Here in the west few have heard of the enigmatic Russian rock singer Victor Tsoi and his band Kino. Like so many other rock musicians, he died young in a blaze of popularity. But in Eastern Europe, and especially in Russia, Tsoi is a legend whose songs have stood the test of time, hearkening as they do to a simpler, more innocent time in Russian history and culture, when Soviet intellectuals and youth in the underground believed in the power of expression for the sake of art, and rejected all-controlling governments.
I find Tsoi’ s music to be especially relevant today. In an era when governments are becoming more and more massive and unwieldy, when our lives and actions are monitored by algorithms, and when so much of what we reveal about ourselves is surficial and fleeting, it becomes increasingly difficult to sift through ponderous data dumps to find something authentic, something spoken truly and which has the power to change our very being. Certain authors carry with them this ability, as well as certain musicians. Viktor Tsoi was one of them; an artist who through the process of revealing the beauty in the mundane, was able to explore change and freedom — things we all so desperately long for.
And I understand that it is a strange thing — being the rotten American capitalist that I am — to harbor a deep nostalgia for Soviet era cool (not to mention I never once stepped foot in Russia during Soviet times). But I do, and I’ll tell you why.
Americans can learn a lot from Soviet counter-culture.
Soviet era counter-culture cool came from the underground, the people; that place whence the deep and enigmatic Russian soul fled under all those decades of oppressive Soviet censorship. Here, in the Soviet underground, we find the dynamic, the resigned, the beautiful and original and indomitable Russian spirit.
Viktor Tsoi was the embodiment of this cool. With his long flowing, wild mane of hair, t-shirts and jeans and black leather jacket, he was a raw, elemental force that took hold of the people. Like so many that inspire, his energy was intangible and yet undeniable. He was in it for the art. What he had to say was about life, the real meaning of existence, which is so often dreary and monotonous, and hinges upon whether or not one has in their pocket a packet of cigarettes.
Here in the soviet counter culture — where one at last comes face to face with what it means to be Russian — one finds simplicity, the convivial camaraderie of friendship (because what can be more important than this?), the beauty of life and life’s imitation of art and one’s ability to create art which imitates life in unique renderings. That part of spirit that encourages one to share the last rusk of bread and shots of vodka with comrades in order to keep the moment going — because, in the very bleakness of life, there is nothing more important than the here and now. Nothing more important than seeking freedom through artistic expression.
More than anything Tsoi was able to tap into the overwhelming ennui of the Russian people and lifestyle. This ennui was rooted in the desire for truth and freedom, and the knowledge that attainment of such freedom was so difficult in the face of the Soviet machine. His lyrics made sense and resonated because of their portrayal of what was, what life amounted to, what was important, in the absence of freedom.
Take his song Blood Group (1986), for instance. It touches on the Russian Afghan War and had students chanting its lyrics in dorm rooms across Russia in 1988. When Russians took to the streets to protest against the government in 2012, they again used another of his songs – Peremen (Change!) — to best represent their feelings and the will of the people.
We in the west should take Victor Tsoi’s lyrics and way of life to heart, and not forget the importance of expressing oneself without fear of censorship, or worse.
Tsoi is a folk hero, but his tale is also a cautionary one. Even today, he serves as an example of what can happen when politically-minded bureaucrats start redefining what art should be, or when governments begin to overtly view history under partisan and nonobjective lenses, filling social media and other outlets with bizarre proclamations backed up by paid operatives. For instance, recently, a top-level Russian official went on record claiming that Victor Tsoi late in his life worked for the CIA — essentially accusing the artist of being a spy for the west. A completely ridiculous accusation, and a flashback to similar accusations made in the past.
One might be tempted at first to chalk these revisions and artistic critiques as specific to the Russian state. But in reality, we have our own analogues in the west, especially in recent months, where increasingly we see our universities — long held up as bastions of expression and free speech — gravitating toward censorship of ideas and debate, the creation of safe spaces and trigger-free zones, and the cancelling of speakers because of their beliefs and philosophies. It really isn’t so difficult to imagine the next stage being the censorship of certain books, ideas, or forms of art that challenge our way of thinking. When and if this day comes, it will be a dark one.
These developments should resonate with those who are wary watchdogs of over-sized governmental agencies. We in America should serve as an example, take the moral high ground, and remember that political statements and opinions, expressed through debate or the voice of the artist should remain unfettered and free. In plain, everyday speech, we should give the bird– following, again, the example of Victor Tsoi — to administrators, government officials, and those in positions of power who seek to dampen artistic voices and the basic human need for self-expression.