Tsoi lives! USSR’s greatest rockstar

Written by on January 20, 2012 in Arts

One of the pioneers of rock and roll in the Soviet Union has a very unusual non-Russian name: Viktor Tsoi. Tsoi is in fact one of many Romanisations of the Korean surname 최.

Viktor Tsoi was born in Leningrad in 1962 to a Russian woman and her Soviet Korean husband. Leader of the band Кино (Kino, Russian for “Cinema”), he changed the face of Russian popular music through the ’80s until his untimely death in 1990. Even today, it’s common to see “Цой жив (Tsoi Lives)” spraypainted on walls across Russia. He even has his own wall in Arbat Street in Moscow, which was historically a meeting place of Russian countercultures such as punks and hippies.

The Tsoi Wall on Arbat Street.

So where did he come from? How could one of the most legendary musicians of the Soviet Union have a Korean name? In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Korean migration to Russia was very common. Many Koreans fled during the decline of the Joseon Dynasty, and the numbers grew as Imperial Japan took hold of Korea. Even the Bolshevik Revolution didn’t deter Korean immigrants, known as Koryo-saram (or just Koryo-in), and the numbers of Koreans in the Russian Far East continued to grow until 1931, when the USSR halted all immigration from Korea and required Korean migrants to naturalise. In 1937, over fear that Japanese spies were infiltrating the USSR, the Koryo-in were forced to move either back to Japan-controlled Korea or Manchukuo, or relocate to Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The majority, who took the second option, suffered many hardships, but they managed to rebuild their former lives, as well as form a cohesive cultural identity. Soviet schools taught their children in Russian, and later generations mostly lost the ability to speak Korean. Today, there is an estimated 500,000 Koryo-in living in the former Soviet Republics.

Anyway, enough history. Back to Viktor Tsoi.

When I first heard his music, I found it a bit depressing and droning. But, the more I listened, the more I could hear the humour in Tsoi’s voice. Russian rock started in the ’60s, but its golden age is considered to be the ’80s, and it really took off under Glasnost and Perestroika, propelling Tsoi and other rockers to stardom in the newfound openness of Soviet culture. It branched off from what we think of as rock in the West, becoming less driven by the instruments and emphasising lyrics. Melody is sacrificed in favour of an impassioned delivery, and Tsoi’s own monotonous vocal style became a defining characteristic, often imitated.

Tsoi started writing songs at the age of 17, and he went to underground concerts in Leningrad. Rock music was unsurprisingly unpopular with the Communist government, which preferred to support pop acts that wouldn’t question the establishment or inspire nonconformity. Tsoi was confined mostly to performing at parties. He was expelled from school for having poor grades, partly due to his involvement in the rock scene.

But how many of his teachers wound up on their own postage stamp?

He got his start playing at the Leningrad Rock Club in 1982, and after his first solo performance (backed by two members of the band Aquarium), he started Kino. Their first album, recorded in Tsoi’s apartment, was named “45,” after its total runtime.

His song “Электричка (Elektrichka, or Suburban Electric Train)” is about a man stuck on a train taking him where he doesn’t want to go, which was a metaphor for Soviet life. It was banned from being performed live, but it earned him the respect of the anti-establishment movement.

Yesterday I went to bed very late, today I got up early,
Yesterday I went to bed very late, I didn’t almost sleep.
Perhaps I must to go to doctor in the morning,
And now elektrichka takes me to somewhere I don’t want to.

Translation excerpt taken from LyricsTranslate. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

Early in his career, Tsoi said the problem with music was that nobody was taking chances. He sought to break new ground, and many of his songs had a political bent.

Kino won a competition with the song “Я объявляю свой дом … [безъядерной зоной] (I Declare My Home… [a nuclear-free zone]),” which resonated with Soviet youths who were at the time dying by the thousands in the war with Afghanistan.

I declare my house a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my courtyard a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my town a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my…

Translated by myself in Babylon. Also, I have no idea where that animation comes from.

Tsoi and Kino wallowed in obscurity until the arrival of 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, and social and economic reforms like Glasnost and Perestroika that opened up Soviet society, allowing discussion of political issues and rock music. Tsoi took advantage of the new openness in his song “[Хотим/требуем] перемен! (We Demand Changes),” calling on the younger generation to demand reforms to the current system.

Instead of fire, there’s only smoke.
Instead of warmth, cold.
Another day is crossed out on the calendar grid.
The red shining sun has completely burned out,
And this day goes out with it,
And over a glowing city, the shadow will fall.
We want changes! It’s the demand of our hearts.
We want changes! It’s the demand of our eyes.
In our laughter, in our tears, and the pulse in our veins.
We want changes! And changes will begin.

