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Hannelore Fobo

Timur Novikov's New Artists Lists

October 2018

page 4 • The Leningrad subculture of the 1980s

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page 4 • The Leningrad subculture of the 1980s

In order to understand the specific situation of Leningrad’s subculture prior to and during perestroika, I insert a text I originally wrote for the symposium “Underground and Improvisation” at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, which took place in April 2018.

A detailed view of what was called Leningrad’s “unofficial” or “informal” scene, sometimes “subculture” or “underground”, but also “avant-garde” scene would need further specification of these terms, especially with regard to individual positions and their novelty. But we can establish some general characteristics.

We are speaking about artists, rock musicians, film-makers, writers, poets and theatre people in their twenties and thirties, who were, with few exceptions, not organised in official state unions, be it for ideological reasons or because they lacked the necessary qualification, for instance a diploma from an art college. Without a degree, an artist or musician was automatically considered to be a non-professional and wouldn’t qualify for official (paid) engagements, as such engagements were allotted by the state or local institutions through the respective trade unions or similar organisations for professionals.

Artists being denied a professional status were thus compelled to work in other jobs. Still some were trying to coordinate their artistic activities effectively with likeminded people outside strictly private circles. For the pre-perestroika period I would estimate the number of such “unofficial activists” in Leningrad to no more than two hundred; however, this is a figure to be checked. Being in close contact to each other or at least knowing each other, they were forming the city’s subcultural “stratum”. A small number of free jazz musicians, most of them recognised professionals – graduates from a music college or conservatory –, were also in close contact with this world.

The classification as “amateur” artist was not only felt as a derogatory, but it also extremely limited any possibility to perform or exhibit publicly. All public exhibitions or concerts had to be approved by the GUK (= ГУК, Главное упралевие культуры исполкома Ленигорсовета), Leningrad’s Head Office of Culture, which conceded “amateur artists” only small exhibition halls or stages in marginal places, often in suburbs.

However, at the beginning of the 1980s, the Soviet authorities decided that it was better to channel the artistic underground's subversive potential through some semi-official institutions. The KGB therefore started to tolerate self-organisation initiatives by artists, poets, and musicians as long as it could supervise them – directly or indirectly.[1]

The three main organisations of this type were The Society for Experimental Visual Art (TEII) for visual artists, the Club 81[2] for Literature, and the Rock Club for musicians. Unlike the TEII, The Club 81 and the Rock Club were affiliated by the City of Leningrad to official organisations – by request of the KGB: the Club 81 to the Union of Writers (its full name was Literary-Cultural Association Club 81 at the Leningrad branch of the Union of Soviet writers), while the Rock Club became a branch of the LMDST. This abbreviation stood for Leningradskii Mezhsoyuznii Dom Samodeyatel’nogo Tvorchestva / Ленинградский Межсоюзный Дом Самодеятельного Творчества – The Leningrad Inter-Union House of Amateur Culture. It gave the Rock Club protection – a “roof”, in the figurative sense of the Russian word, but in a literal sense, too: a stage.

Note that the Rock Club was strictly speaking a member’s club, not a place: Rock Club members were given the opportunity to perform for other members at the premises operated by the LMSDT at 13, Rubinshtein str., which were therefore commonly known as “The Rock Club”. Yet the same stage was also used by other LMSDT “amateur organisations”. Hence, Rock Club concerts would take place there only from time to time more>>. Occasionally, as in the case of larger concerts or the annual Rock Club Festival, the performances even happened at other venues, such as the Leningrad Palace of Youth – LDM, Leningradskii Dom Molodezhi / Ленинградский дом молодежи more>>. In other words, despite it having become legendary, 13, Rubinshtein str. never was a regular hangout for young people like, for instance, the “Saigon” café.

Once structured, these organisations were still capable of attaining a certain level of independence, especially with the beginning of Perestroika in 1985. To no small degree, their autonomy depended on the negotiating skills of their leaders, just as it depended on their official counterparts’ flexibility and willingness to take risks.

All three organisations played an important role in the history of the New Artists: the TEII with its large exhibitions, which allowed the New Artists to show their works as a group, in one section, the Club 81 with its theatre section “Goroshevsky Theatre” (on Chernishevsky street, 3) for their New Theatre performances, and the Rock Club for Sergey Kuryokhin's Pop Mekhanika concerts, where musicians and artists performed on stage together. Thus, the New Artists constituted a subgroup of Leningrad’s larger subcultural “stratum” which we may characterise in the following way:

–      Knowledge of Western trends: Benefitting from the advantage of living in an international city with a number of Western consulates, many “unofficials” had a comparably high degree of knowledge of cultural currents in the West. Generally speaking, their knowledge was better with regard to music and art than with literature and philosophy, since texts had to be translated. Sources were international radio stations, as well as books and records brought by foreign students or Soviet citizens with travel visas, for instance sailors or members of official party delegations. Occasionally, international musicians such as B. B. King (1979) or UB40 (1986) would perform. Consulates organised cultural activities with representatives of their home country and would invite local people as guests (see Sergey Khrenov’s letter from 24 March 1984 “On March 15, famous American drummer Louis Bellson performed with his quartet and with his wife – Broadway singer Pearl Bailey at the USA Consulate General in Leningrad” more>>). Important Western exhibitions made it to the Hermitage or Manege Exhibitions Hall; in 1983, the latter hosted a large exhibition of artists from West Germany, among them Lüpertz, Middendorf, Baselitz, and Kiefer. Of course, Moscow, easily reached by train, had a lot to offer. All this permitted absorbing new international trends (Jazz, Punk, New Wave) as well as assessing one’s own creation more critically. Spectacular avant-garde exhibitions like the “Moscow-Paris” project (1981) completed the picture and provided opportunities to familiarise oneself with Europe’s and Russia’s own past. Generally speaking, the attitude towards the West was positive.

