The Moscow Olympics are over and the 1984 games in L.A. are a long way off, but a group of Russians is already in that city going for the gold. Albums, that is. Serge Kapustin, 31, his wife, Natasha, 23, and her brother Vladimir Shneider, 29—known collectively as Black Russian—are dissident Soviet Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in 1976 to seek political and musical freedom.
The Motown label signed them (as one of its rare white acts) and last summer issued their debut LP, Black Russian, and single, Leave Me Now. Their new sound—a slick mix of R&B, soft rock and pop—is decidedly commercial, and though it took Black Russian three and a half scrabbling years to get there, that was just as well. The group couldn’t go public with its fascinating story until six additional family members arrived safely in the U.S.
The Kapustins were members of Sovremennik, a state-run pop orchestra, with Natasha on vocals and piano. Serge on guitar and percussion. Vladimir produced and played piano for the Singing Hearts, which was one of Russia’s hottest groups in the mid-’70s. But, as Vladimir notes, they were pumping out more agitprop than pop. “We’d sing 37 songs about how good the Communist Party is, and at the end—if we were lucky—we were allowed to play a mellow song like Killing Me Softly or Ain’t No Sunshine. But never rock.”
Not only was rock’n’roll frowned upon, but Sovremennik had to submit its repertoire for annual approval by the cultural commissars. “If it wasn’t ideologically sound,” sighs Serge, “it was out.” Even volume was censored. The state discouraged the use of loud bass drums and the wah-wah pedal (a gizmo used by imperialist power-riffers to distort chords for effect). Still, Serge recalls, the three “cautiously” tuned into late-night Voice of America programs and developed a taste for the Beatles, Presley, Hendrix, Wonder and Aretha. Then, opting for freedom over the security of promising careers (Serge and Natasha received state-mandated salaries of $500 to $700 a month, while Vladimir claims to have earned up to $3,000 monthly), they applied for visas to immigrate to Israel—falsifying documents to prove they had relatives there.
At the Moscow airport, officials confiscated all their luggage and instruments just before they flew off to Vienna and Rome. But the destination they always dreamed about was Hitsville, U.S.A. As Natasha, then pregnant, recalls, “I wanted my baby to be American.” The Kapustins arrived in New York just two months before the birth of their son, Robin, now 4. To scrape together funds to cut a demo tape, Serge worked as a cosmetics chemist for Georgette Klinger, and Vladimir as a boutique security guard. Though running low on luck and money, they managed to move to L.A. in 1978, and finally impressed Motown’s Berry Gordy enough to land a five-year deal. (A Russian musician friend gave the group its name, which honors their inspiration by soul artists.) “It doesn’t matter if they’re red, white or yellow,” says Michael Roshkind, the former Motown vice chairman who supervised their development. “It’s what’s in the grooves that counts.”
Their lives now are increasingly in the American groove. Natasha, Serge and Robin live in a modest Westwood apartment. Vladimir, his wife, Elena, whom he met and married in L.A., and daughter Michelle, 1, live in Hollywood. Recently joining them in L.A. are their families: Serge’s two sisters and his father, a former soccer player; Natasha’s father, a classical accordionist, her folksinger mother, and an uncle. During their separation, the family figures that 80 percent of their letters were intercepted and that their phone calls were bugged by Soviet authorities.
Black Russian’s English has improved to where, as Natasha says, “We can understand folklore, slang and the Johnny Carson show.” They nevertheless hired Nan O’Byrne, a local lyricist who had worked with Bonnie Raitt, to help them on four Black Russian tracks.
Their new musical friends also include Stevie Wonder, who, Natasha reports, “told us he’d like to work with us.” While they’ve become hooked on bowling, Big Macs and Coke (the drinking kind), they still enjoy an evening of intense political discussion fueled by vodka. As for extravagances, the two families share a Cadillac—”What a dream,” swoons Serge.
Not all their dreams are so sweet. Serge says they all still have “nightmares that we are back in Russia, that this is just a visit. You literally wake in a cold sweat.” In jollier moments, though, they have even devised a plan for detente. “Just put 100 rock’n’roll radio stations along the Soviet border,” proposes Serge. “You’d kill off Russian Communism—snap—just like that.”