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Leningrads Legends of Beat

Published: October 23, 2013 (Issue # 1783)



  • Leningrad beat groups like Avangard included wind instruments alongside their guitars to comply with a government decree.
    Photo: Alexander Petrenko / For SPT

A gala concert called Rock Beat Leningrad 63 will reopen an obscure page of St. Petersburgs rock and roll history by featuring a number of bands that formed in the 1960s. The man behind the concert is Alexander Petrenko, the founder of the pioneering local band Avangard (Russian for both avant-garde and vanguard) that came into existence in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, in 1963 the same year The Beatles debut album Please Please Me came out.

The 1960s are a strange and little known period in Russian rock music history. Khrushchev was removed in October 1964 and replaced by Brezhnev, while authoritarian ideology strengthened with the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1965, effectively putting an end to the Khrushchev Thaw, the liberalization started by the dismissed leader following the death of Stalin.

But while censorship became more severe in literature, cinema and visual art, rock or beat bands were looked upon as innocent entertainment for youth.

At the time, the Kremlin even supported rock music, according to rock historian Andrei Burlaka, who co-organized the concert. As Soviet baby boomers grew up, the authorities sought ways to occupy young people.

In 1965, there was a special governmental decree on youth leisure activities, and a network of youth cafes began to be developed. They usually had a stage and rather cheap prices, he said.

For, say, 50 kopeks a man could have some salad and a cutlet, listen to music, dance and meet a girl. This was a purposeful policy on the states part. For instance, the Leningrad Metal Plant curated the Evrika café on Prospekt Energetikov, which was on the edge of the city then, because there were collective farm fields beyond. Despite this, it became a fashionable place because the coolest bands played there, and trendy young people from Nevsky Prospekt all went there.

Apart from Evrika, the most popular youth cafes included Beliye Nochi on Malaya Sadovaya Ulitsa and Rovesnik on Ulitsa Karla Marksa (now Bolshoy Sampsoniyevsky Prospekt). Each such cafe had a youth council that had some funds to book bands, sometimes from other cities.

There were no restrictions about the repertoire, singing in English was allowed and you could perform whatever you wanted, Burlaka said.

Other venues available to Leningrad bands from the 1960s were colleges and universities that booked them for parties as well as dozens of clubs that held dance parties outside the city. The concerts in the countryside frequently resulted in fistfights between those who had come from the city and local rowdies. The bands were also occasionally involved in the brawls.

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