Soviet Rock a Story of Contrasting Worlds


By David Morley

An Interview with Yuri (George) Stikhanov

What it was like to be a Soviet Rocker “Back in the USSR”

Yuri, nicknamed George, was born in 1956 in a small village in the Tula Region, 40 km from Tula close to Sсhokinо. He started playing guitar in 1972 when he was 16 years old. He now owns a small guitar shop in the shopping centre next to the metro station of Novye Cheryomushki. Listening to George play, you can tell that he is an accomplished rock guitarist on a parr with some of the legendary Western kings of heavy rock. I was intrigued to know what it was like to be a professional rock musician in the 70’s and 80’s of the Soviet Union so asked him to tell me his story and share some of his experiences.

Selection_183David: How did you learn to play the guitar?

It was a coincidence that I started playing. We boys all liked fishing. There was a river there and a big reservoir. We even used to miss school to go fishing. We were coming back from there one day and I heard this amazing sound. I couldn’t work out what instrument it could be; I mean, I’d never seen an electric guitar before. We chucked down our fishing rods and ran up to the House of Culture. There was a bunch of lads playing instrumental music on the porch. They must have been about ten years older than us. I was absolutely amazed by the sound of the electric guitar and after that neither the fishing rod nor the football existed for me any more. I started to make my own electric guitar because you could not get hold of one anywhere. I didn’t get very far with it as I only had a picture to work from. But that’s how it all started.

David: So you bought one later or somehow got your hands on one?

I had to ask my parents as I wasn’t earning any money then. Anyway, they bought me an electric guitar, a Czech-made Jolana, a Star V.

David: So you didn’t learn before that on a rubbishy Soviet made guitar before you got the Czech electric?

Well, at my grandmother’s there was an old 7-string guitar but no-one knew how to tune it, let alone play it. So I thought up a tuning of my own and worked out by ear a few chords that seemed to work. You have to remember that guitars were forbidden at that time although there were a few places you could buy a Soviet acoustic made of plywood. But playing them was very much frowned upon by the authorities. It’s like in 1975 they officially released a record album by the famous poet and composer, Vladimir Vysotsky, who also played the guitar. You could buy the record at the Melodia store but they banned anyone from playing it. If they heard you playing it, they would come round, turn it off and take your record away. That’s the paradox of the situation at that time. It was the same with the guitar.

David: So how did you get from there to playing in a band?

There were some guys playing in a group but some of them got called up to the army so we were roped in to take their places. They took me on and one of my friends. But then there was an order issued by the Ministry of Culture banning people from playing the electric guitar with drums. You were only allowed to play the electric guitar with wind instruments. But we used to wait till all the wind section had gone home and carried on practicing Beatles, Creedance Clearwater, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin. There was no-one else around to listen, so it was like underground.

David: How did you manage to find your Czech guitar and how much did your Mum and Dad have to pay for it?

When we moved into the town from our village, a town still called Sovietsk even today, there was a major in the army we knew. This Mikhail always had tons of money and somehow he brought this Czech guitar to town which he probably bought on the black market in Moscow. So he asked me if I wanted to have a go on it and, as I could do a lot better on it than him, he asked me if I wanted to buy it. I pestered my folks for 230 roubles, more than two month’s salary in those days and I bought it.

David: So you got a solid body electric but what about amplifiers and such?

We had Soviet amps – OM50, TU100. You couldn’t buy them as such but they were used in schools, Houses of Culture and cinemas etc. so they were easy to get hold of. We made the speakers ourselves. You could get the cabinets made at a furniture factory if you gave them your designs. The speaker units, like Celestion, Tesla, Goodmans, were expensive and you could only get them from the “fartsovschiki” (black marketeers) in Moscow. They were always being watched by the OBKhSS (Department Against Misappropriation of Socialist Property), a branch of the police working mostly under cover, who regularly rounded them up. And us as well if ever we got caught. So you had to run like hell if you thought the fuzz was around.

David: Was there a special place where these “barygy” (illegal resellers) would meet?

They used to be found on Neglinnaya Street near Tsum. There was a shop there which I think still exists called Rondo. The speculators all used to gather around there selling strings, guitars and other gear.

