(E-E) Ev.g.e.n.i.j ..K.o.z.l.o.     Berlin                                                  

      (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov: Leningrad 80s >>

Alexis Ipatovtsev about Aquarium's Leningrad Period

An interview with Hannelore Fobo

Introduction: Soviet Rock: From Reel-to-Reel to Vinyl >>

Part 1: Aquarium's Magnitizdat Records >>
Аквариум и магнитиздат

Part 2: Aquarium's Archive
Архив Аквариума

Saint Petersburg 31 March, 2019

Part 2: Aquarium's Archive

You said “archive”, and now we are coming to a clue subject. In your recent professional life you decided to dedicate some of your time to …

… Ordnung, Ordnung [order, order (German); laughs]

One of several boxes containing Aquarium archival material.  Video frame from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

One of several boxes containing Aquarium archival material.
Video frame from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

… yes, order into what otherwise is just boxes, like, for instance here we have one of these boxes with pictures and so on. You said that you’ve been involved with the group since the mid-1980s, but I also know that you spent many years outside the country, you lived in France, in Paris, where you worked for the radio, had a full professional life. What happened? All of a sudden you are thinking about putting order into masses of documents and all these samizdat and magnitizdat editions and all of that. What is the impulse for such a labyrinthine work? I imagine it´s like going through a labyrinth – looking for dates, establishing dates, finding out about pictures: when were they taken and so on.   

Some people said – I don’t remember who – you can enter the Aquarium, but you cannot get out of it, and it’s absolutely true. Not only for musicians, but also for those who are around. Once you get in, you cannot go out. Even when I decided to leave Russia and started to work in France – I worked for the French National Radio for twenty years –, I still had it on my mind. Not only because I kept the contact. I was always very aware of the fact that I had a different identity. I was not only a journalist writing about economy and speaking about the European Union and all this serious stuff. I still had this past of being part of Aquarium, and besides, I had been a music journalist, too. Andrey Burlaka, Sergey Chernov, Sergey Afonin and me we were the editors of a magazine called “R I O”. It lasted from late 1986 till the early '90s. We did a samizdat magazine. It was a rock magazine with rock chronicles of that time. As a journalist I started in samizdat. In the early nineties, I had my own music show on a local radio called Radio Baltica. Then I went to Paris and continued to work as a radio journalist, first in the cultural field, then more in economics, politics, and then in history, with history programmes. Then I had enough, I quit the radio, and Boris proposed me to take care of his archives.

How did Boris understand that he needed someone to take care of his archives? Was there a single moment where all of a sudden it became clear that if you didn’t start it would all get messed up?

We were sitting in his studio discussing the possibility of doing another concert somewhere in Paris. I just saw a lot of photos lying around. One of them was David Bowie’s photo with Boris in New York, and he said, “Oh! Where did you find this photo?” I said, “Well, it was somewhere under the sofa. I never saw this photo before.” He said, “I haven’t seen this photo either for thirty years.” And I was like ”Why don’t you put some order to it?” And he said, “You want to put some order to it? Go ahead.” I said, “O.k., I’m going to take care of it. When was this photo taken?” “In 1989.” “1989? I doubt it”. And I started to figure out that it was taken in December ‘87. Our memory plays tricks on us very often, you know.

It’s a full two years.

Exactly. So I started to compare the sources, started with this big data that we have more and more. Started to compare haircuts, to compare different sources of information. There is a sort of grass-roots website called “Aquarium spravochnik [handbook]“ where people are writing their memories about certain events. Half of it is just fantasy, the other half is true. We have to put order into all this so that we won’t live in a world with alternative facts. There are no alternative facts. A fact is a fact. We can have different commentaries on established facts.

It sounds as if you are almost obsessed with the wish to get things right, correct? In the right order, with the right dates, and not just letting go of everything.

You know, I’m obsessed by the American way of fact checking. I love when people fact check. When I was a professional journalist writing or speaking about something, I would double-check everything – my own memory first of all, before I would say “in October 1975” or something. I would check whether it was really October or maybe September. Because then you would quote from me, and then the whole story would continue on the basis of my writing. I also think that we don’t have established dates for ground-breaking events. For example: Aquarium, one of the best-known Russian bands, if not the best-known. When did they play their first concert? No one could answer me this question. I found the diary, I found the date.

You found the diary?

I found the diary, and I found the date.

Did they write, “This is our first concert.”?  

Yes, textually.


Yes. “We are playing our first public performance today.” With a comment of each member of the band. So I have an established date for the first public performance of the band.

This is the type of document that every person involved in archival work would just love to get.

Absolutely. I was lucky, but it is just a rare example, because the rest is very difficult. Recently somebody said to me, “Do you know when Boris’s album ‘Radio Silence’ was released?” I said, “Yes, in 1989”. “Correct, but when exactly?” Wikipedia says strange things: the 22nd of May. Boris was in the David Letterman show on the 14th of July 1989. Why would the promotion be two months after the release of the album? Very strange, indeed. I started talking with Boris’s manager because Boris doesn’t remember the dates, and called different people who were involved with the release – no one remembered the date! Finally I found a promotional photo taken in April ‘89, and it had a release date: 13th of June. Then I traced back where the error came from. In a Soviet newspaper called “Moskovksy Komsomolets” in ‘89 someone wrote that on the 22nd of May there was to be the release of Boris’s album “Radio Silence”. And everybody has always been quoting from this Soviet source. I wonder where they found this date.

