Deeper than Oil: From perestroika punk to Putin pap

From the perestroika rock of Kino and Akvarium to the Yeltsin-era thrash frenzy of Korrozia Metalla to the pop blandness of the Putin years, Russia’s music scene has reflected the massive social and political changes that the country has gone through in the last two decades.

From the perestroika rock of Kino and Akvarium to the Yeltsin-era thrash frenzy of Korrozia Metalla to the pop blandness of the Putin years, Russia’s music scene has reflected the massive social and political changes that the country has gone through in the last two decades.

Little known outside the borders of the former USSR, the country’s musical scene is vital to fully understand the largest country on earth. But while no one would undertake a study of the social and cultural history of Britain or the U.S. without reference to The Beatles, punk and hip-hop, modern Russian groups are rarely, if at all, mentioned in similar works on Moscow and beyond.

The 1980s saw the underground rock scene explode in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), as bands such as Kino and Akvarium set about crafting a music that drew heavily from the West, yet somehow remained uniquely Russian. Initially censured by the authorities, the bands eventually gained a grudging acceptance and Kino’s ethnic-Korean vocalist Viktor Tsoi became a household name, as big as Lennon and McCartney ever were in the West. Adored by Soviet youth from Vladivostok to Moscow and loathed in equal measure by the older generation, Kino were indicative of the changes sweeping through the country. Tsoi died in a car crash in Latvia in 1990, ensuring his lasting fame as the Soviet Union’s first rock icon.  His passing was met by a wave of suicides across the country.

The rock scene in the immediate post-Soviet years were epitomized in many ways by Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defence) and the group’s foul-mouthed lead singer, Yegor Letov. The band, usually know by the acronym GROB (Russian for coffin) gained notoriety in the late 1980s for their hardcore rush of guitars and barked vocals filled with street-punk obscenities. Like nothing the Soviets had ever heard, their songs boasted titles such as “Necrophilia,” and “I don’t give a sh** about my face,” with one of their most notorious lines referring to Lenin "rotting in his mausoleum." Not unsurprisingly, the group was banned by the Soviet authorities.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in typically perverse fashion, Letov, like much of the country, discovered a nostalgia for the USSR, and helped found the radical National Bolshevik Movement with writer Eduard Limonov. Its followers were often involved in mass brawls with police and the group began to compose albums in praise of Soviet life. Letov died at the age of 43 in 2007 from an alcohol-related disease. His fans still gather at an unofficial back-street shrine in central Moscow to drink, write obscene graffiti and sing his songs.

As the Soviet and early 1990s rock heroes died off or went into semi-retirement, the Russian music scene found itself in a rut. Without their outlaw status, modern musicians found that they had little to say, and despite the efforts of a shrinking number of talented artists, most bands were content to look on being in a group as a mere career move. While Tsoi had remained a worker in a boiler plant for much of Kino’s existence, and Letov spent years as a penniless drifter, successful bands in the Putin era are able to make a more than adequate living. That is, as long as they don’t rock the boat. For most, it is a compromise they are willing to make.

“We’re all sick and tired of those sycophants posing as rock stars brought together by their affection for Putin’s hard fisted autocracy,” Alexei Korolev, lead singer with the Moscow-based Scarlet Dazzle group, told me.

“Perestroika rock music was pretty much about a communal tearing down of the old ideological walls. It was also a celebration of diversity. Today's rock music has, in a sense, put the walls back up,” he added.

War in Chechnya did however inspire some post-Soviet great music, in particular the work of Chechen singer Timur Mucuraev, whose Russian-language jihad-inspired track “Jerusalem” was credited with swelling separatist ranks. It was also reported to be the unofficial anthem of militants in the 1999-2000 battle for Grozny. While most of his work has since been banned as “extremist,” you don’t have to agree with the sentiments expressed in his songs to recognize the quality – and intensity – of his music.

Two things sorely lacking in most current-day Russian rock.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.

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