Provincial Siberia in the early 1980s was an unlikely location for a punk rock explosion. Isolated by vast distances culturally and geographically from the policy of reform just beginning to take hold in Moscow and Leningrad, Siberian punks faced everyday threats and pressure, including from the KGB.
Yet it was in Omsk, a west Siberian industrial city some 2,500km from Moscow, that Yegor Letov, an anarchic musician and poet, created some of the most powerful music to come out of the Soviet Union. Fuelled by rage and disgust at the hypocrisy of the Soviet system, Letov and his group Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defence) or GrOb (the Russian word for ‘coffin’), recorded scores of gritty tracks in a primitive home studio, producing an incredible 18 albums between 1985 and 1990. Often playing all the instruments himself, Letov gleefully abused his studio equipment to create a distorted and violent sound, which was perfectly reflected in song titles such as ‘Mne nasrat na moe litso’ [‘I don’t give a shit about my face’] and ‘Nenavizhu Krasny Svet’ [‘I Hate the Colour Red’].
Grazhdanskaya Oborona’s most famous song ‘Vse idyot po planu’ ['Everything’s Going According to Plan'] is an acerbic, third-person account of the tail-end of the seven-decade-long Soviet experiment, with lyrics such as:
‘Under communism, everything will be fucking great.
It’s coming soon. Just have to wait.
Everything will be free. Everyone will be fucking high
You probably won’t even have to die.’
This undisguised scorn for the authorities would not go unpunished, however. Letov was often physically attacked by Soviet citizens who were outraged by his uncompromising punk rocker appearance; and he was also briefly committed to a psychiatric hospital by the KGB after a local woman reported the group as a ‘terrorist organisation’ engaged in ‘anti-Soviet activity.’
This undisguised scorn for the authorities would not go unpunished.
Banned from the airwaves and most concert halls, and forced to distribute his music via rough magnitizdat recordings (the popular musical equivalent of samizdat – self-published – texts), Letov nevertheless gained a certain fame across the Soviet Union. Despite his refusal to play the commercial game in the newly independent Russia (Letov turned down offers to play stadium concerts, and rarely gave interviews), this Siberian punk rocker remained one of the country’s best-known musicians until his early death in 2008 from heart failure. He was just 43.
Letov’s astonishing story is the subject of a new documentary, I Don't Believe in Anarchy (Russian title: Zdorovo i vechno), directed by Letov’s widow and former Grazhdanskaya Oborona bass player, Natalia Chumakova and Anna Tsyrlina. The film premiered across Russia in November, and examines GrOb’s early years from 1984 until 1990, when Letov (in typically perverse fashion) temporarily disbanded the group at the height of its fame.
Yegor Letov and Konstantin Ryabinov recording. Via grobfilm.ru
Released to mark the 50th anniversary of Letov’s birth, the film utilises rare archive footage of concerts, as well as extensive interviews with former band members and contemporaries. Mainly shot in black and white, the 78-minute documentary briefly explodes into colour as it looks at Letov’s parallel passion for US West Coast psychedelia and, apparently, mind-altering drugs such as LSD. Excerpts from Soviet propaganda films that depict Omsk as a joyful city of socialist heroes also feature throughout, providing a stark contrast to both Grazhdanskaya Oborona’s abrasive music and the tales of non-conformity and violence related by now middle-aged Siberian punks.
The film utilises rare archive footage of concerts, as well as extensive interviews with former band members
While the film revolves around the powerful and charismatic figure of Letov, I Don't Believe in Anarchy is also populated by other figures, equally as colourful. One of these, Konstantin Ryabinov, a founding member of GrOb, almost steals the show with his alcohol-fuelled reminiscences of being shipped off to serve in Kazakhstan after the group had fallen foul of the KGB. ‘The KGB was a lie,’ Ryabinov slurs. ‘A lie!’ Ryabinov recalls how a KGB officer admonished him for possessing a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, even though the satirical tale of the devil’s visit to Stalin-era Moscow had been legally published in the Soviet Union by this time. ‘“You know,” the officer told me with a smile, “even a Soviet publisher can publish a book by mistake,’” Ryabinov laughs.
Another star is Letov’s elder brother, Sergei, a renowned free-jazz musician who gifted Yegor his first vinyl LP — The Who’s celebrated rock opera Tommy, which Sergei had picked up on the black-market for illicit Western recordings. Even though the first three tracks had been snapped off, Sergei recalls how Yegor was captivated by the album, meticulously copying out the lyrics to the songs in notebooks.
Sergei, who played with GrOb for a number of years, also tells the story of how he managed to free Yegor after his incarceration in an Omsk psychiatric ward in 1986: ‘I decided to send an indirect message to the KGB. I started to share my plans with the art and rock people, swearing them to secrecy. I said if my brother is not released, I will call a press conference for foreign media, and tell them that perestroika is a lie, that young musicians have been arrested for simply playing and recording at home. I knew that a lot of rockers were KGB informers, so it all worked out as planned.’
Letov possessed an instinctive ability to irritate the Soviet authorities
As this documentary makes clear, Letov possessed an instinctive ability to irritate the Soviet authorities, even as they attempted to relax stifling controls on the world of art and music. At one rock concert, staged in the de facto Siberian capital of Novosibirsk in 1987 by Communist Youth members eager to demonstrate their loyalty to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Letov and fellow musicians played a brief set under the name of Adolf Hitler. This was too much for even the perestroika-era Soviet Union; and Letov and his band mates were chased off-stage by irate concert organisers. Fearing arrest or another spell in the psychiatric hospital, Letov fled to western Russia with Yanka Dyagileva, a young folk-punk singer whose music rivalled his own for its sheer bleakness. The two lived together as man and wife for a short time until Yanka’s suspected suicide at the age of just 24 in 1991.
Trailer for 'I Don't Believe in Anarchy'
Letov’s music was infamous for its use of mat, Russia’s vast arsenal of swearwords. Yet the film is curiously obscenity-free. The reason? A newly introduced law that bans obscenities in the Russian media and arts. Natalya Chumakova, the co-director, was reluctant to censor her film when I spoke to her ahead of its release, but after its premiere she told me the film ‘hadn’t suffered’ from the last-minute need to leave the swearwords on the cutting-room floor. “It wasn’t that important,” she said.
The film’s cut-off point of 1990 means there is also no mention of Letov’s brief, post-Soviet involvement with the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), a radical direct action movement that the punk musician co-founded in 1993 with firebrand writer Eduard Limonov and Alexander Dugin, the future Kremlin ideologue. Although Grazhdanskaya Oborona performed live under the NBP’s distinctive red and black flag for a number of years, Letov later cut his ties with the party, disassociating himself entirely from the world of politics. This period will, hopefully, be covered in a subsequent documentary on Letov’s post-Soviet activities, one that would likely prove as captivating and revealing as this vital first episode.
Despite the frequently bleak events covered by I Don't Believe in Anarchy, one of its major achievements is to convey just how exciting and fun it must have been to be part of the Siberian punk scene, to wage righteous war against the sheer absurdity of the Soviet system. ‘We felt like outlaws, like rock rebels,’ Sergei Letov told me this summer. But it is Konstantin Ryabinov, the band member who was forced to join the Soviet army, who puts it best, in one of the film’s closing scenes. ‘We laughed absolutely all the time,’ Ryabinov recalls. ’Constantly. Constantly. Because it was all so funny.’
I Don't Believe in Anarchy: (dir. Natalia Chumakova and Anna Tsyrlina, 2014. Beat Films)
An earlier version of this article referred to the film by the Russian translation, 'Big Time and Forever.' It is known in English as 'I Don't Believe in Anarchy'