New East Digital Archive

Rock in the USSR: new photos of the Leningrad underground during perestroika

16 August 2016

Russian photographer Igor Mukhin has been shooting crucial moments in Russian cultural history since the 1980s, from booming rock subcultures in Leningrad to political protests in Moscow in 2011. His new book, I’ve Seen Rock n’ Roll, concentrates on former: the unique and short-lived rock scene in Leningrad that flourished during perestroika in the late 80s. From semi-underground gigs to everyday life, Mukhin followed the musicians and the youthful scene surrounding them – the tusovka – capturing the backstage lives of the first Russian rock stars, and the febrile atmosphere of a country in transition.

An underground rock scene would have been unthinkable before perestroika. The surge of cultural freedom that it brought was seized on by those young and trapped behind the iron curtain. There was a sudden atmosphere of liberty and even protest, even if it only found a release through music for the time being. “We didn’t know then what the world looked like on the other side of the iron curtain,” says Mukhin. “The music of bands like Kino and Aquarium blew our minds. I felt then that times were changing, and that I had to start taking photos.”

At the same time, many people who lived through the era say they never imagined that the end of their country was so close. They thought that guitar music, American jeans, and relaxed attitudes were as much freedom as they were ever going to get, so they made sure to take full advantage of it. From the modest breakfasts in shabby Soviet kitchens to the stylish crowds in the gig audience, these photos aren’t just a chronicle of the music scene – they document the era’s contrasts and its rapid movement in an unfamiliar direction.

Soviet symbols hint that the old way of life still goes on. Just out of Mukhin’s shots, factories keep on working, party committees sit in long meetings, and people go about their daily routines in streets decorated with hammers and sickles. But everything would come to an end soon after in the early ‘90s – both the USSR and the rock scene that so fiercely opposed it.

Text: Sasha Raspopina
Image: Igor Mukhin

I’ve Seen Rock n’ Roll is available for purchase at Calvert 22 Bookshop in London.