November 27, 2013

Boris Grebenshikov, a Founding Father of Soviet Rock


Boris Grebenshikov, a Founding Father of Soviet Rock

Happy birthday to Boris Grebenshikov! The singer and songwriter for the rock band Aquarium turns 60 today (November 26, 2013).

As far as rock-and-roll goes, the Soviet public was a little late to the game. The Iron Curtain was not hermetically sealed, so recordings of the Beatles and Rolling Stones trickled through, bringing with them not only new musical styles, but also hippie culture and other crazy new ideas. Unfortunately, crazy new ideas were poisonous to Soviet leadership, and, under the weight of bans and harsh criticism, these “bourgeois-degenerate” recordings took some time to build up to widespread popular appeal.

The Beatles had already broken up by the time some of the USSR’s most prominent rock musicians started forming bands and experimenting with the new style. One of the most famous experimenters, Boris Grebenshikov, formed the legendary Aquarium in 1972, on the Bob Marley-inspired principle that whoever wanted to join the band could take part. Like other such bands of the time, Aquarium started out singing the Beatles before gradually finding their own voice and beginning to perform with their own songs. For Aquarium, “own songs” meant Grebenshikov’s compositions with their heavy dose of Western influence.

The band’s fans split its Soviet-era history into two distinct periods: “history” and “pre-history.” Roughly speaking, the divide marks when Aquarium became a “real” band, with its own shows and albums. In the backward world of Soviet underground music, the shift came after the band was officially banned in 1980, for a supposedly scandalous performance at a music festival in Tbilisi. Grebenshikov, as the front man, got hit the hardest: he lost his job and was forced out of the Komsomol (to add insult to injury, the scandal may have pushed his wife to file for divorce).

Grebenshikov (2nd from right) with other leading figures of underground Soviet culture.

Even as their popularity gained, and as rock became more and more familiar to Soviet audiences, there remained the sense of being late to the party. “Rock and roll is dead,” Grebenshikov sings in 1983, “but I’m not yet.” But even if rock and roll was dead (a questionable proposition, in any case), there remained a wealth of other genres and styles – including the tried and true method of weaving in Eastern religion and exotic instrumentation.

Oddly enough, for all his contributions to Soviet and Russian rock, Grebenshikov is probably most remembered for Aquarium’s rendition of a completely not-rock song, Gorod Zolotoy (“The Golden City,” or just “City”). Written by poet Anri Volokhonsky to match a Renaissance-style lute tune, the song is full of Biblical imagery of a heavenly city, and general lyricism: “he who loves is loved; he who is full of light is holy.” Grebenshikov and Aquarium continue to write and sing to this day, and we continue to listen to them, remember them: be it for the calm philosophy of the Golden City or for the youthful despair of “Rock and Roll is Dead.”

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Tolstoy Bilingual

Tolstoy Bilingual

This compact, yet surprisingly broad look at the life and work of Tolstoy spans from one of his earliest stories to one of his last, looking at works that made him famous and others that made him notorious. 
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955