How Viktor Tsoi's most famous song became the post-Soviet world's protest anthem, against the rock legend's own wishes
“I Want Changes!” (Khochu peremen!) is one of the most famous songs by the band Kino. During Perestroika, the tune took on a distinct political message, and ever since it’s been associated with protests, ringing out at rallies and demonstrations by groups of every stripe. Even diametrically opposed political movements use the song. But the politicization of the lyrics took place against the wishes of Viktor Tsoi, Kino’s lead member, who insisted that the song isn’t about protests. In honor of Tsoi, who would have turned 55 this Wednesday, were it not for a tragic road collision in 1990, Lev Gankine revisits how the band’s hit song became an anthem for activists in the post-Soviet world.
In the last days of May 1986, at the fourth Leningrad Rock Club Festival at the Nevsky Cultural Center, Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino first performed a collection of songs that would become pillars of Russian rock music and required learning for any Russian teenager with a guitar: “From Now On, It's Our Turn,” “Close the Door Behind Me, I'm Leaving,” and “I Want Changes!” This last song made the festival’s final jury shortlist, along with songs from the album “Illusions” by Zoopark and “Love Is All We’ve Got” by Aquarium. “Whatever Vitya [Tsoi] said later and whatever the social content, the song ‘I Want Changes!’... in the context of the era, it could only have been read one way: we were waiting for changes in society and in our lives,” Alexander Zhitinsky, one of the jury members wrote, 20 odd years later.
But Tsoi apparently had something else entirely in mind when he wrote the song. At least that’s what he indicated in a television interview in September 1988 with Sergey Sholokhov, when Tsoi said he refuses to consider “I Want Changes!” a protest song, likening his cameo in the Soviet crime film “Assa” (where he performs the song) to “something tacked on.” The band’s drummer, Georgy Guryanov, said more than once that the song isn’t about political changes, but inner, deeper things more like creative changes and a sense of freedom.
Nevertheless, the director of “Assa,” Sergey Solovyov, clearly injected the scene with a distinct, social-protest meaning that’s still palpable today: appearing as himself, Tsoi is led by Vitya (the “negro” character played by Dmitry Shumilov in black face) to an interview for a music gig at a restaurant. But Tsoi soon rises and walks out of the room without a word, unable to bear the moldy old woman behind the desk, as she reads out a long and tedious list of the job’s required work experience and certifications (such as demands that his performance include “measures to raise the ideological, theoretical, and professional level” of his audience). Tsoi leaves the interview and walks straight to the restaurant’s stage, where the band is already playing the opening chords to “I Want Changes!” Before the film ends, the camera swings back to the crowd to reveal that we’re no longer in the restaurant, and Tsoi is now performing for thousands gathered at Gorky Park’s Zeleny Theater. The scene’s symbolic meaning is crystal clear: “To hell with the late-Soviet regulations! Stylistically, politically, or any other way, now we’re the ones calling the shots.”
This generally is also how the public interpreted the song. Remembering the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, the ideological architect of Perestroika, tellingly misspoke about Tsoi’s song. “[Cardiologist Evgeny] Chazov calls me and says, ‘Mikhail Sergeevich, Konstantin Ustinovich [Chernenko] has passed away,’” Gorbachev said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy in November 2012. “Then I say to [Soviet Foreign Minister] Andrey Andreevich [Gromyko] that we need to start doing things differently. [...] Tsoi is singing ‘We demand changes!’ in concerts. People are saying openly and directly, ‘We demand changes!’ [...] It’s dangerous to start major changes in our country. Dangerous and risky, but we’ve got to begin.” In fact, when Chernenko died on March 10, 1985, Tsoi probably hadn’t even written the song “I Want Changes!” and his band certainly had yet to perform it in concert. Retrospectively, the song has become so firmly associated with Perestroika that even its chief instigator now confuses the era’s chronology.
In fact, by the time Kino released an official studio recording of the song, the USSR’s social-political changes had already been let loose. The first edition of the album “Last Hero” (“Le Dernier Des Héros”) was printed in France in 1989. Two years later, during the August Soviet coup d'état attempt, the record was re-released in Russia on the label “Russian Disc.” Eyewitnesses say they remember hearing “Peremen!” playing at the barricades around the Russian Parliament Building, though Kino didn’t perform at the improvised concert held there on August 22 (rock groups that did play at this show included Alisa and Mashina Vremeni). The first copies of the album on CD happened to coincide with Russia’s next period of escalated political tensions: the company Moroz Records released the discs in 1993, perfectly timed for President Yeltsin’s confrontation with the parliament and the storming of the Supreme Soviet building.
