by Aislinn McNiece
“Rock and roll is our greatest export.” – Billy Joel, Free to Rock
The lights went down as the screen went up in Gaston Hall for the premiere of Free to Rock, a documentary exploring the soft power of rock and roll as a force for change behind the Iron Curtain between 1955 and 1991.
The film, directed by 4-time Emmy award winner Jim Brown and narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, features interviews with Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev, Billy Joel, Soviet rock legends Stas Namin, Valery Saifudinov, Andrey Makarevich, and Pete Anderson, among many others, as well as Cold War performance footage from The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Metallica.
Documenting the progression of rock and roll in the Soviet Union, from its initial introduction behind the Iron Curtain to its massive popularity in the Leningrad and Moscow Rock Clubs, the film uses live performance, interviews, and imagery to examine rock & roll as a disruptive force in the USSR.
“The electric guitar was a symbol of freedom for us, because the people who played them could express themselves freely,” said Yuriy Shishkov, who built electric guitars for Soviet rockers in the cellar of his home in Russia in order to avoid detection. In 1990, he moved to the United States and became a Fender Guitar Master Builder.
Attempts to Suppress Movement
When rock and roll first made its way behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet government used the KGB to attempt to suppress the movement. Both rockers and their fans could be arrested, beaten, or worse, but rock and roll, true to its values, would not be defeated. Distribution was covert, often in the form of “bone records,” or records created from old x-ray scans, and distributors could be punished as harshly as the rockers themselves for what was seen as their participation in capitalism.
Rocker Pete Anderson remembers being beaten late at night in a park by two men who he assumes were members of the KGB. Similarly, rocker Valery Saifudinov tells stories of being followed and learning to keep a “third eye” in the back of his head.
As the power and popularity of rock and roll in the USSR became clear, the CIA began to fund Radio Free Europe, a radio station broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain. On the Radio Free Europe airwaves were news of anti-Soviet protests, unfiltered world news without Soviet propaganda, and – late at night – rock and roll.
Oleg Kalugin, former Major General of the KGB, called rock and roll an “ideological offensive, a cultural offensive” with a role critical to the subversion of the Soviet political order. Rock and roll sparked a youth movement that alienated the younger generation from the communist system, humanizing the West to the Soviets and the Soviets to the West.
Rock and Roll as Force in Ending Cold War
As the first Western musicians played in the Soviet Union, starting with the Beach Boys and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, followed by Elton John, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s, the soft power of music became a force in ending the Cold War. The slogan for the Wall Concert in Prague following Prague Spring captures this power of rock and roll:
“The tanks roll out and the Stones roll in.”
A panel moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, followed the film premiere. Panelists included Andras Simonyi, former Hungarian Ambassador and a rocker in his own right; Jim Brown, award-winning director of the documentary; Joanna Stingray, the first American producer to bring Soviet rock and roll to the West (and Hoya parent); Stas Namin, Soviet rock legend; and William Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the main funders of the film.
Ambassador Schneider asked panelists about their hands-on experiences with rock and roll in the Cold War and what effect the movie had on their understanding its power, to which Andras Simonyi replied, “Rock and roll is not soft diplomacy. It’s as hard as nuclear weapons.”