Elton John in the USSR - how it was!
Next day after Elton John's 60-th anniversary we were invited to
a morning program on «Russian service BBC» radio station. In a
course of the conversation the host asked us whether we had
acquaintances who had attended Elton John's concert in 1979. I
replied «Not yet, but taking an opportunity, I’d ask those
people to contact me». In July Elton John gave a concert in
Rostov-on-Don. That day in the news program on TV guys and girls
of our fan-club were shown. And one person who watched the
program contacted us. So we got acquainted with the live witness
of Elton John’s visit USSR in 1979.
Well, here is how it was …
Part 1: Elton, do you like the station?
This story begun in March, 1979 and we learnt it from Vyacheslav.
He was from Chelyabinsk, and being a student he had a part-time
work on constructing of the “Kosmos” hotel (in Moscow). As well
as many Soviet young men he admired western rock music, somehow
managing to get lp’s and cassettes of European and American
singers and bands. Vyacheslav knew some people in state
organisation that arranged concerts in USSR. In March he learned
from those “secret” sources that Elton John was expected to come
Tickets for Elton John's concerts began to sell in April. Of
course, the most part of tickets was given to Communist party
chiefs, members of KGB and Moscow criminal investigation
department, artists, diplomats, etc. Only very small amount went
to box-office, and even though they cost quite cheap it was
virtually impossible to buy them. They were sold in a peculiar
way: a queue was divided into several lines with 20 persons in
each. The first line stood in a queue directly to box-office,
and the rest lines in turn stood in the subsequent lines: the
second one waited when people from the first get their tickets,
then the third line waited for the second line, etc. Owing to
his useful contacts Vyacheslav found himself at once in the
sixth line. But even that didn’t help. For three days of
awaiting he advanced to just fourth line when it was announced
that all tickets had been sold out. Only ticket touts had
tickets for sale, but they cost about three monthly salaries of
a middle-range engineer.
To meet Elton John a company of 12 persons gathered. They were
common Soviet students, like Vyacheslav and their leader -
Sasha-Gena. It is necessary to tell some more words about him.
He received nickname Sasha-Gena (Sasha was his real first name)
when working in famous Soviet humoristic magazine "Crocodile",
and at the same time Gena was a name of well-known cartoon hero
- crocodile. Sasha-Gena was very artful and crafty person. He
was a professional black marketer and managed to get various
deficit things (clothes, home technique, records and so on) made
in USA and Europe and sold them. Besides, he had many
communications in many circles, and in general, he was able to
organise any sort of business.
At last May came. Elton John's arrival to Moscow was planned on
May, 20th and Vyacheslav learnt from his acquaintances that the
singer would arrive early in the morning from Berlin to the
Belarus railway station in Moscow. Guys arrived there and
prepared for a meeting. They brought bunches of flowers and big
Russian doll from 12 pieces of 1,5 metres height with Elton
John's image on it. When train approached and Elton with
accompanying group went out from a train, guys didn’t recognise
his at once. They could discern him only afters seeing Ray
Cooper by his side. Elton was absolutely bald, wearing dark
glasses and high-heeled boots, what surprised the guys most of
all. But Sasha-Gena told them: «Didn’t you know that he was
homo?» (Only know-all Sasha-Gena knew that). So, a retro-car
named "Chaika" (“Seagull” in Russian) made in 60’s was driven to
the Belarus station. Since Elton loved retro cars he was happy
to see it. Further plans included press conference in the Actors
Palace, staying at the "Intourist" hotel and moving to Leningrad
on the Red Arrow speed-train line tonight.
Needless to say that the guys already knew about press
conference and rushed there off trace. At first they weren’t
admitted into a hall, but Sasha-Gena shown their present - 1.5
metre Russian doll and explained how important it was to give
such a great gift from all people of the Soviet Union. So at
last they entered the conference-hall and were much surprised
straight away. This huge conference-hall was half empty. There
were about 10 persons, journalists of main Soviet newspapers and
some persons from TV. And this conference was obviously a
torture for Elton John. That May of 1979 remained in history as
a month of an abnormal heat. For this reason Elton went out from
a train being absolutely bald instead of wearing his wig. And at
press conference he and those present sweated heavily. He asked
journalists: «Why don’t you have air-conditioners here?» But
those days even the word “air-conditioner" was hardly known in
the USSR. And journalists kept on spoiling Elton’s mood with
their stupid questions like «Did you like Moscow?». Elton
replied: « I saw Moscow just for some minutes, I have just
arrived. So what can I say about it?» Journalists continued to
mock: «Well, and did you like the station?» Elton burst out
laughing and said: “Just like anywhere”. All other questions
were in this silly way and not a single one about his music. At
the end of press-conference Elton asked journalists which of his
albums were the most popular in USSR. At this point journalists
were at a loss what to say. Elton was shocked: «It’s
unbelievable! How can it be that my records don’t sell here?»
