Soft power — the use of culture to influence the other side by burrowing into an adversary’s society and psyche — can be very effective. The U.S. has been extremely effective at subtlely convincing oppressed peoples to want what looks like benevolent American and Western things, thereby undermining the desire for domestic material. This, it was theorized, would cause social unrest against their government while simultaneously softening attitudes toward the U.S. and the West. If things go as planned, the West gained a geopolitical advantage without firing a shot.
In the spring of 2020, a podcast called Wind of Change explored the notion that the CIA helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union with the help of a metal power ballad released by Germany’s The Scorpions. Lore had it that the Agency wrote the tune, had the band record it, and the entire Eastern Bloc fell for its themes of change and freedom, thereby hastening the fall of the USSR.
The legend doesn’t appear to be true, but it doesn’t mean that spooks on both sides of the Cold War didn’t try some pretty nutty things that might destabilize the enemy.
Rock’n’roll was a powerful weapon and used to great advantage by the West. Consider the effect of The Beatles. Leslie Woodhead was a former British spy who saw it firsthand.
Other acts did their part, too, as part of official cultural exchange missions known as “Friendship and Cultural Relations Societies,” all accompanied by undercover CIA personnel. Meanwhile, when the USSR sent over their classical music ensembles, ballet troupes, and dancing bears, KGB minders were embedded in the entourages. Everyone put up with the spying and the odd defection.
Over the decades, rumours began to circulate about one particular KGB plot in the U.K. Punk rock exploded across the kingdom in 1976, featuring muck-raking young bands determined to stick it to the establishment, the class system, and the status quo. There was no way the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other police organizations from the Eastern Bloc would have looked at the situation and not thought about trying to turn things to their advantage. Could this new youth movement be used to destabilize Britain and perhaps all of Western Europe?
The KGB certainly had contacts with violent political groups like the Red Army Faction in West German, the Red Brigade in Italy, and any number of leftist/socialist/communist organizations committed to the revolution. They would have an interest in nationalist organizations like the IRA.
The aims of all these groups involved doing serious damage to the reigning political and capitalist system, thoughts often shared by punk bands and their fans. Maybe these punks weren’t into armed resistance, planting bombs, and kidnapping politicians, but their sympathies were obvious. Could the Eastern Bloc’s goals be furthered by encouraging these groups and their followings to continue to cause trouble?
For example, could a song like Anarchy in the UK have been nudged along by KGB agents in Britain to stoke the anger of youth and to scare the crap out of the monarchy?
One story comes from an allegedly retired KGB agent named Alexandrov Varennikov. He claimed that the entire punk movement — everything from The Ramones to The Pistols to The Clash — was financed by the Soviet secret police. The goal, he was was to “create utter chaos” and to “pervert the Western your with nihilist, anti-establishment, and anti-American ideologies.”
Varennikov also claimed that many punk songs were actually written by teams of propagandists and psychologists who were experts in psychological warfare. Their goal was to increase cynicism, promote socialist/communist revolutionary thinking, and to encourage heavy drug use.
“Our mission was to use teenage angst to our advantage and turn the baby boomer generation of the West into a decadent, pro-drug and anti-establishment culture that would create uprisings and bring Western democracies into utter chaos,” Varennikov says.
“We even infiltrated mainstream radios to promote their music and reach millions of people every day. For many of us in the KGB, infiltrating the 1970s punk scene was one of the USSR’s most successful experiments of propaganda to date.”
At this point, you might point to some of the imagery and iconography of British punk back in the 1980s. Why were those kids decorating their outfits with things like swastikas and hammers and sickles? Why were they kicking so hard against capitalism, the monarchy, and the class system? Why was British punk so much more violent than what we saw in North America? Were these kids being egged on by the KGB?
Actually, no. The whole Varennikov story is fake. It first appeared on a website called World News Daily Report, which, like The Onion, is a satirical site. Some people didn’t get the joke and every once in a while, the story reappears on Facebook and has to be debunked again. But given the nature of British punk in the 1970s, you can see why some people fell for it.
But just because the Varennikov story wasn’t true doesn’t mean that the KGB didn’t get involved in the punk game in order to foment confusion and hostility.
In the early 1980s, the British anarchist/agit-prop band Crass happened to meet up with a former skinhead-turned-solider who had just returned from a tour of duty in the Falklands War. He told them some crazy stories, some of which were genuine classified information, material that was being kept secret from the public.
Crass then came up with the idea of cutting together some speeches by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to make it sound like an intercepted phone call from 1982. If you listen closely, it sounds like the two world leaders were plotting a wider war that would include an attack on the USSR. Thatcher also seems to take responsibility for the controversial sinking of an Argentine battleship.
As a joke, Crass anonymously sent the tape out to newspapers across Europe. A few weeks later, the joke was somehow discovered and they were exposed. You’d think the jig would have been up, but things didn’t stop there.
For more than a year, this tape was discussed by the CIA and MI5. It might have been a punk band’s crude attempt at causing trouble, but what were their real motivations? Could they have had contact with Russian agents? Some within British Intelligence believed so.
MI5 opened a dossier on Crass that was kept secret for 30 years. Specialists opened an investigation into the tape. The Pentagon got involved. Adding more smoke was documentation that shortly after the hoax was uncovered, Crass was invited to a meeting with what was supposedly a “Russian literary magazine” in London. The real KGB came calling. Representatives from West Germany’s violent Baader-Meinhof Group turned up, uninvited in their back garden. What else could they offer? Did they know of anything that could be of interest to the organization? Even the IRA sent word that Crass shouldn’t worry because they had their backs.
Crass admits they were terrified. Their prank had turned into something genuinely dangerous to them, their country, and the West in general. It’s not nice to fool with a nation’s national security apparatus.
We’ve learned a few more things since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. Researchers digging through government archives in Ukraine found meticulous reports written by agents who were very concerned about Youths in Soviet-ruled Kyiv. Fans were investigated and questioned — and maybe worse. And yes, the agents wondered if punk rock could be used as a weapon against the decadent West.
What can we conclude? First, the KGB had no role in writing any punk rock anthems. But did they look at punk as a way to screw with the West? The answer is “most certainly.” But did they have an appreciable effect? Probably not.
But you never know, right?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.