Rock and cinema – transgression and transition in the USSR

Image: Wassily Kandinsky


Capturing the moment of the key turn is a task for artists in tune

Perhaps the most intensely concentrated moment in recent human history, from the point of view of political transition, was the end of the Soviet Union – a process that accelerated in the 1980s and culminated in 1991, with the fall of Mikhaïl Gorbachev and the rise of Boris Yeltsin. The socialist world turned upside down: like a meteor that fell into the ocean, waves propagated in circles, and the consequences and developments persist until today – the war in Ukraine is a sign of this reflux, among others. Capturing the moment of the key change is the task of attentive artists.


Taxi Blues

Taxi Blues, directed in 1989 by Pavel Lungin and released in 1990, was one of those fine tunes, a film that, due to the dramaturgical disruption it operated, vis-à-vis the dominant mode of production in Soviet cinema, released an unprecedented package of energy, a set of of transforming corpuscles that took over the nervous system of cinematographic language in the dying USSR. The temptation to use metaphors from microphysics to describe the electric shock of this irruption is unavoidable – and the connection appears clear and indisputable in the rock band Zvuki Mu, something like mu sound, which troubled the music scene in the dizzying 1980s and 90s, mainly due to the body and vocal performance of leader Pyotr Mamonov (see Rude Sunset).

in one of the castings more accurate than anyone has heard, Pavel Lungin selected Pyotr Mamonov to embody one of the protagonists, undoubtedly inspired by the disruptive capacity of the rocker, pure vitality in the face of the atmosphere of authoritarianism, laziness and cynicism that prevailed in the Soviet social field. In an interview, Pyotr Mamonov also makes use of microphysics and suggests to the faithful audience to take a look at the index fingers, using a magnifying glass: There is so much there: nerves … so many nuances … life is a great thing.



Kirill Serebrennikov's film-musical-rock Summer – was selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, but its director did not appear on the red carpet. He was under house arrest in Moscow after his non-profit organization was raided the previous summer by Russian police. Kirill Serebrennikov is suspected of masterminding an embezzlement plan that harmed the state, which he denies. Artists and personalities from the cultural world in Russia believe that the invasion and arrest are, in fact, retaliation. The director entered into a collision course with the Minister of Culture for programming a documentary about the Pussy Riot, in 2013, shortly after taking office at the Gogol Cultural Center.

Kirill Serebrennikov became director of the then mediocre Gogol Theater and transformed it into a modern multi-purpose art complex, presenting films, concerts, debates and performances, by Russians and foreigners. He has never hidden his divergent views from the government of Vladimir Putin, on sensitive issues such as LGBTQ and the annexation of Crimea. Summer, a fiction inspired by real facts, narrates the intimate backstage of two Soviet rock stars, Mike Naumenko, from the band “Zoo”, and Viktor Tsoi, from “Cinema”: in the summer of 1981, in Leningrad, Mike's wife Natalia falls in love with Viktor. In February 2021, Kirill Serebrennikov received notice of dismissal from the Center by the Moscow City Department of Culture.

The history of rock music in the Soviet Union began well before 1981, but it has always been subject to upheavals and criticism, not just from Comsomol – the Communist Party's youth organization – but from writers and intellectuals aligned with official policy. A sign of Western decadence, commodification of music and emotions, rock was also a vehicle for bizarre and excessively sensual behavior (in this last aspect, Soviet critics coincided with conservatives in the West). Discourse was subject to cracks: the thaw of Nikita Khrushchev, as the second half of the 1950s was characterized – especially after the revelations of Stalinist excesses, at the 20th Congress of the Party, in 1956 – allowed a relative flexibility of foreign cultural consumption, in addition to trips abroad, and had the its apex with the holding, in 1957, of the International Youth Festival, in Moscow.

Thousands of young people, foreigners and Russians, filled Manezhnaya Square dancing Rock And Roll. Elvis Presley records, cut from discarded hospital X-ray plates, sold for 50 rubles ($12,50 at official exchange rates). Comsomol members formed vigilante patrols to stop spontaneous outbursts of dancers, berating them and denouncing to the authorities those young men who, with loose manners and brazen posture, should really be called to order. The order was the stimulus to traditional styles of dancing, eventually introducing new ones, but always observing the delicacy and intimacy of the touch, never adhering to the frenetic and wild movements, the exaggerated dynamism and the almost deafening volume of rock.



Inspired by a poem by Joseph Brodsky that satirizes the soviet way of life, Sergei Loznitsa made in 2008 the documentary Magazine, using images of “current events” filmed between 1957 and 1967 – a compilation documentary made from 180 editions of the newsreel “Our Country”, produced in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). The structure of the newsreel was similar to the printed newspaper: lead from the news about major political events, aggregated from scenes of “our daily life”, such as industrial and agricultural work, obligations and social relations, cultural and sporting events.

