After being trapped in small rooms on a muggy May evening at the Bulgakov Museums with a lot of sweaty people as part of the Moscow Museum Night, where museums and galleries stay open until midnight and entrance is free, Mama and Papa were quite up for a walk. Which is how they, and my Treacherous Big Brother (who had abandoned me at home to go gadding about the city with our parents) came to be passing one of the locations of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art on their way to the museum of the poet Alexander Pushkin’s life and times. And so they decided to nip in and see what that was all about.
Half full of things which 8-year-old boys shouldn’t see, according to the woman who doled out the tickets.
Naturally, that meant that my family headed straight to those parts of the gallery.
In her youth Mama used to listen to scruffy guitar bands she is now banned from singing along to in the car. When we are teenagers, she is doubtless going to be smug about the fact that, back then, very few of them had much play on the radio beyond a few late night John Peel sessions. So she has jumped around at lot at gigs in a fair number of small, grimy, hot concert halls, and outdoor festivals where the toilets were terrible. She is particularly insistent that it wasn’t just the headliners she was interested in, but the support act of the support act. Nothing more unbearable than a 19-year-old who thinks they have found counterculture, even twenty *cough splutter* years on.
Personally, I prefer listening to [insert name of the latest poppy girl music sensation on BBC radio 1]. Mama despairs of me [and also is old so has no idea].
When she came to Russia, however, she discovered that she and all her cohort back home were comprehensively out-cooled by everyone listening to Russian rock in the 80s, which is to say Papa and his friends.
This is because rock music in the Soviet Union was, if not actively banned, officially controlled and improvisation discouraged, and most of the bands performing it were therefore part of a truly underground music scene.
What this meant is that these musicians couldn’t get their music recorded in professional studios, certainly had no airtime anywhere at all, and were extremely limited in the places where they could perform. Gigs in people’s flats were A Thing. Arrests were not unheard of. And the rockers were poor, taking jobs such as caretakers, street sweepers and factory workers to satisfy the need for everyone in the Soviet Union to have an officially recognised job.
The hotbeds of this clearly seditious activity were Moscow, but even more so, St Petersburg. And, oddly, a city way out east, which you can read about in this comprehensive guide to Yekaterinburg by a local.
But word and homemade cassettes got about all over the Soviet Union, in much the same way that samizdat manuscripts were shared of suppressed writings.
So when Perestroika came along, and the Russian underground rock scene was allowed more exposure, actual performance space and bands finally got recording contracts, some of the musicians became extremely well-known, extremely quickly. And some didn’t and were still subject to low-level hassle and obstruction.
Now you might be expecting that, given how repressed they were, and that they are sometimes credited with an actual role in the downfall of the Soviet Union, these people spent a lot of their time singing rousing political protest songs.
In this you would be wrong. No need for any of that when your very existence is sticking two fingers up at Lenin. Neither did they come up with a radical new musical style. But lyrics were considered very important. No meaningless drivel wrapped around a banging hook for your Soviet underground rock bands. Just profoundly poetical explorations of the human condition. With, if you were a punk band, some careful swearing.
Which, to be honest, means that the full glory of the music is often lost on Westerners. See what you think.
Or read this review of underground Russian rock band Krematori (yes, it means exactly what you think).
Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with my Treacherous Big Brother being warned away from some of the exhibitions in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.
Well, the thing is that one of the exhibitions was entitled (in Mama’s head) ‘Mild naughtiness with Soviet icons in the early 90s’ (but actually Zeitgeist by Sergei Borisov). Lots photos of people doing handstands under the giant statue of the Worker and the Communal Farm Worker, sort of thing.
And lumped in with this, lots of photos of Russian underground rock bands and their followers.
Shocking, huh? Might do all sorts of terrible things to an unformed mind. My Treacherous Big Brother’s fashion sense alone could be ruined forever.
Actually, Mama thinks it was probably the photos of young women who were without clothes that was probably the problem. Rather than, you understand, the fact that they were wearing a fur hat and covered in hammer and sickle stickers in a blatantly subversive act.
It was definitely the fact that the next exhibition was a collection of photos of a nudist colony that had the docents frowning when Mama wandered in behind my Treacherous (and quite thrilled) Big Brother.
Mama felt obliged to cover his eyes and march him straight out again, although in reality, she thinks that pictures of people of all shapes and sizes going about barbecuing and playing volleyball and so on in a perfectly matter of fact manner is considerably more innocent and suitable for small children than any number of classical paintings of young women wearing diaphanous scarf clothing, baring her breasts while staring provocatively at the painter (he hopes).
Luckily the top floor was an entirely uncontroversial exhibition of static film making. You might think that the point of using film over mere photography is so you can capture actual movement, but Mama is here to tell you that there is something quite mesmerizing about watching people fish.
Anyway, a bit of a poke round the website reveals that the Moscow Museum of Modern Art has not one but five locations in Moscow, so we shall have to go and keep trying to figure out quite how the MMOMA is different from the Multimedia Art Museum, which also features exhibitions of mostly photography and film. Unless it is indeed that they put all of the exhibitions that you might not necessarily want an under ten to go and see in the space without the Lego in the foyer. But I can’t say that the family made a thorough investigation of the gallery on this occasion, being anxious to get on with the museum going marathon that they had embarked on.
And if you want to read about another form of underground music in the USSR, read this post about how they used to burn banned records onto actual X-rays to smuggle them about.
Address: 17 Ermolaevsky Pereulok, Moscow, 123001
Opening: Monday – Sunday 12 noon – 8pm (9pm on Thursdays). Closed every third Monday in the month.
Admission: 350 roubles per adult, 150 roubles kids over seven, kids under seven free.
Getting there: Mama has no idea. She was just following Papa. Somewhere between Mayakovskaya metro (green line), the Bulgakov Museum(s) and the Arbat? Just look at a map, will ya? We gave you the address.
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