One of the most lively places in Moscow. You can virtually always find people hanging out here. In years past there may have been more people around, but still, when I went by to photograph a few days ago, several small groups of people came and went during the few minutes I was there.
This is the so-called Viktor Tsoi wall in Moscow, located on the east wall of Arbat No. 37 (the pink building you see in the photo above is located on the Arbat). The wall faces the back wall of the Actors House on Krivoarbatsky Lane. Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990) was Russia’s finest rock singer, songwriter and group leader. His band Kino was wildly popular in the mid- to late 1980s and the leader and band both remain cult figures to this day. Unlike the vast majority of Russian rock bands whose work is only nominally rock and, at heart, is much closer to pop (at worst) or Russian folklore (at best), Tsoi and Kino tapped into the true source of the rock genre as it was primarily developed by American and, later, British bands. It is tough, bouncy music that can stand alongside, say, The Clash and Gene Vincent. It is music with an attitude and Tsoi’s lyrics, as well as his sneering vocals, are usually smart, witty and deeply thoughtful.
Befitting a rock legend, Tsoi died young, aged 28, when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car while driving through the countryside of Latvia. His car veered out of his lane and slammed into a bus, killing him instantly. To my knowledge, no one in the bus suffered injury. The official report, which is fully accepted as adequate, indicated there were no drugs or alcohol involved.
Tsoi was born in Leningrad to a Russian mother and an ethnic Korean father whose roots were in Kazakhstan. Going through the motions of studying art in his teens and getting kicked out of art school, Tsoi started playing in bands early. When Kino began having an impact the Soviet Union was in the process of collapse. As such, Tsoi’s songs are steeped in the themes of change and uncertainty. The first photo of the last block of three below shows the wall where someone has written a short phrase from one of Tsoi’s most popular and enduring songs – “We’re expecting change” (Note: no exclamation point).
According to legend and Russian Wikipedia, the wall came into existence the night of Tsoi’s death. Someone came out and wrote in huge letters: “Today Viktor Tsoi died.” Someone else came along and added: “Tsoi Lives.” From there the wall took on a life of its own. People have been drawing and writing and painting on it ever since. As you can see in the last photo of the block just above, one artist with the initials of “Ye.V.A” created a very attractive mosaic portrait of the musician relatively high up on the wall.
Not surprisingly, there has been controversy about the existence of this – what shall we call it? – space of spontaneous people’s art. There’s an organization that calls it a shame and disgrace and works to have it removed. There was, apparently, a raid of sorts in 2006, when a bunch of detractors painted over the entire wall. Before long, however, supporters repainted it with new slogans, pictures, graffiti and such. The idea of a Viktor Tsoi wall was picked up and given life in numerous other cities, including Minsk (Belarus), Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine), St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Yekaterinburg and many other places.
There are scads of videos you can go to; here is one of Tsoi performing one of his most popular songs, the title of which can be loosely translated as “Changes” or “Give Us Change” (Peremen). I’m also partial to his song “Blood Type,” but frankly, I have yet to hear a Tsoi song I don’t love. The third verse of this latter song reads something like the following in English:
I can pay, but I don’t want
Victory at any cost.
I won’t put my foot on anybody’s chest.
I’d just like to remain myself,
To just remain myself,
But that high star in the sky calls me to the road.