New East Digital Archive
Strange lands
How western pop videos can't get enough of the ‘exotic’ new east

A couple of weeks ago, Danish singer Mø released a video for her new single Kamikaze, and though it made my heart tremble a little — anyone who grew up in Russia or eastern Europe would have the same reaction — it had also made me laugh…a lot.

Filmed in the outskirts of Kiev, the video has got little to do with contemporary Ukraine. It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy based around the latest stereotypes about post-communist countries. In this sanguine combination of Emir Kusturica and Cyprien Gaillard, east European lookalikes engage in their usual activities: driving in circles in battered cars with no windows; racing by the nuclear power plant; smashing things with baseball bats and raving in graffiti-covered abandoned buildings.

The video has a gritty charm, aided by the backdrop of tower blocks shot at dusk, and the pairing of an Adidas tracksuits with a gold Givenchy mask. It’s both a harmless fiction and an example of the contemporary western gaze, only the bears and matryoshkas are gradually being replaced by tower blocks and grave-looking youths in sportswear.

It’s not the first time the music industry has turned to the east to find a fresh look for a new single. Since the mid 2000s, an increasing number of videos have been filmed in Russia and Ukraine, and while some are subtle and others shameless in their exoticisation, the result is always the same: abandoned cars, stray dogs, kids and horses, serious soldiers and dodgy guys in leather jackets, Orthodox churches, industrial landscapes and grim people watching TV in poorly lit rooms. We’ve looked through the most notable examples to see how the new east is reflected and appropriated by pop culture. Surely, Kanye's got to be next.

Australian band Tame Impala’s Solitude takes place in Kiev and looks fairly ordinary at first glance. However, the landscape quickly turns post-apocalyptic, full of crashed cars and aggressive passers-by. Things escalate from there, as the video gets more and more violent, reflecting the song’s misanthropic title. A stray dog outside a village shop is of course also present.

This 2008 video belongs to the era when Russia was still regarded with amusement rather than startled horror. Nothing reminds you of more geopolitically relaxed times than two young indie guys with unruly hair eagerly posing in front of some tanks. The Moscow metro, an army choir and figure skaters also make an appearance.

A large part of this video was shot in a Kazan plastic factory with the American musician performing against the orange light of a blaze. Notably, Orthodox religious icons are used here in the form of Post-internet art.

British indie band White Lies made it much further than most of the musicians in this list. The video for Farewell to the Fairground is filmed in the small industrial town of Nickel not far from Murmansk. It features the classic imagery of a Siberian town: factories and snowy fields, a rudimentary gym, unsupervised kids in puffer jackets. But nothing looks more romantic than taking a casual walk on a deserted, snowy road.

Eastern Europe here is purely ornamental: a stern topless guy stands in the middle of a wasteland by a row of tower blocks in Kiev’s Troieshchyna suburb. And again, a very angry dog.

Paolo Nutini’s video was shot in Kiev and directed by emerging British director Daniel Wolfe, who in 2014 released his first feature Catch Me Daddy. Wolfe is drawn to rather grim subjects, and Iron Sky is no exception. The video is about about a fictional drug called Aurora which helps the residents of a small Ukrainian town cope with mysterious, horrifying headaches. Styled as a documentary with VHS clips dispersed alongside high-quality footage of mind-blowing locations: tower blocks at sunset, Orthodox churches, utopian Soviet murals. It seems that Wolfe is familiar with contemporary photography from Russia and Ukraine: some frames strongly resemble the work of Egor Rogalev and Daria Tuminas.

Paloma Faith’s tragic love story was filmed in Kiev but doesn’t look at all like eastern Europe. From the empty roads enveloped in fog and even emptier church hall and small cosy flat we get the impression that she's in the middle of nowhere. The poor surface of the roads, however, gives it away. The chances of crashing on a motorbike after a pothole are much greater in post-Soviet countries.

The video for Natalie Imbruglia’s Shiver was inspired by the Bourne spy thrillers: the same washed-out grey colours, bleak countryside, dodgy men in leather jackets and fake passports. A romantic pop song seems a bit alien to this world where the sun never shines and where spies come to trade secrets, which is probably why we never find out what exactly Imbruglia’s character is up to there.

Pure classics here: dancing bears, vodka, an izba, Ukrainian vyshyvankas and a ride home in a tank.

Everything's a bit absurd in The Ballad of War Machine: the imitation of 90s post-Soviet morning TV programmes, VHS aesthetics, old military uniforms, a theatre in an empty barracks and weekend fun by the Great Patriotic War memorial. Why did they choose Ukraine to film this? Because why not?