New East Digital Archive
Style tribe
How an underground magazine became the voice of 90s Russia

At the beginning of the Nineties, Moscow was pitch-black: after 9pm it resembled some little German town, in that everything was shut. You might dance in the House of Cinema restaurant till midnight, and afterwards you might either move on to Soyuz [Union] (a complex built to accommodate foreigners during the Olympics) or a club-type establishment on the outskirts called Moloko [Milk], which in those days was run by Komsomol members. That’s how the period’s most reckless people would party — black marketeers, speculators, artists, gangsters, and also the gilded youth, the children of party bigwigs.

We, a group of lads fresh out of university, decided to open a club; we called it Ptyuch. The most inquisitive of us ventured abroad. The house revolution had hit New York and London, there was an unprecedented upsurge of enthusiasm. Back in Moscow, we were reading Burroughs, Castaneda, Timothy Leary, William Gibson and Alexander Shulgin, the great chemist and pharmacologist. Moscow was flooded with a horde of enterprising foreigners who’d arrived hoping to make a buck and had ended up falling in love with the place. They’d all be partying at Ptyuch.

The first issues of The Face magazine, designed by Neville Brody, were a bible for us

The year that saw the opening of the club also witnessed the launch of an eponymous magazine, conceived as a publication with materials about the artists who’d be performing at Ptyuch, which was a lot of people. Drum Club’s Charlie Hall would send friends of his over every week, people like Alex Paterson (The Orb) and Andy Weatherall (The Sabres of Paradise). Freddy Fresh, Steve Stoll and Jeff Mills came to visit us courtesy of our American friends. Then there were the Scandinavian guys — Jimi Tenor, Cari Lekebusch and the like. We needed to spread the word about all of them. And a magazine with a circulation of 2000 somehow metamorphosed into a major youth project with a circulation of 110,000. There were people in practically every town whose lives came to be structured around its monthly publication. Grey panel buildings, six months worth of winter; no internet, obviously. And here was a publication offering a window into a completely different life. Stories by contemporary writers, the latest in video art, new cinema reviews, the freshest music. And a crazy-ass contemporary design, to boot. The first issues of The Face magazine, designed by Neville Brody, were a bible for us. His genius inspired new designers. The Dutch undoubtedly inspired us, too, as did the American Ray Gun project, which we thought was completely off-the-wall. We remixed all this in a totally novel way. Most importantly, though, we seemed to have created something of our own. At that time we’d also been discovering Malevich, Rodchenko,  Ilya Kabakov. Combined with the influence of the progressive guys from England and the States, all this came together to create the style of Ptyuch.

Suddenly the police became aware of this drug called ecstasy

Content-wise, the American magazine Details and the trippy Project X played a crucial role as well. These magazines propagated a cult of young stars. And young stars were just starting to be pulled into our orbit. Ptyuch covers featured Russian artists, DJs, TV presenters, singers, and visitors from abroad, too: Depeche Mode, The Prodigy, Pizzicato FIVE, Goldie, American musicians and porn stars…

Suddenly the police became aware of this drug called ecstasy. In 1994, we were interviewing Eduard Babaian, the main drug control guy at the time. “They say there’s these tablets,” he told us. “Ecstasy – I don’t know anything about it.” By 1996 the cops were nicking boys and girls, rummaging through pockets, searching for different pills. A frightful anti-drug propaganda campaign began – and it was directed against users rather than dealers. An ordinary student could get several years for possession of half a gram of hash. And prison in Russia ain’t no sunshine. It could crush a person for life. We’d be crusading, trying to explain the necessity of objective information about drugs to the authorities. Which is why we published scientific papers, too, as well as literary prose by figures in the Irvine Welsh mould; and we’d also do radio and TV shows.

Ptyuch wasn't a business: it was a bloody marvel

We came up with touring concert groups: DJs, dancers, artists, set designers. We travelled the length and breadth of the former USSR, from Vladivostok to Riga, organising Ptyuch events. We’d perform at clubs in front of 2000 people and fill out stadiums of 30,000. In the mid-90s it seemed as if the entire youth of the country was getting involved. We couldn’t exactly echo The Beatles in claiming we were more popular than Jesus Christ, but we were more popular than many home-grown pop stars of the time, that’s for sure. The Noughties saw a gradual restoration. I agree with what the author and screenwriter Yuri Arabov has said: we had a wonderful opportunity to co-exist with the rest of the world but we pissed it away. Why is a matter of debate. But Ptyuch, much like The Face, was a generational magazine. It wasn’t a business: it was a bloody marvel. And of course it couldn’t compete with giants like Vogue, GQ or Esquire, which enjoyed a worldwide circulation. They paid their journalists better: people who started out at Ptyuch and other independent magazines (Igor Grigoriev’s OM and Matador, headed by current Channel One director general Konstantin Ernst). These three magazines were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who of Russian journalism—or at least some idiot journo said we were, and it stuck. I don’t know which of the three Ptyuch was for him, but I hope it was The Stones. This trio—the first independent Russian-language glossies—blooded practically all the best journalists, who’d later decamp to radio or foreign publications.

It’s hard for Britons, inheritors of a rich print culture, to imagine that throughout the entire Soviet era we had no glossy magazines, only literary and popular-science journals and children’s periodicals, as well as Ogoniok, styled on America’s Life magazine, which chronicled the achievements of ordinary people and featured a vast quantity of photos (their photographers were admittedly very good). We created a new idiom, sometimes colloquial, sometimes glamorous; we learned from the old-school New Yorker and, overall, we were trailblazers. I hope our work has come in useful.

See more pages from Ptyuch and OM

Text: Igor Shulinsky, founding editor of Ptyuch