For two thousand years there’s been war,
War for no particular reason,
War carried out by the young,
A medicine against wrinkles…– Kino, “Звезда по имени Солнце (A Star Called The Sun)“
I’ve had a version of this piece in mind for a few months. Though slated for June, in my head it was practically written – a story of cultural bonding over music, a story of still having optimism in grim circumstances. But world events have swallowed up all possibilities for that story. More than that, they’ve left me with the feeling that the story could never have existed.
I didn’t expect such a complicated reckoning of emotions to come, on the day in August 2020 when my friend first recommended that I listen to Kino. She knew I was learning Russian, and as a native speaker herself recommended me a list of musicians she thought worth checking out. Kino just happened to be the first band she named – “but they’re a bit old, a bit cheesy”.
Perhaps so, but in a way that’s totally up my street. I’ve always had a big love for the sounds of 80s bands like The Cure, and similar vibes flow through the melodic yet introspective songs written by Kino frontman Viktor Tsoi. My 2021 Spotify Wrapped ended up wall-to-wall Kino, in part because the melodies are singalong-worthy but learning lyrics in Russian is hard, each song requiring multiple listens. Tsoi’s lyrics cover comments on the kitchen-sink mundanity of life, philosophical musings, and some very emo yearnings: there’s a lot of staring out of windows, actions under starlight, sadness over sick girlfriends. This could all be tailor-made for my tastes. Silly as they sometimes are they also feel like they’re expressed from the heart of a real person, and I’ve fallen in love with them.
But investigating more about of who Tsoi was (Kino’s music is listed both under their name and his on Spotify) and where this sound came from became from a passing interest into a minor obsession. Last year I became a cross between a scholar and a fangirl, trying to get my hands on everything I could about this story. Here’s what I’ve pieced together.
Even before events like the Moscow Music for Peace concert brought major rock musicians across the Iron Curtain, Western music had already crossed over to influence a small but interesting music scene in 1980s Leningrad. Kino were just one of a cohort of bands playing unofficial apartment concerts and at the Leningrad Rock Club (a KGB-operated venue, their concession to the irrepressible popularity of non-conforming music). I’ve spent much of the last year trying to gather as much information as I could on what this scene looked like, and it seems to me that the city and venues are pretty much the only things which unite the bands of this time. The diverse range of acts includes Boris Grebenshchikov – called in the West the “Russian Bob Dylan” for his storytelling lyrical style. Zvuki Mu played with challenging experimental sounds, whilst Zoopark unashamedly replicate classic rock’n’roll.
Viktor Tsoi and Kino stand out for a couple of reasons in particular. One is the popularity they achieved – and in the Soviet context, were allowed to achieve – in their time. Their brief appearance in 1987 film Assa is credited as a milestone moment of beginning-of-the-end for the Soviet Union. Their concert at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 24th 1990 was attended by 70,000 people, and was recognised as such a momentous occasion that the stadium’s Olympic flame was lit for only the fifth time ever. When it comes to the Russian 20th century I always try to avoid simplistic narratives, but watching moments like these is undeniably thrilling. They resonate with total dedication to their art and absolute conviction, from both the artists and crowds, in their power.
Two months after that Luzhniki concert, Tsoi died. A tragic accident when driving; the official conclusion was that he fell asleep at the wheel. Kino’s music had already secured his legacy, but his death just before the fall of the Soviet Union means that Tsoi exists in a kind of time capsule, the ultimate representation of a place, time and feeling. An optimistic feeling at that: a symbol of the power of music to stand for freedom of expression in the most repressive of circumstances.
I need to stress here: this is my understanding of the story. Even before the events of recent weeks, the pandemic made getting closer to the source material impossible. But trying to piece together the impact of a cultural moment from the distance of another place and time is a strange business. Films and performances can all be found on the internet but in many ways I’ve essentially been playing a cultural guessing game. My background in art history means it’s a game I’ve played before, but it’s rare that I’ve been so invested. It certainly appears that Tsoi’s music and legacy does still resonate in Russian-speaking culture, but measuring the precise extent of this has been a challenge.
It’s fertile ground on which the seeds of fantasy can be sown.
Just at the time I was discovering Kino existed, footage was appearing on the internet from Belarusian protests against their outrageously rigged presidential election singing one of Tsoi’s most famous songs.
