Anarchos in der Sowjetunion "Ich war ein Champion der Asozialen".Spiegel online
Full version of Intervie in English.
If yes, since when and why?
Yes, Michael – though I don’t like it and prefer Misha - is my first name, and Buster I’ve become at the age of 13, I pretended to be a punkrock clown without a smile on his face, like Buster Keaton - tough and funny at the same time.
It was a really crazy time, when music styled urban tribes appeared in Soviet reality. Lots of young people took their nicknames from foreign music and films. The most problems had metallheads, because there were too many heavy metal fans and the names of groops and musicants weren’t enough for everybody. That’s why they often used parts of music group’s names for a nickname - like Lyosha Judas or Dima Priest :)) This undeground tradition – actual russian name combined with a foreign one in a nickname - is still alive today.
How did you wind up on the underground scene in the 80s?
Like lots of my friends. In school I was a mad music lover and like many kids was interested in disco-funk. But with the lapse of time it became too dull for me and my ambitions of a young artist who was a dancer since the age of 3 (it’s a very long story - I was the most funny Georgian dancer with a russian face, performing for foreign delegations in kindegarten and school, and then at the age of 6 refused absolutely on dancing), and tried different kinds of sports... So ambitions and independent judgement of the situation have led me to the streets and via the streets to underground circles, art and music groups and youth gangs. It’s hard to explain in a few words but in most soviet cities there was a special residence regime and all the cool, modern and interesting stuff was concentrated on the streets and in the artistic circles. In the last years of Soviet society the streets of Moscow became a huge club with informal, honest and understandable relations. I must say that the capital’s streets were not dangerous at all, in the early 80-s all criminal and other bad companies were in deep underground. And in gangs and hooligans society existed their own unwritten rules, valid for everyone who was spending his life on the streets. The bohemia was not so affected by these rules and hippies had their own separated system of rules, but in the mid-eighties, the period of rock’n’roll rebellion, everything and everybody got mixed up.
How did you become a punk? And why?
Because of ambitions, bad temper and pressure of the system :) Maybe it’s not a very original reason to become a punk, but soviet punk is a very special issue, because it was more like an anarchy society, formed by artistic boys and girls with good Soviet education, but with no chances to make anything on the official scene in the future, who didn’t want to be members of any urban tribe like rockers (our motometalheads) or «stylyagas» (rockabilly fans) or even hippies with their surreal dreams and conformist hedonism :)))
It's really a long story, but the Soviet punks of the eighties were rather punks in qoutes. They were different – at first there were few «working class» members among them, most «punks» were representatives of the «soviet Bürger class» trying to become a «creative class». Like I said before it’s really difficult to explain who were soviet «punks» without understanding of the social situation in the cities in 1983-1988. These young people were interested in finding original and crazy ways to lead their independed lifestyles, transforming all-styles dress codes and creating specific soviet looks and art. During Perestroika soviet punk had just a few styles: punk dandyism aka «dead spy» - its dress code consisted of vintage soviet dresses with a legend that these are NKVD characters roaming Perestroika streets; «soviet fashion punks» - with parodies of disco and «high class» restaurants; and «woking class punks» with a legend that Soviet Union is a country of punks with no future. Initially these styles were meant as jokes, which unfortunately later took shape in real events with serious consequences for the whole society. This was the reason that not only police was alarmed by this strange «fashion omen», but also KGB. Their main concern were Western contacts smuggling music, books and clothes that were distributed by a special urban tribe «utyugi» («flatirons»), who were punished by serious prison terms for illegal sale and operations with foreign currency; and the interest of foreigners, especially Western papers such as «The Face», «Actuel», «New York Times» and «Stern». The KGB men were real frightened to find out news about their social inside from the non-soviet press and their own agents :)))
As for the punks – the label «punk» was put on many other active undeground circles who became «enemy №1» not only for the Soviet system and social control, already rotten by this time, but also for other «urban tribes», such as the hippies, new wavers (in our case they were rather just regular disco-goers than real alternative adepts of new wave style) and breakers (hip-hop dancers). During Perestroika they became conformists thinking only about pleasures and their own ambitions. This explains why our «punks» were not just anarchists; they should be rather called hypersocialists, rejecting politics based on outrageous lies about «сommunist heaven» promised by the nineties, social snobbery and bureaucratic control of private life and leisure. And of couse they were young, tough and naïve. At first... After goverment started persecution of the «nonsoviet life-styles» in 1983 (lasted until 1988) all tough urban tribes and gangs united, they became radical and nasty for a few years of «Moscow style wars». It was a big surprise for the system, that didn’t realize what kind of bomb it was detonating, trying to confront the society with subcultures, and completing groops with fake ideology and lifestyle called «lyubera» (working class ideology knocked into heads of bodybuilding fans, generally young men from the suburbs aggressive towards more successful citizens) for supporting police, but soon their ideology converted to «non-soviet», they turned into real criminal gangs and therefore were severely punished by rockers and other angry citizens. For underground it was a real ideologic victory, the public opinion started to support subcultures, and only after that the goverment understood, that circles they labelled as fascists (!) are in fact neither anti-socialists, nor dissidents – they only struggle against bureaucracy, police, corruption and for the right to rest and have their own artistic ambitions.
