Punk rock in a non-Western society
In the last two and a half decades, the punk movement, which emerged as a Western society phenomenon, has made its way into different types of social and economic systems. In this process, the meaning and ideology of the movement have unavoidably been transformed, reinterpreted, reinvented and, often, distorted. At the same time, the observing of development and distortion of punk ideas in non-Western societies can lead to conclusions about the very nature of punk as expressed in its ability to relate to various cultural and political contexts.
Looking at the development of punk in a society that was inherently strange to this type of musical and ideological movement gives the observer a chance to better understand the ideology of punk in general, seeing it as a primarily anti-system movement, with all of its political and social affiliations depending upon the type of society in which it develops.
Meanwhile, problems that punk faces as a movement are similar in any society, Western or non-Western alike. As a music style, it has been coopted and assimilated by the mainstream show business, with the ideological component being marginalized and underrated.
This piece, which is focused on Russia and the former Soviet Union, is not meant to be a description of the punk rock scene in Soviet and post-Soviet times, but rather an attempt to use the example of Russia for exploring the arrival and development of punk rock and its ideology in a non-Western society in general.
2. Local specifics
Unlike many Asian or African countries, the Soviet Union’s overall cultural model in the 1970s was similar to that in the West as no ancient cultural tradition which would be able to present an alternative to Western-type culture had been preserved to those times. But, ironically, the same forces, which destroyed the old tradition after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in an attempt to create “a new world,” contributed to the subsequent cultural isolation of the country. The Soviet culture developed under the same laws as Western culture except for one point, which was the domination of Communist ideology. Everything that was not in line with that ideology was suppressed, if not banned outright.
One of the Soviet ideological machine’s main tasks was to keep people away from the potentially dangerous and decadent “bourgeois” culture. By the 1970s, Soviet ideologists were no longer able to come up with any clear cultural guidelines and often found no better way of dealing with the situation than criticizing or banning everything they didn’t understand, without even presenting any plausible explanation.
Ironically, people were generally discouraged from listening to Western rock music, despite that a vast majority of it was ideologically harmless to the Soviet state. Apart from a few exceptions, Western rock albums were not sold or manufactured under license in the Soviet Union. Western rock artists almost never made it to the TV, which was all state-controlled.
However, Western records, brought to the country by foreign travelers or few Soviet citizens allowed to go on trips abroad, were resold many times, copied on tape and distributed in huge quantities this way. Some people were able to listen to Western radio broadcasts, despite the government’s attempts to jam Western radio broadcasts. The few Western movies that were shown in the Soviet Union attracted enormous audiences. In a situation when the official ideologically bent culture had little to offer to young people, many of them grew extremely pro-Western.
This was the Soviet cultural context at the time punk rock broke in the West. The Soviet media paid little attention to the phenomenon, placing its musical component with the rest of the “ideologically wrong” Western rock music and sometimes using its ideological side as a proof of “degeneration of the West.”
3. Cultural context
As it was previously said, the cultural context, in which punk ideas first surfaced in Russia, was largely determined by the dominant Communist ideology, although, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ideological dominance was no longer as strong as a decade or two before. The aging Soviet state was no longer able to cope with officially unrecognized cultural forms, and while the repressive machine of police and KGB occasionally interfered with culture, it was no longer able to force people, especially youths, to accept the official culture.
As a result, young people listened to Western music, watched Western movies and copied Western styles of clothing. Writers and poets distributed their works - which were often far from politics and focused more on aesthetics than ideology - in Samizdat, or typewritten copies. Artists made a living by illustrating books for state-run publishing houses, in their spare time creating avant-garde paintings, which they later exhibited to a closed circle of friends and supporters in private apartments and occasionally sold to Western tourists. Musicians worked day jobs anywhere from a boiler-house to a research institution and played rock music at night, from time to time getting a semi-legitimate gig in an obscure venue on the city’s outskirts. With a few notable exceptions, the officially unrecognized culture in the Soviet Union wasn’t dissident. It just employed artistic concepts that were not in line with the government’s cultural policies.
As soon as technology developed on a mass scale in the late 1960s, allowing people to form a basic rock’n’roll lineup almost everywhere, numerous rock bands emerged all around the Soviet Union. Most of them started with playing covers of Western rock bands, but many soon switched to writing their own stuff. However, only very few of the earlier rock bands were able to survive to the times of official recognition of rock music during Gorbachev’s Perestroika, which gave a boost to a younger wave of Soviet rock musicians.