A report from the theater shows a dramatization of a collective farm (Lenin recommending agrarian collectivization): in the steelworks, workers rejoice at their production records; and in the countryside, the efficiency of the new agricultural techniques excites the peasants. The Cold War, of course, looms in a state of power behind these images: in a flash, a report shows puppets by Chubby Checker and his band singing Let's twist again, presented as the decadence of capitalism. The critical sense of the image, however, sounds ambiguous: couples enjoy the parody, and seem to equally appreciate the rhythm and music. Two instances in principle incompatible – the twist decadent and wild, and the controlled and aseptic environment of Soviet entertainment – ​​seem to find a way to live together.


The other place of late socialism

Alexei Yurchak is an anthropologist who was born in Leningrad, emigrated to the United States and wrote, in 2005, a book about the post-Stalin and pre-perestroika period – a time tunnel inhabited by skeptics and convictions, stagnation and the good life. Layers overlapped in the air: the official discourse ratified the dominant order, like an endless loop; underlying, alternative practices spread, impossible to control – in the case of rock, the production of radio sets made in the USSR expanded listening to foreign transmissions; the arrival of K7 tapes replaced X-ray disks and increased consumption.

For Alexei Yurchak, there was an unwritten consensus that the system was somehow failing: as no one could imagine a reinvention, politicians and citizens alike resigned themselves to maintaining the illusion of a functioning society. The illusion ended up permeating the social fabric: in one of the chapters, entitled The True Colors of Communism: King Crimson, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, the main object of study is the epistolary dialogue between two Beatles fanatics, in particular a young man called Alexander, always attentive to the ethical and moral principles of communism – but for whom the interest in rock, especially English rock, was perfectly logical and irresistible , even if he had to turn to the “black market” to satisfy his curiosity.

The coexistence of these two worlds did not seem like conflict in the heart and mind of Alexander, who actively participated in Comsomol – at a time when a good part of the youth was indifferent to the organization or interacted automatically. The evolution in musical taste, represented by the fixation in the group head rock King Crimson, coincided with Alexander's entry into the university to study mathematics – another paradigm of Soviet citizenship was the cultivation of scientific reasoning. Yurchak's anthropological research found unexpected validation in the figure of Dmitri Medvedev, who effusively expressed his appreciation for Deep Purple, inviting the group more than once to Moscow for anniversaries.

Dmitri Medvedev is the one who alternated with Vladimir Putin in the presidency. As a teenager, Medvedev saved up for months to buy The Wall, the famous 1979 album by Pink Floyd: “although I lived behind the Soviet Iron Curtain, music seeped in. We heard what the whole planet heard”, he said smiling in an interview, when he visited the USA as President.



Hipster ou Stilyaga (Russian title), film directed by Valeriy Todorovskiy in 2008, is a successful mega-production in a rare genre in contemporary Russian cinema – musical – focusing on the subculture stilyaga that emerged in the late 1940s and flourished between 1955 and 60: apolitical youth, seduced by American fetish imagery, extravagant clothes and hair, neutral or negative attitudes towards Soviet morality and open admiration for modern lifestyles, performance jazz and much more. choreography. The protagonist, Mels – name derived from the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin quartet – begins the story listening to KGB intrigues and participating in repressive actions by Comsomol.

when chasing a stilyaga Polza, willing to cut her hair and eliminate her shiny clothes, ends up falling in love with her – and Mels changes sides, removes the “s” from her name, learns the saxophone and becomes part of the gang led by Fedor, or Fred. , the son of an influential Soviet diplomat. Polza have a black son, born from a brief encounter with an African American – reference to the musical The circus, by Grigori Alexandrov, another rarity, made in 1936. Fred leaves for the United States, returning disappointed: there is no stilyagi over there, it's all fantasy…Soviet. Apotheosis is a collective musical number on Tverskaya Street, known between 1935 and 1990 as Gorki Street, Moscow's main radial street. The story is narrated through music clips: singing and dancing carry emotional and historical weight. At the time, the Soviet press portrayed the cultural subgroup as small and insignificant, bourgeois and uneducated bums.

Alexei Yurchak mentions details of real operations to repress stilyaga: clothes are described as including silver spider web design, palm trees, monkeys, even girls in bathing suits, provocative parrot and monkey looks, exotic hairstyles. Hipster, while reminiscent of the glamorous atmosphere of the Putin era, it also dialogues with the emerging Soviet rock of the 1980s – some songs were adapted from the band’s repertoire Nautilus pompilius and the popular Viktor Tsoi. It was released commercially in the New Year and achieved an impressive third place at the box office.


today is rock day

In 1974, Leonid Brezhnev suffered a stroke: he recovered, but gradually slowed down and allowed himself to be carried away by the gerontocracy of the Politburo, the highest governing and leading body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Nobody wanted to change anything, the system by nature did not deal well with political transitions – Leonid Brezhnev himself rose by taking a blow to his former mentor, Nikita Khrushchev – and stagnation, tempered by well-being, dragged on. In the end, the unfortunate and misguided war in Afghanistan – the Soviets' Vietnam – helped to implode the system. But Leonid Brezhnev was already tired. He died in November 1982: three days earlier, he took part in the military parade commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and was applauded. His funeral is second only to Stalin's in grandeur.

