Happy Birthday, Viktor Tsoi

My first visit to Moscow in February 1991 was a trip into a surreal world. Red banners were the only color on gray city streets. It was easier to send a telegram to my parents in America than to make an overseas phone call. And an exchange student’s monthly stipend was more than what a Russian scientist could hope to make in a whole year.  Amid so much strangeness, I was hardly surprised to discover that the Soviet Union’s greatest rock star was, like me, half Korean.

Viktor Tsoi (Choi in the common English transliteration) was killed in a car accident in 1990 at the age of 28. His group Kino (Cinema) had written the soundtrack to Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of perestroika (restructuring).

Simple songs about the longing for freedom or love evoked the activism of Bob Dylan and the naivete of The Beatles. After his death, Tsoi approached the superstar martyrdom of Jim Morrison, his bushy head of hair adorning the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms across the Soviet Union.

Tsoi would have been 50 years old today. To think of him with a graying mane and growing paunch is as absurd an exercise as imagining a middle-aged James Dean or Kurt Cobain. Above all Tsoi embodied youth – Russian youth – and its uncompromising idealism against the cynicism and complacency of its parents’ generation.

Viktor Tsoi embodied youth – Russian youth – and its uncompromising idealism against the cynicism and complacency of its parents’ generation

Tsoi hasn’t lost in popularity in the 22 years since his death. His songs resound from car radios, street musicians and nightclubs. Tonight, state-run Channel One will broadcast a film with previously unreleased Tsoi recordings, followed by one of his last concerts.

Back in 1991, the only way to acquire Tsoi’s music was to go to a street kiosk and buy a cassette tape that had been recorded from a dubious master tape on a double-cassette deck. This past winter, I bought Tsoi’s entire oeuvre on CD. His songs about the need for social and political change had gained new currency amid the biggest anti-government protests in post-communist Russia. (Click here for a video of his song “I Want Changes.”)

During my first trip to Moscow, the young Russians I met understood that life couldn’t continue as before, but nobody knew how to change a system as gigantic and inflexible as the Soviet Union. Less than a year later, it collapsed all on its own.

Tsoi died before the Soviet Union did. But his music is just as alive today as it was in the last days of communism.

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