If they’re feeling nostalgic, the children of the Soviet Union can voyage to the past via the portals of YouTube, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp. Programmed drum machines map out their journeys, wavy synthesizers illuminate their memories. In an instant, the play button brings back a world that lingers in their minds and in their lives — a world that vanished almost overnight.
Back in early 2020, during the uneasy feeling of Germany’s first lockdown, Stuttgart-based musician Michal Trávníček was killing the hours by doing what we all have done — spiraling down a YouTube hole. As fate had it, the algorithmic gatekeepers led him to a mix of songs by various artists under a curious banner: Sovietwave.
The music, matched with pictures of Soviet-era architecture, immediately brought back memories of growing up in a khrushchyovka in Bohemia, then a region of Czechoslovakia. Drifting into the electronic soundscapes, Trávníček envisioned himself on a park bench, watching classic Škodas and Ladas drive by, the badly dressed 1980s teens with mullets hanging around, and babushkas shuffling along with their grocery shopping.
“All of a sudden, a distant memory became so present that inside of me,” Trávníček tells me in an email, “I felt the drive to start making this exact kind of music and contribute to this scene I had never known existed.” Today he releases Sovietwave music under the moniker Клет.
Music and Melancholy
About fifteen years ago, a web of electronic music microgenres, sometimes grouped under the umbrella term “retrowave,” began manifesting in strange corners of the internet and beyond. While the borders between synthwave, vaporwave, chillwave, etc., can be murky and hard to define, what unites them is the influence of 1980s American pop culture.
Synthwave revisits the daring tech-noir future envisioned in science fiction by the likes of John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, and Vangelis, ratcheting up the retro aesthetic by adding accompanying images of convertible sports cars beneath palm trees, driving toward neon sunsets on perspective grid terrain. Vaporwave deploys cheesy Muzak and co-opted corporate symbolism to sardonically roast consumerist culture.
If you can believe it, there’s even such a thing as Simpsonwave, an internet meme that warps clips from the show that helped shape the childhoods of almost every Western kid born after 1979 and adds a spaced-out soundtrack.
Retrowave is tinged with a sense of longing and melancholy for the past. It’s like a mix of memories that the brain meshed into one perfect image. Then there’s Sovietwave — music primarily, though not exclusively, forged by artists from ex-Soviet states that blooms with nostalgia for the USSR.
Sovietwave is sometimes mischaracterized as electronica made beyond the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. While certain artists from that era, such as composer Eduard Artemyev and the band Кино (Kino), do act as important precursors, this is a contemporary phenomenon. It exists almost entirely on the internet, created by faceless bohemians happy to roam the digital underground, utilizing online platforms to circulate their art with little or no notion of commercial prosperity.
Sovietwave music and its accompanying artwork lean on classic aesthetics: retrofuturism, brutalist architecture, the space race. Some compositions sample old TV news clips, speeches, and cartoons for a more direct summoning of the past. But most songs don’t need such obvious signposts to capture a sense of romanticism for the era.
A Future That Has Never Been
Like other forms of retrowave, Sovietwave is punctuated by feelings of lost innocence and regret, in this case about the fall of communism. As Клет (sometimes spelled KLET) puts it, “Sovietwave is the nostalgia for the past and also a future that has never been.”
This is music that’s soothing on the ear, combating the tired cliche that the old Eastern Bloc was endlessly grim, gray, and monotonous. Themes of space exploration and the technological achievement of man further its beauty. Many tracks capture the loneliness and enchantment of outer space, with the grand synth lines representing its infinite nature, the beeps and blips sounding like analogue communications coming through as you gaze at the Earth from orbit.
From Belarus, the artist Буран (or Buran) ostensibly took their moniker from the Soviet space shuttle, which was mothballed after a single unmanned flight in 1988. Priroda is named after a module of the Mir space station. Клет’s first album has songs dedicated to Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik.
Then there’s Наукоград (or Naukograd), two producers — Ilya Orange and Fireya — based in Moscow. Their name translates to “science city,” a term for towns specifically built by the Soviet Union to include high concentrations of research and development facilities for the pursuit of science.
Listening to Sovietwave music invokes a sense of wonder for technology that Western pop culture seems to have lost since Michael Bay somehow made autonomous robots that can transform into vehicles the most uninteresting thing in the world.
Building Bridges With the Past
To those living in a Western bubble, Soviet nostalgia might seem strange. Why wouldn’t it when so much effort goes into ensuring the simple binary myth of good American capitalism and bad Russian socialism endures? Or that Soviet achievements are never disentangled from the horrors of Stalinism? Yet 66 percent of Russians surveyed in 2018 said that they regret the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism.
Dr Sudha Rajagopalan, a senior lecturer at the University of Amsterdam with research interests in Soviet culture, suggests that we see the standard Western perspective as a form of propaganda:
If the Russian government were doing it, we would call it propaganda, right? But for some reason we are more hesitant to use that word when it comes to Western governments. But I would call it propaganda. It’s perhaps more subtle, it’s perhaps more diffuse, but it does work. It works through the corporate sector, it works through corporate media, but it’s certainly a kind of propaganda.
