Elvis: Behind The Iron Curtain

By Narek MarkarianJul 28, 2006
Elvis: Behind The Iron Curtain
Along with freedom of speech and Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley was one of the forbidden fruits in Soviet Union. To those, who considered themselves to be non-conformists or dissidents Elvis was the embodiment of Freedom. Not embodiment of America as some try to present this, because hardly any Soviet citizen knew what America was like and hardly any American knew what Soviet Union was like. They could only make assumptions based on both Governments’ propaganda. But the moment Soviet citizens heard Elvis singing, the variance between what they heard and what their Government told them became obvious. Elvis’ songs were about things and feelings they came across in their every day life, he was an ordinary guy from an ordinary family, who happened to have an extraordinary talent. It took as much as about 25 years for Elvis records to be officially released in USSR. In early 80’s on the peak of the meltdown of communism, the only Soviet record company “Melodiya” released a vinyl disk with Elvis’ hits of 1956. Few years later another release followed with pretty much same material. But the most important thing was that people managed to get Elvis records as early as in 1957, when the echo of Stalin’s regime was very strong. In Moscow and in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg now) there were so-called black markets where for huge money people could by things brought from the other side of the iron curtain. We may only guess how first Elvis records appeared there, but the most probable version would be that some diplomat smuggled them in. Later that vinyl disk was copied on the material that is used for X-ray photos. USSR teenagers called them “ribs”. All records of foreign artists could be purchased on “ribs”. In case of discovery of such records the KGB would proclaim their owners public enemies and send their families and them to work camps in Siberia. In the 50’s Elvis was the cause of many scandals in the USA: he was accused of rising teenage violation rate and unbecoming conduct, and naturally authorities did not approve of teenagers listening to rock’n’roll, but no American or British fan would be arrested for that. But Elvis mania continued in the USSR. Even being suspected of listening to Elvis Presley a man would be unable to enter the communist party which meant that he would never get a promotion in his life. But people continued listening to that music. Naturally that was a very small group of people, who lived in big cities, yet these people were enthusiasts. Western music made a bigger burst into the USSR after Nikita Khruschov’s period. Only that time the Beatles were the ones to lead that invasion. With records becoming more easily accessible, totalitarian regime less strict Elvis was playing a second role. In the 70’s the KGB surely possessed the information on Elvis’ being an FBI agent, and definitely Kremlin resisted his infiltration more than anyone else’s. That also explains why “Aloha” never aired in the USSR. Yet by the 80’s not only Elvis records were released, but even a fan club was established. It was called “Club of Elvis Presley’s friends”. The president and the main enthusiast of the club Natalya Sevnitskaya organized Elvis parties and even managed to read public lectures on Elvis’ music. After her death the fan club continued to grow, and an exhibition of Natalya’s unique Elvis collection was held in Moscow Music Museum after Glinka. The current process of revaluation of legacy of artists like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and others evidently has an outcall in Russia nowadays. More than ever the whole world enjoys and realizes the greatness of those artists. Extremely talented young singer Michael Buble performing standards receives acknowledgment throughout the world and Russia as well. Elvis parties in Moscow take place more and more often, the number of Elvis websites, published books continues to grow. If ten years ago in Russian CD stores I could hardly find anything more sophisticated than “Elvis: Greatest Hits Collection” today countries of former USSR have a much better choice of Elvis records. Of course most of them are bootlegs, yet to me music is a lot more important. “Elvis: 2nd To None” compilation became the first Elvis album to be officially released in Russia by BMG. In general, the perception of Elvis by former USSR countries changed, Elvis starts to get the respect and acknowledgment he truly deserves. The power of Elvis Presley’s music had a mysterious, magic and somewhat primal force that touched the hearts of many millions throughout the world. With his indescribable talent, ability to dream and sincerity Elvis was the first man to destroy the iron curtain and conquer entire world, unifying people of different religion, culture and political orientation with his wonderful music and the amazing gift, given from above.
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Iron Man (profilecontact) wrote on Aug 1, 2006report abuse
I’d just like to repeat that nobody would be arrested or face any consequences for listening to Elvis’ records – doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about 1956 or 1977. Yes, you were facing the risk of getting to jail for reselling LPs or buying them in USSR. But it was not prohibited to get his records into the Soviet Union for your personal use. There was this talk about such problems in DDR, but I know nothing about it.
It was only one book in the previous 4 years, all the others were published in the period of 1997-1999 as far as I remember – a total of three books, all pretty ridiculous (I do not count Are You Lonesome Tonight? since in my humble opinion it has nothing to do with Elvis) plus Last Train To Memphis in either 2001 or 2002. I completely agree with the statement that it appeared to be translated with computer software.
