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The Kremlin's Rock 'n Roll Revisionism

As the Kremlin tries to turn back the clock to the glories of the Soviet Union, Perestroika has become a bad word and its heroes are cast as villains.

For three decades, generations of “Kinomans,” or fans of the St. Petersburg rock band Kino, dressed in black, rolled up their sleeves and played guitars wishing to look and sound as brave, open-minded and honest as Viktor Tsoi, the band’s leader and an idol of Perestroika. Their hero died young in a car crash in 1990 at age 28, but his spirit lived on without any threat from Russian officialdom. In the minds of his millions of admirers he was as immune to insult as Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain.

But now, in a Russia where history once again is being rewritten Soviet style, we are hearing reports that unidentified former KGB agents and members of the ruling United Russia party claim it wasn’t Tsoi himself writing his lyrics back in the 1980s. Apparently it was, yes, those ubiquitous Americans always bent on corrupting Mother Russia.

Tsoi’s fans are mostly bemused. The claim is “absurd,” prominent music critic Artem Troitsky tells the Daily Beast. “It made me laugh and see in its absurdity the upcoming end of this government – hypocrites and liars, they are doing everything to make people hate them.” But the denunciations fit into a pattern that’s important to the confrontation between Vladimir Putin’s KGB-rooted Kremlin and the West.

United Russia parliament member Sergei Fyodorov sees the upheaval of vast economic restructuring and growing personal freedoms that came under the rubric Perestroika as a Western plot. After all didn’t it precipitate the break-up of the Soviet Union? Today, few or none of those in the Putin circle will admit what was obvious then: the old empire was crumbling under its own leaden weight. They insist that Perestroika was conducted “the same way they just did it in Ukraine – they sew together thousands of factors with their Orange Revolution threats.”

In what appears to be a well rehearsed and staged video monoloque Fyodorov says he learned from former KGB agents who investigated Tsoi’s life back in the 1980s that “the CIA had special people working with Tsoi, giving him grants and those songs.”

Tsoi fan clubs across the country, which follow and analyze every word ever written by their favorite poet, are not at all convinced. His lyrics were simple but honest and touching. His background was the same as that of his fans, he came off the street corners and out of poverty. “Cigarettes in hand, tea on the table, that’s how the circle closes,” he would sing. Fans gathered by the “Tsoi Wall” in the heart of Moscow on the Old Arbat Avenue, or just on the stair-cases of apartment buildings across Russia, to sing his songs, discuss personal discontent and talk feelings and love, as that is what teenagers always do. Recently, his songs grew acutely relevant once again: Tsoi’s voice chanting the punch line of Perestroika inspiration, “our hearts demand changes” played at opposition rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospect in opposing the return of Putin as president in 2012 – but nobody expected, then, that Putin and his men would try to turn the clock back so far.

On Friday, Viktor’s son, Alexander Tsoi, promised to sue deputy Fyodorov for slandering his father unless the official apologized.

Fyodorov’s effort to discredit a musician beloved by millions of Russians could be miscalculated, but it’s not accidental. It comes as part of a whole series of efforts to revisit Perestroika history, including a request by members of parliament to Russia’s prosecutor general to sue former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for the unlawful collapse of Soviet Union. (One cannot help but be reminded of the famous quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”)

How far the Kremlin intends to go with its rock and roll revisionism no one seems able to predict. In light of Putin’s recent remark that the Internet was a CIA project and that one of Russia’s best digital-age creations, the Yandex search engine, is “influenced by the West,” the Back To The (Soviet) Future movement could become quite extreme. Perhaps traditional mail will be revived, replacing e-mail, chats, and SMS. “Soviet history is a being resurrected as a façade, as a history of success,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a professor at the Higher School of Economy in Moscow, “while the Perestroika history, the period of reforms of the 1990s, is seen as history of failures, humiliating bows before the West, and geopolitical catastrophe.”

But the business of revisiting, revising and faking history is no more acceptable for many in the post-Perestroika generation than it was for Viktor Tsoi and his contemporaries. “The more they ban, the more they forbid to us, the more we want it,” says Denis Sadovsky, the 22-year-old leader of the band BezShtampov, or Without Labels. “That is a typically Russian feature, by banning, they will just awake our interest to find a backdoor.”

The day after the Duma deputy spoke against Tsoi, young musicians staged a concert in Moscow in the great rocker’s memory, echoing the anti-war themes in his songs like “Bloody Group.” As Sadovsky prepared to play, he joked that his own lyrics were by the CIA. “I know in my heart that in the wars of the guilty, the first victim is innocence,” he sang. “Let them cry about war, those who are supposed to teach us to love. But nobody can change anything in my head.”