“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.