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

At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
Russia Rules

Russia 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.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 

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