The Leningrad Rock Scene During Perestroika – Viktor Tsoi and Kino
17 July, 2018
If you walk around the city on any evening (when it doesn’t rain) you will witness tens of street bands playing live rock music. If the tune is catchy, the lyrics are in Russian, and everyone is singing along, chances are – they’re playing a Kino song.
Viktor Tsoi and Kino
Kino was an incredibly influential band formed in 1982 in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called in Soviet times). Their front man, Viktor Tsoi, who died in a tragic car accident in 1990, was a celebrity on par with the Beatles, both then and now. Charismatic and attractive (and half-Korean, like me!), Tsoi wrote tunes and lyrics that spoke to the hearts and minds of millions of Russian youth who just wanted to rock out, dress outlandishly (in fact, they were earlier known as стиляги – stilyagi, something akin to “hipsters”, though not in the sense that we know today) and have nothing more to do with politics and ideology. His songs are about love, friendship, and freedom, but also about troubled, pensive moments – all so very relatable feelings. By staying away from political themes, Kino were one of the first rock bands to be allowed to perform and record music by the Soviet government. Had it not been for Gorbachev and perestroika, in fact, Kino would probably not have been able to gain the fame that they did. Tsoi also appeared in a few cult movies, among which my favorite is Игла (Igla “The Needle”) – a must-watch! Also, listening and singing along to Kino songs has really helped me practice Russian: the lyrics are simple but sweet.
Лето – a film about Kino
On the topic of movies, we went to see the spanking new tribute film to Tsoi at the Cinema Angleterre (where they often screen movies for foreigners). Лето – Leto (“Summer”) is a semi-fictional biopic of how the band came to fame: with the help of other established Soviet rock stars who quickly realized they were dealing with something truly special. Tsoi, unlike so many other Soviet musicians at the time, was not merely imitating Western music: his style was hard to place, it was “ни рыба ни мясо” (“ni ryba ni myasa”, “neither fish nor meat”, i.e. neither here nor there) – and that was what made him so “настоящий” (“nastoyashchii”, “real”). Leto well portrays the atmosphere and the soul-searching of the Eighties in Leningrad; the rooftop shots are especially breathtaking, and so wonderfully familiar to those who’ve lived here. A well-timed, well-shot film with a Cannes award-winning soundtrack, full of wistful glances back on a time in the city’s history which deserves to be remembered, even if the memories are ambivalent.
Hidden away on Petrogradskaya is a memorial club where they serve beer and play rock music – with of course a preference for Kino’s songs: the club, in fact, was established in the boiler room where Viktor Tsoi used to work when they started the band, and they would also hold shows there in the evenings. If you’ve acquired a taste for Kino, or just want to go see a historical Leningrad rock’n’roll venue, go check out Club Kamchatka. Also, it’s always nice to go for a walk on Petrogradskaya, for instance to visit the Museum of the Petersburg Avantgarde, the Botanical Garden, the Alfred Nobel Monument, or Aleksandrovskiy Park to see the miniature models of Saint Petersburg’s most impressive buildings, and to see the life-size statues of its founders.