A shortage of information due to the Iron Curtain caused a time lag between the arrival of a new music style or art concept in the West and its coming to the Soviet Union. This applied to punk as well. In the 1970s, young Russians still listened to classic rock, like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, or art rock, and a vast majority of them never even heard the word “punk.” The government’s cultural officials routinely criticized “rock music,” labeling it “an ideologically strange” phenomenon and, sometimes, spread ridiculous theories about rock music being harmful to human health.
This attitude remained unchanged until the mid-1980s, when cultural officials, prompted by changes in the country, suddenly made an about-face turn and began to support domestic rock music.
4. First punks: “generally stupid and filthy”
As it was said earlier, due to the informational blockade of the Soviet Union, it took people months or even years to become aware of recent cultural movements or phenomena in the Western culture. And the information they did receive was sparse and second hand. The first people who called themselves “punks” emerged in Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg) in late 1979 and early 1980, and they had a rather vague idea of what punk was about.
Information about punk came to them from two sources – the Soviet press, which occasionally mentioned punks as an example of the “rotting West,” and from punk records by The Sex Pistols, The Clash and other bands, which sometimes made its way through the Iron Curtain. Records gave people some idea about the musical side of punk but very little about the meaning and ideology of the movement, as very few people knew English well enough to be able to understand the lyrics.
While more mainstream kind of music, including the best known pop and rock artists, could be still found in the Soviet Union on a mass scale through underground, semi-legal infrastructures of distributing records copied on tape, non-mainstream music, including punk rock, was hardly available at all.
At the same time, the picture of punks as anti-social and weirdly dressed drunks, created by the Soviet media, did appeal to some youths who were sick of the hypocritical Communist rhetoric, among other things. Interestingly, the Soviet media obtained information about punk primarily from the Western press – which was practically unavailable in the Soviet Union and whose portrayal of punk was also biased and subjective. Adding an ideological angle to the already biased representation resulted in a further distortion of punk’s image behind the Iron Curtain.
As a result, the first Soviet punks had little to do with ideology. They had heard about The Sex Pistols and had seen pictures of the band, which prompted them to copy their style of clothes, but they copied little of the music and none of the ideas. They just read in the Soviet press that punks were “scam” and they wanted to be scam.
Arguably, the first punk band in the Soviet Union, Avtomaticheskiye Udovletvoriteli, or AU (“Automatic Satisfiers” – this was a very free translation of “The Sex Pistols” into Russian), was formed by Andrey “Svin” Panov (1960 – 1998) in Leningrad around 1980. “Many people heard about The Sex Pistols,” Svin said in an interview a decade later. “They have read about them and they liked the band by default, but no one had heard their music. It wasn’t just practically impossible to get records by The Sex Pistols, it was even theoretically impossible. Few LPs that somehow made it to the Soviet Union either were immediately snatched by record collectors or they cost so much that you never had the money to buy them.” At some point, AU musicians still got a chance to listen to The Sex Pistols, as well as The Stranglers and The Damned, but they took very little from the prototypes, except for the style of clothes and Sid Vicious-type stupid behavior.
Prominent Soviet rock critic Artemy Troitsky remembers one of the first gigs by the band at a Leningrad cafe in 1981 in his book “Back in the USSR: the True Story of Rock in Russia.” “AU soon showed that they couldn’t play at all. But what was even worse – they lacked energy. The relaxed anarchy on stage was accompanied by messing with the audience, spitting in all directions and breaking dishes that happened to be around. ” Interestingly, the very fact that a “punk” band was given a chance to play a show at a cafe, all of which were state-run, in 1981, testified to the awkwardness of the Soviet ideological machine, which predictably collapsed a few years later.
At the same time, this may be seen as a proof that a lack of information was a much more serious factor preventing the development of punk rock in the Soviet Union than the repressive machinery of the Communist state. Of course, you couldn’t openly criticize the Soviet system in 1981 and get away with it, but the punk bands of the time, including AU, made little or no attempt to do so, focusing on regular hoodlum and unsocial youth themes. Non-punk bands, in fact, went much further in terms of social criticism, although they did it in a more obscure and less manifest or rude way.
Panov’s lyrics of the time show that he was much more interested in masturbation than social issues:
There’s a universal consoler
An automatic satisfier
And there’s no perversion
In automatic satisfaction
Troitsky recalls saying to Panov: “Okay, look at your favorite band, The Sex Pistols. They are not just drunk rotten scum, they play catching music, they’ve got tons of energy… They are nihilists but they’re concerned with social issues and they don’t just pretend to be clinical idiots.” According to another music critic, formerly editor of the Samizdat zine Urlait, Ilya Smirnov, what attracted audiences to AU was not music, but “exotic artistry and enchanting insolence” of Panov.