That’s how they quote.

Yes, they quote and quote and quote a lie. It's the same thing with what I told you before the interview, Kuryokhin’s “Lenin was a Mushroom”. If you look at the website dedicated to the history of Soviet TV, it was on the 17th of May in 1991. But this doesn’t make sense. Had it really been that late, it wouldn’t have had such a fantastic impact – a revolutionary impact. In fact, the show was already known by January. I couldn’t find out when exactly it first appeared on TV, but it might have been re-broadcast later, in May.  

So, I understand that you see the history of Soviet rock in the context of the history of the country.

Not only.

And you need to get the dates right in order to get the history of the country right, is that something…

Look, I’m not an egomaniac. I don’t want to write a book, I don’t want to write memoirs. What I want to do – I want to create a skeleton of facts that other people will be able to use to write their books. Like we have this book of Joanna, you know?

Joanna Stingray.

Joanna Stringray's book "Стингрей в стране чудес” (Stingray v strane chudes/Stingray in Wonderland) was released in March 2019 and became an immediate success. On the cover are pictures showing Joanna Stingray and stars from the Leningrad '80s music and art scene, among them Boris Grebenshikov (Grebenshchikov]) Sergey Kuryokhin and Viktor Tsoy. Video frame from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

Joanna Stringray's book "Стингрей в стране чудес” (Stingray v strane chudes/Stingray in Wonderland) was released in March 2019 and became an immediate success. On the cover are pictures showing Joanna Stingray and stars from the Leningrad '80s music and art scene, among them Boris Grebenshikov (Grebenshchikov]) Sergey Kuryokhin and Viktor Tsoy more >>.
Video frame from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

Yes, it’s a fantastic book of impressions of that time, but she doesn’t have written dates in her archive, so sometimes it’s very impressionistic, I would say more >>.

You wouldn’t use it for a study of material…

I would use it as a study of her impressions of that time. But if I were a scientist, I would work with documents. And oral history, personal memory is just part of the history. But you cannot write a history of anything based only on individual memoirs. You can have many of them, but you still need the work of a historian. And a historian works with individual memoirs and with established facts. So I’m trying to establish as many little facts as I can. And then we’ll see where we will go from there.

Hannelore Fobo (left) and Joanna Stringray (right) holding (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov's personalised poster for Joanna Stringray, a reprint from his 1985 collage KINO, the legendary Leningrad band. The poster displays photographs of Kino's band members Viktor Tsoy, Yury Kasparyan (Kasparan), Georgy Guryanov, and Alexander Titov. At that time, Alexander Titov played with both Aquarium and Kino. The picture was taken during Joanna Stingray's reception on the occasion of her book launch "Стингрей в стране чудес” (Stingray in Wonderland) at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, Saint Peterburg, 29 March 2019.

Hannelore Fobo (left) and Joanna Stringray (right) holding (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov's personalised poster for Joanna Stringray, a reprint from his 1985 collage KINO, the legendary Leningrad band. The poster displays photographs of Kino's band members Viktor Tsoy, Yury Kasparyan (Kasparan), Georgy Guryanov, and Alexander Titov. At that time, Alexander Titov played with both Aquarium and Kino.
The picture was taken during Joanna Stingray's reception on the occasion of her book launch "Стингрей в стране чудес” (Stingray in Wonderland) at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, Saint Peterburg, 29 March 2019 more >>.

But for a band like Aquarium we need to find the release dates of each album, the most important dates in their history – the first TV appearance, the first official record in the West, the first official record in the East and all the stuff like this. That I’ve just finished doing. The ground-breaking dates. The first nationwide TV appearance – I know the date now –, stuff like this. This is important for the history of the band, this is important for historic… for those who will study, I hope, one day, will write the history of the second St Petersburg culture, what we call “parallel culture”. Because Petersburg is a unique case in the Soviet period of Russian history when quite a large group of artists and simply citizens of this country decided not to be dissidents, not to be anti-Soviet political activists, but to stop being Soviet people, to start being non-Soviet.

What would it mean to be non-Soviet? I mean, you wouldn’t escape… you would still have to conform to certain rules and regulations, you wouldn’t be able not to go to the army, for instance, unless you decided to pretend that you were insane or something. I mean, could you lead a life within society and still parallel to it? How would that go?

It depends on how strong your imagination is. You know, a young kid – he is taking a car and going with this car on a blanket. And this is much more real for the kid than what is going on outside – the real car, right? His car may be dirty, yet it is absolutely perfect. And he can play for hours with this little toy, right? So the idea to make a record on a reel-to-reel tape was this game. We were imagining that this is a record [shows the tape]. And they were imagining that they were real rock stars. Mike Naumenko had this song with a line called “I’m sitting in the loo reading Rolling Stone” [“Я сижу в сортире и читаю «Роллинг Стоун”]. I mean, you can cut my ear, 99% of Soviet listeners didn’t know what “Rolling Stone” is. Because no one ever saw a Rolling Stone magazine. But when you came to Mike Naumenko’s home, you would not speak about Soviet reality, you would say, “Hey, have you read the news in the latest Rolling Stone issue? Oh, not yet? Oh, you know that Keith Richards is putting out his solo record? – Oh really?” That would be the conversation.

