Allowed for Performance: Punk and Rebellion in 1980s Siberia
Bands like Survival Instruction and Civil Defense got punk and disorderly under the Communist system.
Cultural Revolution, photo by Artur Strukov
For a kid who grew up listening to the Belorussian disco-pop band Verasy and saccharine hits like, “I Live with Grandma,” Soviet punk arrived as both a provocation and a call-to-arms. It was, to paraphrase former Samizdat journalist Alexander Kushnir, like finding a knife in your pocket, or discovering a death-cult next door. One minute you’re a straight-backed Young Pioneer, spooning down whatever music Melodia (the USSR’s sole, government-run record label) deemed toothless enough for mass-consumption—Italian love songs, life-affirming Soviet ballads, the preternaturally unhateable ABBA and aforementioned bad disco—the next you are head-banging to ditties like “Old Age — No Joy,” “Corpse Smell,” and “Hey Broad, Throw Up.” Years before Gorbachev took the podium at the 1986 Congress of the Communist Party and uttered the word “glasnost,” musical Perestroika had already begun.
The idea that remote concrete cities born of Gulag labor, more than a thousand miles east of Russia’s cultural capitals, served as the Soviet punk scene’s Lower East Side may sound bizarre to Western ears, but it was actually Siberian bands like Civil Defense, Survival Instruction, and BOMZh who produced the raw and unapologetically polemical music that came to define the last generation of Soviet youth, a generation for whom change couldn’t come fast enough.
Why Siberia? There are plenty of theories. Maybe the punk bands associated with established rock scenes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg (the only cities allowed to host a government-sponsored “rock club”) were too close to the seat of power to take the same risks as Siberian bands. Some critics argue that bands in western Russia intentionally dialed down subversive impulses because they could see forward to the end of the Soviet Union and were already thinking about mass-appeal. But Artur Strukov, the frontman of Tyumen-based punk band Cultural Revolution, offers a simpler explanation: the cold. “For most of the year you sit at home, read, and introspect,” he shrugs.
Siberia may have provided the perfect incubator for nurturing the creative malice punk requires, but the logistics of actually recording and performing music out in Asiatic Russia were tougher. DIY wasn’t so much an aesthetic as a way of life in an era of chronic, Soviet-era deficits, a reality that seemed to only drive Siberian punks bands to greater heights of ingenuity. Survival Instruction’s two guitars were shared between three bands and were literally homemade on a lathe. “Instead of reverb we used a metal bathtub, attaching a mike to it,” Alexander Chirkin, the frontman of Putti, confesses. “I put my head into it and yelled.” (Other tricks included maxing out the volume on a tape recorder in lieu of an overdrive pedal.) And the deficits extended to venues as well. Lacking any official rock clubs in Siberia, punks colonized cafeterias, apartments, libraries and local “Houses of Culture”—the Soviet equivalent to VFW halls. Dorm rooms hosted entire rock festivals.
Survival Instruction, photo by Artur Strukov
In some ways, Siberian punks bore little resemblance to their Western counterparts. Deep behind the Iron Curtain, the samizdat sources from which they gleaned inspiration weren’t always reliable, resulting in a mashup of conflicting styles. “We looked at old magazine photos, gave ourselves mohawks and painted our faces so we looked like KISS,” says Chirkin. Other bands, like Survival Instruction, considered themselves, well, too punk to look punk, "We weren't interested in appearances,” says Survival Instruction's frontman Roman Neumoyev. “We were interested in [punk’s] avant-garde essence and its intellectual roots.” Survival Instruction only met live punks, complete with chains and riveted jackets, when they traveled to the Baltic States for the first time. That experience prompted a more pragmatic realization. “In Siberia, if you looked like that on the street, you wouldn't be able to walk more than 100 meters. After that, someone would just take you around the corner and beat the shit out of you.”
Civil Defense, photo by Yuri Chashkin
But when it came to exploding taboos, Siberian punk bands left only scorched earth behind. As Sergei Firsov, manager of Civil Defense in the 1980s, explains, “Everyone was absolutely anti-Soviet. Of course, all of us wanted to break this system.” Fueled by the ballast of a totalitarian regime, both the radicalism and the fury of Siberian punks went far beyond anything seen in the West. So too was the cost of saying fuck the government.
