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The Biggest Western Pop Stars Behind The Iron Curtain

Two ABBA members, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson, celebrate their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Swedish pop quartet ABBA, hugely popular during the 1970s and 1980s, has just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At the height of its fame, ABBA found what may have been its most enthusiastic audience behind the Iron Curtain.

Their cute, middle-of-the-road image and catchy tunes appealed instantly to the cultural censors in the Soviet Union who blocked more controversial acts. It didn’t hurt that ABBA’s breakthrough with “Waterloo” during the 1974 Eurovision TV song contest was shown live in a number of then-communist European countries, including Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Hungary.

A number of then-popular Eastern European and Soviet performers routinely included ABBA cover songs in their concerts, to the enthusiastic reception of the audience. Even Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was said to have had a weak spot for ABBA.

ABBA albums were promptly licensed and issued in vinyl by Soviet recording company Melodia starting in the late 1970s. Because copies were limited, they fetched several times their original price on the black market. It has been reported that because of the nonconvertible status of the ruble and the lack of hard currency in Melodia’s budget, ABBA was paid for its Soviet record deals in oil commodities.

When it came out in 1977, "ABBA: The Movie" was promptly licensed and shown for a limited period in a number of Eastern European countries and in two theaters in Moscow. Thousands of Soviet teenagers viewed the Cinderella story of the four newcomers from Sweden with almost religious fervor, wondering if the same fortune could come to them.

ABBA never played in the Soviet Union, although there were rumors of behind-the-scenes negotiations to bring them in as the opening act of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.

Even today, more than a quarter of a century after ABBA disbanded, its influence on the Russian popular music is significant. Dima Bilan, one of Russia’s most popular current acts, often pays tribute to ABBA during his performances.

In 2009, an ABBA tribute band claimed it had performed a private show for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who allegedly danced to ABBA hits and shouted “Bravo!” Putin’s spokesperson denied the claim.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, on the other hand, is known as more of a rock fan than a pop listener. His choice for a Kremlin command performance: veteran British rockers Deep Purple.

-- Nikola Krastev

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