This is a story about cultural influences that do not make daily news headlines, created a more powerful impact on a major historical event than we realize. The end of the Cold War, and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 actually began decades before.
The first youth counterculture movement in the Soviet Union began in the 1950’s. The Stilyagi, or style hunters, was a derogatory word used for these young people who wore foreign labeled clothing, as well as their fascination with western culture in films, music, clothing, etc.
As a result of some reforms made by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev during the 1950’s, an international festival that attracted 34,000 people from 130 countries, entitled The 6th World Festival of Youth and Students, was held in Moscow in 1957. Some Eastern European communist countries responded by arresting Stilyagi and rock music fans. Interestingly, NATO published a report that speculated the intentional use of rock music for subversive purposes.
Beatlemania swept the Soviet Union during the 1960’s. According to a Russian historian named Mikhail Safanov, “The Beatles brought us the idea of democracy. For many of us, it was the first hole in the Iron Curtain.” A Russian musician named Boris Grebenshchikov founded a Beatles-inspired band called Time Machine, in the 1970’s, which became very popular. However the members were forced to go underground. The Soviet government, instead, officially sanctioned other musical groups such as vocal instrument ensembles, which contained lyrics to songs that were considerably tamer than underground groups such as Time Machine.
Rock music continued to be banned in the Soviet Union as the 1980’s arrived. The authorities in 1985 produced a long list of forbidden music, which listed the name of the band, and the reason for which it was banned. A few examples are Black Sabbath because of “violence and religious obstructionism”, Donna Summer because of “eroticism”, and the Sex Pistols because of “punk and violence.”
Billy Joel became the first American rock musician to tour the Soviet Union in 1985. This new development was part of a new policy called Perestroika, by a new leader of the Soviet Union at that time, Mikhail Gorbachev. Perestroika was reforms made in the economy and society of the Soviet Union. Joel’s tour was so successful that it became a turning point among Russian youth, who now were convinced there was nothing to fear from western culture.
However it was a four hour concert by Bruce Springsteen in communist East Germany on July 19, 1988 that marked the turning point in the role music played in the historic event that occurred one year later. Playing before a crowd of 300,000 people, Springsteen began the show by speaking to the audience in German, saying, “I’m not here for or against any government.” The song which generated the most powerful reaction from the crowd was a rendition of Bob Dylan’s song, Chimes of Freedom. Written in 1964, Dylan wrote it about big changes taking place in that time period. Springsteen chose to perform it because it could be adapted to the changes occurring in the lives of his East Germans fans.
Some historians believe that this concert quickened the fall of the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany in 1989, as well as the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Below you will find a copy of the English translation of a list of musicians and their reasons for being censored by the Soviet Union, as well as a video of the significant Bruce Springsteen concert in 1988, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.