Tsoi Lives: A Rocker’s Anthem to USSR’s Demise

Happy birthday, Viktor Tsoi! Source: obskura.co.uk/tsoi

We want changes!

It’s the demand of our hearts.

We want changes!

It’s the demand of our eyes.

In our laughter, in our tears, and the pulse in our veins.

We want changes!

And changes will begin…

The chorus of Kino’s song “Changes!” (Перемен!), released in 1989, struck a nerve with many Soviet youths longing for a brighter future during the Gorbachev era of glasnost and perestroika. At the height of their popularity, Russian rock band Kino and their front man Victor Tsoi performed shows all over the USSR and abroad, attracting an enormous audience. After Tsoi’s tragic death in 1990, the group gained legendary status and remains a cult phenomenon even to this day.

Originally formed in 1981, Kino faced many challenges performing their music under a strict Soviet regime. Rock music was considered a threat to tenets of collectivism and uniformity in the Soviet Union. So Kino, like all Soviet rock groups in the early 1980s, was confined to perform in small underground clubs or behind closed doors in their friends’ apartments.

However, things slowly began to change for the Soviet rock scene around 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party. At that time, several rock clubs were founded in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). The Leningrad Rock Club was the biggest venue, featuring classic Russian rock by Kino, Aquarium, Alisa and Televizor among others. It provided musicians with a place to meet, perform, and discuss their music.

Kino’s Rise to Fame

Kino took advantage of the opportunities the Leningrad Rock Club provided. A performance at its second annual rock festival and the release of their third and fourth albums, 1985’s “This Is Not Love” (Это Не Любовь) and 1986’s “Night” (Ночь), saw Kino’s popularity steadily growing. Gorbachev’s new policy of glasnost also ended the group’s confinement to the underground scene. They were allowed to perform on central television in the Soviet Union and the popular 1987 movie “Needle” (Игла) showed Tsoi performing “Changes!” in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd. The song quickly became the unofficial anthem of glasnost and the band’s popularity, also referred to as “Kinomania”, swept through the USSR.

Gany Saukhanov, singer of the St. Petersburg-based Kino cover band called Foye, thinks that the reason for Kino’s enormous success can easily be explained: “There is pop and rock music. Both genres enjoy a large audience. They have chosen a sweet spot between pop and rock, embracing both groups of listeners. This is why they have such a huge army of fans.”

Regarding the song “Changes!”, which is usually the band’s closing song at their concerts, Saukhanov adds that it originally wasn’t intended to have any political meaning at all: “The song ‘Changes!’ is about a man who wants to break out of a rut, overcome false stereotypes, and stop making superfluous movements. But for some reason, people try to assign the song to political mottoes. Probably because it has a provocative refrain.” In the experience of the band members of Foye, this is still true today: “When we’re playing the song ‘Changes!’ on the streets, people sometimes react strongly and cry out oppositional slogans,” says drummer Pavel Lobachevskij.  

The Last Hero of Rock

All of Kino’s songs were written by Victor Tsoi. His lyrics focus on themes surrounding the struggles of daily life: love, war, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Tsoi’s writing style can be described as poetic simplicity, because his lyrics contain lots of proverbs, sayings and rhetorical questions. Each sentence in the verse is meant as a lesson for the listener. Saukhanov, who is a songwriter himself, has analyzed Tsoi’s lyrics in depth: “If we try to dissemble Tsoi into pieces, we’ll see that his music is soft and melodic, his lyrics are down-to-earth and very clear and his voice is pleasant.”

Viktor Tsoi Source: themoscowtimes.com

Musically, Kino’s style resembles that of American and British alternative rock bands, particularly R.E.M., The Cure, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. The Western style of their music increased the popularity of Western culture in the Soviet Union and vice versa. In 1988, the band released its fifth album “Blood Type” (Группа крови). It was not only a huge hit in the Soviet Union, but also critically-acclaimed in the West, where it was released a year later.

Tsoi died tragically at the height of Kino’s popularity in a car accident in 1990. The band had produced two more successful records and had just finished a lengthy tour through the Soviet Union, spanning over two years and performing more than 100 concerts. The charismatic band leader was only 28 years old at the time of his death.

The day after Tsoi’s fatal accident, the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a eulogy that demonstrates the impact he had: “Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who made no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock.”                   

Kino’s Legacy                                                                 

Kino continued to be extraordinarily popular in the Soviet Union after Tsoi’s death. The remaining band members released one more album featuring his pre-recorded vocals (Черный альбом) before announcing their separation. However, similar to the fan community of Elvis Presley, some of Kino’s fans refused to believe that their idol is really dead. While there have been no supposed sightings of Tsoi over the years, the words “Цой жив!” (Tsoi lives!) and “КИНО” (KINO) were painted on public surfaces throughout the country. This became a memorial ritual among fans of the band. Even today, these slogans occasionally surface in urban graffiti. In Moscow, there is an entire wall covered with messages to Tsoi located on the central Arbat Street. The boiler room in St. Petersburg where he continued to work even after becoming famous, has been turned into a club and museum devoted to him.

If you really want to feel the spirit of those times and see cover bands like Foye paying tribute to Kino, Club Kamchatka is a great place to visit. Located on Blokhina Street 14, close to Sportivnaya Metro Station, the former boiler room displays an impressive collection of memorabilia from Tsoi’s lifetime, such as instruments and old tape recorders, even a sofa he used to sit on. But the place has yet another attraction up its sleeve: Sergey Firsov, the man who originally gave Tsoi the job in the boiler room and still works there to this day. “A living legend, he was one of those people who started to tape-record home concerts. Everything we can see or hear now on the internet, radio and TV, is thanks to him. He has all the originals,” Saukhanov says about Firov’s achievements. The latter is now the owner of Kamchatka and will make sure that Tsoi indeed lives on.

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