Translation excerpt taken from this very excellent Canadian fan site. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

Of course, not all of Tsoi’s lyrics were political. Many of his more notable songs were about personal issues and matters that were important to him. Maybe that’s what he was getting at in this song, “Фильмы (Movies).”

You look at me again,
But I’m looking forward
You tell me that I look just like an actor..
You’re calling me, but I’m going home
I knew it would be bad
But I didn’t realize it would be so soon..

Translation excerpt taken from the same fan site. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

As the Soviet Union opened up, Viktor Tsoi’s stardom shone brighter. In 1987, Tsoi appeared in the film Assa by Sergei Solovyov, and Kino released their seventh album, Blood Type, their most political album yet. He starred in and provided the soundtrack for the 1988 film The Needle, in which he played a character who returns to Kazakhstan and ends up trying to help his ex-girlfriend kick her morphine habit, which puts him at odds with the local mafia kingpin. Here’s a clip from the movie in which he performs his song “Группа крови (Blood Type).” Spoilers, but this video probably gives away the film’s ending.

My blood type is marked on my sleeve,
My ordinal number is marked on my sleeve,
Wish me luck in the fight,
So I don’t stay here in the grass
Wish me luck…

Translation excerpt taken from the same fan site. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

Despite all of his fame, Viktor Tsoi still lived a humble life. Throughout his time in the spotlight, he kept his old job working in the boiler room of an apartment building. He claimed to enjoy the work, and he still needed money to support the band, since Kino still received no government support and their albums were distribed through copying. Kino’s second album was called “Начальник Камчатки (Boiler Room Operator),” after his lifelong career, and he sang about the wonders of being in a boiler room in the song “Камчатка (The Boiler).”

Oh, such a strange place, “Kamchatka,”
Oh, such a sweet word, “Kamchatka.”
I’ve found rich ore here, I’ve found love here,
I tried to forget, and I did, but once again
I remember that dog love, it’s like a star,
So let it be..

Translation excerpt taken from the fan site. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

His songs crossed ethnic and language barriers, and copies circulating through the USSR were translated into the local languages. Many of his songs were even sung in different languages or reinterpreted. For instance, a version of “Звезда по имени Солнце (The Star Called Sun)” has been recorded in English by Brazzaville, and the Udmurt language by Buranovskie Babushki. This song was the title track of Kino’s second-final album, which focused more on personal struggles and had a wistful, sometimes sinister mood.

And we know, that it’s always been so,
That Fate loves the one
Who lives by his own rules,
The one who dies young..
He doesn’t remember the words “yes” or “no”,
He doesn’t remember ranks nor names,
And he could reach the stars,
Not realizing, that it was a dream,
And to fall down dead, burned by a star
Named the Sun…

Translation excerpt taken from the fan site. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

Viktor Tsoi wouldn’t live to see the release of Kino’s final album, Чёрный альбом (Black Album). In August 1990 he recorded the vocals in Latvia, and had to get it back to Leningrad for the rest of the band to record its musical score. Before he could make it back, his car collided with a bus and he died instantly. An investigation concluded that he had fallen asleep at the wheel, and had definitely not been drunk.

The tape was recovered, and the band decided to complete the album as a final tribute to their singer. An urban legend states that the tape was found in the wreck of his car, but this is unlikely as the car was so totalled, one of the tires was never found. Guitarist Yuri Kasparyan claims he had the tape in his own car. Maybe prophetically, one of the songs on it, “Кукушка (Cuckoo),” talks about the impermanence of life and unpredictability of death. If the Youtube comments are to be believed, this video comes from Kino’s final “performance” after Tsoi’s death, in which the new album was played on an empty stage.

How many songs are there yet to come?
Tell me, cuckoo, and sing…
Where am I to live, where am I to die?
Lying on the ground, or flying like a star in the sky?

Translation excerpt taken from the fan site. Visit the page for full song lyrics.

Tsoi died at the age of 28, one year too late to join the 27 Club — a list of influential musicians who died at the age of 27 including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrisson, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse — but he should be considered every bit as important in music history as any of them.

Tsoi introduced an empire to a musical style that no one else had been willing or able to make. He helped pave the way for modern Russian music, and some might even say he helped Russians down the path to democracy. Today his songs are legendary, and when young Russian musicians learn to play guitar they learn how to play his songs. He’s even been covered by Korean artists such as Hahn Dae-soo and Yoon Do-hyun Band.

The day after Tsoi’s death, the Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a eulogy that demonstrates the impact he had.

Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock.

I originally intended for this post to be about Korean diaspora musicians around the world. It didn’t take much time to realise that Viktor Tsoi is in a category of his own. Not many of the other names that came up had established quite the legacy of Tsoi (the one exception being Cui Jian, but I decided to leave him for a future article where I can devote enough attention to him).

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats