In-depth | Serbia

Russian post-punk echoes in Serbia

By - 28.02.2023

How members of Russia’s alternative scene found a new beginning in Serbia.

In February 2020, just a month before a state of emergency was declared in Serbia due to the outbreak of the pandemic, the first concert of the Belarusian band Molchat Doma took place in Belgrade.

They are one of a number of alternative music bands that — amidst the general 1980s revival in pop culture across the last decade — draws inspiration from one the key genres of the underground scene of the period: post-punk.

Raw sounds you would expect from a cassette tape, deep voices and imagery full of brutalist architecture attracted both those who had been exposed to bands like Joy Division in their rebellious teenage years and new fans drawn to the exoticism of Russian-language lyrics.

The internationally popular Molchat Doma, is just one of a number of groups from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and that have been sailing on New Wave and post-punk since the early 2010s.

Other groups, including Ploho and Electroforez, have been filling clubs and concert halls for a decade in Russia and worldwide. More than two years after Molchat Doma’s performance at the Belgrade venue Drugstore in February 2020, which many fans remember as the last concert before pandemic isolation, Viktor Uzhakov and his Ploho bandmates got their first chance to perform in Serbia.

“After we arrived in Belgrade, we were depressed because of the situation,” he said. “I knew I had to start working”, Stepan Kazaryan said. Photo: Tanja Drobnjak / K2.0

Two sold-out concerts late last year at the Belgrade venue Elektropionir were a surprise for the band and organizer Stepan Kazaryan, a founder of the company Connected Agency.

With over a decade of experience organizing music festivals in Russia, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, Kazaryan has turned to the scene in Serbia.

Gathering in exile

In March 2022, Kazaryan arrived in Serbia with the first wave of Russian migrants who had decided to leave their country, or rather were forced to do so by circumstances.

“The night before Russian troops entered Ukraine, a few of us were sitting in a bar talking about whether war would actually happen,” he recalled. “I knew then that I would leave [Russia] if it came to that. But it was not easy to do. Just one day later, in a pause between panic attacks, my then-girlfriend, now wife, and I bought tickets to Belgrade and flew off on March first.”

A political scientist by education, Kazaryan was aware of the limited options available. It did not take long for him to choose Belgrade. The difficult decision about his move was complicated by his work. After dozens of concerts and festivals organized in Russia and a series of canceled events originally scheduled for 2022, he found himself in a partially familiar environment working in Serbia but without clear plans or job security.

“Immediately after we arrived in Belgrade, we were depressed because of the situation,” he said. “I knew I had to start working, and since I already knew some bands from the region, it was not hard for me to get in touch with the local scene. Already in the summer we started organizing smaller gigs in Belgrade.”

Connected Agency found its place on the map of Belgrade’s alternative stages in the first half of October, when the Changeover Music Festival took place.

The festival hosted bands from 19 countries to perform at popular venues, including Drugstore and the Dom Omladine. However, the festival didn’t come together completely smoothly because many musicians were hesitant to perform alongside Russian acts.

Outrage at the fullscale Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a strong anti-Russian backlash, particularly in Western Europe and the United States. Calls to sanction Russia politically and economically have shifted into broader arguments against Russian arts, culture and sports. Anti-Putin or anti-war Russian musicians, many of whom have fled Russia, have found themselves caught up in this cultural shift.

Nationalizing art and canceled concerts

When the Russian band Ploho released their new album last year and began preparation for a tour, the new political and cultural reality confronted them at a German airport. The group’s tickets to Mexico, where they had several scheduled gigs, were canceled by Lufthansa on the grounds that current policy requires them to not transport Russian citizens.

“Our album ‘When the Soul Sleeps’ is imbued with extremely pacifist notes,” Victor Uzhakov explained. Photo: Tanja Drobnjak / K2.0

Their tour had sold-out multiple venues and they had their visas in order, but Victor Uzhakov and his bandmates had to return from Germany to Serbia to await further developments.

This opened the doors to a new phenomenon in Belgrade: since November of last year there is at least one concert of Russian artists and often several smaller gigs and parties each week. Organizer Kazaryan said he doesn’t have to bring these bands to Belgrade. They are already there and eager to perform.

Ploho’s Victor Uzhakov has built an image on stage, in line with his music, of a dark melancholic with a deep voice — a Russian Ian Curtis, though subtler in dance and modest and pleasant in conversation. Though he’s always nervous before a performance, the encouraging Belgrade audience helps him to fight his stage fright.

Ploho’s tour was meant to promote their recently released album “When the Soul Sleeps,” released last year. Recording and mixing took place in the spring and summer of 2022 in a studio where countless underground Russian bands recorded their music in the 1980s.

“I arrived in Belgrade ‘only’ in September and felt a kind of judgment from various sides about why I hadn’t left Russia earlier,” Uzhakov said. Family and friends kept him in the country, as well as a desire to finish recording the band’s album-in-progress.

After arriving in Belgrade, he was forced to sell his studio in Russia and it wasn’t easy to find new space in Belgrade, which meant that work on new recordings had to be slowed down. In addition, their tour faced obstacles at every turn.

Ploho @ Retronouveau Festival. Photo: Courtesy of Fralgeri.

After the cancellation of the Mexico tour, a festival in Eastern Europe initially welcomed them, but then considered canceling their performance after the organizers were flooded with negative comments on social media. Soon other acts dropped out of the festival, not wanting to be associated with artists from Russia.

“We felt terrible when we heard about it. Although we understand the festival organizers have to take care of other artists, because we aren’t the only ones performing there, the album ‘When the Soul Sleeps’ is imbued with extremely pacifist notes,” Uzhakov said.

In the end the festival didn’t cancel their performance. Their tour has been going since the beginning of the year and after a February concert in Novi Sad, Ploho will continue with concerts in Western Europe as well.

Vitaly Talyzin and Ivan Kurochkin, members of the Russian synth-pop/post-punk duo Electroforez, have had to cancel concerts too.

Now geographically separated — Kurochkin lives with his family in Georgia while Talyzin is in Belgrade — the two had previously intended to tour Russia last year to mark their tenth anniversary as a band. The concerts did not take place because the artists fled Russia after February 2022. This was the continuation of other cancellations. Their Siberian tour, planned a few years ago, was canceled first because of the pandemic, and then again due to the war.

Vizaly Talyzin feels optimistic about coming to Serbia. Photo: Tanja Drobnjak / K2.0

Kazaryan has only announced one Electroforez concert in Belgrade, but Talyzin is optimistic. He’s found a silver lining to his arrival in Serbia. Two years ago he toured the Balkans, and although his return to the region occurred under terrible circumstances, he’s been able to connect with new artists and musicians from Russia and the broader region.

A recharged international scene

The person perhaps most responsible for developing the scene of exiled Russian artists and the popularization of the Russian alternative scene in Belgrade is Vasily Yakovenko, who moved to Belgrade in 2015.

Yakovenko is a programmer, a musician and a former member of the popular Russian post-punk band Motorama. Among other things, he has organized numerous alternative tourist tours in Belgrade. His Instagram page serves as an alternative city guide that is detailed enough to be useful for both new residents and long-time Belgraders.

In his popular Telegram group “Žarko Tusić” (Russian slang roughly translated as “hot party”) he also posts news about parties and cultural events in Belgrade, with weekly schedules going up on Mondays.

Vasily Yakovenko reports on events around the city via social media. Photo: Tanja Drobnjak / K2.0

These Russian artists’ audiences in Serbia currently mainly consist of Russian citizens, most of whom have moved to the country in the last year. But the increasing song requests made in faulty Russian at the concerts and the welcome at venues of all sizes attests to the growing connection with the local scene and audience.

This “Russian network” is becoming less and less a separate scene of artists together in exile and is increasingly connected to local initiatives in Belgrade and Novi Sad. 

Serbia has been criticized for remaining open to Russians and to Russia and for not joining in the Western European censuring and sanctioning of Putin and his government. But this open door has allowed many of Putin’s domestic critics to find refuge. And much as White Russian refugees enriched Belgrade’s cultural sphere a century ago, now anti-war and anti-Putin Russians in the tech sphere, in culture and in post-punk music, are part of a small cultural transformation and rejuvenation in Serbia.

Feature image: Tanja Drobnjak / K2.0.