The united underground groops’motto written on its flag was not «No Future», but «Out of control». «No future» motto was valid for other, official society, but I think its representatives didn’t realize it until the year 2010. The common people spent 30 years on the meetings; at first - the politically loaded intellectuals, then the working class, now it’s modern young bourgeoisie united with the old politicized intellectuals, but all of them, just like hippies don't understand that Perestroika was not meant for them and you can’t frighten any system with blah-blah-blah. Now the system shows that the free times of Perestroika are long gone and there will be state control again just like in the Soviet times. But only when the old «soviet semi-official mentality» dies, then something can really change, but certainly Perestroika must start from each one of us, trying to build a society with fair relations and opportunities for all classes.Without any social snobbery. Or with time they all can become marginalized by this system, like punks. Very few people understand all the omens of the current public commotion, expressed by “punks” in the eighties, some are too clever to understand it even now :))
As far as I remember the first official message that «punks» are not terrible but funny, appeared on the Soviet TV in 1988. But they were wrong again - we were really terrible and had a very intensive communication with other tribes including football fans, all of them were quite agressive, expierenced in street fighting, they could make a serious disorder on the streets and the police could’t do anything. It was really stupid and perverse to label the soviet youth as fascists in a country that suffered so much during the Second World War. In this period a lot of «punks» became the most radical of «skinheads» and used nazi attributes like Sid Vicios did in the 70-s.
The Soviet admasses were also angry to find out the truth about the subcultures, that propaganda tried to discredit for so long.
In general our subcultures developed the same way they did in the rest of the world, but the Soviet people had a real communal menthality and lived in a surreal world with degradated social relations and to the accompaniment of communist songs about our bright future. It was in the period called «zastoi»(stagnation), that actually was quite good for the masses. Right after that the authorities started to label «fascists» all the street bands and music fans. In 1983 they even got a stupid black list of banned groups and singers, where for instance Julio Iglesias was accused of fascism and violence. As a result they got an adequate response from the streets, like in a «fascist» ACDC song: if you want blood-you got it:))) Some ill jokes with nazi fleur came into use, but many young people were angry and they were punks and rockers. I think that in Europe the situation was similar, the press created «neonazists» from rudy boys, oi-punks and fooltball hooligans.
When rock rebellion got out of control in 1986-1987, the goverment hurried to convert street style riot into fashion and rock-stage for the poor, it became popular and the old school lost interest to its former styles, trying not to look like members of the new informal groups. They were real marginals without any serious ideas and artistic potential. A lot of bullshit rock groups appeared and for that reason the Red Wave (new-wave from the Soviet Union) didn’t become as big as the Neue Deutsche Welle. Rock music lost its former originality, but Soviet people were content with the way Perestroika was going and felt that soon something was going to change the cognitive situation of the 80-s. Following this trend the system tried to split the informal protest movement into two parts: the conformists, represented by the commercial arts and the radicals, represented by street artists of all kinds, who were regarded as hooligans, without any ideas in their heads. This was a reason we named our album «Hooligans-80» by analogy with «Olimpiada-80», the Olympics, that took place in Moscow in 1980. In fact, in order to describe what was going on on the Soviet streets in the eighties, the album should be called «Hooliganiada» (the Hooliganics).
But the «hooligans» knew that you should never trust hippies and politics, so street communication trasnsformed again. The old street styles were lost, but new styles appeared – bikers, psychobilly, originals in vintage clothes looking like mods, oi-punk or just freaks. Young people were trying to be trendy and western journalists were often shocked by their looks and their awareness of the western world and original modern ideas. In the late eighties many journalists were under influence of stereotypes about bears walking with balalaika across the Red Square. And they were very surprised at the trendiness of the young soviet street artists, who appeared in 1988 on the covers of «Jardine les Modes», «Blickpunkt» and «Stern» under caption «Russians coming!». In the period of 1988-1993 many journalists came here, and undeground circles became famous.
In the period of 1989-1991 there was an outburst of political demonstrations in the cities, and the street radicals could cause a lot of troubles. But in 1988-1991 nothing really serious happened, because the street communication has won the ideological battle, and turned from «enemy» into real Perestroika trend officially called «informals». They separated from the society and politics, but stayed up to date on all events and city news. They were interested only in their social lifting, music, art, fashion experiments and strange kinds of fun and leisure in different squats, clubs and artplaces. It was really a parallel independent world.
