The Russian Punks of Tbilisi

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Eastern Blokh is a monthly column by Danya Blokh about Eastern European art and culture. 

The tension between punk’s politically militant attitude and comparatively small political impact is well-trodden cultural territory. During punk’s first wave in the 1970s, its abrasive sound initially attracted opponents of the political mainstream, but the genre soon became commercialized and became part and parcel of the status quo it had rebelled against. In the ’80s and ’90s, new punk spaces and subgenres declared their commitment to the grassroots activism their predecessors had abandoned, but even those daring DIY projects which succeeded (such as ABC No Rio and 924 Gilman Street) eventually gave up their most radical efforts. Time and time again, mainstream success pushed political commitment to the background. The best symbol for this trend is pop punk, an unrecognizably toothless appropriation of a sound once synonymous with anarchism.

Yet this musicological cliché overlooks the rich global history of punk. England and America are impressively skillful in repackaging countercultural movements as depoliticized commodities, but in other nations, punk is a far more potent form of rebellion. In Russia, where the state functionally upholds the values of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, punk is inherently dissident and dangerous; most famously, Pussy Riot’s 2012 ‘punk prayer’ protest at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior led to the band’s arrest and 21 month-long imprisonment on charges of hooliganism. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a turning point; now punks could not only be imprisoned, but also drafted. The vast majority of Russian punks opposed the war, and while some were unable to leave the country due to familial or financial circumstances, many emigrated or fled abroad, where they did their best to join punk communities and continue creating music. Among these was Regardless, a punk/melodic hardcore/screamo band hailing from St. Petersburg who now find themselves in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Regardless formed in 2018, when its members were all already active in other bands. “In those days, Russia had a really strong punk scene,” Max, the band’s bassist, remembers fondly. “There were shows every week. Tons of really interesting, bright people were involved, all united by distaste for the regime.” Sergei, the vocalist and lead guitarist, says that there were several festivals organized in the woods every summer, where they encountered old friends as well as new punks. “We met people who shared our views not only in the big cities, but in the provinces, too.” For some in the scene, Max says, punk music served as a catalyst for political involvement: “Young people, in particular, are often drawn by the aggression of this kind of music; after a while, this becomes not just music but actual protest.” During these years of bustling punk activity, Regardless released two raw, unrelenting EPs, Demo (2019) and The Brighter it Burns (2021). I highly recommend giving these energetic tracks a listen—even if you don’t speak the language, punk is linguistically universal in that you usually can’t tell what the singer is saying anyway. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the punk scene dispersed all over the world. Many fled wherever they could, becoming part of a broader emigre movement settling primarily in nearby countries like Turkey, Serbia, and Kazakhstan. Locals in many of these countries were hostile toward these emigrants, whether because they viewed them as somehow synonymous with Putin or because they merely disliked the rising rents in their cities. In Tbilisi, Georgia, where Max and Sergei landed, Time Magazine has stated that streets are riddled with “F-CK RUSSIA” and “Go Home Russki” graffiti. But within the punk scene, the situation was very different; national and ethnic tensions were subsumed by the shared culture of punk rock. “There’s a small, but very passionate local punk community here,” Sergei says. “We immediately found a common language with them.”

In May of 2022, this shared passion for punk music translated into the opening of a DIY punk venue, Secret Place, right in the center of Tbilisi. Sergei was part of the initial contingent of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusan emigrants who organized the venue, where he now works as a sound engineer. Maintaining a non-hierarchical organizational structure, the emigre punks at Secret Place began to stage musical performances (hosting both local groups and touring bands from abroad), artist exhibits, film screenings and lectures, and even opened a bar and vegan kitchen in the building. 

The punks at Secret Place never forgot about the war that brought them to Tbilisi. The most common complaint levied against recent Russian emigrants is their nonchalance about the war. In October, 2022, for instance, The Guardian published Georgian playwright and author David Gabunia’s article arguing that Georgians are wary of emigres because their opposition to Putin has been half-hearted at best. At Secret Place, however, opinions about the war are far from lukewarm. Shows at the venue often take explicit anti-war stances, and organizers regularly donate proceeds from their events to Ukraine. Recently, Regardless and other groups from Tbilisi contributed to a compilation album of anti-war punk music featuring songs from 170 Russian bands. Despite the risks involved in publicly condemning an authoritarian country to which they may later have to return, Russian punks remain committed to their positions. 

The future of Regardless, like that of most Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians displaced by the war, is unclear. The band is recording new music which they plan to release this year, but Max says that “it’s hard to know what’s next for the band when I don’t even know what’s next for me.” “The laws are always changing,” says Sergei, and “there are new sanctions for Russian citizens that make it hard for emigrants.” But while the fate of individual musicians and bands is murky, Sergei and Max are unanimously optimistic about Tbilisi’s emigre scene as a whole. “I really believe that eventually all will be well, good will win out, and the punk scene will keep growing!” says Sergei. To me, this persistent dedication to the scene and unwavering faith in its future flies in the face of punk’s supposed political impotence. Max, Sergei, and the other emigres involved with Secret Place have mobilized punk music to create a space where uprooted people can come together, make music and art, and celebrate a new, makeshift community—all while mourning what they left or were forced to leave behind.

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