Getting into Russian rock is easier said than done. Where even to start? In a way, “Russian rock” is a fake umbrella concept. Within what we call Russian rock, there’s light rock and hard rock. There’s folk rock and art rock. There’s punk rock, post-punk, and heavy metal. There’s Petersburg rock, but there’s also rock from everywhere that’s not Petersburg.
That’s not even getting into the politics of Russian rock. There are artists who hate Putin. There are also artists who worship Putin. More common than both are artists who avoid politics as much as possible, so you don’t know what they think about Putin. How are beginners supposed to discover their favorite artists and navigate the politics?
Fortunately, our ultimate beginner’s guide is here to help. We’re not going to paint a sweeping picture of Russian rock. But we are going to whet your appetite. The five bands noted below are by no means the biggest names in Russian rock. But they will give you a sampling of the diverse, energetic scene that is Russian rock. Think of it as a starterpack for your personal Russian rock playlist.
Viktor Tsoy is best known for his 1989 song “Хочу перемен” (“I Want Change”), arguably the definitive song of perestroika. But Tsoy did not limit himself to political music. He had a distinctive voice: casual, with a drawl and just a little raspy — the voice of a storyteller. So, instead of “Перемен”, we recommend that first-time listeners check out “Когда твоя девушка больна” (“When Your Girlfriend is Sick”), in which Tsoy tells the story of a young man whose girlfriend is ill.
Watching “the sun shine and the grass grow,” the young man feels sad. Tsoy, however, narrates the speaker’s sadness with gentle irony. The young man doesn’t empathize with his girlfriend, who he says is “lying somewhere.” Instead, he makes her illness all about himself and his misery. Later on, he goes to a party alone. And though that was his choice, he mopes on about how sorry he is for himself and “everything’s not quite right / When your girlfriend is sick.” You relate to the young man’s loneliness, but you also smile, because he’s overdoing it just a little. Therein lies Tsoy’s genius.
Mashina Vremeni (“Time Machine”) is a pioneer of Russian rock. It was founded in 1969, even before Viktor Tsoy formed his band, and it’s still going strong today. Rare among Russian rockers, Mashina’s frontman Andrei Makarevich is an outspoken critic of Putin. He denounced the annexation of Crimea in 2014, criticizes the war in Ukraine, and regularly calls out Putin’s administration for corruption. These are radical stances to hold in a musical scene where many avoid outright political statements but tacitly support Putin’s foreign policy.
Mashina Vremeni has produced dozens of hits over its 50-year career — “Однажды мир прогнется под нас” (“One Day the World will Bend Beneath Us”) and “Кто виноват?” (“Who is Guilty?”), just to name a couple. Even so, their songwriting is as fresh as ever. For first-time listeners, we recommend a song from their 2016 album “Вы” (“You”). “Завтра был снег” (“Tomorrow There Was Snow”) captures a snapshot of peace in the midst of implied turmoil. The lyrics read like poetry — “Tomorrow there was snow, early, unexpected” — while shifting chords paint swirls of warm colors onto every image.
Most rock bands founded outside Moscow or St. Petersburg eventually pilgrim to the big cities. However, Murakami proudly stands its local ground. Murakami was founded in Kazan by Dilyara Vagapova, who was raised in Kazan and vows never to leave. “When I am asked for the umpteenth time why we don’t move to Moscow, I always reply, ‘Come live in the capital of Tatarstan, and you will see why,’” she says.
Murakami’s best-known song is “Нулевой километр”, or “Kilometer Zero”, a swinging ballad about the thrills of travel. “With both sandals filled with sand, / In pursuit of a genie — in spirals,” the narrator flies from place to place. She soars along the (nonexistent) “Nevada coast,” she tastes a café glacé, she admires koalas. “This is my kilometer zero!” she proclaims — but true to Murakami’s roots, she “starts the count from Kazan.” Listen to this song, and you, too, will want to lift off and fly away.
What does “DDT” mean? Fans have come up with all sorts of acronyms: Дом детского творчества (“House of Children’s Creations”) or Добрый день, товарищи! (“Good day, comrades!”). However, their frontman Yuri Shevchuk insists that DDT means only one thing: Dust.
Be that as it may, DDT’s sound is the opposite of dusty. Shevchuk’s voice treads a perforated line between tender crooning and unbridled growling. In “Новое седрце” (“A New Heart”), Shevchuk narrates a man undertaking an uncertain journey. The summer sky is full of stars, the light like “an August blizzard.” He is stuck in traffic, more poetically a “mess of cars” (машин канителица). Nevertheless, he is confident (or is he?) that “a new heart will explode over us, / a new life will call us, / And I, blessed by the ancient gods, / As to a holiday, will go to this battle.”
Of all the bands profiled here, Neschastny Sluchay’s sound is the most Soviet-inspired. There’s no surprise there: Neschastny Sluchay (“Unfortunate Incident”) was born in 1983, on the eve of perestroika. And despite sounding old-school, resisting the establishment runs in their blood. This past March, they debuted a rock musical called “In the City of False-Dmitri,” a satire about a fictional Soviet closed city. Their crowdfunding page disclaims: “All analogies with Russian reality that arise in viewers’ minds are a result of their own conscience and criminal-administrative responsibility.”
Our favorite Neschastny Sluchay song is a satire inspired by a tongue-twister. “Шла Саша по шоссе и сосала сумку” is a nonsense phrase (“Sasha walked down the street and sucked on a bag”), purely fun to say, but Neschastny Sluchay turns it into a critique of apathetic authorities. A woman named Sasha walks along a highway. Walking from one end of Russia to the other, she passes by “demolished homes, / wrecked tractors, / as though there were a war here / just yesterday.” She runs to the “Tsar Father” and the “boyars in the White House,” begging for them to help the Russian people. And they do — they give the people land and money, and everyone is happy. But is it really a happy ending if the tsar and boyars were the ones who let Russia fall apart? Only you, the listener, can decide.
Masha and Her Bears
The Long, Strange Trip of Boris Grebenshchikov
The Age of Aquarium
5 St. Petersburg Bands You Should Know
Boris Grebenshikov, a Founding Father of Soviet Rock
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