Russian underground chronicler Artemy Troitsky talks to Ilia Rogatchevski about Leto, Kirill Serebrennikov's new film documenting the 1980s Soviet rock scene
Artemy Troitsky is a Russian music journalist, cultural critic and video blogger. He is the author of books such as Back In The USSR: The True Story Of Rock In Russia (1987), Tusovka: Who’s Who In The New Soviet Rock Culture (1990) and Subkultura: Stories Of Youth And Resistance In Russia (2017). Troitsky began his career in the early 1980s and is closely associated with the rising wave of Soviet rock musicians, who came to prominence during this time. Two key artists from this period were Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko, chief songwriters and frontmen of the bands Kino and Zoopark, respectively. The two men had a close working relationship and both died young, in tragic, but unrelated circumstances, at the beginning of the 1990s.
Kino are a true phenomenon. Rock was an illicit artform in the Soviet Union before the 1980s and the band shot to popularity in Mikhael Gorbachev’s Perestroika era begun in 1985. Fusing elements of new wave, post punk and pop, with lyrics that articulated the defiance of the Russian soul, Kino’s music captured the ambiguous divide between totalitarianism and an uncertain future. Naumenko’s Zoopark also reflected the disaffection of Soviet youth, but whereas Kino’s legacy extends far beyond its original context, Zoopark’s music struggles to resonate with young Russians today due to Naumenko’s frosty intellectual detachment.
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Leto (Summer, 2018), is based on the recollections of Naumenko’s widow Natasha. Set in the summer of 1982, around the time when Kino recorded their debut album 45, the plot focuses on Tsoi and Naumenko’s working relationship. There is, however, an additional dimension to the story: a love triangle between Tsoi, Naumenko and Natasha. Even before its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the movie managed to generate waves of controversy from people who knew the protagonists personally. Musicians such as Boris Grebenshchikov, of the band Akvarium, and Aleksei Rybin, who co-founded Kino with Tsoi in 1981, criticised the screenplay for being unfaithful to true events.
Prior to the completion of filming, on 22 August 2017 Serebrennikov was arrested by the Russian authorities on charges of fraud. His theatre company Sedmaya Studiya (Studio Seven) is accused of embezzling 133 million rubles (£1.5 million) of government grants. It has been suggested that the arrest was a repressive reaction to Serebrennikov’s previous film The Student (2016), which is heavily critical of the Orthodox church and the Russian education system. The above charges are unrelated to Leto, but the scandal has helped to generate hype around the film. Serebrennikov was forced to complete it under house arrest and remains incarcerated while awaiting trial to this day.
Meanwhile, Leto has been praised by critics at home and abroad. Its soundtrack, which was produced by the contemporary Russian rock band Zveri (the band’s frontman Roman Bilyk plays the lead role of Naumenko in the film) won a prize at Cannes. It features covers of classic compositions by not only Tsoi and Naumenko, but also Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Talking Heads. A spin-off documentary by Serebrennikov about the making of the film called Posle Leta (After Summer) was released in Russian cinemas on the 6 September 2018. Artemy Troitsky worked both as a consultant on Leto and was interviewed for Posle Leta.
Ilia Rogatchevski spoke to him about the cultural fallout of Serebrennikov’s project.
Ilia Rogatchevski: You worked as a consultant on the film Leto. When did Serebrennikov ask you to work with him and what did this role involve?
Artemy Troitsky: Kirill Serebrennikov, whom I have known for at least 15 years, called me around January or February 2017. He told me about the film, asked to check the script and give permission to ‘use my character’ in the movie. He also suggested that I take part in the shoot, because initially he wanted to mix the actors with the real 1980s people.
Can you share any details about the shoot?
I was present at the shoots in Saint Petersburg (September 2017, Rock Club) and winter 2017/18 in Moscow for the kvartirnik [scene, an unauthorised concert in a private apartment – Ed]. In both cases, I've done big on-camera interviews with Sceptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), which later were used in the documentary Posle Leta. The atmosphere and the vibe at the shootings were great, very enthusiastic, but rather unlike ‘the real thing’.
