Sounds like Decolonization: Vopli Vidopliassova and Alternative Ukrainian Music in the 1980s

The overview of the decolonial perspectives on the field of cultural history through the example of book Tantsi by Maria Sonevytsky

Inspired by the talk with Maria Sonevytsky on the release of her new book Tantsi, this article offers reflections on the ways and opportunities to apply decolonization to the field of Soviet cultural history and anthropology through the case of the 1980s underground Ukrainian band Vopli Vidopliassova.

The book Tantsi, released in 2023, focuses on the story of Ukrainian punk band Vopli Vidopliassova and the breakout of their 1989 cassette release, Tantsi (Dances). Vopli Vidopliassova and the figure of the frontman Oleg Skrypka remain highly famous in the contemporary Ukrainian music scene (even though also highly problematic in the light of his latest interviews with openly misogynistic views, calling feminism nothing else but the “female egoism” 1 or suggesting that Russian speakers in Ukraine should be put in ghettos. 2 Therefore, research on the punk scene’s roots through this band evokes attention not only in the academic circles but also in the general public. The author of the article had a chance to reflect on the questions of alternative culture, punk scene, language, and music with the author of the book Maria Sonevytsky, an American scholar focusing on Anthropology and Music, as well as on Ethnomusicology.

The resonant word “decolonization” has resurfaced academic discussions in the past few years and impacted every field. When discussing Ukrainian studies, decolonization suggests reshaping and decentering Soviet and Imperial Russian narratives in Ukrainian historiography. Historians bring up the importance of the changes in the political language; in the case of Soviet studies, it’s stepping outside the tradition of “Speaking Bolshevik” (the term that historian Stephen Kotkin introduced in his book “Magnetic Mountain” to refer to a new public, political language that refracted “the ways of speaking about oneself … through the lens of Bolshevism.” 3 Those who adopted the new Soviet state language could advance and prosper; those who did not conform sacrificed educational and career opportunities that long predominated the field. More and more scholars focus on the voices from the peripheries and choose “history from below,” in which the primary attention of the scholar is not on state actors but on those who had previously been considered to be just “cogs in the machinery” or powerless citizens.

Within the field of cultural history and anthropology of the art scene of Soviet Union, alternative culture and underground art can still be considered as very broad topics because within the Soviet state, everything that would not go along with the official dogma would be considered “oppositional”, or in other words, alternative. We will conceptualize underground as the environment of the nonconformist youth that found for themselves an alternative to Soviet culture in other spaces: in Western culture, in life outside politics, in dropping out of the Soviet system through music, art, gatherings etc.

Since its publication in 2005, the work “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More” 4 by American anthropologist Alexei Yurchak became the most well-known in the field by revealing the dichotomy “us-they” that the Soviet society was predominantly (but not exclusively) based on, where “they” meant the state apparatus and “us” referred to the people. Yurchak aimed to create an anthropological reconstruction of the mental and cultural environment of late communism and brought to the field of Soviet cultural history the term “inside-outside-ness,” or “being vnye.” The term explains the type of mentality of the Soviet citizens (in Yurchak’s case, it’s the inhabitants of Leningrad and Novosibirsk) who were taking part in system’s institutions, practices, rituals but were integrating these into their lives in a different way than the state intended. Therefore, while people were within the Soviet system during the perestroika period, they were simultaneously outside of it. The approach of Yurchak was later both praised and criticized for the failure to focus on the outsiders of the system because the subjects of his study are presented in their positioning towards elites. Nevertheless, Yurchak provoked a broad discussion on the role of non-state actors in the Soviet system, and if his work focusing on Leningrad cannot suggest much for the decolonization of Ukrainian studies, the new book Tantsi by Maria Sonevytski, that was influenced by Yurchak as well, definitely does.

Among the number of academic works on the national features of the alternative culture and countercultures in the Socialist Bloc and the Soviet Union, the space of the former Soviet Union found its representation in many publications. However, in most cases, these publications were limited to the circles of Leningrad and Moscow, less Novosibirsk. 5 The sociocultural space of other former Soviet republics was represented much less often. Within the works covering those, the cases of the Baltic countries are described the best because of the richness of the hippie movement there. 6 Despite the bright representation of the punks and goths movements in Tbilisi, 7 the context of Georgia appears in such works also quite rarely. However, in the works that cover the space of East-Central Europe, Eastern Europe or post-Soviet countries, Ukraine is underrepresented, but with some exceptions. 8 However, because of the extensive territory of the country, studies on Ukrainian alternative and underground culture found their way to an audience through works covering the stories of the separate big cities instead of homogenizing those studies under one “Ukrainian” case. Some of the most prominent works cover the trajectories of the cultural development of Dnipro, 9 Lviv 10 and Kyiv, as we see in Sonevytsky’s book.