So, due to the lack of information to be able to understand the specifics of the punk movement and due to the impossibility of open social criticism under the Soviet system, the first Russian punks adopted only the superficial side of punk: the style of clothing, primitive music and anti-social type of behavior. The political and social agenda of Western punk remained undiscovered.
5. Siberian underground: ideology develops
It took Russian punks several more years to define their own, political and anti-system agenda, and it happened far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, in a big Siberian industrial center of Omsk. In 1982, Yego Letov (born in 1964) formed a band called Posev (the name of a well-known dissident publishing house), which two years later reformed into Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defense), one of the most influential bands in the Russian punk rock. Unlike AU and their Moscow colleagues Futbol (Football), who either goofed off or took punk rock as an instrument in pure aestheticism, Civil Defense from the very beginning took a clear anti-Soviet stand, which put Letov in trouble with KGB as soon as the band made one of its first live appearances at a rock festival in Novosibirsk in 1986.
Being arguably the most outspoken and prominent ideologist in Russian punk rock, Letov understood the concept of punk as an anti-system movement with some relation to anarchism, and in his lyrics he vehemently criticized all components of the aging Soviet machine, from repressive activities of KGB to fruitless attempts to reform the Soviet system during Perestroika years. Meanwhile, as Perestroika reforms, aimed at more openness and democracy, progressed, more and more people called themselves punks, adopted a punk style of closes and listened to foreign and domestic punk rock, both becoming more widely available.
Being one of the few intellectuals in Russian punk, Letov had a better understanding of punk than most other people in the scene. “There’s no real punk in Russia, punk is just appearances here […] There are crowds of people with Mohawks, but there’s nothing behind it,” Letov said in one of his first Samizdat interviews . Gradually, Letov’s anti-Soviet stance evolved into a wider and more comprehensive idea of spiritual opposition. “Creativity is an act of sublimation, a return to your roots through suffering, through sorting out this horrible filth, all this pathology,” he said in another interview, which appeared in the KontrKultUR’a zine. “Any of your steps, any of your works should be filled with an aggression and a pathological spiritual outrage which makes it a stick in the throat of any “average person.”
The band had a phenomenal following in all parts of the former Soviet Union, raising a wave of imitators, most of which, however, did not survive the advent of a purely capitalist showbiz system that was soon installed in the country. Letov’s reaction to the advent of show business was rather paradoxical. In 1990, he made a decision to stop performing live and putting out albums. “Because of the situation around our name – they play our songs on the radio, without even informing us, because of their attempts to make us part of the show business, we’ll probably stop live performances […] And we didn’t distribute our most recent records.” Although all of the band’s records were eventually made public, Letov kept his word and Civil Defense did not perform for more than three years and a half. When it made the first move towards returning in late 1993, the political and cultural context was much different, as well as the band’s political and ideological agenda, which will be discussed in the subsequent chapter.
Ironically, the newly born Russian show biz exploited, among other things, the concept of punk, selling it to poorly educated suburban teenagers as a combination of primitive guitar music (not necessarily punk) and obscene lyrics. There was a whole cohort of such bands, the best known of which was called Sektor Gaza (Gaza Strip). Bands of this kind had a huge impact on public opinion about punk in the early 1990s, contributing to the style as a whole being labeled as “filthy” and “degenerative” in the mainstream press. It should be admitted that even politically conscious punk bands draw in a large number of stupid and ignorant fans who were attracted by fast music and an air of rebelliousness associated with it.
Overall, one of the reasons why punk rock played by Civil Defense and other bands, which may not have been ideological to the same extent but still expressed more interest in social issues than AU in the early 1980s, was rude outspokenness with regards to issues that for a long time had been tabooed, still remaining a subject of everyday people’s concern. At this point punk rockers moved further than artists in other genres, slamming the Communist reality in all possible ways.
Unlike AU’s Svin, who still sang something like “You’re shit, I’m shit, there’s no future,” younger bands did believe in a better future, and their hope was partly instigated by the state propaganda, which did a rather good job of explaining Perestroika as a great step towards a better life.
People were ready to reject all the realities of their life for the sake of a better future. And punk rock’s nihilism and anti-system approach fitted well into this mentality. Thousands of new punk rock bands emerged, playing poor but sincere material and occasionally getting exposure at rock festivals that were numerous in those times. The growing popularity of Civil Defense – which was based exclusively on live appearances and an underground system of record distribution – resulted in thousands of bands all over the former Soviet Union copying it.