What was ‘the real thing’ like?
Quite impossible or too long to explain.
Was there always an idea to make a concurrent documentary, or do you think Serebrennikov suspected there may be dislike angled towards Leto from the old guard and he wanted to answer it preemptively?
Posle Leta was an improvisation. Initially, the idea was to make one film, as usual, and mix the actors and comments from the vosmidesyatniki [the generation of artists and intellectuals living and working in the 1980s – Ed]. Later it appeared that there is way too much material. Leto is over two hours long. Serebrennikov decided to put together a separate documentary for the same budget.
What were your initial thoughts on the screenplay? Did they match those of Boris Grebenshchikov and Aleksei Rybin?
The ‘affair’ between Natasha Naumenko (Irina Starshenbaum) and Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) was, as we all think, Natasha’s fantasy. No one among the closest friends – Aleksei Rybin included – knew about it.
Why do you think they responded so negatively to it?
Building the whole plot around a love triangle that did not exist was, well, dodgy. Hence the reaction.
In one of your video blogs you said that ‘out of every screenplay, even the worst kind, you can make a good movie’. Do you feel this is the case with Leto?
Yes, this is what I think now too. This is the reason why: despite obvious questions about the script – I told Serebrennikov straight away that there was no love story – I agreed to work with them. Serebrennikov is an extraordinary director and I believed he would produce something worthwhile.
Were you at all surprised by Serebrennikov’s arrest? How did this affect the production of the film?
Indeed, everyone was shocked about the arrest! It was absolutely unexpected. But soon they learned how to cope with it. All the footage was immediately sent to Serebrennikov and he made commands by phone or internet. It was really complicated but they managed.
As somebody who has lived through the Soviet period, how do you think the repressions of that time compare to Russia today?
The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, there was total control. The Russian Federation is a hybrid totalitarian state. The authorities choose what to control and who to punish. And it's not always predictable, like in the Serebrennikov case – he was never an outspoken oppositional activist.
Do you feel that Serebrennikov's film interpretation gets across the atmosphere of the time?
Most objections regarding Leto deal with factual details not the general feeling. I think it’s simply impossible to ideally recreate the atmosphere of 35 years ago, but it was a good try.
Why do you think Tsoi's legacy still resonates with young people today, but Naumenko has largely been forgotten?
Tsoi and Kino were a great pop band, with remarkable melodic hooks and a straight, positive romantic image. They were like the Beatles. Mike Naumenko was like Lou Reed: an intellectual songwriter, way too ironic, subversive and negativistic for a general audience.
In a previous interview you noted that ‘total internal emigration’ was an important tool for Soviet musicians to experience freedom. Do you think this is still true for underground musicians working today?
Inner emigration is still fine, but I feel that the new generation is in a less escapist mood. Those who want to emigrate, do emigrate. It’s easy now. But those who remain – at least many of them are ready to fight.
What did you think about Leto's soundtrack?
The soundtrack sounds too good to my ears. I would rather stick to the original bad quality tapes. But again it's a respectable try. It isn’t khaltura (a hack job), and could have been much worse.
Do you think that the addition of bands such as Glintshake and Shortparis in the soundtrack was an attempt to draw parallels between underground music in the 1980s and now?
Well, I noticed Shortparis at the acid party scene at the end of the film but I don’t recall Glintshake. [Glintshake do not appear on screen, but their cover of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” soundtracks the film’s riotous train scene – Ed] Both bands are good, totally unlike the 1980s Soviet groups, and do not look completely out of place in the movie. Probably the purists hate it, but I think it is a funny trick. It kind of symbolises the connection of two gloomy periods in Russian history and the young rebels’ reaction to it.
Leto will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 14 and 15 October 2018.