Falling down the memory hole: Reflections on the 1980s Soviet counterculture, Part 2

My personal involvement with ‘the system’ had seemingly innocent origins. All through my adolescent years, I had been dreaming of becoming a rock musician. Of course, harboring such dreams, especially by one born in the Soviet Union, smacked of a childish naiveté. For one thing, the Soviet authorities viewed rock music as a political and cultural deviation—and a sad result of the influence of ‘the rotten West.’ Theoretically, it was possible to join a low-profile commercial band and play in restaurants and at weddings, but I aspired to higher (or at least different) things.

But in pursuing my dreams, I did not appreciate another type of obstacle to my dreams.  Spheres of influence in the USSR were clearly divided along many lines, including nationality. The Russian majority firmly controlled the government and military (you needed personal connections or better still, you had to be born into the right family to be able to get on the fast track to success). The Jews dominated culture and entertainment—clearly a demotion from their former positions as leading communists. In fact, this demotion was one of the reasons the Jews felt wronged by the Soviet system and why many of them were in silent or no-so-silent opposition to it. But in all artistic spheres and in a great many other liberal spheres, the Jews reigned supreme. For instance, in the early 1980s, the vast majority of movie actors, musicians, writers and journalists were Jews. They were  slightly less represented in the medical and legal professions, but still Jews promoted Jews, so if you weren’t one, it was useless to try to squeeze into certain professions.

In vocational college I befriended a classmate — a Jewish guy who, as it turned out, had similar musical aspirations.  From him I had learned that it was possible to get around all the official obstacles by forming an underground rock band. The logic behind it was simple: unlike the official music scene that existed under the thumb of the authorities, the underground venue offered a wider exposure to the ‘right’ public, and it was free from any censorship. In other words, it meant freedom to pursue one’s dreams and to become famous among the free-thinking public without being hindered by Soviet officialdom. Thus, step by step I began to submerge myself into the world of ‘the system’. I quickly noticed that it had a heavy Jewish presence, but I did not mind it. It seemed to me that because Jews had access to otherwise unobtainable resources and to precious information, the Jews who stood at the helm of ‘the system’ were in an excellent position to create a rich and vibrant cultural life.

In reality however, ‘the people’, even the Jews among them, survived on mere crumbs of information that trickled in from the West — a smattering of musical recordings, journals, and books which managed to find their way around the Iron Curtain. Although an average ‘man of the system’ regarded himself as an intellectual (again, women were treated as nothing more than sex objects), his cultural baggage was usually quite poor—typically limited to knowing the names of famous authors, musicians and artists. In fact, the art of pretending to be familiar with works of literature, general psychology, politics, and arts was perfected among ‘system people’, however, it was not hard to learn the minimum required for someone aspiring to a reputation for good taste:  there were just a couple of novels that were considered to be ‘en vogue’ (Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and for some reason, Faulkner), a few artists (Salvador Dali, Picasso, Chagall, and Modigliani). Then, of course, there was Sigmund Freud, and, among movie directors, Fellini. In music it was all about early-70s rock, experimental music, and free jazz.

The primary and almost the sole receivers and distributors of the cultural detritus that arrived from the West were Jews. At least they knew something about what was happening on those distant foreign shores. They were therefore positioned to sow on Soviet soil all the new (and the not-so-new) influences: The Hare Krishna movement, the Summer of Love, Indian philosophies, Ravi Shankar, psychedelic art, surrealism, free jazz—what had become the American culture of the left—another story with a large Jewish sub-plot (see here, p. 76ff).

The interesting thing was that since the Jews were the only Soviet group that had relatively free access to the West and had relatives abroad and even the ability to emigrate, they could propagate whatever they wanted and could interpret things the way they wanted. There were no other witnesses, no other sources of information. No one could contradict them or present a different point of view. Therefore, their version became the only game in town.

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Of course, it took me a considerable time—more than a year—to start noticing peculiarities and contradictions of ‘the system’. At the beginning of my own ‘system’ career I was concerned with things like going through proper initiation. Namely, I was introduced to drugs. To make my image complete, I quickly became an ardent pacifist as well. Formally, I was still a student. My buddy and I walked around school exhibiting a ‘devil may care’ attitude. More and more often we arrived stoned, or we simply skipped out on school, sometimes for weeks at a time.  Finally, we dropped out altogether.

It was the time when Brezhnev died and Andropov came to power. For me, it turned out to be a memorable time. Andropov immediately started a campaign against slackers, social parasites and ‘spies’. Rumors about street arrests of straight citizens and police searches in the metro began to circulate around the city. During those years and later, I was frequently arrested and threatened with a prison term on all kinds of trumped-up charges. But luckily for me, the prison term never materialized. Gradually, I even got to know the KGB men who took a personal interest in my ‘activities’. (They were all Jews, even thought all the senior officers I met were Russians.) Curiously, despite (or maybe because) of their interest in my humble person, by that time I was not involved in any political activity, and the only thing I could be justly charged with was my lack of gainful employment.

Nevertheless, the KGB officers tried to charge me with a double murder, a terrorist attack, a house robbery, rape and espionage. Since I was unemployed and living in Leningrad (which was open to foreigners), I never even got near any classified information, and I really could not figure out how I might be useful to the CIA or MI5. Neither was I ever engaged in any criminal activity. All the discussions of my crimes ended with the threat to put me behind bars unless I agreed to collaborate with the ‘organs’. I would dutifully take an officer’s business card and promise to call as soon as the CIA or MI5 or a terrorist group contacted me, or even if I hear anything related to these matters.

But the occasion never arose. I might just add that the few times I was arrested with other ‘people’, Jewish guys were let go right away. But a couple of times my ‘partner in crime’ was a Russian, and they were beaten in the cell. It might be just a coincidence, although I don’t think so.

Go to  Part 3.

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