1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

David Bowie's journey through the Soviet Union

Philipp Jedicke
July 4, 2023

In 1973, David Bowie traveled by train from Siberia to Moscow at the end of his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane world tour. His friend and bandmate Geoff MacCormack captured the journey in photos.

In a colorized black-and-white photo taken by Geoff MacCormack in Russia in 1973, David Bowie is seen at the open window of a train. He has his left arm resting on the top of the windowpane and he is looking into the camera.
David Bowie traveling the Trans-Siberian RailwayImage: Geoff MacCormack

David Bowie had just become a genuine global rock star. In 1972, he had his major international breakthrough with the album "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," and the world tour in support of the record continued until 1973.

The final date of the tour took place in Yokohama, Japan. Bowie, who suffered from a fear of flying, decided to take an unconventional route back home to England: going from Japan to Siberia on the passenger ship SS Felix Dzerzhinsky, then a week-long rail journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, followed by further train connections through Poland, Germany and France. 

In a black-and-white photo by Geoff MacCormack from 1973, David Bowie poses in the corridor of a train traveling through the Soviet Union. He is wearing a white jacket with black horizontal stripes, wide lapels and padded shoulders, and a beret cocked to one side of his head. He has his left hand on his hip, while his right hand grasps a rail in front of a window.
David Bowie traveling the Trans-Siberian railwayImage: Geoff MacCormack

Exhibition of photographs by Geoff MacCormack

Now the late rock star's unusual trip through what was then the USSR is the subject of an exhibition titled "David Bowie in the Soviet Union" at the Wende Museum in Culver City, California. The Wende is an art museum, cultural center and archive of the Cold War, which, according to its website, "explores social, political, and cultural change." The photos in the exhibition are by Geoff MacCormack, a member of Bowie's band and a childhood friend.

In a black-and-white photo by Leee Black Childers from 1973, David Bowie (left) and Geoff MacCormack stand in the corridor of a train and look out the window. Bow is wearing a white jacket with a fake fur collar and a large beret; MacCormack is wearing a dark jacket with a fake fur collar.
David Bowie and Geoff MacCormack during their journeyImage: Leee Black Childers

MacCormack and Bowie met in the 1950s while playing in the London suburb of Bromley, where they both grew up, and they fast became inseparable.

In a video interview published on the Wende Museum website, MacCormack recalls growing up with Bowie, their time together at school, in the Cub Scouts and the church choir — and their trip through the Soviet Union. MacCormack describes vividly how the two boys fell under the spell of rock 'n' roll, calling it "a force of nature" that "blew us away."

They shared that love of music into adulthood. So when Bowie was about to embark on the 1972/73 tour, he recruited MacCormack as a backing vocalist, percussionist and dancer. "He phoned me up and told me I was joining his band; he didn't ask me," MacCormack tells Joes Segal, curator of the Wende Museum, in the interview.

New experiences, drinking sessions and a May Day parade

Aside from music, MacCormack's great passion is photography. And thanks to the closeness he shared with Bowie, he was able to capture images of the rock star on that train journey that others couldn't: a Bowie relaxed, lost in thought, focused, and excited by all the new experiences the trip brought them.

In a black-and-white photo taken by Geoff MacCormack in Moscow in 1973, David Bowie is seen at a window looking out on to Red Square. He's turned around to look back at the camera, and has a small film camera in his right hand.
David Bowie filming the May Day Parade at Red SquareImage: Geoff MacCormack

Traveling as they did allowed the two to really engage with the country and its people. There were repeated drinking sessions with soldiers, sailors and tourists; and the bleary mornings-after were captured by MacCormack's lens. He also recalls singing along with Bowie to an ever-present cassette of "cheesy" Russian cover versions of Beatles songs. 

In this color photo by Geoff MacCormack from 1973, a shirtless David Bowie is seen asleep in a bed in a sleeper car. The bed across from him is empty and unmade; the table inbetwene is covered in empty bottles.
David Bowie after a long drinking session on the train, 1973Image: Geoff MacCormack

One of the highlights of the journey was their two-day stop in Moscow, where they visited the Kremlin and the socialist showpiece department store GUM — and avidly watched the traditional May Day Parade.

In a color photo taken by Leee Black Childers in Moscow in 1973, Geoff MacCormack (left) and David Bowie smile as they watch the May Day Parade. MacCormack is wearing a blue denim buttoned shirt; Bowie is wearing a black sweater and has his spike red "Ziggy Stardust" hair.
David Bowie and Geoff MacCormack at the May Day Parade in Moscow, 1973Image: Leee Black Childers

A special soundtrack for the exhibition

The non-profit Los Angeles radio station dublab has created a playlist especially for the exhibition. It features songs from the time of that trip, as well as Bowie's once and future collaborators, including Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Queen.

"This mix offers a glimpse into what he most likely was being influenced by at that moment, and later went on to define work such as 'Low' and 'Station to Station.' With a heavy dose of Krautrock, a foot in experimental music, and a solid presence in the so-called 'glam-rock' scene of that era," writes Alejandro Cohen, executive director of dublab, on the museum website.

In a color photo by Geoff MacCormack taken in Siberia in 1973, a train is seen curving from the right side of the photo towards the center, traveling along a frozen river. A hill with trees is in the background.
Scenic Siberia, 1973Image: Geoff MacCormack

The exhibition of MacCormack's photos is completed by Bowie's own 16mm film "The Long Way Home," which captures several elements of the journey, including the visit to the Moscow May Day parade.

The photos on show are also collected in Geoff MacCormack's current book, "David Bowie: Rock 'n' Roll with Me," published this year.

In a color photo by Geoff MacCormack taken in Russia in 1973, five boys pose on a train platform. The two on the far right are wearing berets; the others are bare-headed; all are wearing dark clothing. A train can be seen on the far left of the photo; other passengers and buildings can be seen on the right.
Russian boys pose for Geoff MacCormackImage: Geoff MacCormack

The exhibition "David Bowie in the Soviet Union" at the Wende Museum in Culver City, USA runs through October 22, 2023.

This article was originally written in German.