Taking a closer look at the alternative culture in Soviet Ukraine and explicitly locating ourselves in 1980s Kyiv, the first question arising is “why did a band such as Vopli Vidopliassova (VV) become the book’s center of attention?” The Ukrainian underground, specifically the Kyiv Rock Club, developed rapidly throughout the late 1980s. As Sonevytsky explains in the book, it wasthree bands based in Kyiv Rock Club who were the main voices of the alternative vector in musicVV, Kollezhskyi Asessor (Collegiate Assessor), and Vavylon, who renamed themselves Rabbota XO in April 1988. This trio of bands eventually left the official infrastructure of the Kyiv Rock Club because of the stifling favoritism of heavy metal thereregarding those, a number of new research can be written, since such heavy metals bands as Edem, Perron, Kvartyra 50, Komu Vnyz andTytanic played an important role in the bringing national consciousness to music, and some of them participated in “Chervona Ruta” (“Red Rue”) festival in 1989, where those ideas were widely accepted.

VV, Kollezhskyi Asessor and Rabbota Xo ended up under the leadership of Volodymyr Ivanov, the entrepreneurial manager, and they broke off to form a new experimental” unionRock Artil. Three bands who were creating-different sorts of rock music in Kyiv were in the center of the alternative culture and the so-called circle of “neformaly” (nonconformists). But when Vopli Vidopliassova entered the mainstream in the 1990s and remained a cult classic nowadays, Kollezhskyi Asessor and Rabbota XO became almost forgotten outside the narrow circles of Kyiv underground. Sonevytsky’s explanation is simultaneously simple and complex, and it lies in the language, stiob (a slang term used in Ukrainian and Russian to describe a mode of late Soviet irony) and work with something nobody has discussed in the context of Kyivethnic revival.

Language is the easiest component to observe the difference that Vopli Vidopliassova brought into the underground scene in Kyiv. Nine of the fourteen tracks from the 1989 cassette album Tantsi are sung in Ukrainian, and the remaining five are in Russian. For Kyiv in the 1980s, a Sovietized city, the Russian language was considered to be the language of the future. Even though many people who moved to the city from the rural regions were originally Ukrainian speakers, they would switch to Russian in the urban environment to fit in. As Sonevytsky mentions in the book: In 1987, Vopli Vidopliassova were amongst the first Soviet Ukrainian bands to write lyrics in Ukrainian rather than Russian, “milking the ironic and subversive potential of a language that had been suppressed and often denigrated as a kind of hillbilly dialect throughout the Soviet twentieth century”. 11 In the broader context of the Ukrainian underground, there wereother bands performing in Ukrainian. However, those bands were primarily located in Western Ukraine and quite frequently were based in less Russified Lviv, or Lutsk. In the context of Kyiv, as Sashko Pipa, the original bass player of VV, said: “If you spoke Ukrainian, it signified that you were an uneducated “redneck” [spoken in English] or a “Banderite”, a pejorative referring to the figure of Stepan Bandera, one of the ideologists of Ukrainian nationalism”.12

It was clear that introducing lyrics in Ukrainian was a game-changing move for the Kyiv environment, but it was not the only thing that Oleg Skrypka (the frontman of VV) and his teammates brought with their lyrics. The Ukrainian they used in their songs, for example, in Tantsi, is full of dialects (such as the way the frontman pronounces the word “klub” (“Club”) as “kl’ub”, stereotypical softening of the sounds, associated with the rural pronunciation) and a mix of Ukrainian and Russian accents and wordsthe so-called “Surzhyk” (as the word “vspominaem” which is the transliteration of the russian word, meaning “we remember” but pronounced in a very Ukrainian way).

How can we use this context as a case for the decolonization of Ukrainian culture? An analysis of the Ukrainian language in the Russian-speaking environment would not provide a complete answer, but the aforementioned turn to rural culture can be. The usage of the rural dialect and the concept of Tantsi in the club, which is at the center of the same-name song, can be put into the broader context of the alternative scene of the 1970-1980s in East-Central Europe.

