At first glance, rock music seems inherently anti-Russian. It gained its popularity out of the American youth revolt of the 1960s posing itself as an alternative to the ennui of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” There is something about seeing Russians perform rock which is odd. A lot of the themes which are characteristic of early American rock music — such as psychedelia and illegal drug use — are not present. Instead of singing about strains of cannabis (“Purple Haze” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino perform a song about cigarettes («Pachka sigaret») and the relief from stress it may cause. Like many figures in American rock, Viktor Tsoi died young. While Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose, Viktor Tsoi died in a car accident while driving sober. This comparison seems to illustrate the difference between American and Russian cultures. Failure in America is due to your own faults. In Russia, fate has the final say over what will happen to your life. Rock music in Russia can thus seem more often like a cultic performance than a talented musician playing to a psychedelic beat. The result is that the memory of rock in Russia seems more like a remembrance of saints rather than a hazy memory of a burst of great talent as it is seen in America.
When asking a Russian rock fan about his favorite bands, I received answers which I took to show a lack of taste. It seems like Linkin Park, an alternative band which I had assumed nobody liked anymore, is still popular in Russia. So is Rammstein, a German industrial metal band whose strange music videos include themes of cannibalism and mob violence. While running the risk of appearing a rock snob, I felt that these bands displayed crass tastes which I grew out of by the time I entered high school. Yet the fan in name was a grown man in his late twenties. When I asked him about Russian rock bands, he told me that there aren’t any good bands. Since my knowledge of modern Russian rock is limited, I asked him about older bands like Kino and DDT. The reaction was positive. According to him, the only good Russian rock bands are the old ones. This seemed quite strange when considering the musical styles of Kino and DDT are remarkably different from Linkin Park’s and Rammstein’s. Yet it is unlikely that he was an avid listener and concert-goer before the age of ten, when the Russian bands in question were at their peak. Instead, the memory of the golden age of Russian rock had to have been passed on to him from slightly older generations, the generation which saw its youth revived in expense of the brutally conformist Soviet communist system.
Just as American rock ridiculed Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the Vietnam War, Russian rock inspired youth to question authority. Tsoi’s most famous (and arguably best) song — «Peremen» — is not shy to tell the youth what they want:
Перемен требуют наши сердца,
Перемен требуют наши глаза,
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах,
И в пульсации вен
Мы ждем перемен.
Changes require our hearts,
Changes require our eyes,
In our laughter and our tears,
And the pulse in the veins
We are waiting for change.
It is hard to argue that Russian youth did not want change. The Soviet government realized this and began to fund rock bands, something which it had not done before, perhaps in an attempt to seem not only more tolerant of “change” — which characterized the Gorbachev period — but also perhaps to attempt to coopt the music the youth was following. It also seems like the youth were tired of seeing their friends die in the Afghan War – it is hard not to see herein a comparison with the Vietnam War’s effect on youth in America — as expressed by Yuriy Shevchuk of DDT’s song «Революция» (“Revolution”) with the lyric “Сколько афгани стоит смерть? / Если чья-то жизнь не права?” (“How many Afghans does it cost to die? / If someone’s life is not right?).
Tsoi also seemed to be a pacifist as expressed in his song «Я объявляю свой дом» (“I declare my house”):
Я объявляю свой дом
Я объявляю свой двор
Я объявляю свой город
I declare my house
To be a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my yard
To be a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my city
To be a nuclear-free zone!
The youth were thus not only in revolt because they were getting bored of the old system, but also because their very youth was being destroyed whether it was through casualties in war or because of a repressive system. It is hard not to see this when watching the Russian-made documentary Рок or simply Rock, the first documentary on the subject from a Russian perspective. The first scene does not involve a close-up of some rock musician performing live in concert, but a Soviet Pioneers’ rally in the Red Square, where the young children are spoken to by Leonid Brezhnev. The scene then shifts to a modern rock musician who looks almost confused, much as his more conservative contemporaries would have thought when seeing him. But they are probably right. Those brought up in the Soviet system look upon their days as pioneers with nostalgia. What came afterwards was uninteresting and alienating. Any sense of individualism was crushed beneath the weight of communist conformism to the working-class ideology. The confusion this caused among identity-seeking youth found its expression through rock music.
Watching Viktor Tsoi perform is almost like watching somebody sobbing. This effect is accentuated by the heavy make-up he and his band members wear, giving Tsoi an almost effeminate character. Yet this is not for performance or dramatic effect: Tsoi remarks in Rock that his art is not a hobby, but his life. He does not seem to be so well-known for his vocals which, like Jim Morrison’s, seem weak. Tsoi is instead giving us metaphors which convey deep feelings. He is not telling you how to feel; he is instead observing life through his lyrics, as in «Кукушка» (“Kukushka”):
Кто пойдет по следу одинокому?
Сильные да смелые
Головы сложили в поле в бою.
