As Vladimir Putin seeks to crack down on artistic freedom, Rob Behan tells the story of the rock scene that emerged from the margins in the late years of the Soviet Union, to the dismay of the regime.
Recent developments in Russia have exposed yet more of the inner tensions in Vladimir Putin’s regime. During the summer the forces of the Russian state stood in hard opposition to growing calls for greater democratic and social freedoms from a resurgent youth. The Moscow protests of 2019 are just one of many recent manifestations of resistance to an ageing regime intent on maintaining its hold on power by locking up and censoring its youngers.
The various attempts by the regime in Russia to keep a firm hand on youth policy indicate that it is wary of the potential for things to get out of control. Another example is the crackdown on the alternative rap scene. In November 2018 the rapper Husky was the latest to be arrested for giving unsanctioned concerts. This arrest, however, elicited a response from Putin himself, indicating that the trend has caught the attention of the Kremlin. There followed a clumsy attempt by the regime to endorse rapper Timofei, which ended embarrassingly when Timofei’s video suffered a record-breaking thumbs down vote on YouTube. The power structures in Russia are wildly out of touch with young people.
This dynamic is not new to Russian political and social life. Youth discontent, apathy and music as a protest culture have been at the heart of social and political change in Russia in the recent past. The late-USSR of the 1980s saw an ageing regime trying to set its will against young rockers who challenged official culture and opened the door to exposing the tensions between the Communist Party and its youth.
The Soviet rock scene of the 1980s is unfamiliar territory. Artists and groups such as Viktor Tsoi’s Kino, Boris Grebenchikov’s Aquarium and Mike Naumenko’s Zoopark are not well known outside the former USSR. This is partly because of the oppressive conditions their work grew in and partly the early deaths of Tsoi and Naumenko. Nonetheless, we should not understate their impact on social and political developments of the time. When Tsoi died in 1990 the leading Soviet youth paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, commented, “Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. He never lied or sold out.”
Rock music was seen as a deviant influence in the Soviet Union, particularly post-1968, as it became a soundtrack to the growing youth rebellion in the West. A few songs by the Beatles or the Beach Boys would find airtime on the radio, a few more at discotheques, but the sale and distribution of Western rock music was strictly controlled. New talent could only be signed by the state record label, Melodia, which would sign the kinds of industry hacks who would do what they were told and produce bland or patriotic material for the mass market.
Komsomol (the Soviet youth organisation) kept a list of banned western groups whose music could not be played or distributed. In 1985 there were nearly 30 groups on it. Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, the Clash, the Sex Pistols and even Tina Turner were charged with promoting, among other things, violence, sex and distorting the Soviet military threat.
Yet a whole subculture outside of the mainstream had existed around the margins of youth culture from the 1960s onwards. Records brought in from the west helped Soviet audiences discover rock and by the 1970s an underground scene of bands had developed in Moscow, Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Estonia and Latvia. Concerts in music halls and cafes gave amateur groups the opportunity to play for audiences and occasionally a big concert or festival was organised with official sanction.
The opening of the Leningrad Rock Club in 1981 was a consequence of the pressure created by this new scene. It proved a significant step forward in popularising alternative culture. From the start the club was subject to close monitoring from the KGB secret police, but it became a hit with the city’s urban youth regardless. Musicians who had hitherto existed on the fringes and underground since the 1970s were now allowed to perform and drew committed followings. The foremost of these was Aquarium. Led by the pioneering songwriter Boris “Bob” Grebenchikov, the group had recorded a number of homemade albums by this point. They remained unsigned, meaning their distribution was limited to self-produced tapes and live concerts. They were kicked out of the 1980 Tbilisi rock festival accused of promoting both homosexuality and incest, a feat that also led to Grebenchikov’s expulsion from the Komsomol and the loss of his job. It did much to enhance Aquarium’s reputation, however.
Also unsigned and playing the Leningrad Rock Club were Zoopark, led by the charismatic Mike Naumenko, a songwriter and guitar virtuoso. Naumenko satirised official doctrine and promoted non-conformity. Songs such as “(You’re A) Bitch!” (1982) contained a hard energetic fusion of punk and rock and challenged sexual taboos. Their 1984 album White Stripe with titles such as “Song of an Everyday Person”, “Poverty” and “Scumbags” subverted and satirised decent values and official culture.
