Igor Mukhin’s beautiful black and white photographs document the birth of a youth subculture in the USSR
When was today’s Russia really born? If you ask Russians nowadays, most of them will probably tell you that modern Russia is a 90s baby – a product of Boris Yeltsin’s stand against the old communist regime. But, in his new photobook I’ve seen rock ‘n’ roll, Moscow photographer Igor Mukhin tells us a very different story. The photographer, who’s documented radicals from Soviet times all the way through to present-day anarchists Pussy Riot, takes us back in time 30 years to 1985 – when Mikhail Gorbachev announced a new era of perestroika and glasnost and sounded the death knell for the monolithic Soviet Union.
Capturing the impact of the Soviet Union’s dissolution on young people living in Moscow and Leningrad, Mukhin’s book documents the birth of a subculture unlike any other – that of the 1980s radical underground Soviet rock movement. This was a time when Soviet youth couldn’t travel to the West or legitimately participate in a music scene operating outside of state control, but as the state apparatus loosened up they felt change coming and reacted.
As a young photographer living through that time, Mukhin felt compelled to document the cultural explosion that he was himself a part of. His collection of striking black and white pictures of Leningrad rockers like Viktor Tsoi and Moscow kids in leather jackets studded with badges, incongruous against the stark background of Soviet architecture, tell the story of a forgotten period of Soviet history.
Mukhin spoke with us from his home in Moscow to talk more about the time when Russia’s rock kids made their own art and put two fingers up to the authorities in the best way they knew how – through rock ‘n’ roll and all its trappings.
When did you start taking photos?
Igor Mukhin: I’m an ordinary Muscovite. To tell you the truth, my first attempts at photography began when I was 16. It was in 1985 that I decided to create a photo project about unconventional youth – young people linked to the rock world – through capturing their clothes, their hairstyles and their behaviour. Some of these young people were openly protesting against the authorities. The thing that connected us was music – our homegrown rock. It was impossible for me not to take pictures of it – it was something that had never happened before!
What is the book about?
Igor Mukhin: The main object of the book is to describe the last years of that huge country known as the USSR. This book is probably about six years worth of work – the photos were taken between 1985 and 1991. This Gorbachev period isn’t so popular these days, the Yeltsin years are more popular. In the introduction to the book I describe how it was an interesting experience for me as a young photographer behind the Iron Curtain, with no photography schools, teachers or books. It’s an attempt to bring together three different projects in one publication: it’s a project about youth, portraits of our own, local musicians. I don’t show life on stage but rather everyday life and the typical moments of Soviet life – the streets, transport, home.
How did you first find out about the existence of the Soviet rock and roll scene in Leningrad?
Igor Mukhin: In 1977, I’d already had the opportunity to listen to bands like Pink Floyd, Nazareth, and other English-speaking groups, but I was really drawn to our own native rock. At first it was a group called Maschina Vremeni (Time Machine), then, later on, it was the rock of Leningrad and Moscow – I listened to bands like Kino, Stranniye Igry, Akvarium, Zvuki Mu and other amateur rock groups. Mostly, I took photos at the Leningrad Rock Club. At the time some of my friends were involved in samizdat (the clandestine copying and distribution of banned literature) and it was interesting to read illegally photocopied texts and to listen to underground Soviet rock music. In fact, not long afterwards, I myself took pictures for a similar publication – Zombi magazine.
Why did rock and roll attract the interest of so many people?
Igor Mukhin: To be honest, there actually wasn’t much interest in it at the time. People were holding concerts in their homes – in shared apartments and in their basements – and also in local ‘houses of culture’. Sometimes they were illegal and were often prohibited by the authorities because rock music attracted precisely the texts and themes banned in the official radio, television and press.
You just have to take a look at the pictures to see who was listening to the rock and roll – it was young people! There weren’t very many of them and practically everyone knew each other personally. At official concerts it was forbidden to get up and move around, to stand up, to shout – all the things you want do at a concert! At the most you were just allowed to sit down, listen and clap your hands. It was a totally different atmosphere at the underground concerts – people danced, they were relaxed.
What was the atmosphere like at the time?
Igor Mukhin: Again, just look at the photos! The atmosphere was one of mutual trust – there were no barriers between the audience and the musicians. But there were also people in the audience who were informers, who would be there to write reports and photographers taking pictures for their own records or for the KGB archives… so everybody got what they wanted.
What would you like people to take away from your book?
Igor Mukhin: The perestroika period today has disappeared into oblivion. The authorities glorify the Yeltsin era – nowadays they have ‘90’s’ festivals, they’ve opening a Yeltsin museum, and so on. For me it’s interesting to show a different time, a time of victory and hope – the era of Gorbachev.