Our guys planned to present a Russian doll during the press
conference, but Sasha-Gena decided to postpone that. He said:
“Easy. Otherwise he will think that the present came from
journalists. We will give the present when the press conference
is over and he will be going out of a hall”. It is necessary to
notice, that Elton had no bodyguards, only accompanying team. It
was common in those days. But the things changed after John
Lennon's murder in 1980. Then all celebrities started to worry
about their safety.
Except a Russian doll and flowers, guys brought a popular Soviet
magazine with minions (thin blue lp’s with 1-2 songs on each
side) inside with foreign songs. That magazine cost rather dear
comparing to many other issues. That copy brought by the guys
contained a minion with some Elton’s songs.
So, guys stopped Elton near an exit and started to hand over
their gifts. First they presented bouquets, then that huge
Russian doll. Surely, Elton was very much delighted to get such
gift and asked: «Well, how should I carry it? Have you got any
box or a bag for it?» Sasha-Gena said: «Errr … we just didn’t
think of it». Then they showed a minion from that magazine.
«Elton John – Goodbye yellow brick road» was written in Russian
on a blue disk. Elton attentively watched at a disk and asked:
«And which my song is here?» Sasha-Gena translated the title,
and Elton was surprised: «What an old song, don’t you have
anything newer on sale?» With this words he presented to guys
his latest lp «A Single Man». However, Sasha-Gena, who was the
only English speaking guy in the company, managed to wheedle
some more disks from Elton.
In the evening of the same day the delegation left to Leningrad,
and guys followed.
Part 2: Three bottles of vodka for Ray Cooper
Guys were noticed at the press conference and at once got under
control of KGB. Upon arrival to Leningrad they were met by the
agents. They had to show their passports and answer questions
like «for what purpose have you arrived to Leningrad?», «why
don’t you work?», «where do you study?». Somehow artful
Sasha-Gena again managed to clear things up, and the company was
The first day passed for nothing, they didn’t get to the first
concert. So next day guys staked everything and decided to wait
by the service entrance to the concert hall "Octyabrskiy" in
order to scratch somehow inside and visit the concert. KGB
agents became alert but did not approach. In the middle of a
concert John Reid suddenly appeared and asked them: «Guys, are
you waiting for someone?» They replied: «Yes, we’re waiting for
Elton John, we’re his fans». John Reid: «And why are you there?»
. Guys told that they didn’t have tickets and a story about how
the strange manner the tickets were selling. Agents tried to
push guys aside, but John Reid interfered in a situation
threatening with scandal. He quickly counted guys - 12 persons.
He was already going to solve a question with their admission to
the hall when the Sasha-Gena "attacked" his with a request to
give more tickets for tomorrow concert. As a result John Reid
gave them even more tickets than they needed.
Next day guys sold extra tickets and bought some presents for
Elton and John Reid. Among various knickknacks they presented to
Reid a bottle of famous vodka "Stolichnaya". Ray Cooper was
highly interested in this alcoholic present. Actually, Ray
Cooper, unlike Elton John, was a very conservative Englishman.
He wasn’t outgoing at all, and rather reserved. But vodka
definitely interested him, and he asked guys whether the
building in which Stalin said the famous speech in 1945 was
depicted on a bottle label. (a hotel "Moscow" where Stalin often
stopped was drawn on a bottle label). Guys were very much
surprised to hear this question from a musician, but they just
stunned when Ray asked them to present him three bottles of this
And then John Reid surprised guy when asked whether they wished
to come to the hotel where Elton was staying. He ringed Elton
who told them come about midnight since he had a lot of things
to do before that time. Elton asked them not to worry since he
was “an owl” and never went to bed early.
In a meanwhile guys observed Elton John walking about Northern
capital. By the way, he and Cooper had absolutely different
cultural programs. If Elton examined whole Hermitage Museum,
Cooper visited only its "Gold Chamber”. Cooper admitted his love
to precious metals and jewels. Therefore in Moscow he visited
famous Diamond collection. It is also necessary to mention that
Elton’s mother Sheila arrived to Leningrad with her husband Fred
Fearbrother. Together with her son she visited Peterhof.
At last, late at night, the guys came to see Elton John in his
hotel room. Elton stayed at newly opened "Pribaltiyskaya" hotel
on Vasilevsky island. It was one of the highest buildings in a
city. From one side beautiful views to Peterhof and Kronstadt
opened and from another one could see domes of the Isaakievsky
cathedral, banks and bridges of Neva-river. Guys stayed there
for about three hours. Basically they talked about a life abroad
and compared it with life in USSR. Elton returned to his
question and asked again why foreign lp’s don’t sell in USSR.