Change! Demand our hearts
Change! Demand our eyes
And in our laughter and our tears and the blood pulsing in our veins,
We wait for change– Kino, “Перемен (Changes)”
Then a few weeks ago, protestors in Russia were recorded singing another of their songs, Cuckoo. Taken as standalone pieces of evidence, these suggest that Tsoi’s musical legacy resonates beyond time and place. That his anti-war, pro fighting for what you believe in (and in his lifetime Tsoi was always ambiguous about what this was, tending to relate it to the everyday frustrations of rebelling against an apparently dead-end life more than grand political statements) still had not only an audience, but a power.
But what am I basing this on? Two videos from two enormous countries – and a bit of wish-fulfilment. I want Tsoi’s music to be as loved by others as it is by me. I want the world I’ve pieced together from fragments to be real, and meaningful.
But the picture in reality is much more complicated. On 18th March Putin held a rally in Luzhniki Stadium which had all the overtones of a fascist nightmare. And one of the songs performed was Cuckoo – the very same song which had rallied anti-war protestors a few weeks before. What matters isn’t why the music was created, but to what uses it’s put in the hands of those with the power. Becoming a cultural icon is a double-edged sword – popular songs have a habit of being co-opted by those of distasteful political beliefs; just ask this list of musicians who’ve opposed Trump using their songs. It’s no surprise that the picture of what a musician and their songs can mean to people is no different in Russia.
There’s a 2018 film about Tsoi and the Leningrad rock scene called Leto, by Kirill Serebrennikov. Ostensibly biographical, its story of the people and circumstances of the time is often fantastical. Impromptu moments of crowds bursting into classic Western rock songs are each ended with the same explicit reminder: “this did not happen”. When I first watched Leto I wasn’t sure how I felt about its approach to truth, but recent events have made its approach incredibly profound. It’s easy to get swept up in the optimism of music, especially in the context of the circumstances which Tsoi arguably helped shift into motion. But “this did not happen”: how much of my view has been based on a false nostalgia and desire for changes which never really came? Serebrennikov actually completed Leto from prison, having fallen foul of Putin’s regime – a tangible circumstance revealing that the world of freedom which is imagined never actually materialised. Now, “this did not happen” feels like real warning hidden within a stylistic trope.
Who will tread upon these lonely steps again?
Who is strong and brave? Who will pay the price in battle with their lives?
Very few remain in our memory,
With a sound mind, and a strong hand in the ranks,
Alive– Kino, “Кукукшка (Cuckoo)”
I was meant to go to Russia this May – I’d booked the tickets a good few months ago. I was going to go and see friends, watch some football, and – the thing I was most excited about – going on my own search for the story of Tsoi. To discover some of the sights and places myself, to meet other people who share my fanaticism – and to come back and tell you that story. Some people had already called me naïve before any of the current situation kicked into gear, but I believe – still – that governments and people are not one and the same. Part of my optimism that things would be fine was based on the people I know, but part of it was based in the music. That the government was clamping down on freedoms on civil society was plain, but I still believed in the idea that good things were still to be found in civil society.
In these last few weeks I’ve been in a tumult of emotions – mostly grief. Grief overwhelmingly for what’s happening in Ukraine, of course. This feels close: I’ve visited the country twice and have close Ukrainian friends. But I also recognise that – selfishly, shamefully – part of my initial shock was that the vision I had of the Russia I was going to visit had been irrevocably torn apart. The Russia of last time I visited in 2013 (pre-Crimea) is not the Russia of 2022. And similarly, that I’d got lost in the idea that a scene from almost 40 years ago would be relevant to the time and place of now. I stand by my stance that there’s good people but much of the rest of what I thought I’d find, I realise, was of my own construct. I, like Putin and Polina Gagarina, had taken Tsoi’s words and projected onto them what I wanted to hear.
Music and art can be wonderful refuges. My mistake with trying to connect Kino is that I got swept up in the sense of optimism they stand for. Their music became beloved in a time of slowly emerging freedoms, with great reason to look forward to a brighter future. However iconic an artist becomes, though, no message stands against such a tide of opposing world events. It’s possible to love Kino for their own merits, but I was also trying to make them stick in a totally different time and place. Because it suited me to, to hide from the ugly realities of what was really unfolding. I will still listen to their music, still try to piece together the story of their time and place. But that optimism will evermore be mixed with a sense of sorrow that what they stood for, in the end, never happened.