On the basis of what … if they didn’t have the journals at hand, how would they know what was the latest news they had?

You would have a friend at university, a student from Finland who would bring the latest [New] Musical Express. Somewhere I still have a heap of Musical Express magazines from 1985, ‘87 I took from Seva [Gakkel], from Boris. And I remember, everybody was coming here to read them. And that was the topic of conversation. “Oh, have you heard The Smiths split?” That would be the topic. It depends on what you are interested in. It was like this because in the Soviet Union you could not be a citizen and behave like a citizen, which means a person responsible for the destiny of your country. The only way was not to look at it.

To ignore it?

I mean, if you cannot clean the shit, what you can do? You can swear or you can just not look at it. And that’s a solution, you know.

So, the state wouldn’t get back to you and force you to look at it?

The state could get you if you went against the state. We were not against the state. We were parallel to the state. We didn’t exist for the state. For example, the state imposed a formal obligation. Of course, there is no market economy, so there is no unemployment, right? But there was a Soviet obligation that you had to work somewhere. If you don’t work for more than three or four months, you are put in prison, right? So, everybody was supposed to work, but… and that was an ingenious invention. My parents told me that I had to have a scientific career. Be a mathematician, go to the Academy of Science, na-na-na, have a career. Don’t study literature, because it’s a sort of ideological discipline. Study mathematics, because then they will not get you, they will allow you not to go to the army. All right. And then I saw these people, like Boris for example, who also graduated from the university, working as a night watchmen. And it’s still okey. So I said, oh, maybe after I finish university I shouldn’t pursue my scientific career. Maybe I should just become a night watchman and start to translate… at the time I wanted to translate the Rock’n’Roll Encyclopedia into Russian.

Boris Grebenshikov (cello) and Sergey Kuryokhin (saxophone) during a jam session at the “5-я студия” / The Fifth Studio, also known as “Театр Эрика Горошевского” / Erik Goroshevsky Theatre, a section of the "Club 81“ located on prospekt Chernishevskogo 3. Leningrad, 1984 • photo: Hans Kumpf

Boris Grebenshikov (cello) and Sergey Kuryokhin (saxophone) during a jam session at the “5-я студия” / The Fifth Studio, also known as “Театр Эрика Горошевского” / Erik Goroshevsky Theatre, a section of the "Club 81“ located on prospekt Chernishevskogo 3. more >>
Leningrad, 25 April 1984 • photo: Hans Kumpf

Would you say this was a kind of hippie life? I know it’s a strange comparison, but working as a night watchman and doing music sounds quite…

Because when you work as a night watchman, you work one day out of three, 24 hours a day, and then you have two days off or three days off, and you can dedicate this time to writing music, writing something, translating or just having fun, and basically dedicate your time to being with nice people.

So, when you take care of the archive today, is it also like getting back to these years? Although you are taking care of the ‘90s certainly and also, probably, of the 2000s, but is it like reviewing the ‘80s?

First of all, I can tell you right away that my job will end when I get to the year 2000. This is the moment when everything starts to be digitalised and we get copies that can be traced. In late ‘90s already we had our own website – it started to run around ‘96. So, although it crashed a couple of times, we have an internet archive. We have copies of the webpages, so the history of the band from the late ‘90s is well-known and it can be proved, it can be traced. The most difficult part, of course, is the ‘70s because I think there were one or two articles about Aquarium in the university press and that’s about it. There are very few photos from that period. The 1980s are a bit easier because people started to take photos, and this recording culture started, the Rock Club was opened. It was the beginning of legal concerts, and there are some papers attesting the date of each concert, so you can put the pieces together.

Sergey Khrenov (?), Oleg Kotelnikov, Boris Grebenshikov and unknown person Mayak Cultural House, Leningrad, 1986. Photo: (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov

Sergey Khrenov (?), Oleg Kotelnikov, Boris Grebenshikov and unknown person
Mayak Cultural House, Leningrad, 1986. Photo: (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov

I can give you a very good recent example. Somebody gave me a tape and said, “Well, this is a fantastic set, and the sound is amazing, and the performance is fantastic.” And they say it’s Mitki – you know, the group of painters called Mitki – opening at Ust-Izhora [Усть-Ижора, in the South-East of Saint-Petersburg], and Aquarium was playing there – this is the record. I’m listening to it – it’s a truly amazing performance, but as far as I remember, on the opening Borya [Boris Grebenshikov] was playing alone. So I start to correspond with Mitya Shagin [Dmitry Shagin from the Mitki group], and finally we established that it was not in ’85, but a year later, when they had an exhibition in another part of St. Petersburg where Aquarium was playing with all members. And so we could determine the date of the recording, and probably one day we will find some pictures of it.

People tend to be very sure about their own memories, and even when you confront them with mistakes, they will feel shocked or maybe even angry or they will say that you can’t be right.

Do you see this picture there?

The one with Bowie?

Boris Grebenshikov and David Bowie, Times Square, New York, 1987 Video frame from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

Boris Grebenshikov and David Bowie, Times Square, New York, 1987
Video frame from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

Yeah, yeah, it’s Boris with Bowie. The place we all know – it’s Times Square in New York. In many sources they say it’s 1989 or 1988. Yet this is December 1987.