Guys answered that he [Elton] was in so called “Black list”. The
point is that several years back KGB and the Ministry of Culture
made infamous Black List of western singers and groups who, in
their opinion, were not recommended for Soviet people. All
western rock stars went to this list, including Elton John.
Elton was shocked to hear that and then some days was demanding
from Russian attendants to show him this list. Needless to say
that the list was secret and no one could show it. Nevertheless,
guys and Elton had a great time at the hotel. Elton presented
them his À2 poster from European tour with his and Ray Cooper’s
autographs (in January, 2008 Vyacheslav presented this poster to
our fan-club). Besides, guy received some badges with Elton’s
image and various knickknacks.
Part 3: I adore «Sex Pistols»
Upon completing his part of the tour in Leningrad, Elton went to
Moscow. There he stayed at the "Intourist" hotel on which place
magnificent «Ritz Carlton» appeared today. A day before to the
first Moscow concert Elton visited a football match CSKA-Dynamo
(Minsk). Our guys came to this match too. Elton arrived some
time later and occupied a regular seat among common fans and ate
common Soviet ice-cream in a waffle cone. During the second time
the announcer on stadium declared: «Today famous British singer
Elton John is here with us!» Do you think the audience grew
excited? Not a bit! People did not stir at all! When the match
finished Elton went to a locker room to see football players of
CSKA who presented him a ball with autographs of all players.
Elton was just happy! He also visited stadium in Luzniki which
was on reconstruction to prepare for upcoming Olympic games.
Besides, Elton very much wished to meet Lev Yashin, a legend of
the Soviet football, but he was too busy. Though there were
rumours that KGB strongly “advised” Lev Yashin not to meet
Guys happened to visit Elton John once again after his third
Moscow concert. Even though they didn’t manage to attend it they
learnt that at that concert Elton tried to set off half-dead
Soviet audience and drank a glass of vodka before singing «I
Think I'm Going To Kill Myself» with words in Russian «For your
health!» But then Elton admitted to guys that it was a fake and
glass contained just a mineral water. It is necessary to
mention, that in Leningrad and in Moscow there always were
bottles of foreign mineral water and cognac, but guys never saw
him drinking it. And Elton liked Soviet champagne, though saying
that it was not so good as in France, but very nice.
Once guys were a little bit surprised when Elton told that he
knew about Russian gays gathering by the Bolshoi theatre. In the
end of their meeting Elton had a small request to guys: he asked
them to support him during the last concert next day and “wake
up” dead audience. He gave them tickets from his own stock. By
the way, strange things happened this with his personal stock.
The point is that some Russian employees were stealing the
tickets in order to sell them to rich Communist party members or
to their relatives. Therefore every now and then Elton angrily
asked the attendants about his reserves.
Elton invited guys to visit him once again after the last
concert next day, and they said good-bye.
Next day last concert took place. It’s time to tell how all
these concerts were going off. It is hardly can be seen in a
film «To Russia With Elton», but actually, there were two more
musicians who were playing on a background of a stage. Initially
the Soviet concert institution planned beginning of all concerts
at 14.00, but Elton insisted on evening time. The concerts went
without a break, therefore he did not leave after them at once,
but left to recover in his dressing room for one and a half
hour. His last concert in Moscow was the most interesting.
During it he was changing his costumes and glasses what he did
not do on previous concerts. The guys sat in a zone for
foreigners and helped to set off the audience together with four
fans who came from Britain. In general it wasn’t common in USSR
to go to other cities with a purpose to visit a concert.
Therefore just a couple of girls came from Vilnius to see the
concert. All they were thoroughly enjoying the concert and
shouted and danced like real Western fans which irritated all
people around who weren’t accustomed to such behaviour. It was
nearly similar in every respect to that “official” concert in
Kremlin in 2007. But the most interesting thing happened in the
end. Singing «Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting»
summoned guys to join him on the stage. But security men let
only Englishmen go and stopped the guys. At the end a huge
flower basket was brought on a stage because of a Soviet
tradition to presents it on the first and last concert. It
shocked Elton, and he loudly asked in a microphone: «Are you
going to bury me?»
After concert guys waited Elton near the hotel. In those days
riders weren’t used yet, and Elton didn’t have a personal cook.
