Tsoi lives!

Anna Aslanyan

On 30 May, when the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reported dead the day before, appeared at a press conference in Kyiv, the Russian-language internet responded with the meme 'Tsoi lives'. The rock star Viktor Tsoi and his new wave band, Kino ('cinema', 'film') – with their simple but powerful lyrics, fresh tunes and the frontman's low, casually drawn-out, artfully accented baritone – were hugely famous in the 1980s. A university friend of mine lost much of his street cred when, on hearing someone say, 'Let's put some Kino on,' he replied: 'What film?' Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, aged 28. 'Tsoi walls', covered in slogans and lyrics, have since sprung up in several cities, along with a number of sculptures, including one of Tsoi on a motorbike (he never rode one).

This year, three Tsoi biopics are being released in Russia; one of them, Summer, was shown at Cannes in May. 'I like it,' the music writer Artemy Troitsky, who knew Tsoi, said recently at Pushkin House. 'It has nothing to do with reality, but it's very sweet and touching.' Based on the events of summer 1981, when Kino was formed in Leningrad, the film has been slammed by some of those who were there. Boris Grebenshchikov, another Russian rock legend, said that the characters look more like present-day hipsters than 1980s rockers. Not that Kino's looks were typical of the Leningrad scene: an important influence on their style was Duran Duran, seen in stray copies of the NME.

You can live in a horrible country, Summer appears to suggest, but still be free and creative and have fun. In Troitsky’s words, it has 'a life-affirming message for those who live and create in Russia now', including the film's director Kirill Serebrennikov – until his falling out with the regime 'put a huge question mark at the end of this message'. Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since August, on charges of embezzlement. Many believe the case to be politically motivated (Serebrennikov has spoken against the annexation of Crimea and for the rights of Russia's LGBT communities).

Troitsky's talk started with footage of Tsoi's last gig, in Moscow in June 1990. In the video, a single tricolour waving in the crowd is surrounded by red hammer-and-sickle flags as Kino perform ‘Peremen’ ('Change'), a song adopted by Russia's protest movement in 2011. Today, Troitsky said, the country's motto is more punk than new wave: 'No future'.

Youth on the March!, a season of Soviet new wave films at the Regent Street Cinema until 27 June, echoes the refrain of one of Tsoi's early hits: 'My friends are always marching through life/Only ever stopping by beer stalls.’ The programme includes The Needle (1988), starring Tsoi, who plays a young man confronting Alma-Ata's drug mafia, trying to save his junkie girlfriend. 'You tell me I look like a movie actor,’ he sings in 'Filmy' ('Movies'), rhyming with 'I knew things would get bad, but not that it would be so soon.’

Viktor Tsoi in 'The Needle'.

The Latvian documentary Is It Easy to Be Young? (1987) opens with a rock concert (the unnamed band sounds like anything but Kino). The first film in the USSR to address the problems facing young people (which included the war in Afghanistan, the Chernobyl disaster and cops dispersing the crowd at a gig), it felt distinctly foreign in the 1980s. Looking for it online the other week, I stumbled across a TV series of the same name broadcast in Russia in 2015: ‘Is it easy to be young if you fancy a girl next door, but to her you are just an “ethnic” from the Caucasus?’

When Little Vera came out in 1988, we spent a lot of time discussing Vera's outfits, in particular her black miniskirt and red-and-white top. 'If only I had her body,’ one of my friends said, ‘I'd dress like that too.' In a much-watched sex scene, Vera's (other, turquoise) skirt stayed on, but the matching top went off, defying the official mantra that 'There is no sex in the USSR.’ The best film in the programme, Assa (1987), is a paean to 1980s rock music, one the few things that made life bearable for many in that decade. It was easy to fall in love with the rock musician hero, to fantasise about snowy Yalta, and although the romantic absurdity of that life can never be recreated – or perhaps because of that – the film hasn't lost its allure. Worth watching for its soundtrack alone, it has Aquarium and Bravo in it, and ends with Kino playing 'Change'.

The conspiracy theories started soon after Tsoi’s death: he had been abducted by aliens, or killed by the KGB; much later, in 2014, a United Russia MP claimed Tsoi's songs had been written by the CIA. I asked Troitsky about the reasons for the latest Kino revival. 'Russians,’ he said, ‘are overwhelmingly nostalgic' for all things Soviet. And not only Russians. At a recent event, a Belarusian journalist, who was eight when Tsoi died, told me about her passion for Kino: 'My parents never listened to it, but I know every album.' A Moldovan woman of a similar age told us that she plays Kino hits on her guitar. A couple of Russian men, also in their thirties, spoke of 'The Star Called the Sun' and 'Blood Type'. The Needle opens with the former and ends with the latter, as the bleeding hero stumbles through the snow: 'Your blood type on your sleeve/Your serial number on your sleeve/Wish me luck in battle/ Wish me luck.'

The 1988 album Blood Type was released in the US; Robert Christgau in the Village Voice gave it a B-plus review. By then, Russian fans were sceptical about Kino's transition from kitchens to stadiums, where the band lost its lo-fi charm. What has stayed with them – with us – are Tsoi's lyrics, just as the language they were written in remains a common currency across one-sixth of the world. The lines that came up as we were talking ranged from the cringeworthy ('Death is worth living, and love is worth waiting') to the surreal ('I'm planting aluminium cucumbers/In a tarpaulin field') to the stadium-rocking ('Change! Our hearts demand change'). And, less predictably, this unremarkable refrain: 'But if you've got a pack of cigarettes in your pocket/Then things are currently not too bad.’