This is another picture –  this is Mike.

Mike Naumenko. Date and photographer unknown.  Video still from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

Mike Naumenko. Date and photographer unknown.
Video still from Hannelore Fobo's interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev.

Mike Naumenko?

This is Mike Naumenko. He gave me this picture because in 1991, I was writing a history of Russian underground rock for a German magazine. Mike was still alive. He gave it to me, and there is nothing written on the reverse. So I don’t even know when it was taken, by whom it was taken – no idea. But this is the picture he gave me. I like it somehow because it’s typical Mike, you know.

So, what would you do if it went to the archive? How would you categorize it? Unknown author?

I would say it’s a piece that belonged to Mike, and of course I quite often upload pictures to Google Image and see if similar pictures appear. Or I show it to photographers, and a photographers will say, “Oh, I took this picture” or something like this. This could help.

So, it’s important to get things right.

Once you write something, you have to be responsible for what you say. And you have to be honest. If you don’t remember when it happened, don’t say when it happened. Just say, “That’s what I remember.” Right?

What about other groups from Leningrad / St. Petersburg or Moscow? Do you know of any other groups that have, so to speak, an archival section, something like you do?

Yes, I know that Alisa has a website. I think it’s a fans’ website where they try to make a chronology of their band. I know that Vitaly Kalgin, who writes about Kino, tries to establish also some sort of chronology. It’s a big help. I don’t know the guys personally but I consult their work regularly and I see some errors in what they are doing because I have some other sources, so it’s nice to compare and finally establish… Some dates are not important, but some others are very important. Very, very important.

You also told me that you sometimes look at our website [www.e-e.eu].

Oh, a lot. I must say a big thank you for your website because it’s the first website which is made seriously, which means that you put in there only things you are sure of. And if you are not sure, you don’t publish it or you say, “I’m not sure.” This is the most honest website I’ve seen so far that is dedicated to the second St. Petersburg culture. I hope one day your site will become a resource, or somebody else will make a site that will grow as a resource for the parallel culture of this country. That is one of the reasons I’m taking care of all the archives of Aquarium, obviously. But I’m mostly interested in the period before ‘91 when this society was completely closed, and this, I’m sure, will not ever be reproduced in world history. The study of this period is quintessential, because it’s interesting, because it was completely unique, and this has to be documented, has to be analysed, but to analyse you need to establish facts first. And what have we got until now? We have three-four-five-six books of memories, individual memories that haven’t been fact-checked.

Why are so few people willing to check facts or trying to be precise? What do you think? What’s the reason? Do you think they just write for the pleasure of writing? Why don’t they put importance to this?

This is difficult to answer. First of all, I’m a Western journalist, so I’m sticking to the facts. I’m obsessed with facts and the truth.

Is it a question of East and West, to a degree? Do you think so?

No, I don’t want to generalise. I don’t think you can find one simple answer to this. If we take the example of our band, there are only two books of memoirs: one written by Seva [Gakkel], and another one by Dyusha [Andrey Romanov]. They both wrote them in the ‘90s, when the internet didn’t exist, when fact-checking was very difficult: you could only fact-check with your own friends. And also you didn’t care that much. So they were writing… Seva’s book is quite precise, but very often… I know how memories work. People remember very well if it was night or day, sun or rain, spring or winter. But generally, they never get the year right. So, you almost want to republish all these books setting the sequence of the events straight. And the trouble starts when young journalists try to investigate something. There’s a huge interest today in this Soviet period of Russian culture. And very often a young journalist who is about to write a story will do an interview with somebody who was part of it. And they will say, “Ah, I remember back in 1985 we had this exhibition of painters, da-da-da, somewhere.” And he will write it down, he will publish it. Then somebody else will quote from this article and others will quote from them, and they will quote, quote, quote – and then you will say “the famous exhibition of 1985”, although it was in ‘87.

Yes. And then you even say that this was the beginning of…

Yes. And the worst thing is that… I once spoke with somebody in a bar. The guy was about 20 years younger than me. And I said… He knew that I had been doing this Desyat Strel, Ten Arrows record, and he said, “But anyway, why do you say it was magnitizdat album? It was in ‘86,” he said, “It was Gorbachev already.” I said, “Yeah, it was Gorbachev, but perestroika hadn’t started yet.” He said, “What do you mean? It’s everywhere, it’s on Wikipedia: Perestroika started in March '85.” I said, “No, I can tell when perestroika started. It started on 12 October, 1986. It was the day when Joanna Stingray kissed me in the Rock Club, and I was instantly arrested after that.”

(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov “Portrait of Joanna Stingray”, Wax crayon and charcoal on paper, 63.2 x 49cm, 1989

(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov “Portrait of Joanna Stingray”, Wax crayon and charcoal on paper, 63.2 x 49cm, 1989

Were you arrested because of a kiss?


Is this romantic or…

It’s not romantic: she was kissing everyone who was her friend.

Who was arrested? Only you or everybody else?

No, there was a guy called Yury Rulev from a band that everybody forgot – it was called “Patriarkhalnaya Vystavka” [Патриархальная выставка] – and some other people.

