Arts and Culture: Soviet Rock and American Dreams
As an avid reader, I am far too familiar with the experience of entering into a reading slump — one of those weeks or months in which no book can cut it and nothing is interesting. Recently I discovered a new phenomenon: a music-listening slump. Luckily, an antidote arose, but it came from a surprising source: Soviet rock music.
Under the rule of the Communist Party, all art and culture were subject to extreme censorship. As the Soviet government knew, art has the power to disrupt political constructs and undermine conventional power structures. However, despite their attempts — disrupting Western radio broadcasts and confiscating prohibited writings — to limit exposure to capitalist culture, Western music, style and movies snuck in through the Iron Curtain. Slowly, contraband inspired a generation of underground Soviet artists who began forging a new sound. Like all things illicit, their music slowly spread through bootleg recordings known as magnitizdat.
The secret dissemination of foreign music continued until the 1980s, when the government began to liberalize. In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power, rock music was no longer banned. As the leader of the Communist Party, Gorbachev began to reform the economy and culture of the USSR through a series of policies known as perestroika (Russian for “reconstruction”) and glasnost (Russian for “openness” or “transparency”). At that point, rock music became more prevalent in popular culture. After the Chernobyl disaster, artists staged a massive benefit concert in 1986 in order to raise funds for disaster relief. While not officially sanctioned, Western press and ambassadors were invited.
One band from that era, Kino — derived from the Russian word for movie — struck me with their maudlin and simple sound. Kino was formed in Saint Petersburg in 1981 by Viktor Tsoi, Aleksei Rybin and Oleg Valinsky. They enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the Soviet Union, released six albums and even performed across the Eastern Bloc. Their most famous song, “Zvezda Po Imeni Solntse” (Russian for “A Star Called Sun”), captures the ethos of young Russians in the eighties and has been listened to 22.8 million times on Spotify. The song is mournful and introspective, almost as if Tsoi, the lead vocalist and songwriter, was aware that his generation was standing upon a precipice. The lyrics describe a city that has been cycling through destruction and rebirth for 2000 years, a city whose sky is blocked by clouds and whose residents are warmed by intermittent rays of sun. Tsoi wrote and performed this song in the dying days of the Soviet Union, and I cannot help but hear the lyrics through that lens.
Kino broke up in the summer before the collapse of the USSR due to Tsoi’s death, but their sound still captivates young Russian speakers today. Even 25 years later, Kino wracks up close to 800 thousand monthly streams on Spotify.
With Tsoi’s low and powerful voice in my ear, I imagine my mother when she was my age. In my mind, I see us on a split screen: she is walking through the streets of Minsk, and I, Manhattan. We are both young with dark hair, full of hope for the future. We are listening to the same song, but for her the lyrics are in her native tongue, familiar and accessible with an immediacy that I can only long for. For me, the lyrics are in a language that I understand but speak with difficulty. Listening to Kino, I start to feel nostalgic for an era of history that I did not live through, but that intimately shaped my own life. As a first-generation American, listening to the music of my mother’s young adulthood connects me to a culture that has shaped me. Russian-speaking Jews live in constant tension with our Soviet past, but despite this tension, we experience a degree of affinity for the culture of those years. I know that Belarus was never my home, but I still want to feel connected to my past, and listening to Russian music helps me do so.
At its best, art opens us up to worlds that we would not otherwise experience. When we step outside of the dominant culture that we are rooted in, we can find new avenues of fulfillment. Listening to foreign music does this quite well because we experience the sound of a culture, without fully grasping what it means. When I listen to Kino, I put myself in my mother’s shoes, a girl walking the streets of Belarus, a young Jewish woman coming of age in the Soviet Union. Music lends texture to the past, and as I listen to Tsoi’s voice, I am reminded of the homeland I have never been to. I am also reminded of how lucky I am to call America my homeland. Walking the streets of Manhattan as a young Jewish woman, proud and unafraid, I am living one of my mother’s dreams.
Photo Credit: Cryptic C62