The ethnic revival that can be seen through the usage of folk music and its motifs, specific features, etc. is a tendency that can also be traced in the music of that period in Hungary, 13 or Serbia, for example. 14 Therefore, returning to the “national roots” was not unique, but it was critical in the context of the alternative culture. In the case of VV, the threads between the urban and rural culture existed even on the level of personal experiences of the band members. As Sonevytsky says, there was a feeling of respect and honor for rural culture because they spent their summers in villages, where they would also mostly speak Ukrainian with their grandparents. Such a connection deepened the understanding that rural culture is a part of the national heritage. In the Ukrainian context, it was essential that ethnic revival concerned the language aspect. Returning to rural roots meant empowering the Ukrainian language. When it was brought back to the urban culture through alternative music, it ceased being marginalized and became a part of the newly, slowly established canon. And in the case of VV, rural culture was a card that could be easily played in one line with stiob and humor, since according to Pipa, “in the Ukrainian village, everything was ironic”. 15 Therefore, the stories in the VV’s songs were a bridge between village and big city—Tantsi song tells a story about the night in the village club on Sunday, when all the workers are done with their work.

This point is worth putting into dialogue with the previously mentioned work by Yurchak. For him, Soviet culture in the last stages of communism accepted and adapted features of the Western world. Consumerism brought Western products, jeans, and vinyl, which meant that the concept of an isolated Soviet society was falling apart. Meanwhile, for people living inside the Soviet system under the effect of “hypernormalization,” the system’s collapse was so evident that no one saw the alternative and therefore prolonged its life. But in the end, when the Soviet Union collapsed, nobody was surprised. This “hypernormalization” was happening in its form in the underground environment of Soviet Ukraine. In the case of language, it was evident that the Russian language was used in this environment because it was “always” there. But when the Ukrainian language and some symbols like the Ukrainian trident appeared on the scene and in the gathering of nonconformist youth, it was accepted and remained there. Yurchak’s context is crucially different in the broader sense, but within the music space, people would catch themselves also being a part of the “inside-outside-ness” of the system.

Vopli Vidopliassova did not just simply engage with Ukrainian rural culture; they brought it to their music as stiob. In the words of Oleg Skrypka:

“There was an absolute rejection of the system but also a clear understanding that protesting has no point, none.” 16

Sonevytsky dedicates the whole chapter to explaining the band’s usage of stiob in the lyrics and archetypes. Some best examples for the lyrical stiob within the songs by VV probably would be “Pisen’ka” or “Little Song” from the Tantsi album. “Pisen’ka” was not included in the 1989 Fonohraf release, but nevertheless remains fascinating within the context. The song consistently references a trope of Ukrainian folk songs: Hryts, which is a nickname for Hryhorii (Gregory); in different songs, Hryts mows the grass, or courts a milk maid, or carries water, etc. The inclusion of Hryts in this song is stiob, as Sonevytsky explains.

Sonevytsky concludes that for VV, stiob had a provocative effect and that provocation itself became absurd, directed at nothing in particular. And precisely because of the thin, hard-to-notice line between serious and absurd, VV managed to be broadcasted and widely known later, despite being critical and sarcastic of the Soviet system. Regarding the linguistic stiob that VV used, it was and is still relatively easy to blame the band for Ukrainophobia and their inner rejection of the Ukrainian national consciousness. Sonevytsky accepts this as a possibility. It is hard to deny that in the late 1980s, the process of bringing back ethnic tradition and language was going along with inner doubts and concerns. This is another reason why stiob found its resonance within the underground. As Sonevytsky concludes, “Even if we allow for the possibility that aspects of VV’s use of language could be enacting forms of (internal or external) Ukrainophobia, VV’s experimental uses of Ukrainian nonetheless made the language seductive to a young generation of rock fans who sang along with the linguistic stiob that laughed at itself while it pilloried historical stereotypes of Ukrainian backwardness.” 17

