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.