My way was short and easy. At 13 I was a music fan and a young graphic artist, but when the official persecution of music lovers and dress-codes started, punk style and soviet legends about it came from the other side of the «Iron curtain» ... it was my choice, aggressive and counter-aesthetic for the «soviet burghers» and control system. And so I became a punk styled hooligan - tough and funny street performer. In our circle we call it an «artist of life», who builds the story of his life like a film without filming, but all our tricks with police and system immediately became urban legends. The situation was very dull, bullshit in newspapers and on TV, no real fun and leisure for the young, only disco dancing. We (not only punks) became really terrible news makers, from school talking to great «morality panic» in the city. And like all stupid kids we were happy to appear on the pages of the papers like some dangerous «heroes». Our groups appeared in a few films as well, but we were rude with society and photographers, cause we were afraid that our personal data will get into KGB archives. So music stuff that I collected from that time, is realle exclusive.
In a couple of years from a well educated kid with a lot of perspectives (I was both art and diplomatic school graduate) I became the champion of asociality, and was marked in all system control organizations as prospectless, tattooed soviet Mohawk who was expelled from school and refused an army serving. And when it was time to get a passport, I was informed that the soviet passport and social rules were not for me, that I was an outlaw and a parasite (non-working citizens in the USSR were called “suckers” and were punished by law) and the only way for me to escape punishment was to work at a factory. But I really needed a passport, because without it I could’t buy any train or plane ticket, so promised to stay on a right track and was sent to a milk factory. But of course I could’t work there, I ran away, was captured, worked for a few weeks, then ran away again - it was a real comedy story about punk-milkman, who was sent to work on a soviet factory. Fortunately for me, soon the law punishing the social parasites was abolished, I got all the needed papers and forgot about system. For all the underground people the official system seemed untrue and unreal and soon it really collapsed.
S.G.Can you describe what fascinated of inspired you the most at that time?
I can’t do it in a few words. It was truly a surrealistic time of great hopes and great collapses. Many events really impressed me a lot, ‘cause I was a young and a bit strange boy, always in the centre of this insider story travelling via this «social lift» in different places, and as an artist I had quite a good memory and was a good observer. On the one hand it all looked tragic, on the other - really comic and I could probably make another book based on my own impressions, but in «Hooligans-80» I just told my friends’ stories and the book was meant for them.
S.G.How it changed your life at that time?
Underground helped to upgrade everything I needed to know in aesthetic and modern art and music domain, quickly and without bullshit. Informal relations made me realize that independence is much more cooler than abstract freedoms and anarchy rules for the chosen - self-discipline comes first. The “fashion illness” (specific large soviet theme) passed fast and easy, and I got just what I needed - satisfaction and knowledge of how to make troubles and create situations:)) Now it explains why my exhibithions get so much visitor traffic and response. But seriosly, the underground of the 80-s saved me a lot of time for the 90-s, I was able to do quite a lot in graphic art and design, travelled together with the tattoo-artists, because I have a great hobby - neotribalism in Scythian, Slavonic and Celtic art-themes.
My way and activity was perharps a bit similar to what COBRA art group was doing in the 50-s, not in terms of art, but in terms of the overall orientation – it’s the most close and well known example. http://www.cobra.li http://www.cobra-museum.nl/
The positive changes came not only for me, many young and active people from these circles were able to do what they really loved and get what they wanted. Some of them are now millionaires.
Oh, it would be fair to say that my friends and I made the 80-s:)) In our city, wherever we were. There are a lot of examples, including all 500 pages of «Х-80» and hundreds of pages on our web-site. Like I said, I was an “infant terrible”, I made some hundreds of street performances with my friends. We attacked people, especially theatre-goers, like a tribe of Indians or like a bunch of mad dogs . The Nigerian consul once turned white-faced, when our «tribe» occupied a park near the Consulate, decorated Aleksey Tolstoy monument in Papuan style, and then attacked the Consulate, parodying the dissidents. Well, of course many people were frightened by our tricks, but when they realized that we were merely clowns, they all laughed as crazy, including the cops. It was our brand name of that times “Fear & Laugh”. We were like Situationists of the 50-s ( I mean the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus but without politics and lettrism of the 60-s). But it was not always funny, the chances of getting to prison or mental hospital were really high and a lot of young people had serious problems. When our tribe became too terrible to be only on the streets, we made up a street punk band called «Provocation», a kind of like «Sex Pistols». Of course it was more a provocation than a real music band.
