Issue 48 (2015)
Vladimir Kozlov: Traces in the Snow (Sledy na snegu, 2014)
reviewed by Rita Safariants© 2015
Named after a punk anthem by the band Grazhdanskaia Oborona [Civil Defense], Traces in the Snow, Vladimir Kozlov’s debut documentary on late Soviet Siberian punk rock, begs the question of why a similar project had not been undertaken sooner. In post-Pussy Riot Russia, where the Sochi Olympic Games fitted its opening ceremony with a lavish DJ set, featuring wordless remixes of Viktor Tsoi’s songs interspersed with a police choir covering Daft Punk, a historical glance back at some of the most influential developments in Russia’s underground musical culture would seem anything if not apt. The answer to this query, echoed by the director himself at a screening of the film, resides in the contingent marketability of his subject matter in Russia’s contemporary socio-political climate that has officially banned swearing (Omidi 2014), discourages political dissent (Lipman 2012) and routinely takes artists to court (Anon. 2015). Kozlov’s film, which is a traditional collage of interviews, concert footage and graphically manipulated photographs set to the staccato rhythm of original Russian language punk compositions, offers a welcome respite to the tightening screws of Putin’s regime in the form of a cinematic time capsule.
The film chronicles a near decade of Soviet punk history through interviews with the surviving members and cohorts of the bands Grazhdanskaia Oborona, Instruktsiia po Vyzhyvaniiu [Survival Instruction], BOMZh, Kul’turnaia Revoliutsiia [Cultural Revolution], Kooperativ Nishtiak [Cooperative Nishtiak], Yanka and Flirt, among others. Being no stranger to the major themes of the late perestroika period: youth movements and counterculture, Kozlov, a Moscow-based author of almost a dozen novels featuring the motif of disenfranchised youth amid sociopolitical upheaval, approaches the topic of punk rock with the care and sensitivity of a die-hard fan and curator. The film opens with a geographical exposé of Soviet punk’s sui generis Siberian roots. Roman Neumoev, former front-man of the Tyumen-based punk collective Instruktsiia po Vyzhyvaniiu, explains the relative ideological impunity that Siberian towns enjoyed due to their geographical isolation. Whereas the centrally located Moscow and Leningrad were teeming with bureaucratic structures designed to control dissent, the Siberian analogues of the KGB offices and Komsomol youth organizations that regularly took up the challenge of steering perestroika-era young people’s cultural lives, proved to be more lax. In fact, while the rapidly growing population of amateur rock musicians in Leningrad and Moscow was regularly pulled off stage and into the local police precinct, all that Valerii Murzin had to do in order to publish his illegal samizdat punk zine tusovka, was to provide the Novosibirsk KGB officers with fresh issues. Siberia’s foremost scientific center Akademgorodok, home of the Institutes of Physics, Biophysics and Computational Modeling, served as the primary enclave for what Aleksandr Rozhkov of the experimental art-punk collective Kommunizm calls “an oasis of free thought.” The town was the primary performance destination for early Soviet punk collectives because of its intellectual and creative inclusivity.
While building up Siberia as a spiritual hub of the punk rock ethos – at one point in the documentary, an interviewee declares that genuine punk rock could only hail from two places: Siberia and California—Traces does occasionally delve into the less than glamorous narrative of political oppression and intimidation of the amateur musicians. The hero of the story is the late Egor Letov, front-man of Civil Defense and the self-made apostle of Soviet punk rock, who infamously did a stint in a psychiatric ward at the hands of the authorities and spent a significant period of his early musical career in hiding from the KGB. Letov was the primary ideologue, organizational force and recording mastermind of the Siberian punk movement, who continued to perform until his death in 2008. His label GrOb Records remains one of the most influential independent recording enterprises in the history of Soviet and post-Soviet popular music. Letov singlehandedly developed and helped popularize creative approaches to sound recording on less than stellar and oftentimes non-existent equipment. In the film, Roman Neumoev of Survival Instruction recalls having to shove his head and scream into an upside down bathtub to achieve a desired sonic effect for an album. Letov was equally instrumental in engineering a functional and wide-reaching bootlegging network, which maintained a proto-DIY, anti-commercial approach to music distribution. Similarly within the fabric of Kozlov’s documentary, Letov’s persona is ever-present and omnipotent, his legacy still vibrant and relevant to his surviving friends and collaborators, if largely forgotten by Russian society as a whole.
