What if I told you that one of the largest crowds to ever attend a concert—1.5 million people—happened in Russia?1 What if I told you that it was just before the fall of the Soviet Union? What if I told you that it was a heavy metal festival? Yes, this all happened in the fall of 1991, the very same year that the Iron Curtain fell. This is the story of the Monsters of Rock Moscow show.
The whole Monsters of Rock idea started in Castle Donington, England in 1980, gaining a monumental following in the following years, adding more popular bands in the rock and metal scene to the lineup. Although it was originally going to be a one-time event, over the next decade, the show was held again, and it only increased in popularity. It put on shows across Europe, cementing its place in music history.2
At the same time that Monsters of Rock was happening in Europe, the Soviet Union was in turmoil. During the 1980’s, Soviet Premier Lenoid Brezhnev died and by 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Throughout the decade of the 1980s, western music was making its way into the USSR.
September 1991 was a big month in Russia. There was an August Coup, which was a failed military takeover of the Soviet Union.3 So, tensions were still high when the Russian government contacted the organizers of the show to see if they would be interested in having a show in Russia. Word of the show spread to many outlets, who wanted to see if they could televise the event, with Time Warner ending up getting the rights to record the show.
When it came to selecting the bands to perform, it was difficult to choose which bands would go. Because of Soviet isolation, the festival organizers did not know which bands would be popular in Russia. So, some of the most popular metal bands were chosen, bands such as AC/DC, Metallica, and Pantera, which became the main headliners for the show.4 The date for the event was set for September 28, in Tushino Airfield, a former site of Soviet military exercises.
On the day of the event, a flood of people came into the airfield early in the day, with events starting off at 2 p.m. with Pantera preforming first. The recordings of Pantera’s set can be seen online, capturing the loud and energetic atmosphere that the band was able to generate on their audience. The set that is remembered the most out of this event is Metallica’s. It was here that the estimated 1.5 million people showed up, causing chaos for the Soviet guards who were at the event.5 Video footage shows helicopters flying close to the crowd, trying to settle down the rowdy fans. In a video of the set, one can see the ocean of people moving around and singing along, even though the majority of the crowd only knew English through the music. You can feel the raw emotions of the crowd and see how one simple music event was able to draw in over 1.5 million, all through the power of music.
In December of 1991, a few months after the show had happened, the official dissolution of the Soviet Union took place.6 Many of the many restrictions on western media and music were gone and more events like the Monsters of Rock show were able to take place in the country. The legacy of the show is still known today. What was once thought of as a risk turned out to be one of the largest attended shows in history. It is truly beautiful how music was able to do this in a country where many restrictions on media did not allow this.