Event Review: Sergiy Zhuk and Rock and Roll in the Rocket City

On March 3, 2011, Professor Sergiy Zhuk, of Ball State University, presented his book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985 at the University of Toronto’s Munk School for Global Affairs. The book discusses a scarcely explored yet extremely fascinating topic of the influence that Western popular culture exerted on self-identification and the later emergence of nationalism among the population of Dnipropetrovs’k – an industrialized city in southeastern Ukraine.

Zhuk began the discussion with two pieces of Western culture that shook up the youth in the Soviet Dnipropetrovs’k – the 1973 musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” and a song by 70s rock group Deep Purple. These were the first tastes of Western culture the Soviet population could get. Since the government imposed strict regulations on what was to be showed in movie theatres and what was to be played in discos, the young entrepreneurs who managed to obtain and trade copies of recordings of Western music and videos succeeded in making small fortunes. By the end of the Soviet era, these people became the opinion leaders who promoted the new national identity in post-Soviet Ukraine.

Furthermore, the city Zhuk chose as his case study presents an extremely interesting contingency: though distant from Moscow and therefore lying on the periphery of the Soviet Union, Dnipropetrovs’k was also a major metallurgy centre that manufactured rockets, missiles, and aerospace machinery. This unique feature made Dnipropetrovs’k a “closed city” from 1959 through 1991, which means that foreigners were banned unless they had  special permission from high-ranking officials. The strict supervision officials and security services maintained over the city allowed them to track the flow of information to and from the city. This turned Dnipropetrovs’k into a virtual laboratory where the KGB studied how Western influence could change the Soviet mindset of the population.

As Zhuk concludes, the rising influence of Western culture triggered the rethinking of national identity and self-perception among the population, which ultimately gave rise to Ukrainian nationalism. However, another result was that the opinion leaders who came to power after Ukraine gained independence were as double-faced as they were in the times of the USSR – promoting national interests in public and enjoying foreign goods in private.

Sergiy Zhuk is an Associate Professor of History, Ball State University, and a former Title VIII-supported Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute.


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