Framing the experience of VV’s band members is complex and challenging because the reflections of the past made around thirty years after the events entail the participants’ rethinking of their trajectories. However, problematizing those testimonies would be a case for those focusing on oral history. In the context of decolonization, reflections on the past might bring another critical focus. As Sonevytsky indicates, the motivation behind using the Ukrainian language in the lyrics changed in the view of the VV members and Kyiv underground in broader terms afterward. While in 1989, the music in Ukrainian was almost an accidental decision, an “ethnic revival” was an attempt to create something new that nobody had done before in the Kyiv scene. Thirty years later, the same people reflect on their past and see a set of new meanings. Suddenly, their actions in their 20s no longer seem to be accidental or done for novelty. They rethink those choices as their steps toward decolonizing the environment they are most engaged in. Of course, this example is one in a sea of many others. Additionally, some actions done back in the 1980s will remain spontaneous; some were considered conscious patriotic decisions already back then. Looking at the activity of Ivan Dziuba, the dissident and literary expert who wrote the well-known and banned book Internationalism or Russification? (1965)can be helpful to show a different perspective. For him, the politics of Russification in the 1960s was as evident as the imperial one. It shows how complex the environment was. It would be wrong to say that consciousness of decolonization appeared in Ukrainian studies only recently, and it would be false to say that it was always there. The small case study of Kyiv’s underground band and their album from the 1980s can show the complexity of a decolonial perspective, and by accepting it as one and considering this environment from a broader perspective, the ongoing development of decolonization studies can be put into a dialogue with other national contexts.

There are still a lot of “why?” and “what did that mean?” questions to explore with respect to the Ukrainian underground of the 1980s. One of them brings together VV and the first Ukrainian festival with music exclusively in Ukrainian“Chervona Ruta” (“Red Rue”), held in Chernivtsi in 1989. VV were among the participants in the rock genre, and surely contributed to the image of the festival that remained in Ukrainian history as one of the biggest events for awaking of the national consciousness. The story of the festival and its participants, both musicians and the audience, that often belonged to the independent organizations of nationally conscious youth, like “Tovarystvo Leva” (“The Society of Lion”), can be seen as the final point in the story of dealing with Ukrainianness as with something marginalized and unpopular for Ukraine during the period of “perebudova” (Ukrainian word for the term “perestroika”). It can also be viewed as the first page in the history of new, one-step from the independent music and culture, that accompanied loud and bright columns of marching people, demanding sovereignty and later celebrating independence. The complete history about that is yet to be written, and for now bringing the attention to the smaller, seemingly marginalized actors, bands like VV, can be the first step. With broadening the fields and topics that we can see as potential cases of decolonization, we can help to create the platform for a more established approach to decolonization. Vopli Vidopliassova and the book “Tantsi” by Maria Sonevytsky might be one of those steps.

  3. Kotkin, Stephen. Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilization. University of California Press, 1995. p.221[]
  4. Yurchak, Alexei. Everything was forever, until it was no more: The last Soviet generation. Princeton University Press, 2013[]
  5. such a model can be seen in the publications like Gabriel Bar-Haim, “Eastern European Youth Culture: The Westernization of a Social Movement,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 2, no. 1 (September 1988): 45–65; Juliane Furst and Josie McLellan, Dropping out of Socialism: The Creation of Alternative Spheres in the Soviet Bloc (New York: Lexington Books, 2016); Ewa Mazierska, ed., Popular Music in Eastern Europe: Breaking the Cold War Paradigm (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016; Ryback, Timothy W. Rock Around the Bloc: a History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Oxford University Press, USA, 1990[]
  6. see, for example, Fürst, Juliane. Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations in Soviet Hippieland. Oxford University Press, 2021[]
  7. see more on that in “Fabrika and the Corporatization of Tbilisi’s Counter-Culture” article []
  8. see Sabrina Petra Ramet. Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia. (Routledge, 2019); Jonathyne Briggs, Kate Gerrard, Sandor Horvath, Tom Junes, Gregory Kveberg, Polly McMichael, David Tompkins et al. Youth and Rock in the Soviet Bloc: Youth Cultures, Music, and the State in Russia and Eastern Europe. (Lexington Books, 2014[]
  9. Zhuk, Sergei. Rock and Roll in the Rocket City. The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985. Washington, Woodrow Wilson Center Press – Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010[]
  10. Risch, William Jay. The Ukrainian West: culture and the fate of empire in Soviet Lviv. Harvard University Press, 2011[]
  11. Sonevytsky, Maria. Tantsi. Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. p.6.[]
  12. Sonevytsky. Tantsi. p.71.[]
  13. see national rock and neo-nationalism in Margit Feischmidt and Gergő Pulay, “‘Rocking the Nation’: the Popular Culture of Neo-Nationalism, Nations and Nationalism” 23, (2017), 309–326[]
  14. see Eric Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999: 105-164.[]
  15. Sonevytsky. Tantsi. p.70[]
  16. Sonevytsky. Tantsi. p.68[]
  17. Sonevytsky. Tantsi. p.95[]