So it’s no surprise that “I Want Changes!” transformed into an anthem that very easily attached itself to any oppositionist protest speech. Political movements viewing themselves as the successors to Perestroika’s democratic forces have been particularly fond of Tsoi’s song. In December 2008, the Solidarity movement, led by Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Ilya Yashin, and other oppositionists, even formally adopted the song as the organization’s anthem. A decade ago, “Peremen!” could be heard regularly at “Strategy 31” protests, and it later became associated with the Dissenters' March movement. Whole crowds performed the song during the 2011-2012 winter protests, it played from loudspeakers during demonstrations, and it also appeared during the 2012 summer rallies, like “Occupy Abai.”
In 2011, Tsoi’s song also witnessed a popularity surge in Belarus: at “silent protests”, passing cars blasted “Peremen!” and protesters played the song in synchronization from their mobile phones. Though activists never uttered a word throughout the demonstrations, police detained them, and Kino’s song, along with a few tracks by Lyapis Trubetskoy, were temporarily banned from the radio. In 2014, the song was heard often in Kiev during the Euromaidan protests — both the original Russian version and a Ukrainian version performed by the Ternopil-based rock group S.K.A.I.
But the liberal opposition is hardly the only political force that’s appropriated the work of Viktor Tsoi. Back in 2008, the Russian media reported that “Peremen!” could be heard at both “Other Russia” protests and rallies staged by the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Mestnye,” whose leader called the group’s liberal opponents “political garbage that should be dumped outside the country.” On December 12, 2011, two days after thousands of protesters descended on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, Dmitry Rogozin (who would be promoted to deputy prime minister just 10 days later) finished a Constitution Day speech with a lyric from Tsoi’s song, telling a pro-government crowd gathered outside the Kremlin, “Our hearts demand changes.”
The song’s message even appeals to the Soviet authorities’ ideological heirs: “Peremen!” played at Novgorod’s “Anti-Capitalism 2013” march, organized by Komsomol groups from St. Petersburg and around the area. In Tobolsk, Russian Communists marked the 98th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with Kino’s song.
And Tsoi’s lyrics are sometimes used against today’s Communists, too. “We all want changes, like in Tsoi’s song. Changes for the better. I think it's precisely these changes that are reflected in the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s platform,” said Konstantin Smirnov, a St. Petersburg city councilman, commenting on his move from the Communist Party to LDPR.
The song has also become weaponized by both sides in the debates over Ukraine. Before a huge crowd in Red Square in the summer of 2015, Alexander Sklyar and Svetlana Surganova — two vocal supporters of the separatists in eastern Ukraine — performed a rendition of “Peremen!” Earlier that year in March, the song played in Crimea to honor the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation. Dressed in the colors of the Russian flag, people joined a flashmob and lined up to form the outline of Russia’s geographic borders. Most recently, about a year and a half ago, the American mixed martial artist Jeff Monson shared a video of himself rocking out to Tsoi’s song while behind the wheel of a car, singing along in very broken Russian. Monson had recently become an honorary citizen of the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, carrying a passport personally delivered by rebel leader Igor Plotnitsky. “I’m not calling on you to wait for changes. I’m calling on you to act and change your present reality,” Monson explained at the time.
It so happens that the winding road Tsoi’s song has taken socially and politically also mirrors the song’s musical fate. A monster hit in its time, “I Want Changes!” has been covered over and over, with interpretations in every genre by all kinds of artists. For hip hop fans, there’s a cover by DINO MC 47. For disco dancers, Paul Oakenfold created a remix that he played in his opening act for Madonna’s Russian concert tour. For the folks who can’t get enough variety shows (and for all you kitsch apologists), look no further than Nadezha Kadysheva’s cover.
In 2008, “Assa” director Sergey Solovyov, who helped launch the mythology that now surrounds Tsoi’s song, made a sequel, imaginatively titled “Assa 2.” “I felt it was necessary to film a sequel to ‘Assa’ because the first one ended with Tsoi’s song, ‘Peremen!’ In the concert that ended up in the movie, there were something like 8,000 people! I was also standing in the crowd, also waving my arms around, yelling, ‘Changes!’ [...] But not a single person in that crowd wanted the changes that have taken place. [...] And I felt like a liar — like some asshole-provocateur screaming ‘Changes!’ while leading the crowd away to the slaughterhouse. This feeling of hypocrisy compelled me to make a second film,” Solovyov explained.
“Peremen!” makes another appearance in Solovyov’s sequel, but it’s an altered version, performed by a different band. “We’re not waiting for changes anymore!” Leningrad frontman Sergey Shnurov sings in the film. “There’s no flame, there’s just smoke, and now the young folk don’t croak.”