Watch Metallica Play “Enter Sandman” Before a Crowd of 1.6 Million in Moscow, During the Final Days of the Soviet Union (1991)

In the years fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union a “tri­umphal­ist dis­course” arose in the U.S., writes his­to­ri­an Richard Sak­wa, “which sug­gests that the Sovi­et demise was a delib­er­ate act plot­ted and exe­cut­ed by pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan” with mas­sive mil­i­tary bud­gets and nuclear threats. This nar­ra­tive has less exclu­sive cur­ren­cy today. There are as many the­o­ries as the­o­rists of Sovi­et demise, among them the “com­pelling argu­ment,” says Jim Brown, pro­duc­er of a doc­u­men­tary called Free to Rock, “that rock and roll was a fac­tor — a con­tribut­ing fac­tor of many — in end­ing the Cold War.”

It’s not a face­tious claim and may have lit­tle to do, as some allege, with the CIA spread­ing for­eign influ­ence in the U.S.S.R. dur­ing the 1980s. A home­grown “rock sub­cul­ture,” writes Carl Schreck at The Atlantic, “had been per­co­lat­ing in the Sovi­et Union for decades by the time Gor­bachev came to pow­er in 1985.”

As Metal­li­ca came to pow­er in 1991 with The Black Album, their best-sell­ing record — and one of the biggest sell­ing albums of all time, world­wide — young Rus­sians did not need to be instruct­ed in the fin­er points of rock­ing out against author­i­tar­i­an­ism and gov­ern­ment con­trol.

Nev­er before, how­ev­er, had Russ­ian rock­ers gath­ered in the open as they did in ‘91, when the heavy met­al fes­ti­val Mon­sters of Rock stopped in Moscow for the first time since its found­ing in 1980, attract­ing a report­ed 1.6 mil­lion fans — one of the largest con­certs in his­to­ry — to see head­lin­ers AC/DC, Metal­li­ca, and Pan­tera. The show “was not the first time West­ern heavy-met­al acts have played Moscow,” wrote The New York Times. “In 1989, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi and Mot­ley Crue filled Lenin Sta­di­um for two days to help raise mon­ey for Sovi­et char­i­ties.” But Mon­sters of Rock was some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Pro­mot­ed as a “cel­e­bra­tion of democ­ra­cy and free­dom” by its cor­po­rate spon­sor, Time Warn­er, and arriv­ing just a month after a failed coup attempt by Sovi­et hard­lin­ers, the con­cert was some­thing of a suc­cess­ful coup for AC/DC, who “until a few years ago… were for­mal­ly banned in the Sovi­et Union.” (One 1985 list com­piled by the Young Com­mu­nist League said they pro­mot­ed “neo­fas­cism” and “vio­lence.”) Sovi­et music crit­ic and writer Andrei Orlov ges­tured toward realpoli­tik in a remark on the sub­ject: “Look at the graf­fi­ti in the city. AC/DC is writ­ten on every wall.”

Even more rev­o­lu­tion­ary, in heavy met­al terms, was the appear­ance of Metal­li­ca at sec­ond billing on the tour. It would prove to be one of sev­er­al “ live coups,” for the band, K.J. Daughton writes. After their mas­sive suc­cess on MTV with “Enter Sand­man,” “Unfor­giv­en,” and “Noth­ing Else Mat­ters,” the band played sev­er­al major con­certs, includ­ing their “his­toric musi­cal tour de force” at Tushi­no Air­field in Moscow. “In a video of the set,” writes Didi­er Cade­na (watch it in full above), “one can see the ocean of peo­ple mov­ing around and singing along, even though the major­i­ty of the crowd only knew Eng­lish through the music.”

The con­cert was not with­out its moments of vio­lence. “The bru­tal inter­ven­tion of Sovi­et police left 53 peo­ple injured,” writes Daughton (see some of the offi­cial over­re­ac­tion above). But these were the rat­tles of a dying police state. Just a few months lat­er in Decem­ber, the Sovi­et Union offi­cial­ly dis­solved.

Can AC/DC or Metal­li­ca take cred­it? No, but they were impor­tant sym­bols for a wave of dis­af­fect­ed Russ­ian youth the Sovi­et leader him­self had no desire to hold back. Gor­bachev, after all, was “a fan of Elvis Pres­ley,” says Brown. “He liked rock and roll… And I think he takes pride in the fact that after wast­ing, you know, tril­lions of dol­lars on weapons, that words and actions and cul­ture brought these two coun­tries togeth­er.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The His­to­ry of Sovi­et Rock: From the 70s Under­ground Rock Scene, to Sovi­et Punk & New Wave in the 1980s

The Sovi­et Union Cre­ates a List of 38 Dan­ger­ous Rock Bands: Kiss, Pink Floyd, Talk­ing Heads, Vil­lage Peo­ple & More (1985)

Metal­li­ca Plays Antarc­ti­ca, Set­ting a World Record as the First Band to Play All 7 Con­ti­nents: Watch the Full Con­cert Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Fred Rocha says:

    This ren­di­tion of Creep­ing Death is pure evil, deli­cious stuff. You can see the can­did smile on a young Kirk Ham­met­t’s face when the first thrashy riff kicks in. The cho­rus riff is the one he is most proud of com­pos­ing, he said in an inter­view.

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