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Thirty years after his tragic death, iconic Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi continues to inspire demonstrators

Photo of the Viktor Tsoi wall in central Minsk. The main writing says  “Ты знал, что будет плохо, но не знал, что так скоро” [You knew, all would be bad, but what you didn't know is that it would happen so quickly], inspired by one of his songs. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

August 15 marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic death of Viktor Tsoi, the Russian-Korean rock star who was killed in a car crash in 1990.

Tsoi and his band Kino shot to fame during the latter years of the Soviet Union and are still beloved today. Three decades after his death, Tsoi continues to gain new fans—notably in former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan to Belarus—who are deeply inspired by his anti-authoritarian message.

Even younger generations of Russian-speakers who have no memory of the Soviet period are enraptured by the story of Viktor the rebel, who sided with the people against the system. Many of his songs have a clear political subtext calling for disobedience, urging young people to disregard the authorities and take control of their futures.

One of Tsoi's most famous songs, “Перемен!” [Change!], first performed in May 1986, is experiencing a surge in popularity.

Its lyrics go as follows:

Перемен требуют наши сердца
Перемен требуют наши глаза
В нашем смехе
И в наших слезах
И в пульсации вен
Перемен!
Мы ждём перемен…

Change is what our hearts require / Change is what our eyes require / In our laughter / And in our eyes / And in the pulsing of our veins / Change! / We await changes…

“Перемен!” has become something of a protest anthem in Belarus, where it is being played and sung by opponents of Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is accused of having rigged the August 9 presidential election in his favor.

Find out more about the turmoil in Belarus here

In Kazakhstan's capital Almaty, where a statue of Tsoi was erected on June 21, 2018 in honour of his numerous connections to the country where his father was born and lived, the monument has featured in anti-government protest actions, such as the one featured in this tweet:

“And there is nothing else
All is within us.” [Lyrics from Tsoi's song “Changes” (Перемен)]

Viktor Tsoi came out to protest in Almaty with a poster saying “Changes”

Yevgenia Plakhina, a Global Voices contributor in her 30s who's a keen observer of Kazakhstani pop culture, shared the following view:

Мне кажется, для людей моего поколения нет более знаковой песни, чем Перемен, когда речь идет о политическом протесте.

I think that for people of my generation, no song is more emblematic than Перемен [Change], when we talk about political demonstrations. 

A similar sentiment is echoed by Hamdam Zakirov, a Helsinki-based DJ originally from Uzbekistan who runs a Youtube channel about Soviet and Uzbek music:

Песня “Перемен”, конечно, не имеет аналогов по своей энергетике и довольно простым ясным словам. Да и за годы, эта песня только набирает звездочки, как марочный коньяк. После событий в Беларуси её статус “гимна свободы” только укрепится.

The song Перемен [Change], of course has no equivalent given its energy and rather simple and clear words. And with time, this song, like quality cognac, gets more stars. After the events in Belarus [demonstrations following contested presidential elections] the song's status as a “hymn to freedom” only continues to grow stronger.

The musician who made Soviet and Russian-language rock a global phenomenon

Plakhina recalls how Kino entered her life:

Мне кажется, что Кино всегда было в моей жизни по умолчанию. Если честно, даже трудно отследить, когда именно я начала слушать Кино. Осознанно, наверное, лет в 12. Я всегда чувствовала в Кино бунтарство и неприкаянность – мы, алматинские подростки, были такими. И, где бы мы не были сейчас, при первых аккордах встаем в стойку и поем все слова наизусть. 

It seems to me Kino was always present in my life by default. Honestly, it is hard to track when exactly I started listening to Kino. I guess around 12. I always felt that spirit of rebellion and disobedience – we, teenagers from Almaty, were just like that. And no matter where we might be today, upon hearing those opening chords we stand up and sing all the lyrics we know by heart.

Bektour Iskender, a media manager and trainer from Kyrgyzstan, recalls:

Я открыл для себя Цоя относительно поздно — только в 2002 году, в возрасте семнадцати лет. К тому времени я уже довольно детально изучил англоязычный рок 1960-х и 1970-х, а рок на русском языке мне почему-то был не очень интересен. Пожалуй, Цой и “Кино” стали первыми русскоязычными музыкантами, которые мне действительно очень понравились.

I discovered Tsoi rather late — in 2002, when I was 17. By then I had studied quite in detail English-language rock music from the 60s and the 70s and rock music in Russian wasn't appealing for some reason. Tsoi and Kino became the first Russian-language musicians that I really liked.

