in From the Archives

New underground – The rebirth of the Helsinki—St. Petersburg connection

by Sami Hyrskylahti

Before the great October Revolution in 1917, the cultural contacts between Helsinki and St. Petersburg were amazingly strong and lively. St. Petersburg was the political and, above all, cultural capital of the Russian Empire, to which Finland also belonged.

Even in Europe as a whole St. Petersburg was one of the most active cultural metropolises, and this was of great significance for Helsinki, too. For instance, when international musicians performed in St. Petersburg, they usually stopped in Helsinki on their way to or from Russia. St. Petersburg also held openings for Finnish composers like Jean Sibelius, who conducted many of his symphonies there. Another very interactive form of Russian-Finnish culture was art, especially the “Mir Isskustva – World of Art” movement, whose members were leading Russian and Finnish painters.

The October Revolution put an end to all that. Both the Soviet Union and independent Finland were born, and all cultural exchange between St. Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd, later Leningrad) was almost completely frozen. The next visible wave of closer relations did not start until after the Second World War, but by that time all Russo-Finnish contacts including culture were mostly politically motivated and heavily controlled. This situation lasted basically until the end of the Soviet era in 1991. Yet the governments pressure on culture was beginning to ease by the mid-1980s when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power and introduced his perestroika and glasnost reforms. This also meant that Soviet/Russian youth culture finally had a chance to develop much more freely than before. More rock groups could publish their records on the giant Soviet monopoly label Melodia and the first legal Russian rock clubs were born. Even foreign rock groups started to visit the Soviet Union, among them the Finnish Boycott, Sielun Veljet and Pelle Miljoona. Contacts for the concerts for Finnish bands in the Soviet Union were found through political organisations like the Finnish-Soviet Friendship Society which had strong relations with the great eastern neighbour. Likewise, these same organisations were almost the only sources of information and help on the few occasions when a Soviet rock group was invited to play in Finland.

The struggle of Russian rave

Whereas rock music is a well established, mainstream form of culture (even in the late Soviet Union), it is more interesting to seek out the beginnings of more underground movements like techno. Surprisingly, at the end of the 1980s the first techno DJs, rave parties and night clubs appeared almost simultaneously in Finland and the Soviet Union, even though the latter was still behind the Iron Curtain. A wide variety of underground culture had in fact existed under Soviet rule, but it had been fraught with both difficulties and even danger.

“Back in 1988 I was already having discussions with artists Timur Novikov and Sergey ‘Afrika’ Bugayev from Leningrad and Moscow’s Sergey Shutov about the new club culture and music called techno,” says Helsinki-based producer Eeropekka Rislakki. At that time Rislakki was representing many independent Russian artists at Western galleries and art exhibitions. He was a rare example of a totally new kind of actor in the still very controlled world of Soviet culture, and all his artists were basically illegal in the sense that they were not members of the only legal arts organisation, the government Artists’ Union.

Rislakki’s interest in new Russian culture started when he saw a chance of taking action when Gorbachev came to power. “I knew that behind the face of the official Soviet Union there must be a great number of important artists no one knows anything about. When you look back at the world’s cultural history, you see that Russia has created an enormous band of famous artists”, Rislakki explains.

When the Soviet Union more or less suddenly collapsed in 1991, everything changed again. What had for ages been illegal now became legal, and despite the huge new problems of crime, poverty, hyperinflation and unemployment, at least the long-fettered Russian culture and its almost infinite creative potential were finally free to flourish. The Russian techno-music scene was especially clever at putting the old symbols and tools to a new use: Yuri Gagarin became the techno-hero and received the honour of lending his name to the first Russian Gagarin rave party in Moscow in 1991. Lenin was now the name of a night club and a DJ playing psychedelic trance music. Rave parties were held at disused tank factories and unfinished nuclear power stations. Underground clubs were opened in abandoned bomb shelters.

Techno music culture also became a new forum for interaction between Finland and Russia. From the early 1990s onwards Finnish DJs started to visit St. Petersburg and Moscow regularly, and all the connections were now established by individuals working outside the official organisations. Once the Russian art business had created more normal and stable connections with the world market, Eeropekka Rislakki found himself a new mission helping Russian techno composers and DJs to release albums and get gigs in the West. “In around the middle of the nineties I realised that the aim of my own work was to help to recreate and normalise the cultural connections between Helsinki and St. Petersburg and to get them back on the level they were at before the Russian Revolution,” he says. On his record labels in Helsinki he has published such pioneers of Russian electronic music as the New Composers of St. Petersburg. He has also invited a number of other St. Petersburg composers and DJs to perform at festivals and rave parties in Helsinki.

