The crazy and culturally liberal era of 90s and early 00s Russian culture — fuelled by an unhinged free market, oil, oligarchs, and American pop music videos — officially came to an end in February 2019, when the rapper Detsl, real name Kirill Tolmatsky, died following a cardiac arrest after his gig in the Urals city of Izhevsk. Some would argue that the era perished ages ago, and technically they’d be right. But it survived in the hearts of millennials who grew up on MTV Russia, whose mix of Britney Spears, Eminem, and Russian pop and rap stars allowed the first teenagers to grow up in post-Soviet Russia to believe that we belonged within the globalised culture that we had been thrown into without being consulted first — that we were not just outsiders looking in.
Detsl stood out among the rest of the stars as a skinny, pale, 16-year-old kid with the bravado of a million Kanyes. The notion of “swag” didn’t exist in Russian back then (these days it’s perfectly exemplified by a new generation of Russian rappers like Pharaoh), which made wrapping your head around what you were witnessing much more difficult: all we saw was a kid showing off. That Detsl was both a teenage role model (throwing a party when your parents are away at the dacha? Legendary!) and the target of ridicule for his exotic braggadocio only made him more relatable.
There were other and better rappers in Russia at the time, but none were as in tune with American hip-hop tropes and symbols as Detsl — and it just so happened that this was exactly what we craved at the time. So we attached all our hopes and dreams to him, even if we didn’t particularly care about the music; I personally have always been much more into Britney, but as a cultural symbol of my teenage years, Detsl eclipses the American star.
While it’s true that there are other significant stars of that era who are still alive, Detsl was a representative of the time like no other. Maybe it was his age — his first video came out when he was just 16, and looked much younger, so he has always been roughly the same age as his fans. Maybe it was the Americanised hip-hop swag that he introduced into the scene, which (just about) made us feel like we were part of a relevant, modern, global culture. Or maybe it was because, unlike most 90s upstarts, he never surrendered and faded into the realm of boring, Soviet-era pop stars. If anything, he remained a poster boy for subversion until the end, putting out forceful songs against corruption and police violence just last December.
It’s difficult to compare the impact of Detsl’s death with that of a Western pop star simply because there are too many variables. The equivalent would have to be simultaneously young with iconic significance, and have been part of an epochal cultural shift. That the liberal, LGBTQ-friendly, malleable world of 90s youth culture has since been undone only adds to his legend. With Detsl’s passing, many feel like we have lost the last piece of evidence that those wild times ever even existed. It has closed the last remaining door to a childhood where you’d finish your homework as fast as you could — so you could switch on MTV.