Selection_184David: What about the other members of the band?

We had a bass player that we inherited form the original group. He had an Orfey bass guitar made in Bulgaria which sounded pretty good. We stuck together a set of drums – a premier snare, a hi-hat we called Charlie and a bass drum. The rest we bought bit by bit in Moscow from the “Barygy” on Neglinnaya.

David: Did you teach yourself then? How did you learn your repertoire?

Some of the songs we picked up from the guys in the band before. When we had learnt about five songs we started to put together our own arrangements, Beatles for example “While my guitar gently weeps”, “Michelle”. We were young; nothing was too difficult for us. We were still at school but we used to play after school. In fact we played together from when I started in 1973 until about 1980. There were just three of us. I and the bass player used to sing.

David: And where did you used to play?

In the same town, Sovietsk. There was a good club there, and a big hall in the House of Culture where you could turn the sound up. We used to get paid too – 20 roubles a month each for playing at the club. People could buy tickets and turn up to dance. I don’t know whether it was legal or not but we got paid cash. Then we started playing in restaurants, officially. We had a monopoly as we were the only group in town. We played at school dances as well.

David: And what sort of music did you play then?

We did a lot of instrumental stuff. There were some Japanese melodies that were very popular at the time. We heard them on cassettes and picked the tunes up from there. There were also well-known Soviet hits, a lot based on poems by Sergey Esenin.

David: Did you have any problems with the authorities?

Yes, we had lots. We weren’t allowed to play anything Western or with foreign lyrics. If we did, they’d come and say: “Play Soviet music only!” The worst problems came from the local criminal gangsters. They’d come into the restaurant, put their guns on the table quite openly and say to us: “While we are sitting here drinking cognac, we don’t want your Led Zeppelin or any Vysotsky. You can play only the theme from the Godfather!” So we had to play Godfather for three hours non-stop until your fingers hurt. But it gave me a chance to improvise a bit to keep it interesting. And they actually liked it. So, when they got up to leave, they always left us 25 roubles or even 50 roubles sometimes. That happened about once a month.

David: You were still at school then. But what influenced you most in your playing? Which bands from the West did you base your playing on?

Pink Floyd. It was 1975 and we got hold of their album “Wish you were here”. The same year there was also “Kiss”. There was a rich guy we knew who brought the records from Moscow. One was Manfred Man, I remember. Also Machine Head. And of course Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple “Come taste the Band”. In 1974 there was also the album “Burn” with David Coverdale and the bass player, Glen Hughes. That had an enormous influence on our work. And of course the Beatles as well. I remember all that having a huge effect on me. But particularly David Gilmore of Pink Floyd with his tone and vibrato, the pure soul of his music reflected in the sound of his guitar.

David: Could you replicate his sound on your Czech guitar and Soviet amps?

We managed to get it one on one, even though we had no effect pedals. and such like. But sometimes I would think, how do they make it sound like that? We never could work it out but it sounded alright anyway.

David: What about the Rolling Stones?

Our bass player liked “Satisfaction”. I liked “Angie”. But, other than that, we liked the Stones less than the others I mentioned.

David: But you were in a small provincial town. There must have been more going on in Moscow at the time.

Well, we went to St. Petersburg actually. I don’t know why. We wanted to move up a level so we went there in 1979. It was a lot harder than Sovietsk at first. We had to find somewhere to live and there was a lot of competition. We tried with our repertoire to get work in places like the Evropeisky Hotel. There was also the Astoria and the Sadko cafe on Nevsky Prospekt. But with our Pink Floyd and Deep Purple numbers we weren’t exactly acceptable. They needed a group but the manager wanted us to play Soviet style stuff and “blatnyak” (songs from the prison camps popular with criminal gangs), pop songs like “У кошки четыре ноги” (the cat has four legs) and “Murka”. We had to learn all the Soviet dance music of the time but we didn’t like it. Things like “Kalinka-malinka”, “Сударыня Барыня” (Sudarynya-Barynya), “Цыганочка” (Tsyganochka) and “Яблочка” (Yablochka). So that people could get drunk and dance. We had to learn all of that so we could earn money.

David: Were there any “underground” concerts then anywhere in St. Pete?

