Did you ever visit St. Petersburg in the early nineties?

If you did, my next question to you is: How many pirate CDs/DVDs did you bring home with you?

Quite a few, no doubt. A box set of the sitcom Friends perhaps? Or Sting’s entire catalog? Or maybe you just bought a few famous CDs like The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd and Born In The U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen. Or maybe you bought them all. A year’s worth of presents for your relatives. They all knew what to expect for their birthdays and Christmas: Weird versions of famous CDs by famous groups that you didn’t even know existed.

Of course, the days of illegal CD shops and stalls are long gone even in Russia but I still remember discovering them like it was yesterday. It was snowing. Christmas was just around the corner and I was visiting relatives in St. Petersburg. The city was lit up, decorated and stunningly beautiful. And as if that wouldn’t have been enough, somebody said, “We want to show you something incredibly cool.” I asked what it was. They said, “It’s a surprise. Something a guy like you will truly appreciate.” We got in the car and drove to a place called Yunona market.

Going to Yunona was an experience that’s hard to describe. It was basically filled with all sorts of pirated goods – anything from coffee makers to computer software. Whatever you wanted to buy, it was there. I remember this German couple, not far from where I was haggling over the price of some CDs, buying a sauna. Yes, you read that right. It was an assembled sauna, ready to be installed into your flat. Amazing! They were lifting it in the back of their truck with the help of a few locals. A police officer walked over to lend a hand. It was quite a scene, not something you see every day.

The nineties were the golden era of music piracy in Russia but its roots can be traced back to the sixties. Doesn’t make any sense? Let me explain.

During the Soviet times, Russia had only one official recording company, the state owned Melodiya founded in 1964. It was a label that focused mostly on classical music and theater plays. Due to the immense pressure from the Communist Party, Melodiya more or less pretended that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did not exist. Even after Stalin’s death, which ended the most acute repression, control and terror in the Soviet Union, Western culture and music were still considered a bad influence. The Communist Party in particular was adamant about it steering people off course and alienating them from the desired values of Soviet society. Perhaps the state was quite right to be concerned. According to Russian Olympic diver Mikhail Safonov, “When a person had educated himself in the culture of The Beatles, he found he could no longer live in lies and hypocrisy.”

Regardless of the state’s efforts to “protect” its people from decadent western culture, by mid-sixties, there was no country in the world that was immune to Beatlemania, and Russia was no exception. This created a huge market for The Beatles but also for western music in general. The demand was met by audio enthusiasts who copied vinyl LPs bought from abroad onto music cassettes and discs made of used X-ray paper. And voilà, this is more or less how Russia’s clandestine recording industry was born.

How did this make-do-with-what-you’ve-got approach then evolve into the well-oiled piracy machine that supplied Russia’s illegal music trade throughout the nineties and well into the new millennium?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism, the bootleggers and criminals reopened Melodiya’s deserted production facilities and started a new, far more effective industry that no longer relied on used X-ray paper or age-old music cassettes. With appropriate and suitable equipment at their disposal, they began digital copying and quickly filled the shops and markets with pirated LPs and CDs. These sold like hotcakes and as CD sales increased towards the end of the nineties, so did piracy. The Gorbunov market outside Moscow, which opened in 1992, went on to become the biggest pirated audio and video market in the entire world.

And the quality of the CDs and DVDs? Well, the packaging was not exactly top notch. The pictures were slightly dark and a bit mucky, and the concept of a multi-page booklet didn’t really exist. However, more often than not, the sound quality of these LPs and CDs was pretty damn great and if you were lucky, the album you purchased even had the right music on it. This wasn’t always the case. I, for instance, have Van Halen II that features Gary Glitter.

However, the most intriguing CDs I ever saw in these markets were the strange Beatles compilations that dominated the shelves no matter which booth you approached. They came in all shapes and sizes, but my favorite ones were the warped versions of the red and blue albums called The Beatles 1962–1965 and The Beatles 1965–1970. If you know the originals, you’ll know right away that the titles don’t match. This doesn’t matter because neither do the tracks. The pictures do however – albeit they are dark and blurry.

Nowadays, even The Beatles are on Spotify and for the movie lovers, Netflix and quite a few other streaming services are offering a huge plateau of films with just a few euros a month. This means the age of CDs and DVDs has come to an end, and with that so has the age of their pirated counterparts. Has piracy then run its course? Absolutely not, it has just moved online. And can you guess which country is once again under the radar, regardless of its new stricter anti-piracy legislation enacted in 2013? Yes, you guessed it right: Russia.

With the online piracy still going strong in the form of illegal streaming sites, it seems intellectual property rights will always be subject to violation. Just like the rest of us, pirates move with the times. This makes me wonder if my six-year-old’s embarrassingly bad joke actually has a grain of wisdom in it.

Q: How do modern pirates communicate with each other?

A: With an Aye phone.

About The Author Tommi Tikka

Tommi Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in. To him, they are a way of life.

You can check out his current band The Impersonators here:

And the music of his previous group Carmen Gray here: Spotify

Tommi also curates the OG playlist: Music to Celebrate Life