About the 13-th volume of the mp3 collection – as far as I know it contained 1969-1972 concerts, but I have no idea why it can’t be found. The rest of the volumes are available at Gorbushka as you are saying – haven’t been there for a while now so you probably know it better but I haven’t seen them elsewhere in the last year and a half. And I was told that the label behind it was closed last winter, so that’s it. I haven’t heard about any parties in the last few years, if they have taken place – it probably was a kind of an underground party. Good luck!
Narek (profilecontact) wrote on Aug 1, 2006report abuse
It is not my intention to write anything anti-soviet. In fact I'm the most pro-Soviet non-communist man of 22 that you will ever find. I know all the good and bad sides of my country and country's history as well.
Let me repeat that imprisoning a person was not grounded by "listening to Elvis Presley" or "buying/selling Elvis Presley records" it is too primitive. the authorities had many a lot more general justifications like "Connections with the West" etc
Second, I find that having books published ieven every four years in Russia is already a progress. Compared to 0 books from 1956-1990. As for the translation of Guralnicks book, you mentioned a technical issue, whic I completely agree with. the translation was as lousy as possible, I had a feeling it was done by a computer software. Calling D.J Fontana disc jockey Fontana, was really something. I got the English version too of course these can't be compared.
As for the pirated mp3 collections all volumes are available now except volume 13 which was never released. Ain't got no idea why, probably those were superstitious pirates.
As for the TV specials well at least two aired this winter one on ORT the ther on RTR. So it wasn't long ago.
As for events, yes the fan club indeed is kinda slow, but several parties in Moscow were organized since New Year and I was even invited to sing at them, just couldn't make it.
As for taking you personal, well you did sound kinda personal at first, so I'm glad to be wrong.
Iron Man (profilecontact) wrote on Jul 31, 2006report abuse
You have probably missed the ending of my phrase. I was talking about the death of Stalin as well. You, most probably, know about the amnesty. This was before Stalin’s death. Stalin died in 1953. This means it was before Elvis’ recording of That’s All Right Mama. This is easy to calculate. There is no evidence of anybody being sent to Siberia after that, especially because of listening to Elvis records. The point is – his records were not officially sold but he was not prohibited, as, for example, some writers were. The fear time in Soviet Union died with Joseph Stalin. Nobody ever would be sent to jail for listening to Elvis records after that. Getting ribs is another story and I am claiming the same treatment would be applied to a person selling ribs with Lev Leshenko or whoever. The same treatment would be applied to a person trying to sell any LP of any performer in the world or to anybody trying to sell anything at all. This is absurd but has nothing to do with music.
I claim that at the time of Leonid Brezhnev it was no problem to get with an Elvis record into our country – my grandmother’s friend owned some British LPs of Elvis which are now a part of my collection. And they were brought in in the 60-s and the 70-s. Contrary, for example, to the records of Vladimir Vysockiy, because his LPs released in France were confiscated from my father when he was getting in from a working trip to France in the middle or even late 70-s.
Enthusiastic fans were a rare thing in the 50-s, especially because of the peak of Cold War and a very patriotic feeling in Soviet citizens hearts after the win in WWII. Only diplomats had access to Elvis' records, ribs were not in practice yet, but I claim once again: nobody would be sent to Siberia because of Elvis even in 1956. For selling his records – yes, but only because it was speculation.
I have a great amount of CDs bought in 96 in 97 with For Sales In Russia Only stickers. These are CDs produced in Europe and USA, and they were officially brought into our country. I remember many of the Double Features and other CDs officially being sold at the Soyuz shops at the time, not to mention that Arkadiy always had (official) CDs for sale (he had all the double features CDs, most of the regular CDs and almost no compilations not to mention bootlegs – all in all from one hundred to two hundred CDs being sold at any time) – and this was not black market.
Last Train To Memphis / Careless Love was published either 4 of 5 years ago. It had so many mistakes and was so terribly translated that I wish I hadn’t wasted the money on it – I luckily have the English version of both books. The Revelations of The Memphis Mafia were to be published a couple of years ago already and nothing happened. The site of the 'official' Elvis Presley fan club doesn’t see any updates for more than a year. The last TV program about Elvis was aired about a year ago – this is no news at all. Most of Russian sites have no useful information, the only one that does is on English only. Others just try to find out who has the right to be titled The Official Elvis Presley Fan Club and can’t say anything about the music and the person. There’s a lot of people out there who know Elvis because of JXL or songs like Love Me Tender, but a compilation of greatest hits is enough for 99% of those who know who Elvis Presley is in Russia. I am not among these 99% and this only makes my search of material harder. The pirated mp3 collection you were talking about is not on sale anymore (if only in Gorbushka and with the absence of most volumes). BTW, Gorbushka is no longer the biggest market of pirated CDs in Moscow.
I did not try to make it personal, but you took it that way – I’m sorry, it was not my intention. But I see that most of what you have written has nothing to do with the reality. I have lived in Russia for almost all of my life and I’ve been born here, and parents were, and my grandparents were too. And I do have very different information from my family and family friends about how it was with foreign music (including Elvis) in my country before the ending of existence of USSR and I luckily am a living witness of it’s progress in the last 10 years. And my opinion is not formed by TV programs or anti-soviet books.
Narek (profilecontact) wrote on Jul 31, 2006report abuse
OK let me answer in detail to you.

