Eurasian Coolness: On Molchat Doma and Kino

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

You’ve probably heard the music of Belarusian dark-wave band Molchat Doma, even if you don’t know them by name. If you’ve ever come across a TikTok video stitching clips of deserted Eurasian streets and austere industrial architecture into a romanticized “Eastern European aesthetic,” it was more than likely set to one of the band’s synth pop tracks. Combining the choppy drum machines and melancholy instrumentation of ’80s goth bands with heavily washed-out Russian vocals, Molchat Doma occupy the headphones of thousands of young adults trying to glamorize their early morning walks to work. They are the modern doomer band par excellence, and the first time I heard their music, I absolutely hated them.

Such a passionate response seems out of step with the drabness of Molchat Doma’s sound and image; from their muted guitars to their simple percussion loops to their dispassionate vocals, the band’s sound aims to conjure a sense of anesthetized numbness more than any kind of extreme reaction in the listener. But what irritated me so greatly was my sense of recognition: I knew this sound. Molchat Doma were taking their style straight from the legendary Leningrad new-wave band Kino. Kino rose to prominence among the jaded, rebellious youth of the 1980s, and then disbanded in the ’90s after lead singer Viktor Tsoi’s tragic death in a car accident. Widely considered the best Russian band of all time, Kino is largely unknown in the West, making Molchat Doma’s rapid rise to fame among Gen Z seem particularly unjust. It’s like watching a kid copy off someone else’s test, and then get the best grade in the class. 

In hindsight, it was not the similarity between the bands that irritated me so much as the difference. After all, the line between rip-off and homage is blurry—Kino themselves took sonic cues from Western post-punk bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure, while adopting their poetic tone from Russian bards like Vladimir Vysotsky. Rather, what rubbed me the wrong way about Molchat Doma was how timid and toothless they seemed compared to Kino. The contrast lay in how these bands used  detached Eurasian coolness—in Kino, as a politically incisive marker of true authenticity, and in Molchat Doma, as an indulgent withdrawal into oneself.

In the 1980s, Kino was the mascot of the rebellion. Decades living under Brezhnev’s calcified Soviet system had alienated most Soviet citizens from the cheeriness of their official art and culture. Tsoi’s gloomy, leather-clad image, constructed through performances and appearances in films like Igla and Assa, felt like a fuck-you to Soviet artistic norms as well as the system they represented. True to the post-punk tradition, Tsoi’s persona was carefully constructed and  maintained; legend has it that the band spent hours applying makeup before each show. But Kino’s angst—no matter how staged—was a genuine representation of how many citizens felt. As a result,  many of their listeners began to engage with art again. Underground culture flourished; post-punk bands played on TV; Kino fans came to their concerts and belted out their classic lyrics: “Our eyes demand change/ Our hearts demand change.”

Funnily enough, Molchat Doma also came onto the scene at a time of stagnation and disillusionment. Much of the corruption that characterized the ’80s has returned to Eastern Europe. Lukashenko has been president of the band’s home country of Belarus since 1994. But unlike the rebellious angst one feels listening to Kino, Molchat Doma evokes depressive reflection. Their music is thoroughly depoliticized. There’s not even a charismatic lead with a subversive persona to root for—Molchat Doma’s vocals are washed out beyond recognition. Kino was nearly synonymous with the cult of Viktor Tsoi, just as Joy Division was with Ian Curtis and The Cure was with Robert Smith. Even if you knew nothing about these singers, their voices still clued you in to their personas—Tsoi’s seriousness, Smith’s melodrama, Curtis’ wizened tiredness. Molchat Doma might have a lead, Egor Shkutko, but few know his name or face, and his voice is so thickly layered with reverb that it loses any trace of humanness. This is a soundtrack for reminiscing, not for acting. Perhaps this is why they’ve been so popular on TikTok; add a Molchat Doma song to any clip and it immediately feels oneiric, like a half-remembered dream.  

This depoliticized gloom feels very much like a product of our time; if the ’80s in Eastern Europe were full of hope for radical political reform, such ambition seems impossible today. In the long aftermath of socialist collapse, the legitimacy of leftism is so greatly compromised in Eastern Europe that the only options remaining for ideological struggle are authoritarian capitalism and liberal capitalism. Indeed, if Molchat Doma has earned renown outside of Eastern Europe (and exceeded English-language darkwave bands like Lebanon Hanover and Boy Harsher in popularity), it might be because the rest of the world sees itself in this Eastern European despondence. The American government is certainly less corrupt and authoritarian than that of Belarus, but we haven’t had much more success doing away with a system that increasingly endangers and impoverishes most of us. 

Over the years, I’ve reconsidered my hatred of Molchat Doma. Certainly, TikToks romanticizing the sad vibes of Eastern European life continue to frustrate me, and I still wish more people knew about Kino. But in light of the apparent dead-end of the present, I’ve come to sympathize with the band’s nostalgia for a time when change felt obviously necessary and eminently possible. I wrote previously for the Herald about Mark Fisher’s concept of hauntology, which posits that the contemporary flourishing of retro music reflects our inability to imagine new aesthetic or political forms; Molchat Doma’s revival of Kino’s sound fits quite well into this hauntological framework. But while Kino’s cynical demeanor contained an earnest desire for systemic transformation, Molchat Doma’s revival of that demeanor stripped of any political content represents a withdrawal from action of any kind. Molchat Doma is not a copy of Kino, as I first thought. Rather, they are the spectral echo of Kino—the voice of Victor Tsoi singing to us from a distant time, as from another room in a hallway.

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