There was a rock club. They had bands on there like the quite well known group “Alissa”, also “Aquarium”, “Tambourine”, “Kino” with Viktor Tsoi. But we didn’t quite fit in to that Leningrad rock club scene because we played pure Western music. And we sang in English which probably didn’t sound quite right. If I sang a Beatles song like “Yesterday’ or “Girl”, or a Gilmore number, I had to painstakingly transcribe the words. At a concert once this English teacher came up to me afterwards and said, although she thought I sang well, she hadn’t understood a word. But anyway I tried. I didn’t understand a word of the lyrics.

David: So how long did that all last?

After a while, I passed some exams and got into music school in Leningrad. I got my degree in 1982 but we played the whole time to keep on earning. After I finished they wanted to send me to work about 300 kilometer away but I refused to go. Because you had studied at the University , you had to go to work where they told you but the director of the music school gave me special dispensation to stay in town.

David: Were you still playing your old Czech guitar?

No. In 1980, after we had been playing at the Evropeisky Hotel and Sadko, I bought an Ibanez Artiste 300 series from a black market dealer for 3,000 roubles. That was real money in those days. And things had become a bit more civilised. The big venues all had Western equipment like Peavy Bandit amps and we could plug into those. And there were of course places you could buy guitars and equipment from the “Fartovschiki”. There was a famous place called Апраксин Двор (Apraksin Dvor) in St. Petersburg and that is where they all were. You could buy records there and modern recording equipment, Sony, Toshiba, Sanyo, Panasonic. I didn’t buy a tape recorder as I had spent all my money on the new guitar. They cost about the same.

Then, because I had a music degree, I got a job with Lenconcert as an official musician. I played guitar accompaniment for the singer, Lyudmila Senchina, who was very popular at the time and travelled with her on tour for about a year and a half. At that time Brezhnev was still alive and a law was passed banning anyone from forming a band. All the groups that were around were broken up and forbidden from playing. You were only allowed to play the electric guitar with a chamber or symphony orchestra. But during the transition period after Brezhnev’s death, 1983/84, you were allowed to put a band together again. So a bass player, Alexander Nazarov, set up a group called “Форвард” (Forward) and they asked me to join them as guitarist. They were a modern band in the style of “Police”. B52 was also popular as well the German “Nena”. We played in that genre. But, for me, it was too popsy. I was more into heavy rock, more basic stuff, so after about a year I left them. I joined a well-known Estonian singer and also a great guy by the name of Gunnar Graps with his group “Magnetic Band”. So from about 1985 I played pure hard rock with them, even performing in the USA.

David: So that is how you managed to tour abroad?

I moved to Tallinn and worked officially with the Tallinn Philharmonia. We earned a lot of money then. Gunnar was well known everywhere, on a level with Vladimir Kuzmin or Alla Pugacheva. He was the singer and played the drums. The other players were all Estonian. Around 1994 everyone started to get involved in various business ventures. We weren’t doing very well in the States as there were musicians around better than us. We were getting older and we’d all been at it for fifteen years or more, played in France, Spain, Finland, Germany, even Algeria. But we kept going till 2003. Gunnar left for Sweden and died in 2004. That was the end of that!

I carried on working wherever I could get a gig but I came back to Moscow. I started working as sales manager in the guitar department of a music store. Then one day, the General Director said, why don’t you set up your own shop so that’s what I did. You didn’t need so much money in those days and I opened a shop near Vodnoy Stadion. Finally I moved to the shopping centre in Novye Cheryomushky where I am now. I have been here about five years.

David: Do you think it got better or worse for musicians after 1991?

We could open up more; we had more freedom. Even before that, when Gorbachev came to power, we could play whatever we liked. Around 1986/1987 with perestroika things got easier. For example, we had good contacts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and we were sent on tour abroad as artists of the Soviet Union. Goskoncert funded the whole thing, travel, accommodation etc. and we used to get $24 per day. But, of course, the State pocketed all the money from the concerts.

David: I heard that some musicians had problems with gangsters hustling protection money. Is that true?

We did not have any problems like that probably because we worked for the Estonian philharmonic (Tallinn Koncert). But there were cases of people getting cheated. When private entrepreneurs started to organize concert tours at the end of the eighties and early nineties, a lot of artists, including famous people like Kuzmin, or the group “Aria”, lost money. It happened to us as well. You’d play at like twenty concerts and at the end of the tour you went to collect your pay. The office was empty. The organizers had all disappeared. We got thrown out of the hotel and there was no money.

David: I’m still interested to know about equipment. I mean, in the sixties and seventies, there must have been people making electric guitars and amps for sale.

Well, I said that I tried to make my own guitar but we had no idea how they were put together. We just had drawings. I had to hammer the neck to the body using nails as I could not get hold of any bolts or screws.. You could not play the guitars that were made in factories. They also had no idea what they were doing. They did not have the right machine tools. They were made in some furniture factory. But by 1975/76 there were a couple of factories that started to make something resembling an electric guitar (Ural, Elite, Stella, Sigma). The East Germans and the Czechs were the only ones that were any good but those factories had a long history of producing musical instruments. And the sound was good too.

There was a guy in Oryel who got hold of a diagram for a Marshall amp. He had it pinned to his wall in his workshop. He put together an exact copy made out of Soviet components. I have to say it looked and sounded just like the real thing. It was absolutely indestructible. We had one at the end of the seventies when we were playing in Leningrad. We used to leave it switched on all the time. It never broke down. I went on my own on the train to pick it up and lugged the cabinet and the amp head all the way back on my own. But word got around that this guy was making them and he was arrested. He got two years inside for that! The last one we got was in 1980 and there were no more after that. We wanted a third one for the vocals but had to make do with two!

The Soviet mikes were OK. The MK2 and MK100, condenser microphones made in Tula, were good. They were shaped like a Cuban cigar. We had three of those. They cost 100 roubles each, a good Soviet salary.

But you could only buy strings off the “Fartovschiki” and then you had to watch out for the plain-clothes OBKhSS who were always on the lookout. You had to whip your money out, quickly hide the strings in your pocket and belt it.

David: Finally, how do you think peoples attitude to rock music changed after 1991?

The fact is, there really wasn’t any Russian rock music before 1991. It was only pseudo-rock music. There was only “blatnaya” music (prison camp songs) and prison chansons. People sang about prison life and their experiences of life in the camps, the dark side of Soviet life. Who was fucking who? Who wiped out so-and-so? I didn’t really understand that then but I do now. That is really where the Soviet pseudo-rock culture comes from and this continues to this day. Real rock music has to come from the heart and, how can it come from the heart, if it is all about life in a Soviet prison?

If you come from a provincial town like me, and they are all over Russia like that, I understood and everyone understands that, unless you have been in prison, you are a nobody, not a real muzhik (man). Nobody respects you. You might not encounter this attitude so much in Moscow, but step outside ten kilometers, and that is how it is. It is a bit the same if you have not served in the army, but, in any case, the army and prison are two different things.

So you can see that things were different for groups like Deep Purple, Creedance Clearwater or early Kiss. Their music was born in a different culture. That sort of music could never have been created here. But the old bandits will die out and new music will come though. Who knows what they will produce?

I know some really good young guitarists today who can play in the British or the American style but they still have to adapt themselves to play the current Russian pop style in order to earn money. The Russian “blatnaya” style is not the blues; it’s all C major, A minor, D minor, G. But that is what you have to do.

David: You don’t have any regrets about your life as a rock musician?

I don’t regret anything. I think that anyone who can play, even if it is only three notes and he can play them well so that people listen and enjoy it, he is a real musician. So I feel fine because I could play my three notes in the Soviet period, and five notes during perestroika and seven notes during the so-called capitalist era. I can still carry out my favorite pastime that I have been occupied with almost all my life. No matter what I do, I will always have that with me. Just putting my fingers on the frets, generating the energy of the music, I am doing something for myself, something that comes from the “dusha” (soul). Naturally, playing live, in front of an appreciative audience, you give so much of yourself. It gives you a real high. But it has all been worth it.

If you ever find yourself in the shopping centre at Novye Cheremushky, 2nd floor 2А-21, or you are looking to buy a guitar or some gear, pop in to see George in his tiny shop. And don’t forget to ask him to play something for you. You will be amazed.