Saint Petersburg and Russia’s Booming Indie Music Scene
From Kino to Kvartirniki, Saint Petersburg's music scene is steeped in history and local traditions. Joshua Bean, a British student at HSE, explores the influence of the city's music scene on contemporary Russian-language music through the eyes of local artists to understand what inspires them and where their motivations lie.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-2020, Russian-language music’s popularity exploded in the West as Molchat Doma, a three-piece band from Belarus, became the latest beneficiaries of TikTok’s algorithm. Western audiences were mesmerised by the lead singer’s melancholic Russian voice against the simplistic backdrop of synths and a drum machine. Their dark sound and playful use of Soviet-era imagery played into Western stereotypes about Eastern Europe as a harsh, cold, and monotonous land. Westerners didn’t understand Molchat Doma’s lyrics, but it didn’t matter—Russian(-language) music had suddenly become trendy. At the time of writing, Molchat Doma’s song Sudno (vessel or cage) has over 100 million plays on Spotify.
At the beginning of the 2010s, many Russian bands were singing in English—think Motorama or Human Tetris, for instance. But Russian-language music has since taken precedence. Prompted, perhaps, by the isolating nature of Western sanctions since 2014  and the pandemic, Russian artists have looked inward for homegrown sources of inspiration. Motorama’s Russian-language project, Utro (morning) has risen to prominence and others like Buerak and Uvula have been leading the charge with a sound that departs from melancholic stereotypes about Eastern Europe. Though now an international phenomenon, this vibrant scene—or tusovka as it is known in Russian—has many of its roots in Saint Petersburg .
But Molchat Doma was just the tip of the iceberg. In Russian-speaking lands, a rich and diverse independent music scene has been quietly booming for the last decade.
Indeed, the city is steeped in musical tradition. Leningrad, as it was called in Soviet times, became the hub of a counterculture in the 1980s that gave rise to bands like Zoopark, Akvarium, and most notably Viktor Tsoi’s Kino, whose sound would define the collapse of the USSR in 1991 with songs like Khochu Peremen! (I Want Change) and Gruppa Krovi (Blood Type). Katya, a student at HSE and a Saint Petersburg local, is a patron of the modern tusovka. For her, the legacy of the Leningrad era on modern Russian music is unignorable: “These musical performers have changed the entire Russian musical culture…but Leningrad is always felt in their lyrics.” So with this rich history in mind, what does Saint Petersburg’s scene look like today? Where are the next generations drawing their inspiration from? I spent the last month visiting concerts across the city and speaking to local artists to find out.
It is a predictably bitter November evening in Saint Petersburg, and after driving through a sea of khrushchyovkas in a taxi my friend Anton and I pull up to Gigant Hall in the northern part of the city. We are at the Stalinist-era cinema turned-concert venue to watch the band Ssshhhiiittt!!!, one of Russia’s most popular indie bands. A nationwide seven-day lockdown has just ended and there is a palpable buzz in the air. But the sight of a snaking queue around the venue dampens our spirits slightly, so we go to drink a few beers in a nearby dvor and return to the queue after about 30 minutes. My British-accented attempts to speak Russian with Anton do not go unnoticed and we quickly get chatting with fans of the band. There I meet Vienn (meaning “alone” in Latvian)—she has just released her first song, Trup Nevesty (Corpse Bride), and is eager for me to listen when I tell her that I am conducting research for an article on Saint Petersburg’s local music scene.
A few days later, Vienn and I catch up for an interview. Vienn comes from a post-Soviet generation of youth which is leading Russia’s latest cultural phenomenon from the clubs and apartments of Saint Petersburg. She tells me about her music and the meaning behind her lyrics. “This song was written by accident. I was recalling my previous serious relationships and walking along the Nevsky [Prospekt]. I came to the realisation that they were not at all what they seemed to me.” Nevsky Prospekt is Saint Petersburg’s most famous street and was completed in the early 18th century during the reign of Peter the Great. Its baroque and neoclassical architecture has long served as a source of inspiration for creatives in the city.
By doing so, she raises awareness of issues like female empowerment in her music. “I realised that sooner or later or later [they] would begin to remake me for [themselves]. I really respect the freedom of other people, and I demand the same freedom for myself.” Though bands like Molchat Doma have enjoyed success by utilising Cold War-era stereotypes about Eastern Europe, Vienn’s music shows how a different branch of Russian-language music is emerging which explores contemporary themes from the Russian perspective. These themes are consistent with Vienn’s insistence that her music marks a departure from images of Russia as a land of melancholy. “[Corpse Bride] is not all about sadness and pain, as it might seem…this track is about liberation.”
Songs about relationships are, of course, nothing new. But Vienn uses her experiences as a framework to explore themes of femininity and womanhood in Russia.
She tells me that her main sources of inspiration are other solo female Russian artists like Zemfira, who started performing in the late 1990s. But Vienn continues, “I do not belong to anyone in this world but myself…although earlier this thought seemed painful, now I begin to understand how much strength [it gives me].” I try to understand a bit more about Vienn’s perception of the scene in Saint Petersburg today, how it has changed since the 90s, and where she sees herself within it. “I think the situation [with coronavirus] has changed things. Some artists started releasing more songs because they became lonely and had more free time. Others have lost their inspiration.” Of course, the challenges of coronavirus have affected the city’s tusovka . But the fact that Vienn produced the whole track and the album art with her friends suggests that the DIY and free-spirited nature of the Leningrad era remains alive and well. “I myself consider my genre to be indie…for me, what I do is about cooperation, about co-creation, about the mutual exchange of emotions.”
