It’s 1985 and you’re a teenager in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev has just announced a new era of reform – policies of perestroika and glasnost (‘openness’) have brought a tidal surge of cultural freedom for your generation peeking out behind the iron curtain. The USSR is slowly dying, and with it so too is the fear of self-expression. Contrary to popular opinion, this is a fun, if not necessarily an easy, time to be young. History books paint perestroika in images of sad grey hues - endless queues, babushkas waiting at cashiers for scraps of food and cars that don’t start. But injecting a dose of rebellious energy into this background of bleak soviet life exists a youth subculture unlike any other in the world.
Kino Klassika is a London based Russian film charity that spotlights iconic Russian language and Soviet cinema with a mission to spotlight the legacy of Russian film, the remarkable stories behind their creation and the invisibility of those narratives outside of Russia. In their latest film season – Youth on the March! The Rise of the Soviet New Wave, three iconic films expose this unlikely Soviet world of sex (Little Vera), drugs (Kazakh classic Needle) and rock’n’roll (Solovev’s era-defining Assa). It’s screening for only three more weeks at Regent St Cinema so cop your ticket below!
In 1985 rock music is still prohibited. A list of forbidden music in the USSR at that time includes Western bands and artists and reasons why they’re banned: Talking Heads perpetuate a ‘myth of Soviet military danger’, Pink Floyd ‘interfere with the foreign policy of USSR’. So instead you distribute homespun records made of X-ray film in Samizdat and play gigs in private apartments. At official concerts it’s forbidden to get up and move around, to stand up, to shout. At most you’re allowed to clap your hands. At underground concerts it is totally different. People dance, relaxed, there are no barriers between the audience and the musicians and practically everyone knows each other personally.
Sergei Solovev’s 1908’s cult classic, Assa is credited as the film that brought Russian rock music from the underground into the mainstream. The tale of jealousy and violence between a young nurse, her older lover - the head of a criminal gang, and an eccentric young musician, Assa remains an era-defining picture to this day. With its rock soundtrack and cameo by the USSR’s most loved rock star – Viktor Tsoi, Assa gave underground rock musicians an audience of millions. Boris Grebenshchikov's ‘City of Gold’ and Viktor Tsoi's ‘We Are Waiting for Change’ were heard by the whole country – in the film’s final scene, Viktor Tsoi performs: clutching the microphone tightly he spits out words that come easily: ‘we want change’. And the Union, from Moscow to Almaty, injected with new energy, seemed to agree. The film’s release became such an anticipated event that audiences waited in lines for days to buy tickets, recording key songs on tape recorders with their friends and circled by the police.
Rashid Nugmanov’s Needle again features cult rock legend Viktor Tsoi, this time as the protagonist, Moro. Tsoi’s rock icon persona again perfectly represents the 1980s Soviet counter-culture. Romantic, free from all domestic ties, with a mysterious past and an open future, Moro feels like a Clint Eastwood character recast by the film’s director in Kazakhstan’s snowy streets. This is the ultimate Soviet Western – Moro returns to Almaty desperate to get his heroin-addicted girlfriend off the needle, and thirsting to punish the criminal underworld who made her so. When ultimately he is stabbed by one of the mafia, he stands up from his knees, lights a cigarette and, bleeding, walks away along an infinite snowy valley to Tsoi’s own song ‘Gruppa Krovi’ (Blood Type). Defying logic and the rules of Socialist Realism, a message of defiance and rebellion remains – some things can’t be killed. And this message is reinforced by the film’s epilogue: a message ‘Dedicated to Soviet television’ appears on the screen, followed by a compilation of censored shots from the film, which can be naturally read as a sarcastic comment about the nature of Soviet censorship.
What is also important about Needle, of course, is how far away this Soviet Pulp Fiction was created from the traditional centres of Soviet film - Moscow and St Petersburg. Here Kazakh counter culture overwhelms the centre of the USSR from the periphery. While urban sophisticated audiences became quickly used to and bored by ‘chernukha’ – a nickname given to the cheap and grim films depicting the reality of Soviet life, it was against this background that original voices from the periphery began to make the most noise on the cultural scene.
No sex in the USSR
In May 1989, an issue of the American magazine Playboy caused uproar in the Soviet Union. The cover model, Natalya Negoda, clad in a midriff-baring top, was a Soviet star of Vasiliy Pichul’s recent film Little Vera (1988). Her appearance on the cover under the title ‘The Soviets’ First Sex Star’, was clearly intended to break taboos, standing in stark contrast with the ironic claim publicised three years previously on an American TV show that ‘There is no sex in the USSR’. Even under perestroika, attitudes to sex were puritanical. Negoda’s eponymous role in the first Soviet film to feature an explicit sex scene proved that there was indeed sex in the USSR.
Little Vera’s punkish energy made it a scandalous success in 1988, and ultimately one of the most talked about films of the glasnost era. Set in a provincial town on the Black Sea, the film follows the story of Vera, a wayward high-school student. Dressed exclusively in miniskirts, loud tops, and plastic jewellery, Vera despises her downtrodden working-class parents and prefers the company of other like-minded late Soviet rebels. After a disco at a local park ends in a tussle with the police, Vera meets the neighbourhood heartthrob, Sergei.
As with Assa and Needle, Little Vera’s focus on the young, marginalised generation and their new Westernised attitudes expose the sense of change in the air. The usual themes of teenage angst are tied together with uncertainty about the future and the end of the communist regime. As Vera says, “This is the happiest time of my life, but all I want is to cry all the time.” How else were Eastern Bloc youth to feel about the end of Communism? The perestroika generation were confused, disenchanted, alienated, and ready for change. Lucky for us, this conflict of feeling sparked waves of new, punkish expression that’s fascinating to watch.
THE NEEDLE (1988) RASHID NUGMANOV
Regent St Cinema
20 June, 7.30pm
LITTLE VERA (1988) VASILI PICHUL
Regent St Cinema
27 June, 7.30pm
Buy tickets here.
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