ZOiS Spotlight 27/2021

The Legacy of Soviet Rock in Belarusian Protest Music

by David-Emil Wickström 14/07/2021

Like the last two major revolutions in Ukraine, the ongoing protests in Belarus have shown how sound and music play a role in mobilising and uniting people around a common cause in the post-Soviet world. A plethora of new songs spanning most genres of popular music was released in the run-up to and after the contested Belarusian presidential election in August 2020.

One song that re-emerged and became an unofficial anthem of the protests is ‘Khochu Peremen’ (I want change). Originally composed and performed by the Soviet group Kino, this song points to a common popular cultural frame of reference that stretches back to the Soviet Union and shows the enduring legacy of Soviet pop culture in contemporary Belarusian popular music.

Traces of Soviet rock

‘Khochu Peremen’ was featured in the closing scene of Sergei Soloviov’s 1987 film Assa (The Wasp). The movie is one example of how a new generation of underground Soviet rock musicians—primarily rooted in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Moscow, and Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg)—became known to a national audience in the late 1980s. A common denominator for these bands, which today are often referred to as russkii rok (Russian rock), is a strong focus by songwriters and audiences on lyrics and their meanings.

‘Khochu Peremen’ is one example of this focus. Due to the song’s ambiguous lyrics, which describe how changes are desired and expected, it has been used since its release as a protest song calling for political change, for example during the Russian antigovernment protests in 2007–08.

Other songs that emerged during the Belarusian protests in 2020 also point to the legacy of russkii rok. The title and melody of the song ‘Vskormlennye odnoi siskoi’ (Fed with one breast) by Belarusian group VIA Iabatkastan are a play on Soviet rock band Nautilius Pompilius’s ‘Skovannye odnoi tsepiu’ (Shackled to one chain). Belarusian rapper SiROP’s ‘Rodina’ (Homeland) pays tribute to Soviet group DDT’s song of the same name by featuring the latter’s chorus. The lyrics of the chorus and the protagonist’s ambivalent relationship to the homeland are underlined in SiROP’s music video, which includes footage of police beatings in Belarus.

As bands from the russkii rok scene of the 1980s, both Nautilius Pompilius and DDT featured song lyrics that can be read as critiques of the Soviet Union, whose legacy is preserved in modern-day Belarus. By drawing on those lyrics today, contemporary bands are establishing a link to perestroika and the imminent end of the Soviet empire—and, thus, the desired end of the reign of Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

The legacy of vocal-instrumental ensembles

The song ‘Kartokha’ by the group Dai Darohu! draws on a different tradition of Soviet popular music, which has been notably absent from the Belarusian protests: the vocal-instrumental ensemble (known by its Russian abbreviation, VIA). Introduced by the Soviet authorities in 1966 to control the amateur popular music scene, VIAs played a prominent role in Soviet music history as the link between estrada—official Soviet popular music—and amateur music. One of the most well-known and successful VIAs was the Soviet-Belarusian group Pesniary (The Singers). Centred on its musical director, Vladimir Muliavin, the group reached the peak of its popularity in the 1970s.

The opening motive of ‘Kartokha’ is taken from Pesniary’s song ‘Kosil ias koniushinu’ (I mowed the clover). While ‘Kartokha’ is seemingly occupied with domestic issues and keeps out of politics, Dai Darohu! makes a more direct comment about Lukashenka’s police state in another song, ‘Baiu-Bai’. That track’s music video depicts the Belarusian security service using combine harvesters to hunt down citizens who are trying to flee across the border to safety. This is also a reference to ‘Kosil ias koniushinu’: the security forces brutally mowing people down can be seen as an allusion to Pesniary singing about mowing clover.

The combine harvester, together with Pesniary’s song, also makes an appearance in another part of Soviet pop culture: a 1973 episode of the cartoon Nu, Pogodi! (Now, you wait!) features a wolf chasing a hare with a combine harvester, accompanied by the song ‘Kosil ias koniushinu’ sung by Pesniary.

This satirical use of Soviet symbols to highlight the way Lukashenka’s rule is still rooted in the Soviet Union is also reflected in the use of the VIA label itself, which has been employed not only as a humoristic element but also with a political undertone. In the case of Iabatkastan, it seems to be a slight against Lukashenka and his fondness for VIAs—especially Pesniary, whose legacy lives on in numerous formations, including the Belarusian state ensemble Pesniary, which Muliavin headed until his death in 2003.

Iabtkastan makes another jab at Lukashenka: the group’s name contains the hashtag #Iabatka, meaning ‘I am Batka’—where Batka refers to Lukashenka—like the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’, adopted in support of those killed in the 2015 shooting at the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. According to Novaia Gazeta, #Iabatka is a Russian attempt at pro-Lukashenka branding, which emerged in Belarus in 2020.

The power of music to mobilise people is a recurring theme in Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian protest movements. One hallmark of popular music is the repurposing of a common popular cultural heritage. By drawing on songs that have their roots in the Soviet Union, bands create and reassert a link to those songs and the meanings associated with them. In the case of russkii rok, this calls to mind an era that ended in the collapse of the Soviet empire; in the case of VIAs and Pesniary, there is a subversion of Soviet government-supported popular music and a Soviet-Belarusian cultural symbol.

David-Emil Wickström is professor of popular music history at the Popakademie Baden‐Württemberg. In 2019, he co-authored the book War of Songs: Popular Music and Recent Russia-Ukraine Relations.