One of the key distinguishing features of Soviet punk that Traces in the Snow succeeds in highlighting is the genre’s decisive ideological directive. In contrast to the concurrent unofficial rock and post-punk groups from Leningrad and Moscow, Siberian punk bands carried a clearly articulated anti-Soviet political stance. This point is made loudly at the beginning of the film and stands in stark contrast to the prevailing mythology of the apolitical late Soviet rock musician, a pose popularized by some of the most prominent rock performers in Russia’s history: Viktor Tsoi of the band Kino, Boris Grebenschikov of Akvarium and Andrei Makarevich of Mashina Vremeni; the latter, to be fair, has radically changed his anti-political stance due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine (Anon. 2012). The reasons for this are variegated, but it is perhaps Alexey Yurchak (2005) who described the phenomenon best in his book, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, calling the late Socialist penchant for excising oneself from any and all political discourse an exercise in living vne, or outside, the obsolete and quickly ossifying Soviet system. What Kozlov’s film illustrates best is that the Siberian punk movement adopted the precise inverse of Yurchak’s principle and sought to confront the failing political system head-on. The unapologetically radical stance of the musicians demonstrated that within their already geographically and culturally marginalized context, a designation of vne becomes a simple tautology. Their movement already existed on the fringes of society and popular taste, bearing little resemblance to the commercially successful rock aesthetic of the country’s cultural and political centers. Oleg “Sur” Surusin of the band Flirt describes finding his creative voice while screaming on a residential stair landing: “I don’t remember what I was singing, but I liked it. The [residents] didn’t.”
And yet perhaps the most commendable and compelling punk story in Traces belongs to Yanka Dyagileva, the only female punk performer in Soviet history, and one of the first to experiment with folk-punk, as well as “literary profanity” within the Russian context. Dyagileva was a fixture in the Siberian punk scene, as well as a frequent collaborator with Letov and Grazhdanskaia Oborona. As Kozlov’s film rightly notes, her musical career and short life (Dyagileva was drowned in the spring of 1991 under suspicious circumstances that were officially ruled a suicide) roughly coincided with the lifespan of the Siberian punk movement itself. Her funeral served as a sort of farewell to the tight-knit radical artistic milieu of Russia’s far-flung provinces. Yanka’s death formed a bookend to another untimely loss of a Siberian troubadour: the 1986 passing of poet and punk bard Aleksandr Bashlachev. Whereas Bashlachev’s death spawned a call to arms among amateur rock and punk musicians across the USSR with multiple memorial festivals organized throughout the country, Yanka’s death marked a turn in the tide. Many punk bands, including Letov’s Grazhdanskaia Oborona, disbanded, some performers choosing to move to the oft vilified, commercially sustainable Leningrad and Moscow for what would be the last gasp of the Soviet empire. Despite her short-lived career, Yanka’s legacy is perhaps the most readily palatable and lyrically influential of all the Siberian punks and her songs continue to be re-recorded by contemporary popular performers. Apart from the occasional “Unsolved Mysteries”-style television examination of her suspicious death, Yanka’s legacy remains mostly forgotten, and it is an admirable feat that Kozlov attempts to resurrect her memory in his film. Despite some vaguely condescending comments made by the documentary’s interview subjects (one ex-punk pontificated on Dyagileva’s physical attractiveness, another mentioned challenges presented by her gender), Yanka’s presence in the film energetically eclipses even Letov’s. Using her death as a logical point of conclusion, Kozlov’s film ends suddenly, as if reenacting Dyagileva’s own curtailed trajectory. Despite its short run-time and at times only cursory attention to contextual historical detail, Traces in the Snow is nevertheless a desperately crucial document in rebuilding the history of Siberia’s late Soviet radical past. Independently funded and produced projects like Kozlov’s are therefore not simply boutique fodder for musical collectors, but if made sooner, could have potentially quelled questions of why the most famous post-Soviet feminist punk collective chose to almost exclusively orient itself towards an American brand of punk performance at the expense of its own roots.
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Anon. 2015. “Radio Liberty: Russian Court Clears Director of Accused Desecration.” RL/RFE, 10 March.
Anon. 2012. “Russian Rock Star Makarevich Attacked for Ukraine Songs.” BBC News Europe, 14 August.
Lipman, Masha. 2012. “The Absurd and Outrageous Trial of Pussy Riot.” The New Yorker, 7 August.
Omidi, Maryam. 2014. “WTF? Russia Bans Swearing in the Arts.” The Guardian, 1 July.
Yurchak, Aleksey. 2005. Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton UP.
Traces in the Snow, Russia, 2014.
Color, 63 minutes.
Director and Writer Vladimir Kozlov
Producer Vladimir Kozlov
Line Producer Vadim Chepurnoy
Extra Camera Work: Igor Plotnikov, Anton Kodkin, Denis Larin
Sound: Denis Manenok
Platzkart Productions, 2014
Vladimir Kozlov: Traces in the Snow (Sledy na snegu, 2014)
reviewed by Rita Safariants© 2015