Little-known outside of the former-USSR but an enduring presence inside the borders of the former 'evil empire', perhaps the biggest rock star of the late Soviet years was a young ethnic Korean: Viktor Tsoi
The late USSR’s biggest rock star – inhabiting a cultural space somewhere in the middle of Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and James Dean – was Viktor Robertovich Tsoi, descended from Koreans originally from what is now the DPRK, specifically the city now known as Kim Chaek, in North Hamgyong Province, a place still close to foreigners but which we pass through on our Trans-DPRK Train Tour). Tsoi remains hugely well-know and loved, influential, and near universally-admired even 27 years after his death at the age of just 28.
Born in then-Leningrad Tsoi started performing early, in middle school, and attended drama college as well. However after being kicked out he worked menial jobs to get by, and even at the height of his fame and success still kept his job as a boiler maintenance man (a true proletarian then, something that may have gained him respect among traditionalists – not his normal audience, but would have been undermined by his having himself committed to an asylum briefly to avoid the Afghan war draft). A chance meeting with Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov (of the band Aquarium) though saw his big break become real. He formed the band Kino in 1982 and over the next 8 years would transform the rock scene of the USSR as well as youth-culture itself, riding the wave of the country opening up and people’s curiosity about previously unacceptable forms of entertainment and cultural expression
Tsoi’s and Kino’s songs, lyrical messages, and general vibe were directed squarely at the youth of the country. Encouraging them and inspiring them to choose their own direction, to rebel, to simply be young. These were words that had not been heard before apart from on the samizdat tapes of western acts, and when it comes from one of your own it usually means more and carries more weight. With his good looks, rebellious air (despite being conventionally married and with a young son) Tsoi simply embodied what it was to be a rock star. It is no exaggeration to say that if he sang in English he would probably have had a similar impact in the western world as well as in the Soviet one. Kino did tour internationally, but their level of fame never came close to the success they enjoyed in Russia, sold out stadium concerts and so on made them legitimately the biggest band in the country as the 80s drew to a close
But music was not the only string to Tsoi’s bow; he could also act as well. His one film role (apart from cameos) was in the subversive and exceptional film the Needle (Игла). In this he played a man who heads to Almaty in Kazakhstan (you too can follow in his footsteps with our new tour to Kazakhstan! Where we will also visit the monument to Viktor Tsoi pictured at the top of this post), to collect on a debt and ends up battling the mafia who have turned his girlfriend into a junkie. It’s a star-making role and a fun bit of entertainment that holds up well to this day. Subversive and gritty, it was directed by Kazakh director-turned-dissident Rashid Nugmanov who these days spends his time working to democratise the former USSR. The whole film can be found on YouTube here and a trailer can be watched below.
Tragedy struck on 15th August 1990 when Tsoi, apparently after falling asleep at the wheel of his car, was killed instantly when he collided with an oncoming bus at high speed near to Riga, present-day Latvia. His death shook the country, was reported in all the major media, including Komsomolskaya Pravda, which some years earlier would never have bothered with such things. Spontaneous grief, tributes, and shock for especially the younger generation, having lost an icon, reached from Vilnius to Vladivostok – this was the kind of effect had by Viktor Tsoi and his premature passing.
Since that day his legend has been kept alive in his former homeland, even as it has fractured into pieces itself. Multiple monuments and shrines to Viktor Tsoi are maintained and erected, his music is still widely known, his one main movie still gets viewers, and the spirit of a rock legend who never sold out stays strong and inspirational for many people. Its sad of course that the people of Kim Chaek, North Korea, know nothing of one of their own out in the diaspora making such a name for himself and doing his bit to change the world. But maybe one day in an underground nightclub in North Hamgyong Province a group of disaffected youth will find a direction by forming a Kino cover band and staging late night viewings of the Needle – Tsoi would no doubt appreciate this!
Simon Cockerell is Koryo Tours' General Manager. Interested in how Simon first got involved in all this? Read about his first trip to North Korea in 2002. You can also follow Simon's most recent adventures on Instagram: @simonkoryo.