Inside Russia's First School of Rock

Back in the Soviet era, Airat Yarullin had to negotiate with the Kremlin's houses of culture to get permission to play his beloved rock music. "As long as we performed all the 'correct' songs at official concerts," he recalls, "they let us play what we wanted." On occasions they were unable to reach agreement with the authorities, they would play in cellars. Even after the USSR crumbled, rock retained its subversive aura: when Time Warner sponsored a Moscow concert featuring heavy metal bands like Metallica and AC/DC, it was billed as a "celebration of democracy and freedom." More than 1,000 soldiers guarded the stage, and throughout the 150,000-strong crowd, authorities beat down head-banging teenagers with batons.

New musical attitudes are hardly the most momentous changes experienced behind what used to be the Iron Curtain. But as a symbol of just how profoundly Russia and its former republics have shifted in the cultural as well as the political arena, you need go no further than the Russian city of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. Here in the precincts of School No. 5, the country's first state school of rock has opened alongside the traditional classes for classical music. Instead of violins, pianos, Beethoven, and Bach, there are students in bandannas, leather jackets, and torn jeans playing electric guitars and drums and learning the tunes of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors.

For Yarullin, now the 40ish principal of School No. 5, the rock school—known as The Road—is the realization of a dream. Yarullin was educated in the years when only the classics were taught in music school and those wanting to play more modern instruments had to learn the basics by word-of-mouth from older students and self-teaching guides. Now his venture takes up a third of School No. 5. Yarullin has plans to soundproof the walls, but for the moment the administration draws up the schedule of classes so that the screaming guitar riffs of "Purple Haze" don't interfere with the accordionists churning out traditional Russian folk tunes. As the teachers themselves joke, the classes are also broken up into shifts so that the nonconformists don't ruin the "domesticated" kids. "Intense drive, after all," they say, "is infectious."

Despite the fact Yarullin's program is teaching young Russians the ropes of rock, discipline is still strict. Tardiness has consequences: more than three violations and you're out. Vladislav Lebedev, an angular, long-haired teacher, explains the school's motto—Rock 'n' roll, yes. Sex and drugs, no—as he sits in one of the school's more traditional classrooms. Chintz curtains drape the windows. A portrait of Chopin hangs on the wall. But not for long. Rock-star posters are going up, and the city's best graffiti artists will be hired to paint the hallways. When The Road is finished, there will even be a recording studio.

The teachers are young and have an education in music. In their time, they learned to play rock through trial and error. Although many of them are only a few years older than their pupils, classroom rules still reign. Students address their instructors formally. "I wouldn't go to a regular school to teach music—it's boring," says Vladimir Sergeyevich, who teaches guitar. "Here the people are motivated. They burn for this music."

A rock curriculum has clear draws. After seven years spent learning the accordion, one student named Vyacheslav has come to loathe classical music. "It was a complete waste of time. Who am I supposed to play 'The Slavic Girl's Farewell' for?" he asks. "For my grandfather? Meanwhile, I can invite friends—and girls—to my rock concert." Now Vyacheslav is a bass-guitar player. The accordion is gone, and he is writing his own songs.

Teachers say that the main problem with the school is the presumptuousness of some students. "A lot of girl groups came to our entrance exams with statements like, 'we're already bang-up rockers, like the [popular Russian girl group] Ranetkas, we know everything, so let's just let loose together," says Lebedev. The reality is hardly so simple. Prospective students must apply to get into The Road, and in this inaugural year, only about one in three were accepted.

Still, not everyone is convinced about the merits of the school. "I really don't know why a rock musician needs to get a professional education," says Aleksandr Gorbachev, music commentator for Afisha [Billboard] magazine. "Almost none of the well-known rock musicians got a professional education. In rock music the most important thing is not technique but expression." In other words, if rock becomes something that can be studied and learned—read: conformist—then it loses its soul and ceases to exist altogether.

Principal Yarullin basically agrees with Gorbachev: rock has stopped being associated with something protest-oriented, provocative, and revolutionary, so its golden age, in the grand scheme of things, is over. But the fact that The Road school may be driving a nail into the lid of rock's rebellious coffin does not faze Yarullin. He is confident that what is happening to rock right now is the same thing that happened at one time to jazz: it is simply taking on a different form. People began playing jazz in cellars and garages, gradually it moved to restaurants and clubs, then jazz schools sprang up, jazz was taught in academies and conservatories, and now it is played on the most classical and academic stages. If that is true, Blondie or the Russian "beat quartet" Secret will yet be played in a conservatory.