But despite of that, in the early 1990s, there was still nothing that could be called “a punk scene” in the Soviet Union. Generally, punk was considered as just one variation of rock music, which had just gained official recognition. Newly formed bands primarily played huge rock festivals where heavy metal bands performed alongside art rock musicians or punks. There was little communication between specifically punk bands, except for Siberia, and there were no punk zines. The festival system collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and while the most commercially successful acts of the Perestroika rock easily made it into the mainstream show business, the rest of the scene, including punk bands faced difficult times.
6. Political division
As it was stated in the previous chapter, despite the existence of Civil Defense and a few other ideological bands, punk rock in the Soviet Union in the early 1990s could be considered neither an anti-system movement nor a movement at all. While a few bands had a clear-cut anti-government stance, many others just exploited punk rock imagery, sometimes knowing little about punk or having a distorted view of punk as an obscene and filthy, although clearly anti-social style of rock music.
At the same time, there was a noticeable difference between Western and Russian punk rock in political terms. While Western punk traditionally had a left-wing orientation, taking sides with all kinds leftist forces, from Anarchists to Communists on a number of issues, in Russia, where Communism was the official ideology, the situation was the opposite: punk rockers who took a stance on a social or political issue necessarily slammed the Communists and the social and economic system created by them. In the late 1980s, opposition parties were still in their formative stages and they made no effort to find contacts with punk rock or any other bands, while musicians were equally disinterested.
The situation changed dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which not only made what remained from the Communist Party the opposition to the newly installed regime, but also triggered the formation and rapid development of all kinds of political parties, from radical and belligerent communists and nationalists, like the Russian National Unity (RNE) to anarchist parties. The simultaneous development of the underground music scene, which wasn’t part of the maturing show business system, led to the formation of weird symbioses of musicians and politicians, in which Russian punk rockers re-defined their political and ideological approaches.
In 1993, mainstream audiences were shocked to learn that Civil Defense was reforming and that Letov had taken sides with left-wing Communist forces. Many saw it as a betrayal of his earlier anti-Communist ideals and turned their backs to the band.
But by then, significant changes had taken place in the country, and people’s reaction to the band’s newly acquired political affiliation could be attributed, to a large extent, to misunderstanding some essential aspects of punk ideology. In many people’s minds punk was associated either with stupid and anti-social (and in this way, rebellious) behavior, or – thanks to Civil Defense’s songs - with active opposition to the Communist regime in the last few years of its existence.
Letov’s audiences failed to understand the anti-system nature of punk, which a regular person focused on their own success in the newly established capitalist system could not relate to. Meanwhile, to ideologically conscious punks, the capitalist system, which developed in Russia was no less hideous, as the previous Capitalist system. Strangely enough, Civil Defense was labeled “fascist” by the various forces both within and outside of the political mainstream, which resulted in a massive outflow of the band’s fans.
Ten years later, Alexander Volkov, a co-editor of KontrKultUR’a, noted, looking back at those times, that the change of the political and social context in the early 1990s brought about a major change in people’s understanding of punk rock. “In the late 1980s, every other high school student felt marginalized,” he said. “Hence such an enthusiastic response to punk, namely Siberian punk, which was in a true opposition to the reality.” KontrKultUR’a’s other co-editor, Sergei Guryev, added: “Back in the late 1980s, denial of reality was common in the Soviet Union because the reality, which everyone denied, was Soviet reality. Even future capitalists denied it – everyone did. And then a different type of reality was established, and only some individuals, not masses, can deny it.”
Letov himself sang in one of his most famous song: “I’ll always be in opposition.” Back in the 1980s, the artist’s fans did not pay much attention to this statement. But by saying it, the singer became one of the few people in the Russian punk rock to state an anti-system approach of punk. Civil Defense is still around today, primarily performing songs from a decade before. In the last few years, Letov has been avoiding political rhetoric.
7. Copying Western examples
On the other flank of the musical/political specter, a punk movement emerged that was primarily focused on copying the Western ideologically conscious punk scene. Interestingly, it took years for Western-style ideological punk with a bent for pacifism, vegetarianism and animal-right protection to come to Russia. This movement emerged around the late 1990s. Today, it is still rather weak, with a very limited following, which is explained primarily by the above concepts’ being culturally strange here, but also some other reasons, including economic considerations.
It was largely the development of the Internet and increased travel that brought authentic Western punk ideas to Russia on a wide scale. Zines like “Profane Existence” and political punk bands like Conflict, Crass and Dead Kennedys earned a following here, albeit limited. The language barrier still remains a problem and cultural differences still do matter.