Some St. Petersburg DJs, like Lena Popova, have already won regular fame and fans in Finland, but even more famous are the Finnish DJs in St. Petersburg. On the other hand some of the most successful Finns in Russia, like the Helsinki DJ Maniac, have toured not only in St. Petersburg and Moscow but also in the Urals and Siberia. Unfortunately, since the collapse of the Russian economy and the heavy devaluation in August 1998, inviting foreign DJs to Russia has become more expensive and rare. Still, one DJ travelling with a box of records is the easiest and most economical unit of cultural exchange. For instance, the successful Finnish electronic act RinneRadio could not have performed in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1997 and 1998 without the sponsorship of several official Finnish organisations like the Institute of Finland in St. Petersburg, the Finnish-Russian Friendship Society, the Performing Music Promotion Centre and some private Finnish companies operating in Russia.

Bringing Russian Tusovka to Finland

Electronic dance music has in fact gained such wide popularity in Russia in the past few years that it has become even stronger than mainstream rock. This is especially true when we look at what is known about current Russian youth culture beyond its natural borders. Whereas some Russian DJs and techno composers have met with moderate international success, it seems to be very hard to export Russian-language rock and pop music to the West. On the other hand, Russia has a very big internal market of its own, which includes such former Soviet states as the Baltic republics, Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan, which all have a huge Russian-speaking population. Some of the rock groups from these countries, like the Ukrainian Vopli Vidopliassova and the Moldovian Zdob zi Zdub, are also very popular in Russia, even though they sing in their own language. Inside Russia new means of promoting Russian music have emerged, like MTV Russia launched in Au- gust 1998, which has since spread throughout this vast country and nowadays covers more than 50 Russian cities.

Returning to the Helsinki-St. Petersburg connection, we find that the pioneering work by some devoted individuals has also brought results in the field of rock music. “Our first connections with St. Petersburg were forged during an environmental meeting there in 1992. Then I met a couple of local young people, and since then our ‘network’ has been growing. At the beginning we developed our cultural exchange almost without any financial support,” says Vesa Peipinen from the Helsinki-based youth organisation Oranssi.

Peipinen adds that at that time everybody wanted connections with Europe and Brussels, but being interested in St. Petersburg was considered somewhat strange. And when Oranssi started bringing St. Petersburg bands to play in Finland, it was very difficult to persuade local clubs to lend their stages to Russians. Since then Oranssi’s efforts have proved fruitful, and some Russian bands like Spitfire and Markscheider Kunst have won fans and audiences in Finland, too. Similarly, Oranssi has been taking Finnish groups to St. Petersburg and is supporting the construction of a youth culture centre there. Oranssi’s next big Finnish-Russian musical project ties in with Helsinki’s European City of Culture Year in 2000.

Another vital younger Finnish organisation, Tusovka, has also emerged to draw the cultures of the two neighbouring countries closer together. Fired by its love of Russian rock music, Tusovka claims to be fighting against a wider spectrum of prejudice, too. “The overall picture of Russia in Finland is very negative and the Finnish media only ever report Russia’s problems. It is very healthy to show Finnish people that something very good is being done in Russia, too,” explains Tusovka’s Mikko Keinonen. So far, Tusovka has arranged several concerts by the St. Petersburg’s girl trio Kolibri in Finland, and the ‘sold out’ signs at these concerts indicate that there is possibly a growing market for good Russian rock and pop in Finland.

Tusovka, which according to the St. Petersburg movie director Sasha Bashirov means “free interaction between free people”, is planning to establish a daughter oganisation in St. Petersburg, too. Keinonen believes that there is also room for Finnish underground rock in Russia, and Tusovka’s Finnish premiere in St. Petersburg is the industrial rock act Cleaning Women. So far Keinonen claims that all the work has been done without profit, but like Oranssi, Tusovka has been promised some financial support for organising a series of concerts by St. Petersburg bands for Helsinki 2000 jubilee next spring. The start of the new millennium will also bring more St. Petersburg techno music, art, theatre and cinema to Helsinki. So perhaps the pre-revolution cultural coexistence is becoming a reality again instead of mere nostalgia.