When Heavy Metal Thunder Rumbled in Moscow

When Heavy Metal Thunder Rumbled in Moscow

Why you should care

Because rock concerts in the twilight years of the Soviet Union symbolized the country’s opening to the West.

Casting his eyes across the sea of people, guitar grasped firmly in hand, Metallica front man James Hetfield had never seen such a sight. Hundreds of thousands of Russian festivalgoers were packed onto the airfield, hemmed in by stony-faced cops as a helicopter whirled above, struggling to maintain control of the increasingly unruly crowd. Mosh pits, after all, were totally new to the Soviet Union, and the authorities must’ve been spooked. “We saw the transformation of a closed-down society to freedom right before us,” Hetfield recalled in 2016. “It was awesome.”

That 1991 festival, called Monsters of Rock, and the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival before it, brought Western hard rock acts to the Soviet capital just as the communist empire was opening up. Long before the failed reforms and broken promises that followed the Soviet collapse in late 1991, a sense of optimism had gripped the country in its final years — and metal played a key role. “In both ’89 and ’91, it was like a display of solidarity from the world with what was going on in the Soviet Union,” says music critic Artemy Troitsky. “It was really a great feeling to feel like we were part of a big, wide world.”

There were a lot of people just like me, who were into rock music in a broader sense and wanted to see that first huge Western-style concert in Moscow.

Vladimir Kozlov, Russian journalist and author

Before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began implementing reforms in the late 1980s, foreign rock was effectively banned behind the Iron Curtain. Still, dedicated fans found ways to keep up with Western acts and even get their hands on smuggled or bootleg records. But seeing their favorite artists live was mostly out of the question. “If records did make it,” says journalist and author Vladimir Kozlov, “the bands themselves did not.” So when foreign performers began trickling in, their arrival marked a significant turning point.

One of the first major events was a 1987 concert featuring Carlos Santana, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers and Bonnie Raitt, which attracted some 18,000 spectators, according to press reports. But the Moscow Music Peace Festival of 1989 brought a more contemporary — and definitely louder — lineup: Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row, Cinderella, the Scorpions and Bon Jovi, as well as local acts. Cleverly billed as a “peace” concert to dodge lingering official suspicion of rock and roll, the show was organized by prominent American manager Doc McGhee and a Soviet counterpart, Stas Namin, and took place over two days in mid-August at Moscow’s 81,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium.

For young concertgoers like Kozlov, who’d traveled some 600 miles from the neighboring Belarusian Soviet Republic to join some 70,000 to 80,000 of his curious peers, it was a momentous event. “There were a lot of people just like me, who were into rock music in a broader sense,” he says, “and wanted to see that first huge Western-style concert in Moscow.” Besides the performances themselves, the festival also treated Soviet fans to the typical trappings of a major music event few locals had ever seen, such as top-shelf sound gear and lighting equipment.

Within two years, a cabal of political hardliners in the Soviet leadership had grown fed up with the increasing tempo of change in their communist kingdom. Seeking to derail Gorbachev’s reform agenda and revert to heavy-handed rule, they attempted to seize power in August 1991. Their coup failed, thanks largely to demonstrations in Moscow led by future President Boris Yeltsin. Democracy and civil society had won the day, further boosting popular belief that dictatorial control was a thing of the past.

Just one month later, the Monsters of Rock festival was underway at Tushino Airfield in northwest Moscow. It had been dedicated, according to co-organizer Troitsky, to the city’s “heroic youth” who’d helped foil the coup. This time, though, the concert drew at least 200,000 people — even more, according to some of the performers, which besides Metallica also included AC/DC and soon-to-be metal legends Pantera. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the chugging guitars of “Enter Sandman” must have struck the hundreds of thousands of newly empowered youth. So electric was the atmosphere at Tushino that even some of the cops reportedly joined in. “After, like, three or four songs, they’re like, ‘Fuck this!’” Hetfield said. “They took off their stuff, and they’re out there head-banging and having a good time.”

So, it seems, were many other youngsters across the Soviet Union. “September 1991 was a time when we felt like everything was possible,” Troitsky says, “and the democratic, Westernized youth was the boss.” Merely three months later, the Soviet Union had disintegrated into 15 separate countries, forcing nearly 300 million people to reorient their political and cultural compasses. For most of the successor states, what followed was a painful transition to various forms of flawed democracy, all but wiping out hopes for a brighter future.

But for a few fleeting years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soviet youth had dared to dream — and in Moscow, metal provided much of the soundtrack.

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