Economic reasons also limit the penetration of Western punk culture to Russia. Western-made CDs are still expensive by Russian standards, and transportation costs further increase the prices. Newly emerged independent labels have very small operations and although they do put out releases of foreign and domestic bands, their products are hardly accessible to the majority of punk fans because people are unaware of their existence.
Although communicating between themselves, the independent labels and zines have no common ideological platform, often rely on their subjective tastes and preferences and, despite occasional contacts with political parties or movements, have no ideological stand, often being just music fans groups who distribute and write about records they like. What is more interesting, they are hostile to all other wings of the punk movement, especially to those who have or had affiliation with Communists and other left-wing parties. The adoption by the latter of some elements of nationalistic ideology scared off pro-Western punks, who labeled nationalist punks as “fascists” and avoid contacts with them.
8. The best ideology is no ideology at all: the advance of pop punk
In the early and mid-1990s, Russia made fast and decisive steps towards capitalism, whose anarchic and criminalized nature in this country still enabled Russia to have a closer integration with the rest of the world. At approximately the same time, pop punk took off in the West on a mass scale and quickly became a sellable musical product with little or no ideology. Similarly to other imported products, like Miller and Tuborg beer, Levis jeans and Nike sports shoes, which were now legitimately supplied to post-Soviet countries, pop punk, along with many other kinds of music, began to come to potential Russian customers through newly formed MTV-Russia and emerging Western-style music stores. And there was nothing wrong with it because access to cultural information, which people in the Soviet Union did not have, was a crucial step forward. What was bad, however, was that the young and uncivilized domestic show business would not accept anything that was not going to bring in quick money and, starting from the late 1990s and early 2000s, all punk rock, except for pop punk has been kept off the mainstream, which made it unavailable on a wide scale.
The arrival of pop punk as a response to the gloomier but more sincere grunge wave of the early 1990s meant the acceptance and cooption of punk by the mainstream culture. And it took pop punk just a few years to be actively marketed in Russia on a mass scale. Western major labels established operations in Russia in the early 2000s. On the economic side, this meant cheaper locally manufactured CDs and tapes with all kinds of music marketed by major labels, including pop punk. Simultaneously, the government’s efforts aimed at fighting pirated records hit punk rock fans, for whom it now became more difficult to find pirated, although affordable tapes of Western punk bands, a rather wide selection of which was brought to the market in the late 1990s. It should be noted that apart from pop punk major label bands like The Offspring and Green Day, very few Western punk rock titles have been legitimately published in Russia to date.
A new generation of young people has emerged, who perceive punk as a fast energetic music, slightly rebellious, but overall no more rebellious than teenage-oriented pop music normally is.
A phenomenal success of the Russian band Korol I Shut (King and Jester) in the last few years is an example of how some components of punk could be successfully introduced into the mainstream, while avoiding any of its ideological concepts. While the band’s music and – at the early stages – the style of appearances was, to a certain extent, punk, its lyrics has always consisted of superficial fairy-tale based stories.
From the first mentioning of punk in Soviet mass-circulation media and the first bits and pieces of information about punk that made it through the iron curtain in the early 1980s to present day, the perception of punk rock has evolved in Russia quite dramatically. On a mass level, punk turned from a bi-product of “Western decadence” to troublesome lifestyle of poor suburban neighborhoods, which was occasionally related to politics, but was generally about getting drunk and misbehaving, and later to just another kind of pop and rock music, moderately rebellious but generally harmless.
Distortions in the perception of punk in Russia in Soviet times, which arose from a lack of information, did hamper the development of the movement’s ideological content here, but the specifics of the local political agenda testify to punk’s overall anti-system nature.
In recent years, the arrival of pop punk – which, because of political and economic changes in the country took place here at approximately the same time as elsewhere in the world – has become a huge threat to all ideological punk, aggravated by a lack of strong underground infrastructure and the crucial nature of local show business.
Artemiy Troitsky. “Back in the USSR: the True Story of Rock in Russia.” RIO Mosobluprpoligrafizdata, 1991, Moscow, p. 50
Artemiy Troitsky. “Back in the USSR: the True Story of Rock in Russia.” RIO Mosobluprpoligrafizdata, 1991, Moscow, p. 50
Ilya Smirnov. “Vremya Kolokolchikov (Time of Bluebells).” INTO, Moscow, 1994, p. 48.
URLAIT magazine, issue 5/23, 1989, p. 37-39
KontrKultUR’a magazine, issue 3, 1991, p. 11-12
Yegor Letov. “I Don’t Believe in Anarchy: a Collection of Articles and Interviews.” ISKER, Moscow, 1997, p. 76
Okorok magazine, issue 14, 2004, p. 9