–      Unconstrained atmosphere: Due to the absence of a cultural market system outside official institutions – for which most “unofficials” would not qualify, as we have seen –, economic interests were second-rate. This helped reducing conflicts and created an easy-going, friendly atmosphere within the informal scene, preferences in style or attitude notwithstanding. Artists and musicians could affiliate to different groups simultaneously or create their own “off-spring”, while still collaborating with others. It also fostered their experimenting with other media, for instance when a painter created sounds or films.

–      Openness: It was relatively easy to get access to this scene, whether coming from a different city or as a foreigner, even as a diplomat. The most striking example is that of American rock singer Joanna Stingray. Stingray, having become friends with members of the band KINO, not only brought them musical instruments, but promoted Leningrad musicians and artists in the USA as early as 1986. However, since contacts to foreigners promised some privileged prospects (selling paintings, participating in international exhibitions, recording records), such contacts were sometimes monopolised by individual artists or other people being able to communicate in English.

–      Efficient Informal network: An efficient network of informal relations was the basis for all public activities. Upon obtaining the necessary permissions, artists and musicians could easily gather their friends in order to stage large events. With his Pop-Mekhanika performances, Kuryokhin even managed to attract “official” groups such as a folklore ensemble or – at a later stage, in 1988 – an army orchestra.

–      Soviet avant-garde as paradigm: Most “unofficials” stressed their apolitical attitude. Being anti-Soviet, anti-communist or opposed to the official bureaucratic and ideological culture wasn’t the same as being a political dissident. They did, however, consider themselves as a progressive force, finding their forerunner in the Russian/Soviet avant-garde of the early 20th century. They identified with its role and, to some extent, with its art.

Summing up these remarks, we may say that Leningrad’s unofficial culture of the 1980s can be regarded as a relatively homogenous scene. Most protagonists knew each other and met at the same places. Friendship was more important than diverging artistic positions. To no little degree, this attitude was a result of pressure “from above” on a relatively small group of individuals displaying either eccentric behaviour or considerable talent – or both – in one field or another. As the pressure was gradually being lifted in the course of perestroika, activities gained momentum. Yet these young people were not isolated from the rest of the population. Quite on the contrary, they were striving to establish themselves as leaders in their cultural setting.

Among those artists and musicians with a gift for organisation, two were of particular importance in forming the cultural image of Leningrad in the second half of the 1980s: artist Timur Novikov (1958-2002) and composer and jazz pianist Sergey Kuryokhin (1954-1996). They both managed to create specific clusters of activities that would integrate a number of creative, independent personalities. In the case of Timur Novikov, it was the New Artists group, while Kuryokhin started his “Crazy Music Orchestra” at around the same time, in 1982, and turned it into “Pop Mekhanika” or “Popular Mechanics” in 1984. Pop Mekhanika’s trash shows, performed by musicians and artists, had their main period of activity until 1991, but some spectacular performances still happened in later.

More than just being managers, Novikov and Kuryokhin created the ideological backbone of their respective movements. It allowed them to design their own brand or label. Novikov connected the New Artists to the Russian Avant-Garde (Larionov and Mayakovsky), while Kuryokhin advocated a post-modernist unity. In his interview with Alexander Kan for Cadence published in 1983, he said “I want to exploit the whole arsenal of musical means that is available to me”. more >>

Novikov and Kuryokhin both saw the importance of creating a story to the facts. This doesn’t mean that those artists and musicians adhering to Novikov’s or Kuryokhin’s projects necessarily shared the characteristics of their labels – rather, they were attracted by the possibility to carry out some exiting ideas.

Towards the end of the perestroika period, Novikov and Kuryokhin had achieved many of their ambitious goals: in 1988, Kuryokhin’s Pop Mekhanika presented the Soviet Union in Nam June Paik’s international broadcast “Wrap Around the World”, and the same year, the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, carried out the first large-scale international exhibition of the “New Artists” more >> with a huge performance by “Pop Mekhanika”.

Much more than its Moscow counterpart, the Leningrad “underground” has always been perceived as a group movement. How the new freedom affected Novikov’s and Kuryokhin’s leading roles and ultimately led to their individual strategy shifts is a question I discussed in my articles “(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov ‘New Classicals’ and Timur Novikov ‘New Russian Classicism’”, 2014 more >>, and “Empire and Magic. Sergey Kuryokhin's “Pop-Mekhanika No. 418 (1995)”, 2018 more >>.

[1] There has, of course, always been speculation of who was an informer to the KGB, but this has never been debated publicly – unlike the issue of “official relations“ with the KGB. See next footnote.

[2] A highly interesting and detailed analysis of the official relations between the KGB and the Club 81 is given by Eduard Shneyderman, one of the founders oft he Club 81, in his article ‘Клуб 81 и КГБ / Club 81 and the KGB’, first published in the journal Zvezda 2004, 8 (in Russian)


(retrieved 2 July, 2017

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© Hannelore Fobo, uploaded 29 October 2018

Last updated 8 November 2019