He ate at restaurant "Aragvy", and detained there during last
supper. Probably, officials and Communist party members went
there to thank him for concerts and present gifts. At long last
Elton returned to the hotel and met the guys. He told that in
general he was a bit dissatisfied with USSR. He said: «At night
all streets are so dark, no illumination at all. After 23:00
everything is closed. No night clubs … etc.». Besides, Elton
also remained dissatisfied with telephone services: «I live near
to your central telegraph, and there’s so poor communication. Is
it because of KGB bugging my calls?» But still there were a lot
more pleasant themes to talk about. Elton was interested in what
music guys liked and decided to show them his musical
preferences. A video recorder was brought (guys saw such thing
for the first time in their life) and cassette with a video of
«Sex Pistols» concert. Elton told: «Look at these guys, it’s
just a top notch work!» Then Elton said: «Ok, I cannot give you
video recorder, but I give you the cassette». He took this
cassette and wrote on it: «To guys for memory! Maybe, you will
like this music too one day. Elton John». He also gave very
interesting gifts. Various promo-goods like T-shirts portraying
stars weren’t invented then yet but special jeans sometimes were
made. Elton presented to every guy such jeans with inscription
on them «A Single Man Tour». Happy guys left the room, and at
this point a real adventure started: KGB agents already waited
for them at hotel hall. They detained the guys and started
searching them thoroughly. Since guys had their jeans, lp’s and
other things, agents were ready to arrest them as black
marketers. But suddenly John Reid appeared again and saved them
by making a big scandal. In some minutes other members of
Elton’s team joined the scandal. Sasha-Gena said guys not to
worry and even promised to get home by agents’ cars. And that
came true! Threatening with the international scandal, John Reid
ordered to drive the guys to their homes.
Next day Elton John and his team left very early, at 7.00 a.m.
from airport "Sheremetyevo-1". The guys decided to see him the
last time and present some bottles of the Soviet champagne.
Elton was much surprised and pleased to see guys and made a
funny thing – instead of using exclusive "Chaika" he got on the
bus with the personnel and said guys: «Come with us, see me off
in the airport». All the way to airport Elton, Cooper, personnel
and our guys were drinking champagne, laughing, joking … The bus
was brought up directly to the plane. Guys were surprised that
either Elton or his personnel didn’t go through the passport
control. Probably, it was made in the plane.
So Elton John left USSR.
Part 4: would you meet David Furnish?
Many years have passed. And in the beginning of 1995 it was
announced that Elton John was going to give two concerts in
Russia. Vyacheslav tried to gather that old company of 1979, but
only one person replied. Together they collected all the photos
made in 1979 as they were taking photographs of Elton not only
in a hotel room, but also in streets of Moscow and Leningrad,
and made an album with comments to each picture. They decided to
present this album to Elton. They learnt that Elton John was to
arrive in a closed for regular flights airport "Vnukovo-3" and
decided to meet him there. Even though they somehow managed to
scratch to the airport territory to, they didn’t foresee a more
complicated thing – Elton John's guards. By that time he already
has own security service and when “men in black” noticed
strangers they pushed them away. Nevertheless
and his friend decided to reach their goal. After the first
concert they met concert managers and asked them to hand over
the photo album to Elton John. When they already were going to
leave one of the organizers caught up with Vyacheslav and said:
«We gave Elton your photo album. He looked at it and asked to
invite you tomorrow morning to his hotel room».
It was a great gift, especially for
Vyacheslav who celebrated his
40-th anniversary in a day when the second concert took place.
After a meeting in hotel Elton invited Vyacheslav and its friend
to the press conference. But at first a small incident occurred
since Elton’s guards had to remind him of a meeting with two
Russian admirers about which he forgot. Actually, Elton forgot
many things. He didn’t recognise the guys even on photos and
vaguely remembered events of 1979. Surely, it was no wonder
after so many years and so many countries, cities and
everything. Nevertheless, they had an interesting conversation.
In spite of the fact that Elton requested not to photograph him
as many years back, he remained outgoing and easy to talk to. He
even met Vyacheslav and its friend … in a dressing gown. And
when Vyacheslav asked about his beloved, Elton replied: «David?
He’s here, in the next room, would you like to meet him?»
[Presidential suit of the "Metropol" hotel had 4 rooms]. Elton
attentively watched the old photos and gave a special attention
to the cap which he had on during his concerts in 1979: «This
cap is still lying somewhere at my home»...
We do not know where and how other heroes of this story live. We
just know that Sasha-Gena was murdered several years ago,
circumstances and reasons are not known. Vyacheslav lives in
Moscow and keeps his huge passion to good music. He was very
glad to get acquainted with our Fan-club. We have very much in
It is our youth!
It is our life!
It is our Destiny!
Text by: Denis Azarenkov
English translate by: Natella Hachaturova