And what happened next? Because you say it was the beginning of perestroika.

They released me temporarily, and then I told Boris, who was supposed to play… It was the day of the season’s opening at the Rock Club, and I told Boris, “Look, what should I do? They took my passport, they took my recording equipment. They said they were going to take me to the KGB for an interrogation at night, after the concert. And they took my passport.” And he said, “Well, pray.” I said, “I’m not even baptized, but I’ll try.” But then, when he came on stage, he said, like, “You know, a lot of people…” He paused… “You know, we were supposed to play tonight but we won’t, because too many of our friends were arrested today.”

He said that.

I was, like, he is saying this from the stage to the audience that is infested with guys linked with the KGB, those who arrested me sitting next to me. And then I couldn’t believe my eyes. People started to jump screaming, “KGB, get out!”, and I think 10% of the audience or a quarter left immediately.

The KGB people?

I presume. Those who were afraid.

Ah, they were afraid?

They were afraid.

Were they recognizable? Would you know them? I mean, this one, this one, this one?

No, no, no, not really. Some of them yes, some of them no. I think it was what we call “komsomol‘sky operotryad” [комсомольский оперотряд], a division of the young communist league carrying out special tasks. They were supposed to supervise the Rock Club. And probably at that time they had been given orders that this nasty Joanna Stingray… It was just after Red Wave see introduction >>. Red Wave was released in June, and so I think they were already preparing something against her when she came for the season’s opening at the Rock Club. And she was late. I remember the light was dim and I was sitting in the first row, and I saw her sneaking in not to bother anyone.

Viktor Tsoy, Alexis Ipatovtsev, Joanna Stingray during an Aquarium concert. Leningrad, summer of 1986. The Joanna Stingray Archive

Viktor Tsoy, Alexis Ipatovtsev, Joanna Stingray during an Aquarium concert. Leningrad, summer of 1986.
The Joanna Stingray Archive

And then she saw me, turned around, hugged me, kissed me and then went to somebody else. And then, seconds later, two guys would stare at me, “OK, you understand who we are? Get up and go with us quietly.” So, they took me to a special room at the Rock Club for a short interrogation and then let me go until after the concert. But the result of all this was that for the first time in my life I saw Soviet citizens openly revolting against something. It was the first time I saw the public opinion being shown openly. And as a consequence of this the KGB completely deserted the Rock Club. There was no police, nothing. It was a free concert. Whoever wanted to went on stage, and there was a huge massive jam gig. UB40 were touring at that time and they were among the audience as well. And then I went back to the interrogation room where I found my passport somewhere on the floor and my cassette deck case opened.

Oh, you mean they had broken it?

They wanted to check what was inside the cassette deck. They had been accusing me saying, “You are filming for these Americans, right?” I said, “No, I’m not filming, this is a cassette deck.” “You go to KGB, they will decide what it is.” So OK, great. But they ran away, and I found it. They all left the Rock Club completely. For the first time the Rock Club belonged only to the audience.

And you said it was the 12th of October 1986.

The 12th of October, I found the date.

This was an Aquarium concert?

No, it was a joint concert. It was the season’s opening at the Rock Club. The Rock Club had a season that started in autumn and would go on until the festival the following spring. So it was the beginning of the season. The 12th of October 1986 was the first time I saw a public demonstration in this country. That was the very beginning. And then two weeks later there was the Musical Ring on TV with Aquarium, recorded on the 24th of October 1986 [Музыкальный ринг / Muzykalny Ring, a Soviet and later Russian TV programme that started in 1984 on Leningrad Television]. By the end of the year, the first Aquarium compilation was ready on Melodiya. [It was a compilation of two magnitizdat records, “День серебра”, Den’ Serebrya / Day of Silver and “Дети декабря”, Deti Dekabrya / December's Children see introduction >>.]

You know where I listened to this Musical Ring with Aquarium? You won’t believe it. It’s just a short story. You know that I’m from the West, but my father's family lived in East Germany and I often went to see them. At the time when perestroika started I studied in West Berlin – it was a postgraduate course on Eastern Europe launched because of the political changes. One of my cousins lived and still lives in Dresden, and they had a Soviet garrison nearby, so they got Soviet television, and I wanted to know what's on. We had that faint picture of the Muzykalny Ring, black-and-white, very dizzy, with some music. And I think I listened to Grebenshikov’s voice and I got caught somehow.

I can give you the date. It was January '87.

Was it '87? All right.

They showed the programme on Leningrad Television in October or early November, I think it was October '86. It had just a limited local impact. And then, in January, alongside the release of the first Aquarium compilation on Melodiya, it was rebroadcast on national TV. And so for the first time the whole nation saw Aquarium in January 1987, at the time of the first record release.

You see, and even a student from the West happened to watch it.

Yes, but what makes me laugh – I recently saw a press release that some of our concert organisers sent me. Boris is playing in Siberia now, so I just saw what the PR-people were doing – it’s a long piece… Boris Grebenshikov, born ta-ta-ta, band formed in ‘72, first record 1974, second record 1975, third record… And I’m imagining these young people who will going to the concert, reading this press release and say, “Oh, what a fantastic country the Soviet Union was! You start a band in ‘72 and a couple of years later you have these records, massive, in the shops, so I’m going to go and see the band that all my grandparents were listening to.” Bullshit. The first time Soviet people started to really know massively about Aquarium was January ‘87.