Мало кто остался в светлой памяти,
В трезвом уме да с твердой рукой в строю,
Солнце мое – взгляни на меня,
Моя ладонь превратилась в кулак,
И если есть порох – дай огня.
Who will go on the lone trail?
Strong and brave
Heads lay in a field in battle.
Few people remain in memory,
In a sober mind but with a firm hand in the ranks,
In the ranks.
My sun – look at me,
My hand turned into a fist,
And if there’s gunpowder – give fire.
It is thus no coincidence that upon Tsoi’s death, the 17 August 1990 issue of the Kosmomolskaya pravda stated: “Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock” (Rightsinrussia.info, 2013). Tsoi thus embodies a memory of being honest through his art and through his life. He was thus a sort of revolutionary figure to the millions of Russian youth who listened to him. Perhaps that is why our Russian rock fan has such a positive image of Kino, despite generally listening to music whose styles contrast with Tsoi’s.
Russian rock retains an image which is characteristic of Russian society. Messianism seems to be a theme in at least some of the figures observed by the makers of Rok. While long hair and a beard is de rigueur among rock artists anywhere, it is hard not to draw a comparison to Christ when seeing it in Russia. This is confirmed in the final scenes of the documentary when some musicians sing a melodic prayer, thanking God for his merciful acts, against scenes of Russian landscapes. Yuriy Shevchuk of DDT seems to conform to this image as well. In the documentary, he and his band members gather with their families in a forest beneath a large oak tree. The scene is reminiscent of “rainbow gatherings” where American hippies would gather in camps in the forest, reputedly using drugs and engaging in other debaucherous activities. In the Russian version, however, one could see children sitting and singing a Russian folk song along with the rest of the people gathered, reminding one of Christ gathering children with him even though his disciples tried to shoo them away. The passionate performances of Shevchuk create an image of a man who is not only trying to write good songs, but also to lead through example and passion. At one point in Rok he mentions his interests in Buddhism and meditation, seeming to confirm that he is also a quasi-spiritual figure rather than simply a talented musician. While Shevchuk portrays the more extroverted forms of the Messiah, Tsoi represents the quieter and more somber messages of Christ. In addition to his “sobbing” performances, Tsoi also led an introverted and solitary lifestyle, never boasting of his fame. It seems as if he actively tried to deny the fame given to him, leaving the limelight for a while just as Christ went into the dessert for 40 days. A now famous scene in Rok involves Tsoi working at his job as a stoker. He carries the coal back into the apartment and throws it into a boiler which has since been named “Kamchatka.” The image portrayed is a strange one for someone of his stature. Tsoi comes across as a simple man, fulfilling a job which has been given to him by the state as all men and women in the Soviet Union. This simple boiler, located on Ulitsa Blokhina (Улица Блохина) in St. Petersburg has since become a pilgrimage site for Tsoi’s fans.
The novelty of rock to Russians seems to be not only an element of Rock but also the reason it was made. It is interesting to notice that there is only one scene in the entire film where you can see a concert audience. It provides a somewhat ridiculous image: a Russian rock musician who is supposed to look something like David Bowie is performing to an audience of miners. Most of the miners, who have presumably never before seen such an act, look somewhat confused or even bemused. There are no screaming fans, none of them sing along, and all of them are sitting down. Yet the image is valuable in order to understand how rock music was received. By the time the documentary was filmed, rock had only recently become popular. The musician in the scene seemed almost heroic, like a David battling the Goliath that is the Soviet culture of conformism. The battle was a battle of ideals, and the youth saw in rock an opportunity to express themselves free of the system that had raised them. In that sense, the rock movement was a revolution. Viktor Tsoi and others were the leaders of the revolution. Yet they were not Leninists, seeking to bring about change from the top. They were instead prophets or missionaries, expressing themselves as they saw fit. They allowed the youth to latch on to something new and creative when they saw stagnation all around them. When they realized the influence they had, they began to sing about revolution, peace, and the problems they saw everyday. In that sense, they not only led a revolution in culture, but soon enough became the representatives of the youth whose new culture erupted both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Viktor Tsoi along with others are remembered not only as great musicians, but also as the voice of the youth during the stagnation of the 1980s. Yet their memory does not only live on among those who were old enough to see them perform live and get hold of their new albums as soon as they came out. It is not atypical to see street musicians performing songs from Tsoi and others; graffiti displaying КИНО is a common sight, especially on the Tsoi wall in Arbat in Moscow; Tsoi paraphernalia is common throughout St. Petersburg; and karaoke bars feature people singing Tsoi’s most famous songs off-tune. Perhaps it is pride that forces Tsoi to live on in Russian memory. After all, Kino is one of the “only good Russian bands”, and Tsoi is a man whom Russians can take pride in as one of their own. But he is not extolled as a conquering hero. Russians loved him because he seemed meek and humble, never demanding anything extraordinary, and never seeing himself as too great to perform with true emotion. This quiet figure came to represent his contemporary Russian youth not only during his time, but also today. He thus serves the purpose of being an object or an abstract site of memory for generations to come.