Rock 'n' roll didn’t kill the USSR, but it created today's post-Soviet elite

Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

August 16, 2011

The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Doors didn't doom the Soviet Union, but they played a role in creating a quasi-legal black market during the 1970s and '80s that vaulted entrepreneurs to become today's business and political elite in post-Soviet nations. So says a Ball State University history professor who grew up in the USSR.

In his new book, "Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985," Sergei Zhuk tells the story of how Soviet youth were immersed in Western culture despite living in a closed city far from more modern Moscow.

At the same time, he examines how this hunger for Western goods led to a black market sanctioned by the KGB and Communist Party and how members of what Zhuk terms the "disco mafia" used this new economic system to hone political and entrepreneurial interests.

Zhuk believes the members of the disco mafia eventually became business and political giants.

"Originally, I wanted to write a book about the impact of music on Soviet youth, but my focus changed as I moved from the Soviet Union to America to work as a college professor, " Zhuk explains. "The book is dedicated to the young people who grew up in provincial Russia listening to rock music far from Moscow — the city that Westerners visit the most. In communities outside of Moscow, there wasn't even running hot water or street lights."

Now in his early 50s, Zhuk culled the book from about 200 interviews with fellow Soviet youth who were enamored by everything Western, ranging from the music of the Beatles to the movie "Jesus Christ: Superstar."

He centers his story on what is now the industrial center of Ukraine. Dnipropetrovsk was one of the key centers of the nuclear, arms and space industries of the former Soviet Union. In particular, it is home to Yuzhmash, a major space and ballistic missile designer and manufacturer. Because of its military-related industries, the city was a closed to Western visitors until the 1990s.

Zhuk says that while the official Soviet doctrine was to bar pro-Western influences, records, movies, books and magazines from the U.S. and England were provided to the sons and daughters of engineers, scientists and others working in the otherwise security sensitive factories.

"When we were growing up, we consumed everything from the West that we could get our hands on," said Zhuk, who as a youth in the 1970s once had more than 2,000 records. "At first, it was the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and then later other British bands. First, we listened to the music and then took English lessons so we could read the liner notes when albums added those."

Soviet youth would pack clubs to show off their black market clothes while listening to records purchased from the same people, he said. By the mid-1970s, the parties and clubs moved from the music of heavy metal songs by Deep Purple and Sweet to disco.

Zhuk recalls the era was full of complications and seeming contradictions.

"The KGB tried to control the black market while the Communist ideologists' official careers depended on the success of the disco parties," he said. "They depended on music material, which came mainly from the black market because ‘Melodia' was the state-owned label that provided the Soviet consumers with the old and out dated music, lagging behind the development of western popular music."

Zhuk's research led to KGB and Communist Party archives, which showed him that members of the disco mafia learned their business skills by arresting those trafficking, seizing their illegal goods and then reselling them. Mafia members also traded their own imported items on the black market and operated youth clubs.

As a result, during the late-Communist era those early entrepreneurs had the ability to transform themselves into today's economic kingpins, he said.

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