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Before Pussy Riot, There Was Samizdat: Hear The Sounds Of Russia's Soviet-Era Counterculture

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Yegor Letov, the leader of the band Grazhdanskaia oborona, is considered the father of Russian punk. Yegor Letov, the leader of the band Grazhdanskaia oborona, is considered the father of Russian punk.

Before the Berlin Wall came down, before the Iron Curtain crumbled, there were already cracks in the foundation of the Soviet Union. An entire culture of unofficial and often illegal writing, music, and lectures existed underground, via handmade books and pamphlets and home-made recordings on Dictaphones and cassettes.

The term Samizdat was coined in the late 1940's to describe this material -- the term is shorthand for the Russian words for “self-published.” The musical material was occasionally termed Magnitizdat, though it too was part of the DIY, uncensored, countercultural Samizdat aesthetic.

The Samizdat exhibit at George Washington University’s Gelman Library was put together by Mark Yoffe, Curator of the International Counterculture Archive and the Soviet Samizdat Archive of the Global Resources Center, George Washington University Libraries. The exhibit focuses on printed Samizdat, but the archive also houses the largest American collection of audio Samizdat/Magnitizdat material.

As part of our From Russia With Soundcheck week, Yoffe talks about Samizdat movement and provided us with this list of key songs and bands.


Akvarium, "This Train Is On Fire" 

Leningrad/St.Petersburg, 1979-present, late 80's recording


Kino, "Changes! [We Demand Changes!]" 

Leningrad/St.Petersburg, 1983-1991, 1988 recording  


Zvuki Mu, "Gray Dove" 

Moscow, 1980-91, late '80s recording


Nol' (Zero), "Boogie-Woogie"

Moscow, 1983-93, 1988 recording


Grazhdanskaya oborona (Civil Defense), "Everything Goes According to the Plan"

Frontman: Yegor Letov, Siberian, late '80s recording



Rada and Ternovnik (Blackthorn), "Our Souls Were Sitting"

Moscow, 1996-present, 2008 recording  



Auktsyon, "Roads"

Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1980-present, 1996 recording


Pelageia, "It Is Not The Evening" 

Moscow, present, 2012 recording


Leningrad, "WWW"

St. Ptersburg, 2002-present 


Strannye Igry (Strange Games), "Watch Out!"

Leningrad, 1980-1987, 1986 recording

Comments [2]

Jim Stull

One of the best love songs is " My Funny valentine" by Frank Sinatra.

Feb. 11 2014 09:12 PM
Alan from Park Slope

Your focus on Russian music topically related to the Sochi Olympics focuses on ethnic/cultural Russians. But Sochi is in the Caucuses mountains -- and one of the reputed reasons that Putin picked this venue is to show his dominance in an otherwise dangerous neighborhood.

You should include some musicians from the region and their plight. Hear Chechen Liza Umarova sing "Grozny, Hero City."
Here's a piece from the NY Times about her.
Having moved to Moscow after the murder of her brother in Chechnya, she and a son were victims of a racial attack. But even when her songs come from a dark place, she sings of healing and hope.
Here is a link to an interview (in Russian) from Novaya Gazeta by Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist murdered in 2006 in Moscow. Liza was friends with Natalya Estemirova, a journalist and human rights activist in Grozny, Chechnya. Estemirova was murdered in 2009, found in the trunk of a car.
In 2012 Liza sought asylum in Finland.
In 2013, PRI's "The World" called Liza one of the best things to love about Chechen culture.
I haven't seen any news about the grant of asylum. I only know that I haven't read that anything has happened to her. Relatively speaking, that's some good news about music from the Caucuses.
I love sports. I love competition. It is just so hard to not think that these games are the showpiece of a dangerous autocrat, steadily moving his country further away from democratic ideals. And that the countries and republics of the lush Caucuses mountains, are the bloody backwater you virtually never hear about.

Feb. 07 2014 01:27 AM

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