Read an excerpt from the opening chapter of Vopli Vidopliassova’s Tantsi by Maria Sonevytsky, new to our 33 1/3 Europe series. In this excerpt, Maria tells the story of how Vopli Vidopliassova came to be, her experience hearing Tantsi for the very first time and the effect it had on her Ukrainian-American identity.
The band Vopli Vidopliassova, known to fans as VV (pronounced “Ve-Ve”), means “the wailings of Vidopliassov.”1 The comically overwrought name was inspired by a character in the 1859 satire The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the novel, a footman, Gregory Vidopliassov, becomes obsessed with the idea of writing, and refers to his florid writings as “wailings of the soul.” The band’s original bass player, Sashko Pipa, was reading the work while the group tried out various band names. He told me that he suggested it first as a joke, but it stuck. The name appealed in part because of the character’s combination of obscurity and ironic self-importance—it matched the band’s affect, and anti-bourgeois orientation to the late Soviet world in which they formed. This world was ruled by a political class that had declared war against Western popular music for its “dangerous ideological pollution among Soviet youth.”2 It was a world in which Soviet ideologues of the “disco mafia” produced rubrics to “organize ideologically reliable dance parties” in an effort to tamp down on corrupting influences from the West. In this world, VV mockingly raised the stakes—ok fine, we will dance, but we will do it in our ungovernable way.
VV coalesced in 1986: bassist Pipa and guitarist Zdorenko had started playing hard rock together in a band called SOS in 1981 and were searching for a lead guitarist. Instead, they found Skrypka, a bayan (button accordion) and saxophone player, who came on board and quickly became the charismatic front man and primary lyricist for the group. Serhiy Sakhno, who grew up in Chernobyl and trained at a music school ( музучилище ) as a conductor, joined as the group’s drummer in 1987. Skrypka told me that, although “there were other groups using bayan in rock bands at the time, no one else played it like a rock instrument.” This approach led the group to innovate what has often been called Ukrainian “ethno-punk.” In 1987, they were among the first Soviet Ukrainian bands to write lyrics in Ukrainian rather than Russian, milking the ironic and subversive potentials of a language that had been suppressed and often denigrated as a kind of hillbilly dialect throughout the Soviet twentieth century. (Their often-ambiguous applications of language invited controversy as to whether VV intended to further mock the Ukrainian language or position it into a place of privilege, a tension I explore in detail in Chapter three.)
Despite being latecomers to the Kyiv rock scene, by the end of 1987, VV became one of its most prominent bands, and one of a few driving forces steering the culture of that rock scene away from heavy metal and towards punk. By late 1988, with the release of the music video for “Tantsi”—the first Ukrainian music video ever made—they had been named the “Soviet rock group of the year” by Artemy Troitsky, the Soviet rock critic whose presence on television gave visibility and legitimacy to late Soviet youth musical subcultures. The cassette album of Tantsi in 1989 further burnished their popularity, helping to rocket them to fame across the expanse of the USSR, and making them the first Soviet Ukrainian group to find enthusiastic audiences in Western Europe (especially in France).
I don’t remember the particulars, but I first heard a bootleg of Tantsi in the early 2000s, when a Ukrainian friend—astonished at how little I knew of Ukrainian popular music—burned an MP3 CD of essential listening to kickstart my musical education. The song “Tantsi” instantly seduced me. It was probably a decade or more later, long after the song had lodged itself firmly in my ears, that I went in pursuit of the irresistible beat again. By then, the video had been uploaded to YouTube, and I watched it on loop. “Tantsi,” for me, became a noisy meditation, a blast of late Soviet Ukrainian punk confetti into otherwise monochrome moments of annotating bibliographies in preparation for my graduate exams or slogging through the latest book of lofty academic theory. Bam! Ta-ta-ta-tantsi.
To be consumed by a song was not unusual for me. But my fascination with “Tantsi” was different from those other songs that I had once obsessively loved (rewinding as soon as it ended; the small thrill of anticipation before it started again). Like many Americans reared on Reaganite Cold War rhetoric, my image of the USSR was of a stolid and rather sexless place. This image was bolstered by my family’s story of arrival in North America as post-WWII displaced persons, refugees from Soviet power. Contemporary Ukraine seemed to me thoroughly Sovietized, somehow less “authentic” than the version of Ukraine our émigré community hoped to restore one day.3 In the Ukrainian-American enclaves, my childhood had been populated by stories of freedom fighting warriors on horseback, of folkloric girls in flower crowns, of our nineteenth-century poet-hero Shevchenko’s patriotic exhortations. At Ukrainian-American gatherings, we mourned Stalinist mass death, and took satisfaction in knowing that we weren’t the ones living in the “evil empire.” In Ukrainian scouting camps, we sang songs about how we children of the diaspora would one day “defend Ukraine from enemy hands”—a lyric that admittedly took on shocking new meaning following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. All of this diasporic culture confirmed to me that the Ukrainians over there were different from the Ukrainians over here. The fact that “Tantsi” was made by such irreverent, kinetic, familiar people, so distant from my alternately lachrymose and romantic ideas of Ukraine, was destabilizing to the comforting contrast: monochrome there, technicolor here.
And so it was this punk quartet, with one weird song about dancing, that cast many of those baseline certainties into question. Like a message in a bottle sent from the late Soviet past, “Tantsi” suggested that there was more to the simple, reassuring morality tales of diaspora life. The song suggested new ways to connect to my heritage, ways that did not rest exclusively on nostalgia and nationalism. The song opened a portal to a Kyiv that must have been a vibrant scene of late Soviet musical creation: evidence that young people there had been experimenting, partying, dancing all along.
1“Ve-Ve” should sound like the first two letters of the English word “very.” After 1989, the band substituted the Ukrainian word “volannia” for the Russian word “vopli” in their band name, but on the occasions where their full band name is used—rather than the much more common abbreviation of VV—it seems that most people continue to use the Russian “vopli.”
2 These were Yuri Andropov’s words, published in Pravda on July 15, 1983, cited in Sergei Zhuk, “ ‘The Disco Mafia’ and ‘Komsomol Capitalism’ in Soviet Ukraine During Late Socialism,” in Material Culture in Russia and the USSR (Routledge, 2020), 149. There were earlier chapters in the conflict between Soviet officialdom and rock music. Boris Schwarz reminds of how, in August 1968, “a group of young Ukrainians defied the music curbs by writing an open letter to Pravda Ukrainy, the official Communist newspaper, protesting against the paper’s backward and conservative attitude towards young people’s cultural tastes, “In our country people go almost into hysterics when they see a young man with hair á la Beatles, and with a guitar as well” (Schwarz 1972, 491).
3 In her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym makes a useful distinction between “restorative” and “reflective” nostalgias. Restorative nostalgia “attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home,” and matches my experience of being raised Ukrainian in the US diaspora (2001, xviii).
Maria Sonevytsky is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Music at Bard College, USA. She is the author of Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine (2019), winner of the 2020 Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society, and is currently writing a book about Soviet Ukrainian children’s music. You can find her on Twitter, @Marusiasays.
Vopli Vidopliassova’s Tantsi is out now and available in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).