In the Soviet era, punk music—all rock music, really—occupied a murky, semi-legal zone. Siberian bands lived under constant government scrutiny. Clearing lyrics with the local censors was as banal and necessary a chore as enduring queues for cheese or socks. “Back then, you couldn't just sing a song on stage, you had to go to the Regional Scientific and Methodical Center,” Putti's Mikhail Pozdnyakov recalls. “You would bring them three copies of lyrics you wanted to perform for inspection.” The head of the center would then rubber stamp their lyrics, “Allowed for Performance.” Even this stamp was no guarantee against police beatings or imprisonment. Many punks were expelled from college, conscripted into the army (despite having, say, a heart condition) or unable to hold jobs. Civil Defense frontman Yegor Letov, who many consider the godfather of Russian punk scene, was once arrested by the KGB and thrown in a mental institution; he was there for three months before he was released.
The epicenter of Siberia’s underground recording industry was Letov's home studio, located in two rooms of a tiny apartment on the outskirts of the city of Omsk. In that studio, known as GrOb Records (an acronym for the Russian spelling Civil Defense, which could also be read as "coffin") dozens of Siberian punk albums were recorded. Among them were about two dozen rare songs by Yana Dyagileva, better known as Yanka, Letov’s on-and-off girlfriend, and the one notable exception to the male-dominated Siberian punk scene. In many ways the GrOb archive is the story of Siberian punk.
"Letov's contribution was that he believed that everyone had to make records, not put it off to some other time, some other year," Oleg "Manager" Sudakov says years later. "You have to come, sit down, play, record, and release the record.” That pretty much describes the process; Letov once recorded three full-length albums in one month by himself. The music was recorded on crappy reel-to-reels, and eventually, on tape recorders. Copies were mailed out across the Soviet Union without any thought of cost or profit. Promotion was nil. Yanka Dyagileva refused to be interviewed. Cultural Revolution's Artur Strukov refused to even tour—at least by a mainstream band’s definition of touring.
“It killed us that we would have to play the same program three times a day,” he says. “For us, it was totally unacceptable to repeat your songs, which you consider something personal… for a week in one city and then in another.”
Cooperativ Nishtyak's frontman Kirill Rybyakov pretty much sums up their philosophy. “What eventually comes out of it is of no importance. Whether there is money, or something else, is of no importance either. Even whether people turn up for the show is of no importance."
Flirt's Oleg Surusin adds: "I didn't know how to sing and I knew no fucking chords. But I wrote songs!”
Given their refusal to accommodate the growing market for their own music in any way, it’s not surprising that Siberian punk faded into anachronism. Many saw Yanka's death as a symbolic end to the Siberian punk era. In May of 1991, her dead body was found floating in a river near Novosibirsk. She was 24 years old. The exact circumstances of her death remain unknown, though many believe it was suicide. Civil Defense went on hiatus, and would not begin making music again until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other Siberian punk bands, still true to the cause, had trouble finding a foothold in the glossy new world of Russian show business. A handful remain foot-soldiers for the cause, and continue to rail against the chart-topping Russian bands of today, and everyone else who “turned all our rock, or what used to be rock, into a bunch of shit,” as Letov put it at a 1990 concert in Moscow.
Of course the collapse of the Communist system itself put Siberian punks in a tough spot; the target of their rebellion had suddenly vanished, leaving them an army without an enemy. But now Siberia’s surviving punk veterans are seeing the pendulum swing back again, and in a strange way their legacy of defiance has never been more relevant. Putin’s tightening authoritarian grip has put the stakes back into punk, illuminating the ideological chasm between the t.A.T.u.s of Russia and the Pussy Riots. As Survival Instruction's former drummer. Yevgeny Kuznetsov, points out, “Just like they didn't know then what to do with Survival Instruction, now Putin doesn't know what to do with all this fucking shit.” So maybe this means real punk rock, Siberian style, is poised for a return. A new generation of Russians could use a good knife in their pocket.