We played a few terrible concerts, the last one destroyed a music festival in Sverdlovsk in ’89, where we were invited as guests to make some noise. But we made so much noise, that half of the young population came to beat us, and poor policemen had to bodyguard us all 3 days of festival. I was a 15 years old manager of this group, without a passport and we were like aliens :))
Why only 80-s? The performance tradition still exists in my life today. In 1992 we arranged a very strange event in Moscow Circus as an ode to lip-sync groups “singing” with playback in the 80-90-s and as an honour to the end of the rock-movement that gave place to a new rave movement. It was a great rumble of near 20 rock groups with us as headliners – a fake group playing all kinds of styles with mumbling phonogram tapes and a name a la Soviet band. In the 70-s there was a tradition to name music bands like Singing something…. For example Singing Hearts or Singing Guitars. We called our band The Singing Lysergines, it was a great joke, because officially in Russia nobody knew anything about it, and about LSD as well. We filled the city with posters with our band name on it and it was great. It was a big acid omen of the future. Funny, but some hippies seeing a poster were asking: “Do you know this band?” And our answer always was: “Of course we do, it’s great!”:))))) It was an amazing event that marked our first steps on the D.I.Y way. Money that we made from this show were used for making a vinyl record with memorial songs of Mike Naumenko - rock’n’roll hero of the first part of the 80-s, who died that year. The Soviet vinyl producing label «Melodia» also died a couple of years later, so it was really conceptual and actual.
The Exhibition in Moscow was also arranged like a performance, with old musicians and veterans of this movement as guests, who came dress-coded, illustrating their own photos from their young days and creating an interactive tactile effect.
I haven’t changed much as a performer since then, and I think that nothing has really change since the 80-s in the society itself despite all its hopes for changes. Today’s trip shows, that we’ve completed a full circle and really returned to the soviet times, but with totally destroyed social relations and industry. That’s why our project is so nostalgic and popular right now. Not only in Russia, but in Europe too, with their “occupy” meetings and anarchist riots. I think that if the goverment establishes a dialogue with the young people and asks them what do they want and what do they know about the insides of western community, maybe they’ll hear something really important and valuable…
S.G.Were there any people who were especially important for you?
A lot of of them died or got lost. It’s a pity that only a small part of those punks went the D.I.Y. way. Some got into criminal gangs, others – into complete self-destruction. Just a few people survived it and today they form a strong brotherhood. And I can say, that many people who weren’t part of this communication then, but know those times and those feeling, are really important for me now and I’m important for them. I know what is the collective memory, trip of the 80-s and how it works.
S.G.Who you wanted to be like?
Myself – since I was a kid I was obsessed by idea of perfectionism, upgraded by zen-buddism philosophy in my “punk days”, that has opened for me the D.I.Y. way . What the future brings - I don’t know, I live here and now.
S.G.How did you dress yourself?
Differently, but generally it was a mixed style. I dressed like that as a child and still do today. My wardrobe is full of funny clothes.
S.G.And later: When and why you decided to collect all these photos
In 2005, when one of the central characters on the metallhead scene of the 80-s died leaving 12 photoalbums – it were specific artefacts looking like family albums with photostories and comics at the same time. In a year I collected near 20 albums and made the first small exhibition specially for the movement veterans and the first web site. At first we collected stuff from our dead friends and about them to make some kind of virtual memorial…
But then my life turned into hell, I was buried under piles of stuff, but all the photos were only funny pictures without stories and everything had to be explained, ‘cause 30 years have passed and this story went to oblivion even here in Russia. That’s how I got an idea to publish a 3 kilos album with street style stories and unproffessional exclusive photos. It is more an art object and a memorial to the big history of the streets of Perestroika, than a book. True and honest, seen from the inside.
It was published by Ed Ratnikov, a music producer who was a very influential person in rockers’ circles in the 80-s. I made near 50 interviews, then arranged an exhibition in the central exhibition hall “Manege” in Moscow together with my friend curator Irina Meglinskaya and supported by MAAM (Moscow multimedia art museum). It exploded like a bomb, blasted the memory of 65000 or even more people, who visited the exhibition in 2009, anyway even today people still talk about this event.
We were satisfied, I hoped that my work was over, but… Then some other friends asked me to make the second part about alternative fashion, and my friends photographers buried me under their photostuff for another 2 years. That’s how we got the second part of the arhive, the professional one.
Recently I finished the second photobook about alternative fashion and all in all it took 5 years of around-the-clock work. And now I’m just twisting like an acrobat torn between large exhibitions (already 7 since 2009), jurnalists’ attacks (I’ve made more than 130 articles in papers about this project), and working on a monster-sized web-site with galleries, old articles and authors’ texts. I hope that its English version will be ready till the end of summer. And I think that it’s really a soviet punk way – to make a small miracle from nothing, just ideas and rubbish:))
The material keeps on coming in as we speak and I don’t know when I’m going to cry «enough» or «stop»...