Written by Winter Trabex.
In 1987, at the height of his superstardom as a musician, Billy Joel decided to host a concert in Soviet Russia. This remains a historic concert for several reasons, the most significant of which is that the Soviet government actually allowed the concert to take the place. This was seven years after the 1980 Winter Olympics, which featured a hockey match between America and the Soviet Union.
For years, western capitalism- with America as the usual antagonist of all that was wrong with the world- was blamed for the Soviet Union’s failures. The Christian Pentecostal movement in Russia, which was forced to pray on beaches for fear of persecution, was said to be waiting for arks full of American cash. What exactly America intended to do by throwing away their money was not revealed.
Such was the attention that the authorities and their informants paid to everyone around them at all times. Disloyalty, which was defined as being a positive, productive person, was rampant everywhere. Soviet authorities arrested people who demonstrated against the system- or who even chose to celebrate the birthday of a famous historical figure the leadership did not like- under charges such as hooliganism or disturbing the peace. The trials, if they were held in public at all, were mostly just sentencing hearings to determine how much time someone would spend in a forced labor camp followed by internal exile.
Even though the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were moderate in comparison with those of his predecessors, the situations in Moscow and Leningrad (the sites where Joel held all six of his tour appearances) were still filled with the terror that KGB officials could inspire. Many KGB officers did not wear uniforms so as to avoid discovery. They arrived as plains-clothed individuals. Shortly after they encountered their person of interest, the person wound up dead or imprisoned. It often occurred that officers dragged suspects through long interrogation sessions for the purpose of extracting a confession. This was the reality for citizens who lived in the Soviet Union.
As a result, the people who attended the concerts did not know what to do when the lights came down on the audience. Suddenly, they were the center of attention. Members of the crowd grew paranoid- for reasons that are easily understandable. In the middle of the concert, Billy Joel shouted at the production team to turn the crowd lights off. When they did not do so at once, he flipped over his piano.
For decades previous to this incident, citizens in the Soviet Union dealt with the same problem: any time they came under scrutiny, they feared for their lives. That posed a problem for those who wished to act in defiance of the law. There were many people in the Soviet Union who dedicated themselves to subverting the government as much as they could. Some people petitioned the government for the release of political prisoners. Others marched in support of the Soviet constitution, which the government habitually ignored. Still others printed censored material.
Since publishing houses could be easily shut down under the Soviet system, the only way that literature, poetry, and news could be spread was through the use of decentralized printing. This came in two forms: samizdat (“written here”) and tamizdat (“written over there”). Each started out with one person who produced or reproduced one work on a typewriter five times for circulation. The five people who received that work would then make their own copies, which would be distributed to people who would make still more copies. In this way, no matter which copy of the censored material was confiscated, the originator would be shielded from official scrutiny while the material continued being distributed. Samizdat works even began crossing borders between one satellite nation and another.
These works serve as the primary historical record of what happened during the Soviet regime. The picture that is painted by samizdat is not a pretty one. Those who tried to go along with the party’s system often suffered from a feeling of alienation and an addiction to alcohol. Those who joined the party did so because they wanted to advance themselves, no matter what the cost might be. Historical revisionism was rampant to the point that successive generations of Soviet citizens did not understand the differences between the revolution of 1919 and the changes implemented to the government in 1929. Though it was permissible to criticise the Stalin government years after he left power, it was not permissible to criticise the current government. Those who did so faced arrest.
As a result of the knowledge that was spread with samizdat, longtime party officials turned in their party membership cards. Academics and skilled professionals gave up their work in favor of basic manual labor; they became known as refuseniks. Ordinary citizens started up subversion groups- many of which were disbanded when the KGB came calling. Once people learned the truth, they began to throw their bodies upon the machinery of the Soviet government, not even caring that the machine might grind them up in the process. Something had to be done; someone had to be willing to do it.
Eventually, the various peoples of the Soviet Union- many of whom lived in nations that the Moscow government had conquered during or shortly after World War II- cried out so loud that the machine itself collapsed in a series of violent spasms, one of which included the unthinkable resignation of Gorbachev in favor of letting Boris Yeltsin become a democratically-elected president. Cultural separatist movements of all kinds had been brewing for some time, in spite of the government’s best attempts to Russify all the local populations of its satellite nations. There were just too many people who were against the way things were being done. It became impossible for the government to arrest or kill everyone who dissented. To do so would have led to a bloody, perhaps unwinnable, civil war.
All of it started with a group of people who decided that they would be responsible for their own actions, regardless of what the law had to say. It started with a group of people who yearned for freedom, even if it meant they would be shipped off to a Siberian labor camp where they might die of tuberculosis or freeze to death in the middle of the night laying under a single, thin blanket. The collapse of the Soviet Union began with the creation of a decentralized system of disseminating information that the most powerful, most ruthless, most tyrannical government in the history of the world could not stop.
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