“Punk in the west is shit! Once they start, they immediately become something — a fashion, a trend, a style and so on. Here it’s different, you never know what it is.” Petya, the singer in Krasnodar band The Zverstvo, is typical of a lot of Russian punks: their western ancestors are simultaneously both a source of inspiration and something that local punks have to overcome so they can forge their own style.
Russian punk, born behind the Iron Curtain at the end of the Seventies and developing in a different political and cultural context from western punks, took a different approach to issues of protest and to what cultural theorists like Dick Hebdige call “semiotic warfare”: Instead of confronting the system and fighting it, they “sabotaged” it, from the inside. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian punk evolved even further away from its western prototype. What’s more, by the end of the Nineties, it was provincial cities — cut off from Moscow and St Petersburg by enormous distances, and dealing with their own, often peculiar, problems — that were producing the most vibrant punk. The scene in Krasnodar, 830 miles south of Moscow, has been maturing quietly for decades, but certain local outfits are now attracting serious international attention, like Dasaev, the current project from Sergei “Hans” Garin, whose Scandinavian tour was featured on Russia Today and Australian MTV. The town’s longest-running punk outfit, The Zverstvo, recently appeared on the NME’s official video channel and were chosen by leading Russian culture magazine Afisha as one of the soundtracks of 2012.
Krasnodar doesn’t seem like a particularly “punky” place: unofficially referred to as “the Russian Côte d’Azur” and, by locals, as “the biggest village in the world”, life here is quiet. This Russian “Deep South” is a far cry from the traditional strongholds of Russian punk — Siberian towns like industrial Omsk, which gave birth to punk-rock pioneers Grazhdanskaya Oborona, and Novosibirsk, home to Yanka, “the Russian Patti Smith”. The Krasnodar region — remote, quiet, conservative and predominantly rural, detached from the grand political and cultural narratives of Moscow and St Petersburg — has, consequently, produced its own version of punk. Unlike elsewhere in Russia, the focus is not on solidarity and survival in a harsh economic, social and cultural environment, nor on political opposition, but instead on an aesthetic revolt against the “greyness” of the masses.
Garin recalls the beginnings of his punk career as “a rejection of sovok [the Soviet mentality] as an aesthetic phenomenon, of these grey masses”. But it wasn’t a thought-through rebellion: “It was a subconscious feeling of protest. I didn’t realise what I was doing it for. Why the fuck am I going to basements … Why am I fucking sniffing glue, you know? It was a teenage, brainless realisation that you can’t be like all these other people.”
“In our music and performance we want to bring evil to the degree of the absurd”
The aesthetic protest of Krasnodar punk has always been directed against the backwardness, mediocrity and conservatism of a local culture dominated by patriotic and nationalist rhetoric. But instead of explicitly attacking the hostile cultural background, local punks actively engage in the artistic interpretation of everyday life, mocking and subverting it.
“We play what we see around us: the endless rural landscape in the middle of town, the lack of style, the rudeness of the local inhabitants,” says Petya from The Zverstvo. But, unlike the world they see around them, The Zverstvo are neither rude, nor lacking in style. Their songs are smart combinations of intelligent poetry and good music; on stage they wear suits. “By doing this, we protest against what you might call mental capitalism, when society only thinks about money and the individual’s utilitarian wellbeing,” Petya explains. “Our image on stage is the image of a successful person, right? Because in our music and performance we want to bring evil to the degree of the absurd, as Brodsky once said.”
The Zverstvo, an extreme grind-punk-jazz outfit, first burst on to the Krasnodar scene with their scandalous appearance at city’s State Philarmonic Hall in 2012. The panicking audience called for the police and the next day local newspapers ran strident headlines like “Ferocity at the Philarmonic”. Grigory Gibert, a professor of film studies at the Krasnodar Institute of Culture who attended the concert, told me that the last performer to get such a hostile reception at the concert hall was iconoclastic Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, when he visited in 1926. Good company to be keeping.
Twenty years on from its beginnings, punk is still very much alive in Krasnodar. But it has changed significantly. The initial aesthetic protest carved out a space in the city’s cultural landscape, so punk is no longer confined to low-profile venues, rented school halls and cafes, like it was in the Nineties. Now punk gigs are a regular feature in the established scene of rock joints, bars and nightclubs, at places like Rock Club on Gorky Street, Klavishi on Krasnaya Street, or Amsterdam Bar on Krasnoarmeyskaya, in the heart of the local club quarter.
Igor, a passionate member of the local scene — and a stagehand at the Philarmonic Hall — sees Krasnodar punk as a rejection of the city’s provincialism: “An intelligent person is someone who doesn’t spit on the street and doesn’t draw crap on the walls of their house. And you know who doesn’t do any of that here? It’s the punks, because that’s their protest against small-mindedness and rudeness. Do you know why I became a punk? Because, before, I either had friends who could have an intellectual conversation and who drank tea, or hardcore friends who would drink proper drinks but with who you couldn’t have a conversation about literature, music or anything. When I saw the punks — these guys with green hair and Mohicans — they were very intelligent, they were talking about art and other things I was interested in.”
By avoiding explicit political statements Krasnodar punk has managed to secure a particular place in relation to the everyday life of Krasnodar — part of it, but not part of it. Punk remains “perpendicular” to the masses, as local music journalist Roman Matytsin once put it. Punks here do not form isolated communities of autonomous collectives, and they won’t be found at demonstrations either. To an outsider, the musicians playing at a punk gig in Krasnodar might even be indistinguishable from the “normal citizens” they satirise. But that is because this “perpendicular” punk culture does not go head-to-head against its environment; instead it plays with it, and through this play provides it with new meaning, both aesthetically and ethically.
The voices of the Krasnodar scene were recorded in 2009-2013 as a part of the Post-Socialist Punk: Beyond the Double Irony of Self-Abasement project, supported by AHRC (ref: AH/G011966/). Further results of the project will be published by Routledge in Punk in Russia: Cultural Mutation from the “Useless” to the “Moronic”, by Ivan Gololobov, Hilary Pilkington and Yngvar Steinholt.