It was about the time also when Kuryokhin went on TV, wasn’t it?

Kuryokhin was a bit later. It was also Muzykalny Ring [Musical Ring], but it was a little bit later. There was a series of “Muzykalny Ring” shows on Leningrad Television, and Boris and his band had had a first performance there in ‘84. But in order to be allowed to play, they had to pretend that they were playing something not very serious. The same happened before, in 1982, on national TV. The only way to perform was to turn the songs into some kind of parody. Their lyrics were censored, and they were asked to rewrite the lyrics of those “wrong” songs.


Yeah, this is a famous story. It was not at all reflecting what Aquarium was all about. It was very one-sided. They were like jesters.

The lyrics of Grebenshikov are somehow mystical. You don’t really interpret them.

His lyrics work not on the conscious but on the subconscious level. It’s a different level of perception. I don’t know who said it, but good poetry is when you start to like it before you understand it. It’s exactly the same with his songs: you start to like them before you understand what they are all about. But once you get into them you don’t have to understand them, you have to feel them, and you will feel right.

When you talk about Boris Grebenshikov and the way he acted on stage, and even the way he speaks out his mind today – he’s quite a courageous person, he doesn’t shy away from taking risks, he speaks out his opinion. Is that…

It’s an ongoing situation, as I say. It’s an ongoing process. We don’t know where the country is going now, so we don’t know how we will all behave within one or two months and how open we will be. Two days ago we had an official prohibition to criticize those in power. This is a new law. So we are partly back to the situation we experienced in the ‘80s. But the country is still open.

But you have internet.

But we have internet that will be soon censored as well, VPN will be censored, but until now, I can still go to Helsinki and use free internet, or to Tallinn. Maybe they will close the border one day, maybe we will emigrate. I don’t know. It’s an ongoing situation. It’s very difficult to comment on what’s unfinished. And it reminds me a bit the ‘80s, with the only big exception: I don't expect the current system to break down. Although I must say that up until late ‘89 I would not have expected the Soviet Union to collapse and communist ideas to go away.

It seemed impossible.

It seemed like we were stuck forever with this exceptional state of emergency that the Soviet Union was. This will always remain unique.

You know the title of Alexei Yurchak’s book? “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.”

Exactly. However, when comparing the two periods, I don’t have this sentiment that the state might now suddenly break down, because the economy works according to more or less the same rules as in the rest of the world, and we will not have shortages – bread shortages or salt shortages, like during the Soviet times. So it’s much more… it has a capacity to survive. We will not have famine. This is the difference.

You don’t have the same ideology.

There is no ideology. There is no basic ideology. There’s this noise from the TV that influences people. One day people are nationalists, the next day they are liberals. It’s a very unstable situation. I can tell you a very simple story that illustrates to me a lot the state of Russian mentality today. I once went to Baden-Baden in Germany, the famous spa town. As you know, in Germany, in the sauna everybody is naked. Now Baden-Baden is close to the border with France. So all the French visiting the spa stay on the ground floor, where everybody is wearing a swimsuit, including the babies, and is just swimming. And on the top floor, where all the saunas are, are only Germans, because they are not afraid of being naked, but the French are. And then you have a third category: Soviets. Soviets, Postsoviets love Baden-Baden. So they come and don’t understand what’s going on. What's that, people are naked? What’s wrong here? And I overhear conversations, “Oh, no, no, no, let’s leave – they are nude in here.” “Look, we have come all the way from Moscow. We are 65. Let’s try it. Let’s try the famous Baden-Baden baths.” “Ah, OK. Let’s go.” And finally they get undressed and enter. So the French are completely sure they are not going to get naked in front of other people. And Germans are completely sure they can get naked. And Russians they don’t know. It depends, you know…

On the circumstances.

On the circumstances and also on what’s general vibe. So, when people say that Russians are very much nationalistic today, it’s true. But maybe in five years’ time it will no longer be true. And those who support the government today might be in the opposition and vice versa. It’s an ongoing situation.

I’m coming back to the archive. You know, it may be a very pedagogical question, but what can we learn when we study the archives? That we have to get history right? I mean, beyond fact-checking and dates, is there a psychological side to it or is there something… Why should we need to know what happened to a certain band called Aquarium, even if it’s a very important one, which is out of question. But why should we, in order to go onward, why should we look back? I mean, even the group’s leader Boris Grebenshikov, if I understand you right, says, “Oh, this is all history. Don’t bother me with that.” But you say you insist. So, what’s the point?

I will give you an example. I’m taking care of Boris Grebenshikov’s official Facebook page. And every Thursday we have a Throwback Thursday, when we are throwing back old photos.

Screenshot of Boris Grebenshikov’s official Facebook page on a "ThrowbackThursday", 25 April 2019. Alexis Ipatovtsev selected a "throwback" picture from Aquarium's concert at the Kirov House of Culture, 28 April 1977

Screenshot of Boris Grebenshikov’s official Facebook page on a "ThrowbackThursday", 25 April 2019. Alexis Ipatovtsev selected a "throwback" picture from Aquarium's concert at the Kirov House of Culture, 28 April 1977.

