The History of Soviet Rock: From the 70s Underground Rock Scene, to Soviet Punk & New Wave in the 1980s

“As long as you’ve got a pack of cig­a­rettes,” sings Vik­tor Tsoi, the Sovi­et Union’s biggest ever rock star, “life can’t be all that shab­by.” When Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, Please Kill Me writes, “it was, to a young per­son in the Sovi­et Union, as if Bob Dylan, James Dean and Muham­mad Ali all died simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.” When Yuliya Aba­she­va, born in the year of Tsoi’s death, first heard him sing, “I was thrilled to the core of my being. I lit­er­al­ly fell in love with his music, and I imme­di­ate­ly real­ized that I didn’t want to lis­ten to any music but Kino.”

What, you’ve nev­er heard of Vik­tor Tsoi? Or Kino? Or Sovi­et rock? Well, you’re in for a treat. The two-part series on Sovi­et rock from Band­splain­ing fea­tured here cov­ers all the big names from the scene, bands who first came togeth­er in the 1970s and explod­ed into legit­i­ma­cy in the 80s, thanks to the KGB, iron­i­cal­ly, in 1981, when “some Com­mu­nist Par­ty genius decid­ed to open a num­ber of rock clubs around the Sovi­et Union to con­trol and treat the rock mania from with­in,” Auck­land-based Moscovite Anas­ta­sia Doniants writes. “For the first time since the ear­ly 1930s, the cool kids had a place to social­ize open­ly, but still under the watch­ful KGB eye.”

For­eign jazz and rock had cir­cu­lat­ed in samiz­dat form through­out the coun­try since the 1950s, some of it on repur­posed X‑Ray film. And Russ­ian hip­sters, known as stilya­gi, had devel­oped their own under­ground style and tastes. But form­ing a band and per­form­ing for an audi­ence is a major step beyond lis­ten­ing to illic­it records in secret. It sim­ply couldn’t be done at scale with­out offi­cial sanction—with no radio play, com­mer­cial record­ing stu­dios, or pay­ing gigs. Once said sanc­tion arrived, bands like Kino, Akvar­i­um, Time Machine, and Auto­graph took off.

But it was hard­ly a smooth tran­si­tion from under­ground to main­stream. “The vast author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment would seem to con­stant­ly backpedal,” says Band­splain­ing, “allow­ing some artis­tic free­doms, then tak­ing them away. Numer­ous bands were pop­u­lar one moment, then banned, cen­sored, or even jailed the next.” Accused of being dis­si­dents, rock stars like Tsoi were also accused, as recent­ly as just a few years ago, of being “CIA oper­a­tives try­ing to desta­bi­lize the Sovi­et regime.” While the claim may be far-fetched, it is not off the mark entire­ly.

The U.S. was keen to use any cul­tur­al means to under­mine Sovi­et author­i­ty. But a “rock sub­cul­ture,” Carl Schreck writes at The Atlantic, “had been per­co­lat­ing in the Sovi­et Union for decades by the time Gor­bachev came to pow­er in 1985.” It was entire­ly home­grown and spread—as it was every­where in the world—by dis­af­fect­ed teenagers des­per­ate for a good time. Learn more about this pas­sion­ate scene and its sub­tly sub­ver­sive music in the two-part series above. Find track­lists of all the bands fea­tured on the doc­u­men­tary’s YouTube pages.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Did the CIA Write the Scor­pi­ons’ “Wind of Change,” One of the Best­selling Songs of All Time?

The Sovi­ets Who Boot­legged West­ern Music on X‑Rays: Their Sto­ry Told in New Video & Audio Doc­u­men­taries

Rare Grooves on Vinyl from Around the World: Hear Curat­ed Playlists of Ara­bic, Brazil­ian, Bol­ly­wood, Sovi­et & Turk­ish Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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