For those of you who may not remember, Vladimir Kozlov is a writer for the Moscow News and a local punk fan and historian. Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to interview Vladimr when I was in Moscow last October.
However, he did graciously agree to clue me in on the Russian punk scene and history and I’m posting our interview below for you guys to see.
It’s full of some fascinating stuff if your curious about punk music in other places. Enjoy!
1) DID THE PUNK SCENE EXIST IN THE FORMER USSR BEFORE THE FALL OF COMMUNISM?
I’m not sure if it is accurate to talk about a “scene”, but there were certainly punk bands in various Soviet cities. Until the mid-1980s, when Perestroika reforms were launched by Gorbachev, punk bands sort of belonged to the “underground music scene”, which comprised all kinds of music that were not officially accepted. Once some Western punk records made it through the Iron Curtain, people began to try to make similar music. Although they may not entirely understand punk ideology and culture, they certainly understood the protest component of punk. And their protest was – to some extent – directed against the Soviet system.
2) IF SO, WAS IT ILLEGAL? WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
Of course, there was no specific law saying that people shouldn’t play punk or any other particular kind of music. But bands outside the Soviet system were unable to play shows or release records. So, they distributed homespun records in Samizdat and played shows in people’s private apartments and sometimes, when there was an opportunity, at bigger venues – but that was outright illegal. Some people who organized illegal shows even went to prison for that, but that was a typical situation for the entire underground music scene, not just punk rock, which accounted for a very small part of it.
At the same time, Soviet ideologues were very wary when it came to things that were not in line with Communist ideology. And if they had problems with some quite innocuous rock bands, they sure had problems with what punk rockers did. Incidentally, there were some publications about Western punks in the Soviet press, depicting them as “protesters against the bourgeois and capitalist world.” However, when people here tried to do something similar, they were harassed, like Yegor Letov, the front man of Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defense), who was forcefully put into a mental institution for several months.
3) HOW DID THE SCENE CHANGE WHEN COMMUNISM OFFICIALLY WAS REPLACED BY A MORE DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT?
Changes began before communism was officially discarded. In the mid-1980s, thanks to Gorbachev’s glasnost policies, unofficial artists, including punk rock acts, got an opportunity to play shows. They weren’t welcome on television or radio, and there was still only one state-run record label in the country, for which putting out a punk record would be a nightmare. But that was still a major and irreversible change.
4) DID THE POLICIES OF PERESTROIKA AND GLASNOST AFFECT THE PUNK SCENE?
I already answered that – yes, people got a chance of speaking their mind, and the ideological pressure was relieved. Again, it applied to the entire underground music scene, not just punk. The punk rock scene – and it’s probably possible to talk about a scene starting from the late 1980s, – was relatively small. There was still a lack of information on what punk rock was actually about, so some bands who considered themselves “punk” and some “punks” of the period would hardly qualify as such. But that was a crazy time when everything was mixed up and everyone was confused, so that was alright.
5) WHO ARE SOME EARLY PIONEERS OF THE PUNK SCENE IN RUSSIA?
Around 1979-1980, there was a punk band called Propeller in Tallinn, Estonia, which many consider to be the first punk band on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The band was very short-lived and disbanded after recording an album illegally. There was some harassment from local Communist authorities involved, as well. But that was before my time and I only heard about the band years later. Another notable Soviet punk band, Avtomaticheskiye Udovletvoriteli (Automatic Satisfiers), was formed in St. Petersburg also around 1979-80, and they were probably the best known punk lineup in the first half of the 1980s. Their music wasn’t always exactly punk, but their looks and attitudes certainly were. Still, AU never really touched upon any political or ideological themes. In 1984, Civil Defense was formed, which I consider the best and most unique punk band that existed in Soviet or post-Soviet times. It was formed in an unlikely place, the Siberian city of Omsk, and recorded and self-released several homespun albums before getting an opportunity to tour. Unlike many other bands, they made very strong political and ideological statements in their lyrics.
6) HOW HAS THE SCENE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS AND WHAT IS THE SCENE LIKE TODAY?
