An Introduction to Early Russian Alternative Rock


Being Eastern European is a hard job in itself. Being an Eastern European living in the West is twice as hard. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and we – the kids born on the edge of the USSR – travel the world, speak fluent English, have jobs with titles our parents don’t understand (my mom still has no idea of what I am doing for a living and I gave up trying to explain it to her), we make multicultural friendships, Tinder-date hot foreigners and generally don’t look any different from the youth anywhere else. The trick though is that although you can escape Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe will forever live within you.

No matter how far you go or how many years you haven’t lived in your country of origin, you will always be the source of information for every other foreigner on your way apologizing for stupid politicians and laws they introduce. Not only do we become a source of knowledge about Eastern Europe or the post-Soviet area, but it also puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on our shoulders when we have to show that it is more than meets the eye.

You can’t understand Russia with your mind” – wrote Tyutchev in the 19th century, but it still applies in 2016. It is probably a little less chaotic in a daily life than what’s presented in the media, but Russia is still very confusing, starting from traffic and all the way to the show business industry.

I believe that music can be a perfect depiction of the state the country is in. Like, there is Britain with the Bristol sound and Britpop as well as the too cool for school indie bands that hipsters dig. The USA has Kendrick Lamar who, apparently, according to some Americans I met, is the marker of adequateness of you vis-à-vis (“if you live in America and don’t like Kendrick, there’s most definitely something wrong with you”), and Canada produced Justin Bieber.

When it comes to Russia, or, better put, the post-Soviet area, the phenomenon of its music industry is as unique as this part of the world itself.

Historical and cultural peculiarities play the lead role in what has been happening within the industry. Before being associated with the ear-bleedingly cringy pop-tunes, music created within the territory of the former Soviet Union represented significant changes happening in the country. The perestroika (rebuilding) reforms that took place during the 80’s was as significant for music as it was for politics. These were the times when rock music was officially recognized and legalized in the state (sick!), which lead to numerous rock artists coming out of their basements all the way up to the TV screens and stadiums. Soon enough, “Russian rock” became as legitimate a genre as Britpop.

Without being afraid of sounding clichéd, I am obliged to start with Kino (Cinema). Similar to what the Beatles were to the Great Britain, Kino was to the Soviet Union. Viktor Tsoi, the lead singer and driving force of the band, is claimed to be “the last hero of Russian rock”. The Kino lyrics don’t stand out as touching poetic pieces, and yet when Tsoi sang “our hearts demand changes, our eyes demand changes // we are waiting for changes”, everyone was ready to go after him. This simplicity, straightforwardness and rebelliousness combined with the Ian Curtis-esque vocals was what made guys want to be him, and girls — to be under him.

Kino were certainly big romantics in their own way. I still die a little bit inside every time I hear “when I see how you’re dancing, baby, you excite me // when you’re looking that seriously, baby, I love you”. I don’t even get concerned (well, maybe a little bit) that this song is considered to be dedicated to Tsoi’s son.

Even now, Kino remains the band that youngsters sing by the campfire. In fact, during my last visit to Belarus, my cousin forced me to sing one of the Kino songs in karaoke. I blame everything on endless shots of vodka we washed down with beer, but it doesn’t change the fact.

Tsoi was not the only one directly or covertly pushing his generation to revolution, of course. Nautilus Pompilius was a very influential rather new wave band that also addressed the problems growing in the country.

With the whole legalization of rock music, those who didn’t want to fall into the new mainstream turned to electro. In the counter culture scene, if you were not a rocker, you were a techno-kid. And if, with Russian rock, everything is pretty clear and logical – the libertines who stand out against government through their music and misdemeanor was never something new and surprising, especially for a collapsing nation – post-perestroika synth-pop is something truly phenomenal.

It never really hit me how fundamental and profound in so many ways it was until one day a friend of mine asked why people talk about Russia when they talk about synth-pop.

Together with changes, the hearts demanded new sounds. The early 90’s are believed to be the years where synth-pop boomed in Russia, though it started developing years before. Tsoi died in a car accident, Depeche Mode were too far away, so the country almost desperately needed new and, most importantly, local heroes. This glorious spot was soon occupied by Technologia (Technology).

Technology may be the most known and mainstream Russian synth band, but it was not the first one. As a matter of fact, they were preceded by another band, Bioconstructor, who were more Kraftwerk than Depeche Mode, and more profound and elaborated than their successors.

You might find yourselves seriously punch-drunk with me using “synth” and “Soviet Union” in the same sentence, but understand that the beginning of the 90’s, right after the Iron Curtain fell, was the time where there were more electronic bands appearing in Russia than babushkas lining up for their couponed bread and milk.

The secret is pretty simple though – a lot of synthesizers were being produced during these times to keep factories busy, so the music industry was kind of forced to concentrate on making dozens of Russian Dave Gahans.

This performance by the new romantics from Alyans could easily be the quintessence of the Soviet Union. Heartrendingly melancholic, on the edge of despair vocals and the audience, all sitting still except for the members of Bioconstructor “going nuts” in the crowd, singing along. However, as you can see, it was still ok to be flamboyant in 1987 in Russia.

Forum, gathered in 1983, is believed to be the first Soviet synth-pop band.
While spending Christmas holidays at my parents’ in Belarus I was lucky (or not so lucky, if you really think about it) enough to stumble upon a show on TV about Forum. Apparently, they had it all — crying girls during the concerts and moaning groupies in hotel rooms afterwards. My mom told me while we were watching some 80’s music concert (yep, they still show this kind of stuff on TV in the post-USSR world) that she used to be one of those crying girls in the stadiums, and then added that I would most definitely be the groupie in a hotel room (cheers, mom!). On second thoughts, look at his Rob Steward-y look!

Exploring the music industry of such a controversial country as Russia (both the now-Russia, and the former USSR) is like going to the cosmos, so as a “thank you for flying our airlines” gift and to prove once again that there is indeed something wrong with this country – years before the USA produced Lady Gaga, Soviet Union had Zhanna Aguzarova: