Russia's musical new wave embraces Soviet chic

Nostalgic young musicians seek connection to culture of the past

In one of his latest music videos, Russia’s best-known rapper, Timati, and his label mate L’One crush cheap cars with a Soviet tank, then take female admirers for a joyride on two sidecar motorcycles emblazoned with red stars.

“I’ll raise a toast to mother Russia!” Timati declares before the track, which is named after the Soviet singer and actor Leonid Utyosov, closes with a sample of Utyosov saying: “Very good!”

The rapper has been increasingly turning to Soviet samples and imagery in recent months, following up Utyosov with a song and music video called Ready for Labour and Defence, the name of a Soviet-era nationwide physical fitness programme of running, jumping, shooting and grenade-throwing that was restored by the president, Vladimir Putin, in 2014.

Timati is one of a growing number of Russian musicians, producers and recording engineers borrowing from Soviet films, music and musical equipment for inspiration, embracing an era of pop culture that has often been shunned by western-oriented young musicians.

“In American hip-hop, they used old tracks, American golden oldies like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, stuff from the 60s, 70s and 80s starting with Frank Sinatra,” says Timati, whose real name is Timur Yunusov. “I thought, why not do the same thing? We’re making hip-hop and R&B in Russia, in Russian. Why not use Russian samples?”

The new Soviet chic has come amid cold war-style tensions with the west and a rise in patriotism spurred on by Putin’s defiant rhetoric.

Soviet music is becoming more interesting to young artists “as a creative basis”, says Artyom Makarsky, editor of the online culture publication Look at Me. Makarsky played a wide variety of Soviet and early post-Soviet music and remixes during a “Russian avant garde” night at the Moscow bar Strelka recently.

Old songs such as Muslim Magomayev’s 1964 ode to Moscow, The Best City on Earth, were given a new lease of life as hipsters in tight jeans and skirts danced to electronica-tinged remixes until long after the sun began to rise over the Moskva river.

Along with mashups such as TenDJiz’s “Soulviet” combination of American rap and Soviet jazz, young producers have used communist-era themes to create downtempo music, such as Mayak from Kharkiv and Electronica 302 from Kiev. This Russian offshoot of synthwave music has often been called “Soviet wave”, although Makarsky calls it “Russian hauntology”.

“Young musicians most likely want to find a Russian continuum, to find a connection with the culture of the past,” he says. “For them it’s probably more Russian than Soviet.”

Erika Kiselyova and Alexander Kolupayev
Erika Kiselyova and Alexander Kolupayev combine downtempo synths, guitars and beats with samples from Soviet television and radio Photograph: Alec Luhn for the Guardian

Among these nostalgic youth are Erika Kiselyova, 21, and Alexander Kolupayev 22, whose project Artek Elektronika combines downtempo synths, guitars and beats with samples from Soviet television and radio. Their song Last Day in the USSR, for instance, begins with Gorbachev’s 1991 resignation speech. Although Kiselyova and Kolupayev know this era only from history books and the recollections of their parents and grandparents, Kolupayev says the idealism of Soviet rhetoric attracted them. “We just wanted to convey the emotions of this time when people believed, when people hoped, when people thought on a grand scale.”

In search of a more unique and “dirtier sound”, the roots rock band Sakharny Chelovek is putting the finishing touches on an album recorded using only equipment made in the eastern bloc. To make the album, the band went to Magnetone, one of Moscow’s analogue-only recording studios, which is in the factory that once made the USSR’s ZiL cars.

“Regular overdrive effects are just a little bit dirty, but Soviet overdrive is like a ZiL car, big and rude,” says the bass player, Ivan Chinyonny.

Among Magnetone owner Vadim Markov’s main tape recording machines are a Hungarian-made STM-610 and a Soviet-made MEZ-28, but his true pride is a collection of old microphones, including “party congress” models used for speeches by Joseph Stalin and other leaders.

Since their access to western audio technology was restricted, engineers in the USSR had to develop their own versions of recording equipment and “ended up with something of their own”, Markov explains. “Unfortunately, there’s no respect for Soviet equipment. If [studios] have it, it’s for decoration. They’re afraid to use it.”

Although he’s been recording bands for more than a decade, Markov says he has seen heightened interest in his analogue equipment as musicians look for a way to stand out in the digital era.

Sergei Koshelev, guitarist with the soul band The Zou Bisou, who were recording at Magnetone recently, says: “Now people are more relaxed about the political side of the Soviet past, and they appreciate the pluses and minuses. They’re more relaxed about it and are more interested in the cultural side of that area.”


Alec Luhn in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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