The next band I speak to are called Slishkom Pozdno, Eva (Too Late, Eva). The four members live in Saint Petersburg and met through mutual friends at university in 2020. They have just released their first EP, Nemnogo Luchshe (A Little Better). Their sound is remarkably similar to the indie rock that emerged from the UK in the early 2000s; it captures the eclectic nature of youth with a combination of snarling power-chords and scaled-back drumming. “The EP A Little Better is practically DIY,” says Yaroslav, the band’s lead singer. “We recorded it completely at home, our bassist Aleksandr was engaged in mixing. The only thing that was not done by us was the final mastering.” For an album with such minimal output from outside the band, it is a remarkably polished product and true to the sounds emerging from Saint Petersburg’s tusovka.
Yaroslav speaks to me about Russia’s music and cultural output throughout history. “Russian culture is characterised by a certain gloom: the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, filled with illness and images of a sultry yellow city, acutely social films by Alexei Balabanov and Kira Murayova, philosophical poems by Joseph Brodsky, and so on,” he muses. “[Our] cultural melancholy is a peculiarity.” Much like Vienn, however, the band also see Russia’s current musical movement as a departure from more downbeat themes. They attribute this to the rising popularity of indie music in their mother tongue. “The fashion for playing music in English is waning. We believe that in your native language it is possible to sincerely convey an idea and emotions to the listener in a much more literary and interesting way.”
Indeed, Too Late, Eva’s EP primarily explores the highs and lows of youth in contemporary Saint Petersburg. As the name A Little Better alludes, the central theme of the album is the contradiction between the isolation and boundless possibility of youth. Yaroslav tells me about the EP’s second song, Kanonerskiy Ostrov: “This is one of the islands of Saint Petersburg; a highway was built above the island with abandoned houses under it. The place is dark but attractive at the same time.” Here, Western views about post-Soviet urban spaces as hopeless and uninspiring are challenged; for Yaroslav as his friends, they instead form the backdrop of good times with friends. “This is about a bright memory from the past,” Yaroslav says.
I comment that the first song on the EP, Volkswagen Transporter, seems quite different from the rest of the album: the lyrics are a little less hopeful, and a campervan is not something typically associated with Russia. “Volkswagen Transporter is about a kind of freedom…it is quite possible that leaving everything and going on a trip to the southeast in a campervan is not a radical change in life, but rather an attempt to escape from oneself. It fits well with the idea of Russian culture.” Though the next generation of Russian artists cannot completely escape the melancholic trappings of their country’s literary tradition, this is not their intention. Rather, they are proudly attempting to reframe Russian life in a more nuanced way for a domestic audience.
The band’s music also discusses the isolation of growing up in such a large country and the difficulty of finding new experiences.
Yaroslav also tells me about the challenges the coronavirus pandemic brought to Saint Petersburg’s music scene. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has become more difficult to understand where you can perform. You need to be prepared for the club to close at any time.” In many ways, however, Too Late, Eva’s EP is a product of how the band overcame these challenges to make music regardless. “The lyrics were written by the vocalist back in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic as a response to what was taking place.” The band do not expect coronavirus to be a problem in the future. “At the beginning of the year  we are planning to perform in Saint Petersburg with other little-known bands,” Yaroslav tells me. “We intend to release one or two more singles, after which there will be an album. We will improve the sound quality, and new works will have live drums and vocals.”
After my conversation with Vienn and Too Late, Eva, I am keen to speak to my friend Katya for some information about kvartirniki. Both artists had told me about these small concerts held sometimes in independent venues but mostly in Soviet-era apartment blocks where unsigned bands can showcase their music. They have been an integral part of the local scene for years. “Kvartirniki! I love them very much,” Katya tells me. “The first two [I went to] were organised by the student community at my university. We were allowed to host a large audience and arrange musical gatherings there.” These flat parties have evidently become a semi-official form of gathering in the city. At the end of my conversation with Vienn, she too explained: “you will feel the atmosphere of Saint Petersburg, its cosiness and warmth, hidden in the apartments of the gloomy city.” In many ways, then, the legacy of Leningrad’s tusovka lives on in Saint Petersburg’s ubiquitous Soviet apartments and continues to provide the foundations for the city’s independent music.
I also want to get a bit of perspective from Katya as someone who has been active in the city’s tusovka since she was a teenager. “It seems to me that in the last 5-7 years a lot of changes have occurred in our local underground music scene. However, because of the pandemic, the growth of the ‘new’ has stopped abruptly, in my opinion.” Katya clarifies that her view is subjective; she herself fell out of the local scene as a result of coronavirus. But much like Vienn and Too Late, Eva, she views the development of Russian-language music as a homogenous and unique phenomenon. “When you saw with your own eyes how these guys started their careers and were at their very first concerts and performances, you can’t just let them out of your heart.” Katya expresses her regret that more people cannot understand the lyrics outside Russia but is glad that Russian-language music is starting to gain recognition in the West. “I think that in the West they don’t know much about Russian contemporary music and miss out on a lot of good things.”
Saint Petersburg is a city rich in imperial culture and history. But perhaps unexpectedly, one of its main historical contributions in recent decades has been to music. Bands like Vienn and Too Late, Eva have picked up where Kino and the artists of the 90s left off and are creating a new Russian sound. To find out more, you can listen to their music on Spotify at the links below:
Author: Joshua Bean
Editor: Yuliya Charnyshova
 Biasioli, Marco, “Russophone or Anglophone? The Politics of Identity in Contemporary Russian Indie Music,” Routledge: Europe-Asia Studies Vol.73 (4) (2021)
 Raspopina, Sasha, “Rough and Ready: Behind the Cassette Craze of St Petersburg’s Garage Rock Scene,” The Calvert Journal (2016) [https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/5363/rough-and-ready-behind-the-cassette-craze-of-the-st-petersburg-garage-scene]