And if I take a photo and say, “OK, I want to publish it”, I should write something about it. What it is all about, when it happened, how it was. I either say, “sometime in the ‘80s.” – that’s possible. Or I can say, “It’s at the Dom kultury Lensoveta [Дом культуры Ленсовета, Lensoviet Cultural House], June ‘81.” And if I say “Dom kultury Lensoveta, June 81”, someone might say, “Oh, I was there. I remember. I can probably make a comment on it.” Then a conversation will start and develop, history will be brought up. We live in times of big data. People involved in investigative journalism all of a sudden find out who shot somebody else’s plane, just based on an amateur video shot from some time ago. Just by putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and then all of a sudden – boom! – all pieces are there, and the puzzle is done. We live in a world where the past reappears with a fantastic, amazing speed. And a thing that I thought would never be resurrected all of a sudden reappears, and then putting things together you start to have the picture. As I say, I’m not writing the history of the band. I’m trying to put down as much information as possible, so if somebody wants to analyse someday, say – under the communist ideology with the Rock Club in place, how many concerts per year could a band have had? Then you can look up the list and say, in ‘84 it was 70 concerts or 5 concerts or whatever, and then draw some sort of a conclusion. Because this culture is gone without leaving established facts available to everyone else. Many archives are still not open. For example, I’m asking a lot of people, “Could you please explain this to me: January 1980, Aquarium is officially rehearsing at a some factory. And in order to do a rehearsal there, you are supposed to be an amateur band with band members working at this very factory. Yet you are not working at the factory, right? So how can you rehearse there?”

At the factory.

Yeah, I’m asking – officially, what is your status? How can you be rehearsing there although you are not working at that factory? It is impossible to understand this today. Although there are theories, but I would love to see a paper stating “Employed as.” Employed as who? So how was the Soviet structure integrating these people from the “parallel” culture of the1980s?

Or, take, for example, the role of the Rock Club. Everybody is saying Rock Club, Rock Club, praising the Rock Club. Once I was speaking with Seva Gakkel and he said, “You know, before the Rock Club it was much easier.” And I said, “How come?” “Yeah, because there was no censorship.” And once they became a member of the Rock Club, every text had to be rubber-stamped. When my dad was doing a concert of Aquarium in 1984…

Boris Grebenshikov playing at the Shipbuilding institute, now Naval Technical University, 15 November 1984. The Joanna Stingray Archive

Boris Grebenshikov playing at the Shipbuilding institute, now State Marine Technical University, 15 November 1984.
The Joanna Stingray Archive

Your dad was doing a concert of Aquarium?

Yes, he was helping me. I just entered university, my dad was a professor there, so he organized some sort of a meeting between professors and students where Boris and Sasha were invited. Something like this. And I had to rubber-stamp the texts. Or maybe it was for the next concert we did in 1985. So I went to the Rock Club waiting for the lady who read all the texts: “Oh, are you doing Boris’s concert? Very good, very good, you’re doing the right thing.” She rubber-stamped everything. So I went there, great. But Seva told me that in the ‘70s they were playing concerts, and nobody was rubber-stamping anything. They were just playing. Because they didn’t exist. In a bureaucratic system, if you are not registered, you don’t exist.

But normally, in a bureaucratic system, if you are not registered and don’t exist, you don’t perform. But this is the trick because here you didn’t exist and still…

Why do you call it a performance? It’s not called a performance. You are just strumming your guitar.

You are just playing.

You are just strumming a guitar, you know. I mean, it was like this in the seventies, what I gather from the pictures and from their stories.

And they would play at the same place which was later called the Rock Club.

No, no, no. The Rock Club started in March 1981 only. They would play at somebody's home, generally. They would play at Boris’s university club where he was studying and then working. And every time… I would love to find at least one piece of paper explaining to me how precisely it was organized. I haven’t got to that point yet, and there are very few… I want to see the mechanism. Even now I’m asking my dad, “Well, how did we organize this concert back in November ‘84? Do you remember? Do you have any written proof that you asked somebody?” And my dad says, “No, but it was easy: I just asked somebody.” I say, “Yeah, are you sure it was easy?” Because the impression we now have of the past is very different from what it was really.

I would say it probably depended on who asked whom. It might have been easy if this person asked that person, but if someone else asked the same person, the answer might just have been “no.”

On 12 May 1985, Aquarium (Grebenshikov, Titov, Kussul) played at one of the clubs of the Shipbuilding institute, now State Marine Technical University. Left: Boris Grebenshikov, right:  Alexander Kussul. Photo: Vladimir Bytov

On 12 May 1985 Aquarium (Grebenshikov, Titov, Kussul) played at one of the clubs of the Shipbuilding institute, now State Marine Technical University. Left: Boris Grebenshikov, right: Alexander Kussul. Photo: Vladimir Bytov

I’ll give another example. I did another concert, already on my own, I think, when I was a student. The 12th of May 1985. Boris, Sasha [Titov] and Sasha Kussul, a violin player, the three of them, in our university club as well. All texts were rubber-stamped. Everything was great. At the end of the concert a man arrived, and he was the chief of the party committee. He comes in and says, like, “You are Boris?” “Yeah, I’m Boris.” “Come here.” And Kuryokhin was in the audience as well, so Kuryokhin joins them and says, “What’s wrong?” “Oh, nothing, nothing. I’m just the head of the party committee of the university. Guys, you know, three days ago all Soviet citizens were celebrating the glorious victory over Nazi Germany. I’d like to know… I have this list of songs that were approved for the performance. Which song is dedicated to this fantastic event in Soviet history?”