1st "This form of punishing ended in the late 50-s," I was talking about that period. If you were attentive I was talking about 1957 which = late 50's

2nd I libed in Russia for eight years and still visit Moscow every year

3d "mother says that every single pupil that studied with her at school and at the institute as well had that hair-do and nobody told them anything " I don't see how this contradicts to my statement that during 60-70s the meltdown began. And naturalyy for listening to Beatles no-one would arrest you

4th "10 years ago, contrary to what Narek says, there was already a great amount of official and even some bootleg material available in Russia." Since BMG owns RCA catalogue it is the only company that can officially release Elvis records worldwide. You can chaeck with their website that Elvis: 2nd to None was their first official release in CIS. As to the CD's that could be purchased in Soyuz well :))) I was among those who did so, their choice was never bigger than 6-7 CD> 5 of which were Something like Greatest Hits compilations

5th "(released by BMG Russia, or whatever it’s named) was Elvis Number 1 Hits in the fall of 2002" Maybe you're right I'll have to check that still this doesn't change the idea that Elvis records are now being officially released in Russa

6th "where a very enthusiastic and nice fan named Arkadiy was selling them" enthusiastic fans as I mention existed in 50's too. That's not the point, I myself was buying stuff from Makar, I'm sure you know him too he's number one collector in Moscow. What I say now labels are becoming enthusiastic too. You can't pesuade a common music lover buy a cassette with horrible record of say "Desert Storm" while I as a fan was looking frward to getting it. But a regular music lover will gladly buy 2nd to none. That's the difference

7th Don't you see that this is USSR government's excuse? Of course no point in Soviet constutution or criminal code said that you'll be sent to Siberia for listening to Elvis. But the criminal code said that you will be sent to jail for speculation. And if you are trynig to tell me that Soviet authorities would treat a person that bought Elvis on "ribs" and Lev leshenko on "ribs" the same way well this is "ridiculous"

8th as to the books Last Train to Memphis came out not so long ago. Revelations of the memphis Mafia is being prepared for the release, channels like ORT and RTR made specials about Elvis. 3 of them I have on tape. As for the websites, I myself made at least two and contributd to a number of others. Just type ????? in google and look at all those sites.
When I went to Gorbushka (Moscow's biggest bootleg CD market) in 1998 they could offer me the regular shop stuff and maybe 3-4 interesting CD's for enormous prices. This year every seller had at least 10 Elvis CD's. Not to mention the Elvis mp3 collection that had almost 120 Elvis albums (some very rare). And many foreign fans would dream of buying Jungle room sessions with 8 other albums on one CD for 3 bucks. While in Memphis Jungle Room Sessions costs $40 and is not easy to get

9th and please don't try to present me as a person that knows nothing about Russia, I grew up there, I came to know Elvis' music there, and it still is my best source to buy Elvis stuff from. (Not to count memphis but I've been there just once)
Iron Man (profilecontact) wrote on Jul 30, 2006report abuse
"In case of discovery of such records the KGB would proclaim their owners public enemies and send their families and them to work camps in Siberia." This is absolutely ridiculous! This form of punishing ended in the late 50-s, if not to say right after Stalin’s death in 1953, well, at least, as soon as Nikita Khrushchev became the Soviet leader. And it’s very important that Elvis (contrary to the Beatles, though this problem is overblown as well) was never that much prohibited in Russia. There was no positive media on the matter of Elvis, but it is very little possible that anybody was send to jail or to Siberian camps!
There is just too much propaganda against Soviet Union in Russia (though Narek doesn’t even live in Russia as I am informed) these days and people try to put it down in any way. There was this ridiculous information that people could get to jail if they had a Beatles-like hair-do. My mother says that every single pupil that studied with her at school and at the institute as well had that hair-do and nobody told them anything (this was Moscow of the 60-s and the 70-s). There were no Elvis releases in USSR, yes that’s right, but nobody was punished for listening to them. The X-ray thing is another story – the problem was that people selling them were proclaimed speculators, and this was prohibited in Russia. It had nothing to do with music – if you had Soviet pop-artists on that "ribs" you’d be equally sent to jail once you were caught. This was a form of fighting pirates, which is a much bigger problem these days and is a part every country’s policy!
10 years ago, contrary to what Narek says, there was already a great amount of official and even some bootleg material available in Russia. They could be bought at the Soyuz shops and Moscow’s central book shop, where a very enthusiastic and nice fan named Arkadiy was selling them. Plus, a little minor mistake, the first official Russian Elvis CD (released by BMG Russia, or whatever it’s named) was Elvis Number 1 Hits in the fall of 2002. I even got lucky enough to find a promotional poster. And who is Michael Buble? And where have you seen any parties in Elvis’ name in the last couple of years in Moscow? And where are the new books and websites?
drghanem1 (profilecontact) wrote on Jul 29, 2006report abuse
Very interesting topic, I´ve always been fascinated by the East block and especially the DDR. I once read that an Elvis-fan living in east Berlin once got caught owning a copy of ELVIS-A LEGENDARY PERFORMER volume 3. He had to pay a year´s income as penalty, that´s tough! More on this please...

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