ZOiS Spotlight 2/2022

Post-Punk in Belarus and Russia: Lyrical Criticism of the Political System or Post-Soviet Nihilism?

by Aleksej Tikhonov 19/01/2022
Partly destroyed mural depicting Belarusian DJs Vlad Sokolovsky and Kirill Galanov who were arrested after playing the song “Peremen” at a rally in August 2020. IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

We press Khodynka Field / On the sore point of the vast country / Swiftly, the conscience burns / In the colourful neon of Moscow's lights

Electroforez, Khodynka (Khodynka Field)

In February 2021, the post-punk band Electroforez from Saint Petersburg released their album 505. Since the early 2010s, the duo, consisting of Ivan Kurochkin and Vitaly Talyzin, has become well-established as one of the leading bands in Russia’s new alternative music scene. Their characteristic sound is elegiac, their lyrics decadently romantic – not uncommon for post-punk and dark wave. But 505 held some surprises for music critics in Russia. Afisha.ru remarked that the lyrics had become more political and that the band had not shied away from openly commenting on social conditions. Sobaka.ru described the album as society’s cry for help. The album included the song Myortv vnutri (Dead Inside), featuring the Belarusian band Molchat Doma (Houses are Silent). Due to Russian’s grammatical structures, the song title is open to interpretation – who is dead inside? You, me or him? The subject is male, for sure, but no one is mentioned by name.

From Britain to the USSR and the post-Soviet space

Post-punk first appeared in Britain in the late 1970s. It was a broad church: an experimental field between the burgeoning punk movement and classic rock, with numerous influences from philosophy, art, literature and film. The artists distanced themselves from the extreme political content of punk, on the one hand, and the commercialism of rock, on the other, and their works were imbued with a mood of nihilism and transience, with overtones of the avant-garde. Post-punk today remains a flexible genre, located at the interface with dark wave, new wave, Gothic rock and synth pop; globally, its best-known exponents are The Cure, Joy Division and Bauhaus.

Behind the Iron Curtain, obtaining recordings of the leading representatives of the genre was almost impossible, with very few exceptions, mainly from Moscow and Leningrad/Saint Petersburg. Western recordings also remained a rare and, for the most part, illegal and highly priced commodity until the demise of the Soviet Union. In oppositional and apolitical urban intellectual circles, these works were well-received and proved to be a fertile source of inspiration, with post-punk bands emerging in the USSR in the late 1970s and early 1980s despite the all-seeing eye of the state. The lyrics were generally written in Russian – the Soviet lingua franca – although musically, there was a direct connection to Soviet post-punk’s British counterparts. In the 1990s, many of the bands in the post-Soviet space became celebrated rock stars and some are still active today. They include bands such as Agatha Christie, Alyans, Aquarium, Auktyon, Zvuki Mu and KINO with frontman Viktor Tsoi, the Russian-Kazakh-Korean musician and actor who achieved cult status, especially after his fatal car crash in Soviet Latvia in 1990, and whose legacy endures to this day. Fans created the Tsoi Wall in central Moscow as a memorial to the musician, decorated with portraits of the artist and personal dedications. There is also a Tsoi Wall in downtown Minsk. But in Belarus, the role played recently by KINO and Viktor Tsoi goes far beyond popular culture.

Extremist music? 

Shortly before the (rigged) presential election in Belarus in 2020, DJs Kirill Galanov and Vladislav Sokolovsky were arrested when they played the song Peremen (“Change!”) by Viktor Tsoi’s band KINO without permission at a pro-government rally. The crowd sang along, the organisers pulled the plug and the DJs were sentenced to 10 days in custody. After their release from the Okrestina prison – which made headlines for more than a year following reports of torture and abuse – the DJs left Belarus. Peremen promptly became an unofficial campaign anthem for the staff of presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. According to reports by Radio Free Europe, singing Viktor Tsoi’s songs in public and broadcasting or sharing them can now be classed as extremist acts in Belarus, with all the legal consequences that this entails.

A few months after the Minsk DJs’ arrest, the Belarusian band Molchat Doma released their album Monument. The cover shows the memorial to the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea, albeit in a modified form. Instead of the Korean inscription, the word “Monument” appears on the statue, along with the name of the band in Cyrillic and Latin script. On the cover image, the vast monument, comprising three fists holding a hammer, a sickle and a calligraphy brush, resembles a ship being driven by the waves towards the shore. This image of a communist monument all at sea could be construed as an allusion to the decline or fall of a political regime that has passed its sell-by date. In an interview with Colta.ru, the band talks about fans’ interpretations of the cover, but say that they themselves do not view it in a political context.

Molchat Doma did not play solo concerts in Belarus until recently, although sold-out venues in Berlin, Warsaw, London and Chicago are by no means uncommon. Again, the band denies that there is a political background to this, claiming that there has simply been no demand for their music in Belarus, unlike the situation abroad. In 2021 alone, the band scored more than 120 million streams on Spotify. Their biggest gig in Minsk took place in September 2021, where they played to an audience of around 1,000.

Political post-punk?

As with any creative work, the question is whether the artist  influences the meaning or whether the finished work takes on a life of its own, open to interpretation by onlookers according to their personal values, thoughts and ideas. In the case of post-punk in Belarus and Russia, there is no definitive answer to this question. Are the bands really detached from politics – or is criticism of the regime implied in the lyrics, with self-censorship in the interviews discernible to fans and journalists? Viktor Tsoi, at least, is now a political symbol in Belarus. And with the number of politically motivated arrests increasing, it is surely only a matter of time until the regime’s anti-protest measures impact on living artists as well.   

Note on the lyrics: The Russian word “Khodynka” refers to a crowd crush that occurred in Moscow in 1896 after the coronation of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. Around 1,400 people died and a further 900 were injured. Original lyrics: Давим Ходынским полем // На точку боли большой страны // Быстро сгорает совесть // В цветном неоне огней Москвы

Aleksej Tikhonov is a postdoc on “The History of Pronominal Subjects in the Languages of Northern Europe”, a joint linguistics project between Humboldt University Berlin and the University of Oxford. His postdoc project explores the influence of Slavic languages in Deutschrap (German rap).