have got the gear correct with a few amendments
The fans are predominantly young. Russia has much fewer older rockers going back to the 1950s than in other countries: The Communist Party and the history of the Soviet Union didn’t encourage such capitalist culture. I left the UK to live and work in Russia in August 2004. The contrast that immediately struck me most between the rock’n’roll in the two countries was the different generations who follow the great music. Here in Russia young people are joining and staying with it. How Russian rock’n’roll got to this healthy position is linked to Russia’s recent history.
During the 1950s in the USSR some people were playing rock’n’roll records but mainly at home. Then in 1959 the Soviet authorities organized a huge youth festival in Moscow. They invited musicians from the USA to come and play, comprising mainly rockabilly, rock’n’roll and jazz bands. The influence of this festival on some young Russians was immense. It kickstarted a signifi cant youth culture movement in Russia, centered on Leningrad and Moscow.
But young Russians paid a price for this festival. Some young Muscovite women tried to get to know more about this exciting culture by chatting to the American musicians during the festival. Later the authorities singled out these women and the Militzia (Russian police) arrested them. Their hair was cut and their dresses torn. In other words they were publicly humiliated. It was a clear signal from the communists that while they were happy to allow a one-off festival, fraternizing with the “class enemy” was still forbidden.
‘Two Tone Shoes;’ suitable for jive dancing
After this festival, groups of young people began a rock’n’roll culture of their own despite intimidation from the authorities. Foremost in this movement from the early 1960s was the Stilyagi (based on the Russian word for “style”). Recently, with the release of the film ‘Stilyagi,” which is proving something of a Russian boxoffice hit, the movement has begun to be remembered with nostalgia. They were more or less the first real rock’n’rollers in Russia. They were not Teddy Boys but the nearest thing the USSR had to Teds. 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.
Teddy Boy Drape jackets were in evidence here as far back as the 1950s and 1960s, centered on Leningrad and Moscow. Here’s the story: Drape jackets were seen being worn in the 1950s but on a very small scale. Then in the early 1960s Russian Leader Nikita Krushchev, even though the “Cold War” against the West was in full flow (this was the time of the Cuban missile crisis), allowed greater relaxation in cultural activities at home including rock’n’roll. Hence a larger number of drape jackets were seen being worn at this time. Later on in the 1960s the new Russian Leader Leonid Brezhnev, while not banning Teds completely, clamped down more on this “Western decadence.”
But a sizeable number of young people from the early 1960s onwards refused to give up and continued to rebel by staying with and adapting their own culture. This culture displayed shades of mod, rockabilly, rock’n’roll and other influences. Again it was the Stilyagi, certainly in the 1960s, who were in the forefront. This rebellion continued up to and into the period of Perestroika which began in the mid-80s.
The Russian band Stressor performing at the Rock’n’Roll Pub in Moscow - 2008
From 1979 a new phenomenon appeared – a group openly calling themselves Teddy Boys!, in Leningrad. In 1982 they formed their own club “the Leningrad Teddy Boys Club,” based in the centre of the city. Their unofficial “leader” was Anton “Teddy.” He was an icon amongst youth at that time and a well known figure in cultural circles during the 1980s. The Teddy Boys’ Club was very knowledgeable on western youth culture and was instrumental in giving information and advice to the rockabilly rebels of that period, on such things as the correct style of dress, authentic music, etc.
The Teddy Boy Club lasted up to 1984. Unlike in the UK, the youth identities were much more fluid: By the mid-1980s 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 1980s, 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 organized and the agro between them developed into real gang warfare. While not idealizing violence, there is one interesting aspect to this “warfare.” This was a code of honor amongst the gangs that no weaponry such as guns, knives, etc., was permitted. And, amazingly, this code was adhered to! Perhaps this was because of a deeply rooted Russian code of honor, 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.
The Stilyagi played an important part in the development of Russian youth culture. In the 1980s their numbers markedly increased, although nobody can give any clear figures (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, in a way similar to what happened to the members of the Leningrad Teddy Boys Club 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.
The Ted (Richard Hume) meets Moscovites at Mayakovsky metro station
In the 1990s, in true youth culture tradition the Stilyagi and the Rockabillies had serious feuds and fights against each other! This led to many criminal arrests; mainly in St Petersburg. Russian friends who lived through those times tell me this violence was inspired mainly by what the two groups had learned about British rock history e.g., 1950s 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. Another famous British export!
These Russian pioneers of youth culture deserve praise. Supporting rock’n’roll (and even more so in the period before Perestroika) at that time carried dangers with the authorities so they were real rock’n’roll revolutionaries. In Russia today there are only a few Stilyagi left but quite a few rockabilly hep cats (old and new).
The early 1990s witnessed something else. At that time the antics of what can only be described as real gangsters were much more prevalent than they were before or since. Here are some facts: Some members of bands were killed by gangsters in shoot outs; one was even killed on stage! This lawlessness was not confi ned to the music business but was part of society generally for that brief period. And unlike the “code of honor” mentioned above, these gangsters were bereft of honor and used guns, knives, the lot. Things settled down and now such outrages are a thing of the past (with very few exceptions). But those who lived through these times understandably haven’t forgotten. Thank goodness for Vladimir Putin and law and order!
In the 1990s, with the end of the Soviet Union and greater freedom, local rock’n’roll bands attracted huge crowds especially in Moscow and St Petersburg. Unfortunately the quality of the Russian bands then was not particularly good (with some fine exceptions). But then something strange happened. By the turn of the millennium the rock’n’roll crowds had become smaller, but the quality of the bands drastically improved! The huge crowds had partly been a reflection of Perestroika and Glasnost and the “opening up” culturally of the country after decades of Communism. After a while many simply gravitated to other things as more and more choices became available. And the crowd that stayed with the music tended to gravitate towards rockabilly rather than standard rock’n’roll. Another phenomenon was the strong support for psychobilly.
The history of the old Soviet Union meant that most members of the bands never grew up with the authentic rock’n’roll sound like we did in the west 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 rock’n’roll recordings when they became more available from the 1980s onwards (that’s not to say they were completely forbidden in the old Soviet Union, but they were hard to come by). After countless hours of such “homework,” the musicians finally acquired the authentic sound, adding on their own individual styles. And the results were impressive.
Today you see the odd drape jacket being worn in the clubs now but no real Teds (apart from the expat writing this article). But the rockers here are genuinely interested in the Teds. As this article testifies Teddy Boys are part of the history of Russian rock’n’roll and youth culture.
ROCK’N’ROLL IN RUSSIA NOW
Here’s some info on the scene now here in the East
A Stilyagi in Moscow, 1967
First of all Russian entry prices to the clubs are much lower than in the similar venues in western countries. For example at the Rock’n’Roll Pub, the premier venue for rock’n’roll in Moscow, entry to see most of the local bands is free (which means expenses are re-couped from the takings at the bar). If a big name band or a band from out of town is performing, the entry varies from 100-200 rubles. And the quality of the groups here is excellent. You can see, and hear for yourself on www.youtube.com (in the youtube search engine box add “Moscow” after each band’s name):
DENIS MAZHUKOV AND OFFBEAT - DIAMOND HAND - STRESSOR - GREAT PRETENDERS - BEAT DEVILS - ALLIGATORS - CORAL REEFS
Those of you who go to the Rockabilly Rave back in the UK, don’t be fooled re. the quality of Russian rockabilly by the last Russian band that performed there, the Neva River Rockets from St Petersburg. Nothing personal, I spoke to them at a gig when they were last in Moscow and they’re nice guys. But compared to the best Russian bands they’re strictly non-league. I could quote you over half a dozen Russian bands who are premier league material who were NOT invited to the Rave.
The best bands here in Russia are not just cheap imitations of the Western sound – they have their own style and stand up in comparison with all but the elite bands in the West. If Moscow and St Petersburg were closer geographically to the UK and western Europe, these bands would be touring and you’d see what I mean.
More info about Russian rock’n’roll can be found on my web-site at www.coopjive.co.uk (head for the feedback page).
“You can be sure, you can be certain, they’re rockin’ behind that old Iron Curtain”
Printed with kind permission of ‘The Velvet Collar’. The author – a true Ted – would like to thank his Russian friends who helped with the contents of this article. Special thanks to Sergey Kuteynikov and Mikhail “Mike Buster.”