But the Tsoi legend transcends the borders of the Russian-speaking world. In 1989, at the peak of the perestroika, Kino was allowed to travel the West to perform. Joël Bastenaire, a music producer who describes himself as a Russia and Asia expert, organized Tsoi's tour of France and in 2012 wrote a long essay called “L'image du corps de Tsoï” [The image of Tsoi's body] about the experience at a time when few in the West associated the Soviet Union with underground rebel musicians:
On voit là ressurgir ici la même fascination qui est déjà à l’œuvre dans le public du groupe Kino à partir de l’année 1987. Le mystère tient à la fascination qu’exerce la plastique de Tsoï. Le corps d’un fauve, d’un félin : aucune lourdeur dans la pose, extraordinaires vivacité et souplesse, innocence du chat jouant avec une ficelle. Il suffit de revoir la scène de l’idylle sur la mer d’Aral, quand Victor poursuit puis dépasse Smirnova dans les traces desséchées d’un camion puis monte sur le bateau par la chaîne d’ancrage et finit par grimper sur le mât.

Here one can witness the same fascination already at play within Kino's audience from 1987. The mystery resides in the fascination Tsoi's body language inspires. The body of a wild animal, a feline: not a bit of heaviness in his posture, an extraordinary liveliness and flexibility, the innocence of a cat playing with a bit of string. One need only revisit the idyllic scene by the Aral Sea when Viktor chases after and overtakes the actress Smirnova in the dried-up tyre tracks of a truck, then clambers up onto a boat using the anchor chain and ends up climbing the mast.

In a conversation with Global Voices, Bastenaire recalls the encounter between Tsoi and the West:

La tournée a eu lieu en avril 89, pour la promotion de l’album “Dernier des Héros” que j’ai d’abord fait paraître en France deux semaines avant le Printemps de Bourges, festival auquel nous avions associé KINO et deux autres groupes. Les « gens » de St Pétersbourg le savent tous, ils se sont arrachés les images et les bribes de films.  En province et en Asie centrale, ces faits ont été occultés par l’aura du film Igla de Nougmanov qui, en voulant faire de Victor une icône, a travesti sa vraie nature et son histoire de rocker urbain. Le film est « bon » en ce qu’il a de vrai malgré le scénario convenu.

Tsoï a toujours dit que mon Dernier des héros était le meilleur mix et a demandé que l’album de l’automne 1990 soit mixé en France avec moi. C’est pour cela que j’ai fait l’album noir avec les 3 musiciens immédiatement après son décès. J’ai influé sur le travail de trois morceaux, dont le hit Kukushka.
Tsoï n’a pas aimé ses tournées en Occident, il attendait plus ce ce qui était programmé au Japon et en Corée du Sud vers octobre 1990 ou mars 1991. Il n’a pas aimé la morgue des journalistes français.

The tour took place in April to promote his album “Последний герой” [Last Hero], which I published in France two weeks before one of the major French music festivals, le Printemps de Bourges [Bourges’ s Spring]. People from Saint-Petersburg know about it; they did everything they could to get the posters and footage of this event. In provincial Russia and Central Asia, this was overshadowed by Rashid Nugmanov's movie “Игла ” (The Needle), which wanted to turn Tsoi into an icon, but betrayed his true nature and his urban rocker origins. The film is “good” in the the sense of being true, despite a conventional script.

Tsoi always said that “Последний герой” [Last Hero] was the best mix and asked me to mix in France the album scheduled for the autumn of 1990. This is why I did the album “Черный альбом” [Black Album] with the other three musicians of the band Kino immediately after his death. I was closely involved in the production of three songs, including the hit  “Кукушка” [The Cuckoo]

Tsoi did not like his tours in the West, he was more looking forward towards his tours in Japan and South Korea scheduled for October 1990 or March 1991. He didn't like the arrogance of French journalists.

Today, Tsoi's music continues to be played and to inspire contemporary musicians, as can be witnessed in DJ Hem's special show in honour of his birth date on June 21 2020:
As Iskender says:

Я слушаю периодически. Мне нравится, что слова многих песен актуальны и сегодня — особенно, в период, когда в постсоветское пространство вернулось столько проблем, которые, казалось, останутся в советском прошлом. Но моя самая любимая песня — это малоизвестная “Я иду по улице“. С виду она кажется простой — парень идёт по улице один, одетый в зелёный пиджак и в новом галстуке. Но потом ты понимаешь, что в этом всём и есть бунт — он одет не так, как было принято.

I listen to Tsoi regularly. I like the fact the lyrics of many of his sons are relevant today — when we have some many problems in the post-Soviet world that we thought we had left in that world. My favorite song is “Я иду по улице” [I walk down the street]. It seems to be a simple song — a guy walks down a street alone, wearing a green vest and a new tie. But then you understand this is precisely his rebellion — he is not dressed in a way that was then considered appropriate.

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