American Woodstock is probably the most famous rebellious festival in the world, but before it made history, Russian bards used to wander off into the woods where the only bugs were those that bit them, but didn’t eavesdrop on them.
Every spring when the snow piles melted and the woods became passable, peoples with guitars on their backs and tents in their backpacks trekked into the wilds. A few were nature lovers, but the majority were the renegades fed up with the regime and looking to break away from the Big Brother’s watch.
In my misspent teenage youth, I have been a regular. Thirty five kilometers away from Kazan, my hometown, lay a small Tatar village called Aisha, famous albeit unknown for giving the world Alexander Poniatoff, the founder of the American electronics company AMPEX. Another two kilometers away was a valley, nestled in between two groves. It was big enough to host a couple of hundred tents, a small stage, and a lot of anti-Soviet propaganda.
Twenty years ago, it was a small and clandestine gathering that served as an outlet for the Soviet iconoclasts. People retreated into the woods to speak their minds, scream out their frustration and sing their carols without being eavesdropped on, ratted out and arrested. Back then, the big cities weren’t safe. One couldn’t have a politically incorrect conversation in a café because a nerdy guy at the next table could’ve been a KGB thug in plain clothes. One couldn’t criticize authorities in his own apartment for it could’ve been bugged. People trusted only those they’d known for a long time – that’s why the Russian concept of friendship always had a deeper, stronger meaning. A friend was not a buddy you bowled with on Wednesdays or drank beers with on Sunday, but a confidant you trusted your deepest thoughts to. A Russian friend was someone safe to take along to the woods to share a bottle of vodka, a pot of tea, a guitar, and your latest rebellious rhymes.
A gasoline-smelling bus dropped us off at the curve, sort of in the middle of nowhere. A long path with no road signs led us from the bus stop to the hidden forest valley, intended to be found only by the word of mouth. It was part of the secrecy so only those who had the right directions would arrive. When you got close enough, you could pick up the scent: freedom smelled of burning twigs and cooking kasha. Guitars chimed everywhere, growing louder and bolder in twilight. There was always a concert, after which people continued singing by the fire. It was called “passing the guitar around.” Those who didn’t strum read poetry. Those who didn’t know the verses told jokes. It was a non-judgmental society in which everyone was accepted, fed whatever was cooking in the pot, and offered a cup of tea even if it was the last one.
Everything is different now, except that the festival is still nicknamed Aishinsky. Nowadays, no one has to hide from the militia. Or take a different route to shake off a nosy group of local bums. Back in the day, a construction crew used to arrive to the site the day before to fell some trees and build the outhouses, or fix them if they still stood from the previous year. It was typically an all-male team, but still The Damsel’s Hut was always the first to rise. Water had to be brought from the creek and boiled so it would be safe to drink. Today, portable Johns with toilet paper are a norm, and Coke, Fanta and Budweiser can be bought at kiosks right on the spot. What’s more – everyone drives.
The strangest part is that there is not much one can’t sing about. I suppose we can’t really blame freedom of speech for changing the face and purpose of the festival forever, but parts of its original crowd are somewhat nostalgic. Others have faith in their country and are quite sure that no matter how free it gets, there will always be some taboo topics to strum about. One just has to dig deeper into the woods.