The past couple of decades has witnessed a movement in Russia to resurrect a sense of a great history. For Vladimir Putin and the kind of nationalism he feeds, this is a nostalgia that’s linked to the memory of being a global power. But for the young people scavenging for various aspects of Soviet culture, it comes from a desire to experience what they, or their parents, remember with warmth.
“What they’re essentially doing in this kind of nostalgia is trying to build bridges with the past that they have been told repeatedly does not count for very much,” says Dr Rajagopalan:
In the 1990s, there was a sense you couldn’t talk about the Soviet Union as though it was a positive epoch. A lot of the nostalgia since then has been an attempt to undo that project. There were aspects of that Soviet period that are unimaginable now, but everyday life for many Soviet people was something that they do remember with great fondness. They remember it was a time of a great spirit of community, a time when people did creative things.
This nostalgia wears many cloaks. There has been a clutch of movies depicting Soviet achievements in the space race: see The Age of Pioneers, a biopic on cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first human to perform a space walk; or Salyut 7, an exaggerated depiction of a 1985 mission that saw a space station docked with and brought back into service for the first time. Both films came out in 2017.
There’s Russian TV station Nostalgiya, which exclusively airs Soviet-era programming. The logo is even stylized to include the hammer and sickle. I’m a member of the Facebook group Soviet Posters, where various artwork is shared.
Old music has earned cult appreciation online. Take the Funked Up East YouTube channel, which posts old jazz, funk, and electronic music from countries like Bulgaria and (what was) Yugoslavia. And, you won’t be surprised to hear, there are stacks of Soviet memes out there.
The audience for this stuff does not just lie within the old Eastern Bloc. Sovietwave listeners plug in from other corners of the planet, using the music to connect with a world they’ll never truly experience, perhaps seeking respite from capitalism’s relentless corrosion of what they value, or just intoxicated by the aesthetic.
Ivan Pavletsov is the head of Soviett Records in St Petersburg, a label that has dropped Sovietwave music from the likes of 20 Years and TELEGIMNASTIKA. He tells me his streaming metrics pick up rising interest in the phenomenon way beyond Russia’s borders: “I am sure that many lovers of this style put their gaze on Russian labels, because our country was a part of the USSR some time ago.”
It’s a yearning that manifests in different forms. Take the kind of alt-tourism that has developed, where pilgrims journey to some of the remaining monuments to communism, such as Buzludzha, an unearthly, UFO-like megalith on top of a mountain, built in the Balkans by the Bulgarian Communist Party. Or the spomeniks, a series of war memorials located throughout old Yugoslavia.
“It’s not just this [Buzludzha] monument,” said historian Kristen R. Ghodsee in an interview with Jacobin in December:
It’s many different monuments, symbols, movies, and all sorts of cultural artifacts of this era that recapture a sense of optimism and a futuristic, utopian outlook that gets us out of the morass of what people call late-stage capitalism. There is a reason why people are gravitating to symbols of the socialist past. It’s not just kitsch or irony. It’s about trying to go back and capture some of the utopian spirit of these earlier generations, because we need it really badly right now.
Between Two Worlds
Not everyone who engages with Soviet nostalgia wants to resurrect the Union, of course. The truth is more nuanced and complex than can be worked out in a three-minute song or two-hour movie.
“These are not people who are unhappy with the way things are in their totality,” says Dr Rajagopalan. “But they don’t want us to dismiss this entire period as if nothing good came out of it, because their parents do remember many good things about growing up in Soviet times.” Pavletsov puts it this way: “For some, it was a time of restrictions. For others, it was a time of social solidarity and unity.”
Michal Trávníček aka Клет reflects this gradation in sentiment. “Being a kid, I felt alienated constantly switching between those two worlds,” he says. Trávníček’s grandfather had been a member of the Communist Party and kept proudly reminding him of how young Michal waved a black flag at the nursery when Leonid Brezhnev died (“I was too young to remember,” he admits). It was his father who convinced his mother to flee to the West in the 1980s, where she was told she would have both a housekeeper and the opportunity to travel the world. As things transpired, neither of those things happened for her.
“We all know all that glitters is not gold, and we for sure had our own problems too,” says Trávníček.
But what strikes me most about the Soviet Union is that no matter which country you visit today, a high percentage of the older generation, regardless of political views, will most likely be telling you that life under the Soviet Union was safer and better. People are struggling and feel left alone, when there used to be a state that provided for its citizens. I’m not a political person, but anyone who witnessed life in that socialist society throughout the entire Eastern Bloc will acknowledge that, compared to nowadays, we had lower crime rates, less social differences, and families had a foundation.
It’s at the same time weird and funny that Sovietwave helps me digest my childhood memories. To me, it’s some sort of therapy. These things seem to be gone nowadays, but they live inside of us.