Gorbushka: Moscows' One Stop Shop For Firearms And Pirate CDs

My favourite record shop was not a shop, but a once illegal open-air market in Moscow, Russia that went by the name ‘Gorbushka’.
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My favourite record shop was not a shop, but a once illegal open-air market in Moscow, Russia that went by the name ‘Gorbushka’.

Legend has it that in the early 90s you could buy just about anything at Gorbushka- guns, ammo, possibly even a small nuclear device. Its main business however had always been pirate CDs, tapes and computer software. Scruffy types would set up their stalls along the park’s tree lined avenue every weekend, and the entertainment hungry denizens of the city would descend. Cops would wander about, pausing only to collect payments from the stallholders, or maybe buy a CD. The market was completely illegal, and completely in the open – like all business in Russia at the time.

I can’t remember what I bought on my first visit. I didn’t own a CD player, so I was stuck with the more limited selection available on cassette. I have a feeling I bought Pulp’s This is Hardcore for dollar or two. The sound quality was very muddy. Very possibly I also picked up Orbital’s Snivilisation, since I was attempting to get into electronic music at the time… and a Roy Orbison compilation, yes I’m pretty sure I got some of that. And Yes by Morphine, if you remember them. A few months later I’d buy my first Rammstein record in the park. Herzeleid: on the cover six oiled up naked Germans stood in front of a big flower, glaring at me. They remain one of my favourite bands, and the group I’ve seen live more than any other.

Since it was a criminal market, the atmosphere at Gorbushka was not always pleasant. There was a neo-Nazi stand for instance, where you could buy skinhead punk music and VHS tapes of Der Fuhrer’s greatest battles.

Some of those Russian bootlegs were factory made and of very high quality. They had covers, were put out on fake labels, and even had copyright information on the discs and tapes, just for a laugh. Others were regular C90s, recorded at home, with titles written on card. Because there was always space left over, the pirates added a PS, in the form of bonus tracks by another artist. I bought Red Snapper’s Prince Blimey and discovered some rotten Drum n’Bass filling up most of side 2. John Cale’s dubious Honi Soit was backed with some equally problematic Lou Reed. At least they tried to mix and match thematically.

Since it was a criminal market, the atmosphere at Gorbushka was not always pleasant. There was a neo-Nazi stand for instance, where you could buy skinhead punk music and VHS tapes of Der Fuhrer’s greatest battles. Nearby there was a poster of a naked woman impaled on a spear that entered through her arse and left via her gaping mouth. Since Russia was an extremely violent place, and everybody was cynical beyond belief (and I was still very young), I thought it was real. Later I discovered it was a famous scene from Cannibal Holocaust.

Gorbushka was not just a zone of CD piracy. It was also home to a Stalin-era ‘Palace of Culture’ where ballroom dancing and balalaika concerts had given way to more extreme sounds. I saw a very fine Motorhead gig there, witnessed a rare live appearance by Brian Eno (sharing the stage with Franco-Algerian Rai-rocker Rachid Taha) and was blown away by Einsturzende Neubauten, who seemed very much at home in this rotting soviet edifice. Smashing things and bashing amplified bits of metal with hammers made a lot of sense at Gorbushka, although at that time EN were also heavily into gently blowing air down long pipes.

Occasionally the market would disappear for a few weeks, causing panic among Muscovites that the cops had finally shut it down. In fact, Gorbushka vanished whenever Bill Gates or a senior American dignitary passed through town. It’s a funny Russian custom: hiding your business from the authorities. The thinking goes like this: if you can’t see me, then I don’t exist, even though you know that I do exist. In fact, you know that I know that you know that I exist. At some point in this game, money exchanges hands.

It was easy to track down weird electronic music such as Autechre or Aphex Twin.  Quirky, fey and jangly indie pop of the sort favoured by Pitchfork or NME was practically non-existent, fortunately.

Then one day Gorbushka did shut down, thanks to a conflict between rival gangs. I read that the head of the market- a one armed Armenian- was walking in the street when he was bundled into a car and made to disappear. Whether he ever reappeared I don’t know. But shortly afterwards a new Gorbushka opened inside an old soviet TV factory not far from the park. Much of the building had been converted into a giant electronics showroom. There were hundreds of stalls selling freezers, hi-fi equipment, washing machines and…er… pirate CDs.

In many ways the new Gorbushka was an improvement- you didn’t get rained on or frostbitten as you perused the vendor’s wares. But its clinical light lacked a certain piratical charm. It was also quite surreal: the management had hung up signs that read: Don’t give your money to pirates! And Pirates your days are numbered! These signs hung directly over the heads of pirates who were selling the latest edition of Windows for $2. Not much of a computer man, I was more amazed by the phenomenon of the MP3 disc: everything Kraftwerk had ever done could be yours for $3!

Gorbushka was also a source of anthropological fascination as it revealed what Russians enjoyed listening to. They worshipped the Beatles of course, but were also very fond of the 70s hard rock, prog rock and heavy metal that had been banned in the USSR. Bands like Nazareth, Smokie and Uriah Heep (all of whom were constantly passing through town) were held in high esteem, as were Black Sabbath, King Crimson and Slayer. Richie Blackmore was revered in all his manifestations, even his bizarre late 90s mutation into a wandering minstrel with Blackmore’s Night. On the lighter side, Russians were also very fond of Eurodisco- stuff like Haddaway and Army of Lovers. Poodle rockers Europe and pretty Norwegians A-Ha were touted as legends of rock. And then there was Astor Piazzola, the Argentinian tango master, whose music was very popular. It was easy to track down weird electronic music such as Autechre or Aphex Twin.  Quirky, fey and jangly indie pop of the sort favoured by Pitchfork or NME was practically non-existent, fortunately. No Sufjan Stevens for you, Ivan!

Of course, this was all actually very bad and I am very sorry for, er, occasionally succumbing to weakness and buying a pirate tape or CD. The best albums I would later re-purchase as legitimate CDs- for example, I picked up Rammstein’s catalogue again on a trip to Berlin. But in the beginning at least it was no wonder that Gorbushka thrived. Imported western CDs cost $20-30 a pop; given that hardly anybody earned more than $150 a month, and many earned less than that, of course people were going to buy pirated discs. Around 2003 however the record labels operating in Russia acquired some brains and started pricing licensed CDs only slightly higher than the pirates. The selection was poorer, yes, but it was occasionally very strange. For instance I picked up Krautrock band Cluster’s rare Zuckerzeit, legally, for $5. Why anyone thought they could sell lots of copies of that I have no idea.

The last time I visited Moscow in 2007 Gorbushka was still open. Friends tell me that these days pirates have largely been chased from the city streets. They’re all online now. But furtive clicking in the dark will never compare to the experience of wandering through the broad alleys of a soviet park in 1997, under full gaze of the police, marvelling at the size of the crowd hunting for cheap sounds.

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