Comsomol, after all the youth representative body, was forced to manage a contradictory situation: while maintaining a list of nearly 30 groups whose music could not be played or distributed – Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Sex Pistols and even Tina Turner – in the local circumstances, especially in Leningrad, the conversation was different. One of the supporting characters of Summer, Kirill Serebrennikov's film set in the former tsarist capital, is a smiling young man apparatchik, dressed in a suit and with restrained gestures, who appears in the film holding back occasional explosions from the audience – all seated, immobile, as at a Comsomol meeting, listening to rock music – and managing the assimilation of those impetuous young people into the system.

Western rock, in addition to making explicit the decay of capitalism, continued to be accused of promoting, among other things, violence, sex and distorting the Soviet military threat. It is not known what went through the minds of the authorities when the opening of the Leningrad Rock Club, in 1981. Some antecedents were visible: underground band scenes had developed in Moscow, Leningrad, Estonia and Latvia, small gigs in cafes and music halls; in 1980, a rock festival was organized in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The band Aquarium, led by pioneer Boris “Bob” Grebenshikov, had been expelled from the event in Tbilisi, accused of promoting homosexuality and incest: on their return to Leningrad, at the rock club, they were even more successful. Of course, from the beginning the club was closely monitored by the KGB, but it attracted the youth of the city, inescapably. Zoo, led by Mike Naumenko, charismatic and skillful negotiator with authorities, was there: 18-year-old Viktor Tsoi, who would become the most famous of Soviet rock stars in the late 1980s with his group Cinema, also. One of Tsoi's first songs was commute train, which tells the story of a person trapped on a train, going to a place he neither knows nor wants to go – a feeling that many of the listeners intuited as familiar. A metaphor for that moment in the USSR.

Summer reproduces this environment, between 1980 and 81, with masterful black and white photography, always soft light and video clips interpolated into the narrative with augmented reality to update the images with new technologies. The treatment, however, is light: perhaps that is why “Bob” Grebenshikov – one of the survivors of that period, who appears secondarily in the film – accused Kirill Serebrennikov of being a “liar”: according to him, “we lived differently: the script was written by a person from another planet.” Kirill Serebrennikov, who edited the film in 2018 under house arrest imposed by the Putin government and was forced to use a computer offline – was banned from accessing the internet – opted to romanticize the story and add fictions of particular plots to that inaugural moment in the country of Soviets.

What happened in the following years suggests that its reading is adequate: the groups approached the mainstream and became an alternative to protests and discontent. The group Aquarium participated in a charity concert for the victims of Chernobyl, highlighting rock's human credentials in contrast to the state's confused response: Changes, launched in 1986 by the Cinema, captured the dynamics of perestroika and it was interpreted by many as a political declaration that that communion of ideals signaled greater autonomy for young people, until then a prerogative of the Party. In 1988, the album "Blood Type"(Krovi Group), also from Cinema, was an attack on the Afghan War: Tsoi himself was drafted in 1983 and spent six months in a psychiatric clinic for refusing to serve. Rock, in its harshest version, from punk, or softened, new wave, worked as a soundtrack for the political, economic and social transitions that entered the Soviet space and pointed to unforeseen directions.

Mike Naumenko died in Leningrad on August 27, 1991, aged 36, as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an accident in his apartment: he had already been facing problems due to excessive alcohol. Viktor Tsoi had a fatal accident on August 15, 1990, in Latvia: the investigation concluded that Viktor Tsoi fell asleep while driving; he was driving at a speed of 130 km / h. He was then 28 years old. The critic Artemy Troitsky, organizer of the 1980 festival in Tbilisi, thinks that the songs of the pioneers had an extra political charge, due to the repressive conditions of the USSR. “In a totalitarian regime, the meaning of something true was totally different: at the time, it was dangerous and important. Now, it's just entertainment."

*Joao Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).


– Kinokultura Magazine (

1- Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) reviewed by Volha Isakava, Issue 25: July 2009

2- Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) reviewed by Rimgaila Salys, Issue 50: October 2015

– Popular Music and Society

Back in the USSR—Rock and roll in the Soviet Union

Robert Rauth

Published online: 24 Jul 2008.

– Rock in the USSR

November 2019

Rob Behan

– The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 1990)

Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia by Artemy Troitsky (review)

– Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, Alexei Yurchak, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005


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