This article by Charlie Bertsch was originally published on The Battleground and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
When Belarusian dark wave band Molchat Doma began to play their viral TikTok hit “Sudno” (Судно) at their recent U.S. show in Tucson, Arizona, I looked out over the tightly packed crowd filling the floor in front of me and was struck by how happy and how diverse it was — from race to age to fashion.
And then I heard voices swell up around me. A feeling stirred in me, one that had disappeared in recent years.
For the members of Molchat Doma, this scene has become a common occurrence. Yet that doesn’t make it any less strange.
Unlike so many artists, they don’t play games.
Before Roman Komogortsev (guitar, synths, and beats), Pavel Kozlov (bass and synths) and Egor Shkutko (vocals) started making music together, they held working-class jobs. And it shows, not only in the care with which they execute their plans but in the matter-of-fact way they answer questions about their sound.
If you ask them why it calls to mind the more depressing strains of first-generation post-punk bands: Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, Depeche Mode, The Cure, they will tell you. They grew up listening to that music because their parents liked it. They use some of the same instruments popular back then. And they have a soft spot for the strange mirror-world culture produced in the Eastern Bloc during the decade leading up to its disintegration.
While their work makes people who lived through that time nostalgic for their youth, their relationship to its legacy is more concrete. Literally. As their album covers forcefully demonstrate, they are fascinated by the architecture and design produced then. That means concrete buildings in a brutalist mode and industrial coats of arms.
Molchat Doma has stated that the 1980s feel closer to them than might be the case elsewhere because they are reminded of the decade everywhere they look. Although they are careful to confine this argument to architecture, it’s not hard for someone who understands the country’s history to see it as a political statement.
The trajectory of Belarus over the last three decades makes the architectural legacy of the Soviet Union a metaphor. Nowhere in the Eastern Bloc was the promise of Western-style freedoms more quickly and forcefully repudiated.
Members of the band have spent their entire lives under the same totalitarian leadership. The privatization that followed elsewhere in the wake of 1989, often of an exploitative sort, didn’t fully take root in Belarus. Like anyone else under the age of 40 — they are in their late 20s — they haven’t lived in a post-totalitarian society.
Separation from Russia had barely been completed when Alexander Lukashenko was elected president in 1994. He rapidly consolidated power, reinforced state control over important industries, found a way to push through the “Russification” of Belarus, and soon dispensed altogether with the pretense of respecting democratic principles.
Lukashenko proudly described himself as Europe’s “last dictator” and has been a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin.
In a sense, the 1980s never ended for Belarus.
That may explain why protests against Lukashenko have featured Molchat Doma songs. Even though the band members haven’t felt safe declaring their political views directly, their music seems like an oblique commentary on the persistence of totalitarianism.
On the surface, the band’s appeal in the West is easy to understand. They write compelling songs, in a style that is enjoying a newfound popularity, thanks to a culture that self-consciously hearkens back to the 1980s.
Netflix’s global smash Stranger Things has been particularly influential in this regard and has special relevance for Molchat Doma, since it foregrounds music from that time and featured a storyline about the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The longer I think about their Tucson concert, though, the more I wonder whether the idea that the 1980s never ended might be almost as pertinent in Western Europe, the United States, and Japan as it is in Belarus.
Despite the pace of change in the world’s most developed nations, which has made many things from that decade seem very far away, the neoliberal mindset championed by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and other conservative leaders continues to dominate everyday life.
Although we might not have as many ugly concrete buildings to remind us of the latter stages of the Cold War as they do in Minsk, we confront its legacy in the conceptual structures that prevent us from making meaningful political or economic progress.
The long 1980s have been very long, indeed.
Even within the context of Molchat Doma’s “doomer” aesthetic, the lyrics to “Sudno” are unusually bleak. They come from a poem by the celebrated post-Soviet poet Boris Ryzhy, who committed suicide at 26 in 2001.
Its subject is a hospital patient whose world has been reduced to his window, his bedside table, and his enamelled “sudno,” which in this context refers to his bedpan, though it also carries the religious overtones of our English word “vessel.” He keeps thinking how much harder it is for someone in his condition to go on living.
For someone who identifies with this patient, it must be disorienting that the song serves as a decontextualized soundtrack for myriad TikTok clips.
In one of the most popular ways of using “Sudno” on the platform, people show off their wardrobes in stop-motion videos. At least these TikToks suggest a thematic connection to the song, since the young women who appear in them are frequently expressionless, if not outright dour. Although their world is more varied and colourful than that of the patient in Ryzhy’s poem, they still seem like castaways on the proverbial desert island.
But hearing hundreds of people passionately sing along to “Sudno,” even though they don’t understand the words, must be downright bizarre. Or so I thought during the concert. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the experience, I’ve changed my mind.
Why? Because “Sudno” came at the end of the show. The audience’s enthusiasm for the song didn’t come out of nowhere. It had been building from one song to the next. While many of the people there had discovered Molchat Doma because of its surprising TikTok fame, they had familiarized themselves with the band’s catalogue.
So what if they knew the words without knowing the words? They felt them.
One of the songs on Molchat Doma’s breakthrough second album “Etazhi” (Этажи) from 2018 is called “Toska” (Тоска), a hard-to-translate concept.
Although usually rendered as “longing” or “yearning” in English, toska’s semantic field also encompasses “boredom,” “weariness,” and “melancholy.”
Vladimir Nabokov regarded it as quintessentially Russian, capturing an entire worldview. And it’s a great way to describe the band’s music, which transmutes despair into resignation and resignation into determination.
Yes, life is hard. But taking the easy way out would deny us the opportunity to experience тоска.
Over the past six years, Molchat Doma has found a way to convince audiences throughout Europe and now the United States that the best way of turning the negative qualities of тоска into positive ones is by sharing them.
In the wake of a global pandemic that deprived us of the chance to be together with like-minded individuals, this message resonates powerfully. And it makes sense that a band from Belarus would be one of its standard bearers.
It has been said, with considerable justification, that people stopped worrying about the pandemic when they started worrying about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. There’s no doubt that the solidarity demonstrated within the West is at least partially a function of a pent-up urge to reconnect. But the fact that this urge goes hand in hand with a revival of the Cold War split between East and West makes it distinctly bittersweet.
Even if people who follow Molchat Doma in the West don’t follow the news closely, they dream of a community that overcomes this divide. That desire is much bigger than the current conflict. The band’s international appeal and the diversity of their fans imply that they have tapped into a collective тоска, one which recognizes that we are still living through the long 1980s, even as we yearn for something different.
At a time when people my age complain bitterly about how much the impact of popular music has been muted by streaming platforms, I was greatly heartened to see how a band like Molchat Doma can still bridge political and linguistic differences and fashion communities, however temporary, that are organised around love rather than hate.