The Wilson Quarterly

What's the Buzz?

In Dnepropetrovsk, the secret rocket-making city in eastern Ukraine that, during the Soviet era, was closed to outsiders, the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar is credited with an underground evangelicalism that took hold among the youth during the 1970s.

Hip-­hop has been hot in the Hezbollah-run suburbs of Beirut, and rock remains popular in Rio, but as scholars sift through the history of the Soviet Union, one of the unexpected cultural influences to emerge from diaries and police and customs records is the popular force of a Christian rock opera. Dur­ing the 1970s, young people in the nation’s secret ­rocket-­making capital were captivated by Jesus Christ Superstar (1970).

Dnepropetrovsk, a vast industrial metropolis in eastern Ukraine, was off limits to outsiders. But its residents were occasionally able to travel to “free” cities such as L’viv in western Ukraine, where they could meet tourists from Poland and Yugo­slavia hawking tapes and records of Western music. Jesus Christ Super­star, shocking in conservative com­mun­ities in the United States and banned in South Africa as irreligious, was appealing to Dnepropetrovsk residents, not only for its music but also for its religious content. In the 1970s, the rock opera topped the list of popular consumption items among Soviet rock fans across the country, writes Sergei I. Zhuk, a historian at Ball State ­University in Indiana.

The Biblical story behind the opera triggered interest in the history of Christianity, and, while the Bible was officially banned from Soviet libraries, books debunking the stories of the Gospels suddenly became bestsellers and were put on waiting lists. Attendance at Orthodox Church services in Dnepropetrovsk increased, especially at Easter. In 1973, police had to chase crowds of devotees of the opera from the Cathedral of the Holy ­Trinity.

Oversized metal crosses began dangling from young necks. The KGB reported an upsurge in the smuggling of religious items. More than 60 percent of all residents accused of smuggling silver crosses, Bibles, and icons into Dnepropetrovsk mentioned Jesus Christ Superstar as the inspiration for their interest in religion. In the 1970s, a quarter of evangelicals in the region were under 25 years ­old.

An upsurge in the performance of indigenous music in the West was matched in Dnepropetrovsk by a passion for Ukrainian folk music. This was a welcome development for Soviet officials, but the KGB soon accused local bands of seizing on religious compositions, choosing “Ukrainian nationalistic songs of a Christian character.”

Despite the KGB’s best efforts, Jesus mania survived. The interest in popular religiosity and Western mass culture in Dnepropetrovsk, Zhuk says, highlights the failure of the Soviet system to protect the youth of even an isolated and heavily policed city from “ideological pollution.”

THE SOURCE: “Religion, ‘Westernization,’ and Youth in the ‘Closed City’ of Soviet Ukraine, 1964–84” by Sergei I. Zhuk, in The Russian Review, Oct. ­2008.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Denis Korablev

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