(written by Irrlicht and Degtyarov)
Hey, you there. Stop eating that Big Mac™® and turn off your Blackberry for once in your life. It’s the 9th of May today, the date on which the Day of Victory is celebrated in the former Soviet Union. It is exactly 67 years ago that Nazi-Germany said ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and subsequently withdrew from the Warfare World Series. This special occasion provides us with an excellent opportunity to take a peek behind what used to be the Iron Curtain. Because while communism kicked the bucket a while ago in Eastern Europe, there still exists a noticeable cultural border between the Western and Eastern parts of the continent. A cultural border that still frequently prevents us from taking the effort to discover what our Eastern neighbours have to offer culturally. Take music, for instance. Just how many bands from the former Eastern Bloc actually enjoy any degree of fame here? Drudkh, perhaps? Maybe a few other nebulous black metal projects? In any case, it’s more than worth checking out how, for instance, Russians, Ukrainians and Poles give their own spin to genres such as punk, rock and metal. For this reason, we present you a brief anthology of Eastern-European music to get you started.
The Moscow-based formation Eshelon (Эшелон) is so outspokenly communist that their political preference is hard to overlook (or overhear, rather), even when you don’t speak Russian. And that’s even ignoring the charmingly misspelled English title of their only full-length, Totalitarism Now!, which was released in 2004. This quite impressive release offers a mixture of simple but glorious metal music that occasionally comes close to being power metal, and modern reinterpretations of old Russian/Soviet/communist songs. The powerful high-pitched vocals of Ivan Baranov and the creative basslines of Dmitriy Chornyi in particular are of an outstanding quality, which, in combination with the uncomplicated, melodic song structures, makes for music that is not too difficult to get into. Many of the songs featured on this album take several hints from traditional Russian music, creating this strange atmosphere that persistently hovers between glory, melancholia and nostalgia.
The following song, “Священная Война” (Svyashchennaya Voyna / Sacred War), is a rock version of a Soviet World War 2 hymn. The first person to stop headbanging will be sent to Siberia for re-education.
Красные Звёзды, Krasnye Zvezdy. Red Star or Red Stars, depending on the translation, is a Belarussian rock band from Minsk and probably one of the best bands I have had the pleasure to find. Sadly, it is also one hard to find. But when I first heard frontman Vladimir Selivanov’s voice in a butchered YouTube video, I knew I had found something special.
The band’s early exploits are a strange combination of raw, badly recorded punk supporting a singer way too good for this kind of music. The lyrics glorify a grand, Soviet past and are full of enthusiastic patriotism. Like with Eshelon, the occasional cover of a genuine old communist song sneaks into the play lists. The amount of charisma and talent Selivanov brings into the mix is, it cannot be stressed enough, what elevates this band above the average (Bela)Russian rock band here.
There is a great shift in style between the band’s older works from the nineties and the music they produce today, due to an eleven-year dissolution between 1998 and 2009.
Nowadays’ Krasnye Zvezdy is softer, less political, perhaps more appealing to a broad audience, but that is not to say they are any worse for it. If anything, Selivanov has become even more enthusiastic about his work. As I understand, the band is actively touring Moscow and its surroundings currently and a plethora of recent live recordings have emerged on YouTube.
Below, there’s an example of their earlier works. My apologies for the nonsensical video content.
Grupa CCCP (Группа СССР; “Group USSR”) is easily the least-known band featured in this article, but definitely not the least interesting one. The formation consists of veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), an experience which, as it happens, inspires a big part of their repertoire, lyrically speaking. The band members even perform in their old army uniforms, an appearance that gives the emotional, professional-sounding music they produce a near surrealistic character.
As is often the case with bands this obscure, I stumbled upon Grupa CCCP by pure accident on YouTube. Due to their rather generic name, search queries for their material tend to be problematic, and the few results that do pop up are near-exclusively in Russian. As a result, I know next to nothing about the background of the band (apart from what I’ve already shared), and I’m familiar with only a handful of their songs. Not even all of these songs are great, seeing as their style varies greatly. They have a few (rock) ballads and songs with industrial elements, but they also seem to be able to crank out a cheesy pop tune or two.
Still, I by no means want to omit this special band. Odds are that this is the first and last time you hear of the group, so I at least want to give you the opportunity to listen to this great song, as I have played it on an almost daily basis over the past month.
No article on Russian rock music is complete without at least a mention of Гражданская Оборона. Grazhdanskaya Oborona, or “Civil Defence” is lauded as the Soviet Union’s first punk band and probably also Russia’s best known rock band. The band’s music is as polarising as the man behind it, Yegor Letov.
Founded in 1984 in Omsk, Siberia, the band made a name for itself as a rebellious opponent of the communist system of the day. Musically, Letov created badly played, but very emotional, raw punk, aided by some truly black metal recording quality.
Over the years the band changed as much as Letov himself. He went from viciously anti-communist, to nostalgic for the good old days, to actually supporting Russia’s National Bolshevik party. His music evolved too, becoming more and more psychedelic over the years and its lyrical content flicked back and forth between contradictory topics as much as the man
did himself. If there is anything that truly was a constant for both Yegor Letov and Grazhdanskaya Oborona, it’s the concept of rebellion itself. Rebellion against whatever we accept as common, whatever we take refuge in.
Letov himself died in his sleep in 2008, but his legacy continues to exert a strong influence on the Russian rock scene. Below is an example of one of his intermediary works.
An old and true cliché dictates that it is nonsensical for us to explore outer space while we still know so little about the depths of our own oceans. Similarly, it is at least questionable that many Western-Europeans, consciously or not, seem to live with the idea that great music and films can only hail from the USA, while a goldmine of culture lies much closer to home, destined to never be explored by many. The aftershocks of the Cold War may cause the relative distance to the former Warsaw Pact nations to still be much greater than the absolute distance, as if the cloaks of the Iron Curtain were still there, blocking our view. Perhaps some of us are still scared of the Russian Bear and would rather have our view obscured. But you cannot tell the sun is shining until you open the curtains.
Degtyarov – information on Eshelon and Grupa CCCP; introduction; conclusion; Dutch translation.
Irrlicht – information on Krasnye Zvezdy and Grazhdanskaya Oborona.
PS: Would you rather have something more poppy? Here you go.
PPS: If you have any information on Grupa CCCP, please contact me.
 “White Russia” is what Belarus literally means.