And I see Boris is a bit shocked, and Kuryokhin all of a sudden says, “All the songs.” And Boris says, “Yes, all my songs are dedicated to the victory.” And then the party committee man is, like, “All right, I’m going to put a cross – this song, this song, ‘Dedicated to the victory of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War.’ Guys, I really liked the way you played. It was really nice acoustic songs, not this rock stuff, you know, loud. Really nice, melodic. Really, thank you very, very, very much.” And then, as we were going back to the underground, to the metro station Avtovo, we stopped at the entrance. The vestibule is domed with a huge cupola – this is where we went. People are going into the metro station, and I see Boris and Kuryokhin standing and screaming, “Instant karma’s gonna get you” and then “you… you… you…” echoed the dome…“Instant karma’s gonna get you… you… you…” And all the Soviet people passing them by look at them, thinking “What the hell is going on?”

They shouted out to get the echo?

Yeah… You know, it’s a famous John Lennon song, “Instant karma’s gonna get you.” I think somehow they were so much emotionally impressed by the danger that all of a sudden appeared in the shape of this communist grandfather, who was nice, but who had enormous power to report: “Mr. Ipatovtsev organised a concert during the days of the Great Victory inviting young punks.” Or something like this.

Boris Grebenshikov and Sergey Kuryokhin during a jam session at “Club 81”, a small flat on Pyotr Lavrov Street (present-day “Furshtatskaya”) used as a venue by progressive writers and poets. Leningrad 1983 • Photo: (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov

Boris Grebenshikov and Sergey Kuryokhin during a jam session at “Club 81”, a small flat on Pyotr Lavrov Street (present-day “Furshtatskaya”) used as a venue by progressive writers and poets.
Leningrad August 1983 • Photo: (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov
more>>, more>>

You know what comes up to me as you are telling all these stories? Maybe this generation of Soviet bureaucrats, party officials never had in mind that a new generation might come up and just push them away. They were so used to being in their position that they couldn’t imagine that there would be…

I think it’s a bit different. What I saw in my childhood is that the generation of my grandparents was, to a large part, still believers in the communist or Marxist ideas. My dad was telling me that in his young years he still believed that communist ideas could be adapted, reformed and stuff like this. But he went to Finland in 1959 and, I think, since that…

He was lost to the Soviet system.

He was lost for the communist cause. He saw that the poor country that was paying reparations to the Soviet Union after the war was like a million years ahead already from the… We were part of the same country before the revolution, and just seeing the difference between Leningrad and Helsinki in 1959 you could easily see which system was working and which system wasn’t working. It was obvious, right? And so my generation, which is the ‘80s generation – I never saw anyone who would believe in Marxist ideas. Everybody was a free-marketer, everybody was for freedom, everybody was for capitalism. Everyone. Every single person. So in that case, when you start to lose faith, when there is no one to sustain your faith, the church is closed. There were no more believers. When there are no believers, there’s no Church.

I would like to thank you very much for these extremely illustrating stories and accounts about the past and the present. I would also say that in my mind any work on archives is highly valuable and will certainly be appreciated if not immediately, then one day. Maybe we should bring forth the idea of organizing something like a small conference or symposium on the question of private archives. Because I know this is a big issue in St. Petersburg – and not only in St Petersburg. The knowledge is getting lost because those people who know exactly which piece of paper stands for what are leaving us. It’s a question of the next ten years.

It brings to my mind a very interesting story. I don’t know the family name of my father’s grandmother, because apparently she was from the noble side of society, and this type of family background was concealed after the revolution. I asked my dad and my granddad, “When she was alive, why didn’t you ask her? Why don’t you remember?” And they said, “Well, because… Just because. Because we are not interested in the past.” And at some point, like everyone else in this country, I thought, well, I would like to know who my great-grandmother was and where my family comes from, where our roots are. And there are no documents and no memoirs about it. No memories at all. And so I can only say, if you guys remember something, if you have a piece of something, publish it on Facebook. Just go ahead, be part of big data. But write only as much as you remember and say, “I remember it being like this.” It’s your memory, it’s not the absolute truth, it’s the way you remember it. And then professional historians will compare everything and one day they’ll probably write a history book about this period when they will have established the facts. But don’t confuse fact and commentary. Your brain is a commentary.

We will have a division of labour. We will both do the hard work establishing the facts, and others will have the freedom to interpret them.

Everyone has the freedom to interpret. But you don’t have the freedom to establish alternative facts. There is no alternative truth, no alternative facts. There are only facts and opinions.

You are right. Thank you very much, Alexis Ipatovtsev, and I’m sure we will meet again and talk about this fantastic …

And carry on with your website. It’s great. I hope it will grow into something bigger.

Thank you very much.

Back to part 1: Aquarium's Magnitizdat Records >>

Introduction: Soviet Rock: From Reel-to-Reel to Vinyl >>

Uploaded 8 May, 2019
Last updated 10 June 2019