Other popular resident and visiting groups included Stranni Igri (Strange Games) a ska-punk outfit who disbanded in 1986 (just as they were achieving popularity), Televizor, a rock punk group with a more political edge, and Alisa, a new wave post-punk group who gravitated towards metal and “drove the kids wild” according to Joanna Stingray, an American musician who visited Russia and did a great deal to promote Soviet rock in the US.
This growing scene found its way to 18 year old Viktor Tsoi, who was to become the most famous of the Soviet rock stars by the end of the 1980s with his group Kino. Tsoi attended the Leningrad Rock Club in its early days and later auditioned with Alexei Rybkin as Kino. Their 1982 collection of songs entitled 45, combined a Russian folk style with punk experimentation augmented by Tsoi’s plain speaking and often poetic lyrics. It exposed Tsoi as a talent with bags of potential. “Got Time But No Money”, “Slacker”, “Commuter Train” and “My Friends” were all laced with the frustrations young people faced.
Tsoi sang with a wonderful simplicity about the contradictions of Soviet society. “Commuter Train”, a metaphor for the USSR, tells the story of a person trapped on a train, going to a place they don’t know where, nor want to go — a feeling many of the listeners well understood. “My Friends” celebrates the value of friendship in everyday life, but also tells that story with a piercing honesty of what that life consists of (beer and fun times against the drag of it all).
Kino’s cutting edge forced more established artists such as Zoopark and Aquarium to strengthen their social satire and intellectual consciousness. This was clearly apparent with Aquarium’s 1983 album Radio Africa and Zoopark’s 1984 album White Stripe, which represented major departures in the creative direction of these groups.
The authorities responded to this increasingly critical movement. The anti-rock campaign under Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in 1984 forced rock even further to the margins. Conservatives lambasted rock as being anti-Russian, or as luring Soviet youth away from their pride and heritage. The Union of Composers marginalised rockers and was heavily promoted by the authorities as a counter to rock’s growing influence. The authorities made it more difficult to get gigs. The arrest of Moscow bands Zhanna Azugarova and Bravo in 1984 for petty infractions of the rules was the more extreme end of this state oppression. Groups remained unsigned and retreated to produce homemade cassette albums.
However, Gorbachev’s “glasnost” (openness) policy launched in 1986 meant that arts and culture had greater freedom to publish. Although rockers still found themselves at odds with conservatives in the Ministry of Culture, they were granted a greater amount of freedom. As censorship ended rock spread in the directions of both the punk fuelled avant garde underground and mainstream youth culture. Kino and Aquarium were winning mainstream followings and played the popular Channel 1 show Rock Ring. Melodia signed a number of bands from the rock club and their earlier records were gradually released between 1986 and 1989.
More importantly, because glasnost allowed for greater public engagement and discussion of politics, normal taboos around the social, political and economic issues facing the USSR were broken. Rockers could no longer be condemned for touching on these subjects. Rock groups became symbols of the growing mood of anti-establishment attitudes.
Kino’s 1986 single “Changes” is a fierce and urgent call that captured the new dynamic and was interpreted by many as a political statement that the youth were in control of their future. The pop star Alla Pugacheva organised and fronted a charity concert with Aquarium for the victims of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, enhancing rock’s human credentials in contrast with the robotic responses of the state. Kino’s 1988 album Blood Type (Gruppa Krovi) was a searing attack on the Afghan War and is perhaps the most iconic record of its age. Its title track depicts a young conscript leaving home to go and serve in the war, his prayer not to get shot and left behind. (Tsoi himself was drafted in 1983 and spent six months in a psychiatric facility to avoid serving.) This was more than an anthem for a new youth; it was a direct challenge to official doctrine and would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier.
Rock, punk and new wave seemed an appropriate soundtrack to the political, economic and social liberalisations that were unfolding in unpredictable directions.
Tsoi and his contemporaries ultimately triumphed in claiming rock for the Soviet mainstream and in so doing provided an alternative pole of attraction to Russia’s youth that echoes today. Despite attempts to whitewash Tsoi, his songs still provide a soundtrack to Russian protests. And rightly so — they were based in struggle, whether against the Komsomol, the prospect of nuclear war, or the fact you couldn’t get a beer on a Sunday. The attempts to shut the music down only helped reinforce and spread its message further. It is this that the current regime appears most afraid of — losing control, like Gorbachev did in the 1980s.