Freedom to make music

Music is all around us and accessing it has never been easier. We can tune in to radio stations all over the world, browse millions of songs from our smartphones, and buy any album or music video with a single click.

We’re free to listen to whatever genre of music we want – from heavy metal and rap to disco and dance, and everything in between. Accessing and engaging with our choice of music is second nature.

It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t that way, but during the Soviet era things were very different. Any music made within the Soviet Union was censored by the government prior to release; and most music from outside the Soviet Union was illegal to access.

It wasn’t just music – all media that citizens of the Soviet Union consumed – from literature to TV – was censored to ensure it was in line with the official ideology and politics of the communist government.

Any music made within the Soviet Union was censored by the government prior to release; and most music from outside the Soviet Union was illegal to access.

Censorship was performed by several organisations. Gosteleradio was responsible for censoring radio and TV broadcasting; Goskomizdat was in charge of censoring printed matter – from novels to poetry and everything in between and Goskino was in charge of cinema and film.

If the Gosteleradio didn’t like a certain band or musician, their music wouldn’t be played in the Soviet Union. Not only that, they would be banned from the radio and their records removed from sale. They would simply become non-existent as far as the Soviet state was concerned.

There were a whole host of reasons why music was banned from the Soviet Union. One 1985 directive with the title ‘The Approximate List of Foreign Musical Groups and Artists Whose Repertoires Contain Ideologically Harmful Compositions’ was unearthed, which contained the details of the so-called harmful bands and the reason why they were banned.

The list of banned music wasn’t isolated to a particular genre – with artists from Alice Cooper to Tina Turner being deemed too dangerous for the Soviet Union’s airwaves.

Bands and musicians such as Black Sabbath, The Sex Pistols, and Madness were banned from radio play alongside the Village People, B-52s and Kiss for promoting violence in their lyrics. In addition, Tina Turner, Donna Summer and Shannon English were outlawed for sex and eroticism.

Other bands were banned for more overt reasons: Pink Floyd for ‘interfering with the foreign policy of the USSR’; Talking Heads for creating a ‘myth of Soviet military danger’; Van Halen for ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and even Genghis Khan for ‘anti-communism and nationalism’.

Despite the threat of jail if caught, fans managed to smuggle tapes by banned artists into the Soviet Union. The tapes were copied, then the copies were copied and eventually music from beyond the Iron Curtain was being played widely (and very quietly) behind closed doors.

As well as listening to illegal tapes, people were managing to listen to radio from outside the Soviet Union. More and more households were acquiring shortwave receivers, meaning people could tune into foreign radio stations – but not for long.

In fact, the communist government was so keen to control what citizens were listening to they started blocking foreign radio stations. Stations were blocked all over the Soviet for almost 60 years, making the USSR’s radio censorship network the most powerful in the world.

The widespread radio blocking was considered a huge state secret; another way to control information reaching citizens. The communist government even went as far as to halt the import and control the manufacturing of household radios; ensuring that the reach of the signal would always be within Soviet range.

By controlling music, the Soviet censors hoped to control their citizens’ minds. But they didn’t count on the desire for freedom of the Soviet people, who continued to circulate illegal tapes of banned music, along with illegally copied novels, poems and pamphlets, until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Finally, people were free to listen to the music they loved, wherever and whenever they liked.

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