With the arrival of capitalism, many punk bands found themselves in a tough situation. They weren’t commercial enough to become part of the new Russian show biz, but there was no alternative touring/record distribution system in place at the time, either. So, once ideological obstacles were no longer there, commercial obstacles arrived. And the public sentiment also changed. In the last years of the communist system, lots of people hated the system and were eager to embrace any kind of protest ideas, including punk. But once communism collapsed, most people were more concerned about survival in the new economic conditions and didn’t give a shit about punk. So, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian punk scene was small and basically underground. Later, a few acts had their big break and are now enjoying mass popularity, but they are punk only on the musical side. Their lyrics and ideology have little – or nothing – to do with original punk ideas.
7) WE READ A LOT IN THE U.S. ABOUT GANGS OF NAZI SKINHEADS ROAMING THE STREETS OF MOSCOW AND ST. PETERSBURG BEATING UP MINORITIES. IS THIS A BIG PROBLEM OR DOES THE MEDIA EXAGGERATE THE ISSUE?
It’s probably exaggerated, but the problem is there. There have been many cases of anti-minority violence, but you don’t always know whether it’s Nazi skinheads or a bunch of hoodlums with right-wing ideas. The authorities have recently cracked down on some right-wing groups, but I think the issue of interethnic relations is much more complicated and cannot be pinned down to just anti-minority street violence.
8) IS THERE A PROBLEM BETWEEN NAZI SKINHEADS AND PUNKS AT SHOWS?
Normally, there isn’t. Nazi skinheads go to their shows, and punks go to theirs. However, there is “war” between antifa punks and nazi skinheads which sometimes turns into violence at shows or near venues. The antifa movement here is rather small, and there aren’t many bands associated with the movement. However, several antifa activists have been killed allegedly by Nazi skinheads over the last few years.
9) DO PUNKS FACE HARASSMENT OR ALIENATION FROM THE POLICE OR GOVERNMENT FOR THEIR VIEWS? WHAT ABOUT FOR THEIR LOOKS?
I wouldn’t say there’s much harassment, if any. No one really cares about someone’s ideology these days, and police have gotten used to punks’ looks over the last 20 years. It’s not the 1980s when you could be detained for just sticking out among the crowd in your punk outfit.” You can face harassment if you are socially or politically active and get involved in sensitive or controversial issues, though.
10) DO THE ROCKABILLY, PSYCHOBILLY AND SKA SCENES MIX IN EASILY WITH THE PUNK SCENE IN RUSSIA?
They do, although I should say that those scenes in Russia are quite small. Even the punk scene is basically small. True, there are a few acts that are technically punk, which are part of the mainstream and are able to tour the entire country. But the vast majority of punk bands have small and mostly local audiences. Punk rock, except for a handful of acts, is not on television or radio, so bands’ options for connecting with larger audiences are limited. Russia’s territory is huge, and touring is expensive, so most punk bands have to limit their touring activities to nearby cities. Yeah, these days, with the development of the internet, bands have new opportunities for being heard, but it is still difficult.
11) WHAT IS THE STATE OF PUNK MUSIC IN RUSSIA TODAY AND HOW DO YOU SEE IT’S FUTURE?
I guess, over the last ten years or so, punk music in Russia has been moving in the same direction as elsewhere – towards becoming pure entertainment. Little is left from the original punk ideology, and for younger generations, this is just another type of music, plus a style of clothing attached to it and some element of “trouble.” There are some exceptions, but not many. And, I think, this trend is likely to continue in the future. “Ideological punks” are a minority that isn’t probably going to be extinct altogether but their number is unlikely to increase, either.
12) WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PUNK BANDS?
I already mentioned Civil Defense, which I consider to be the most influential Russian punk band ever. Unfortunately, it’s no longer around because its front man, Yegor Letov, died in early 2008. A band that in many ways epitomizes what punk is about and is currently active, is Adaptatsiya (Adaptation). It comes from Kazakhstan, not Russia, but they sing mostly in Russian and have a cult following here. Plus, I’d like to mention the St Petersburg based band Posledniye Tanki V Parizhe (The Last Tanks in Paris), which mixes punk ideology and aesthetics with profound and powerful lyrics.