What about Tomorrow? An Oral History of Russian Punk from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot By Alexander Herbert, 288 pgs.

I tend to compare any “oral history of punk rock” to Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s classic documentation of L.A. punk We Got the Neutron Bomb. However, author Alexander Herbert strikes an entirely different out-of-tune chord in What About Tomorrow? As Surgey Guryev, singer of Moscow band Chistia Lobov, explains: “In the world of punk, there are two opposing poles, probably: California punk and Siberian punk.” Where the L.A. book is scandalous and fun, What About Tomorrow? utilizes a sociological lens that we are all familiar with (punk rock) to magnify life in the Soviet Union and its transformation into modern Russia.

In composing What About Tomorrow?, Herbert, a Brandeis University research fellow, traveled extensively to Russia to conduct interviews as well as utilizing a few secondary sources (such as everyone’s favorite/least favorite, Maximum Rocknroll). The interviews portray a parade of characters, each conveying their own mixture of guts, wit, and determination, using underground music to navigate their way through the doldrums and/or violent oppression of everyday life in their homeland. The outstanding social/historical research combined with the intensity of the characters results in a fantastic read.

While American punks celebrated excess and lawlessness in newly abandoned city streets, the early chapters of What About Tomorrow? document an entirely different planet, where Soviet punk pioneers fought cultural isolation and the threat of crucifixion at the hands of a hard-line government. They discover punk via European short-wave radio channels banned by the government (“In England there are idiots just like us!”). Rock clubs were moderated by KGB agents, and some of the interviewed recall backing out of their local scenes under KGB intimidation. Other characters completely and mysteriously disappear. Punks are conscripted into the military and/or institutionalized just for being punks. They discuss all of this as if it were a minor annoyance.

The book moves along in chronological order, and we find punk scenes suddenly facing the transition from authoritarianism into capitalism. “Chacha” of Moscow band Naïve states: “The new country that called itself ‘Free Russia’ had no idea what was going on and tried to create capitalism without anyone knowing what it meant.” We see a dominant interest in financial profit, a rise in violence from the culturally accepted far right, and smoldering government corruption. As this continues into modern times, there is a chapter on Pussy Riot who don’t seem to fit in here, aside from their politics.

I would have liked to see the pages labeled with chapter information, as there was plenty of cross-referencing to be done, and there could have been a little more info on each character as they were introduced to keep them from blurring into each other. Other than that, this book was a great read—a fascinating study of the history of punk rock in Russia and its relationship to the political/social climate. –Buddha (Microcosm Publishing, microcosm.pub)