Try free-associating the words "Russian" and "Woodstock" for a few seconds, and you'll likely have a fair idea of the scene. Mud. Vodka. Pouring rain. Grumpy police. Imperfect to nonexistent sanitation. Eighty thousand tipsy, happy, very dirty people. The Nashestviye Festival is Russia's biggest, drunkest, most fun rock festival, held in a huge field 200 kilometers east of Moscow. I've been going for years; earlier this month I brought along Sasha, my 14-year-old son, for the first time. And it was a blast.
What a change. When I went to my first such concert, circa 1988, the scene would be somebody's crowded apartment with everyone sitting on the floor. The singer was wanted by the KGB, or could easily have been. Teenagers like to dramatize, but this really was deadly serious. At the very least, we risked getting into serious trouble from our parents. At worst, by cavorting with acknowledged "dissidents" in that repressive still-commie era, we could have ended up in jail.
My son is growing up in a very different Russia. At Nashestviye these days, secret police are hard to find--at least those on duty. Instead, it's all dancing and kissing. Veronica, a 23-year-old girl with a colorful Indian scarf wrapped over her jeans, grooved to the guttural singing of a Siberian shaman on stage; she was here to "forget about the country and its politics for at least a few days." Other festival-goers painted their faces bright colors, wore horns and smiling Mexican death masks, and waved all manner of flags: Communist, Imperial Russian, even American Confederate. A guy with a Che Guevara banner loudly complained that there "wasn't enough freedom at this festival"--freedom, he meant, to bring your own vodka.
Freedom. It meant something very different when I was in school during the perestroika years. Our history teachers had just thrown out the old Soviet textbooks and read aloud from newspapers to the class. Our rock idols told us we were part of something bigger than ourselves. "This train is on fire and there is no place for us to run," sang Boris Grebenshikov of Aquarium. "Our hearts demand change!" cried Viktor Tsoi of Kino. No one thought for a moment that we could "forget" about politics. The entire country was opening up; something new and electrifying was in the air. We were drunk on more than beer.
Some musicians playing at Nashestviye remember those days. Konstantin Kinchev, leader of the classic rock band Alisa, is a Russian Lou Reed. He opened with his 15-year-old hit--its chorus is, "Disturbed days, it's time to share the power. Disturbed days, time to decide whose side you're on!" Back then, the lyrics meant one thing. Now, they mean something different. Once an anti-establishment rebel, Kinchev's most recent work includes Orthodox Christian rock and Russian patriotic songs. His stage show looked like an Alisa revival. Kin-chev flexed his tattooed muscles, threw furious looks at the crowd who were aggressively pushing and shoving each other, wrapped in the band's well-known black flags. But listen more closely. "From time immemorial my bright Russia borders with God," Kinchev sang. "We are born here under heaven! For a bright Russia!"
Two years ago, I was on Kiev's Maydan Square in the December sleet as thousands of young people turned out to protest a rigged election. They won their famous Orange Revolution. Its fuel was a kind of hope in the future; its food was music, as a continuous succession of bands like Okean Elzy played to the freezing crowds. Music was literally revolutionary, there and then.
In the wake of Kiev's revolution, Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Kremlin's presidential administration, summoned the biggest perestroika-era rock stars, the real heroes of my generation, to find out if any of them were by chance thinking of writing political hits. They meekly said they weren't. "Rock stars don't risk political songs," says Artem Troitsky, a veteran rock critic. "That would mean being blacklisted by state TV."
Standing next to me in the crowd and singing Alisa's songs by heart, Aleksander Yozhik, a 23-year-old giant with a long ponytail over a thick leather jacket, tried to comfort me by saying that Russian youths have all they need. "We don't want new barricades. Life has just stabilized. Ask these people here. I'm sure that two thirds would vote for Putin right now at this festival."
With that, he winked at me, as if to say that there is still an underground cause in Russia, then pulled out a plastic beer bottle full of clear liquid: "Pure grain alcohol" he grinned. Perhaps the old adage is true, even for today's young Russians. We drink to forget what we have lost.