Tag: Censorship

Rock it like Soviet Russia

During Perestroika, the Soviet Union was briefly lit by a Rock’n’Roll craze. Photographer Igor Mukhin was there to document the wild years.

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Your photos show a very brief timeframe: Those couple of years during Perestroika when underground rock music culture was born in the Soviet Union.
Yes, it was just a short timeframe, which makes this an important document of a state that no longer exists.
What makes the photos so captivating is that they document a very short timespan.
Exactly! The underground scene was truly underground. Home telephones were tapped, and so all important calls had to be made from public telephones. I went to concerts where the frontman of the band would pick up the ten audience members in the subway. Or sometimes you had to ask around for the address of a concert. Of course, this tactic was later repeated by Pussy Riot. I was fascinated by this culture and how it lived in the shadows, before journalists and professional producers discovered it.
I assume that rock music represented freedom in the same way as it did in the West…
For many bands, the music was an open protest that began with illegal concerts in basements, bomb shelters, kindergartens… and spread out as the music was copied on home recorders and illegally distributed. The government had stopped restraining this kind of expression and so it started happening.
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The Cold War hadn’t ended yet: Was there something mythological about this music? After all, you didn’t otherwise have much contact with the West…
It depends. In the Soviet Union, it had become a tradition for poets to turn into bards, pick up guitars and start playing. So some of the music was in the tradition of ancient Russia – like the band Калинов Мост (Kalinov Most). Others rigidly copied western stars. There was new wave – Странные Игры (Strange Games), punk – Чуто – Юдо (Chouteau – Yudo).
My favorite artists are the musicians from the band АКВАРИУМ (Aquarium) and their mysterious poetry, the band ЗООПАРК (Zoo), which played the autobiographical diary of a punk musician, and the group КИНО (Cinema), who started out as teenage schoolboys. During the revolution, this band was accused by parliamentarians of the Duma of treason, saying they had been playing songs with lyrics written by the CIA.
But to come back to your question: There was actually lots of contact with the West! People brought in music and books that they illegally copied and distributed. For a while, I worked in an illegal recording studio. And records were exchanged all the time. In the forests outside of Moscow, there was a huge clearing where music lovers came to from as far as Odessa and Riga to exchange music; and where you could buy belts and leather jackets.
There were also radio shows we could tune into: The BBC, Voice of America…: All radio stations had rock music programs. The Air Force offered a weekly hit list that played rock.
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What does it mean to you?
Well… I didn’t learn German or English in school. Psychologically, I had no idea how I could get in touch with foreigners in my city, where they only drove around in vehicles between embassies. It’s quite a pity: I went to a dinner to a Parisian restaurant with Robert Doisneau, and at one point Henri Cartier-Bresson came to one of my exhibitions – yet I was essentially deaf. My generation’s deprived of the language needed to understand foreigners and English-language music.
Your photos are full of contrast between tradition and youth culture. How did people react to this new wave of music?
There were lots of festivals, which people from across the USSR attended. But the venues usually only fit around 1000 or 2000 people. Later on, as it all became legalized, the industry quickly professionalized and musicians played in huge stadiums, which I found much less interesting. I was interested in the reactions to this new culture, which is why I photographed many of the people witnessing it.
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Igor Mukhin is a Russian photographer based in Moscow. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Facebook, where he posts a new photo every day.
Many thanks to Ksenia Les and Lora Todorova for their help with some of the translation.

Walled Garden

With Kwangmyong, North Korea has built its very own version of the internet. A carbon copy, physically sequestered.

You have heard about the “Great Firewall of China”, that epitome of modern censorship: Thanks to an intricate system of digital blockades, great swathes of the internet cannot be accessed from the Peoples’ Republic – and entire social networks are known vanish from the Chinese internet, if the censors deem them sensitive.
It’s such a curious case because it manages to be modern and anachronistic at the same time, a medium made up of connections, with digital barriers between them. And as fitting as its nickname is, the image of a wall doesn’t actually hold up: Both the Chinese and foreign visitors keep circumventing the blockade. When artist and prominent dissident Ai Weiwei was under house arrest, he quietly maintained Twitter and Instagram accounts – never mind that both platforms had long been blocked by censors. It turns out that maintaining a virtual border is just as difficult as preventing people from crossing a physical one.
In North Korea, the world’s most isolated country, the approach to information purity is even more drastic – and chances are that you haven’t heard of it. Since 2000, the hermit kingdom has been maintaining its very own version of the internet: Kwangmyong. Roughly translated as “Walled Garden”, it is a network entirely disconnected from the World Wide Web and accessible only from the country itself. As opposed to the Chinese internet, it doesn’t even feign connectedness – this is the DPRK’s own, personal net, a derivative existing in a vacuum.
To be fair, the idea of an internal network isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Most large corporations use so-called intranets for internal communications and for sharing information not meant for the public eye. But Kwangmyong exceeds them all in ambition: This is an intranet on national scale, one that includes all popular forms of communication in a coherent, politically-cleansed whole. There are web pages, there is e-mail, a social network and a “digital library”. But not only is it an imitation of the real thing, its content is often straight-up copied from the real net, after having been filtered and scrubbed off its offending content. A clean, wholesome propaganda machine.

Borders can be erected digitally just as well as physically

Due to the air gap between Kwangmyong and the real net, we have no way of seeing it. But those who have, come down with a drastic verdict: The blog northkoreatech.org describes it as looking like the internet from the early 90s. And the few screenshots that exist make you wonder whether to laugh about its clumsiness or cry about the fact that this is all that’s available to a population of 40 million.
Since 2013, foreigners have been able to use a mobile broadband network in the country. It has resulted in an outpouring of images from North Korea (with #everydaydprk being a popular hashtag on Instagram), but hasn’t changed anything for North Koreans: They remain cut off from the global net and have to rely on Kwangmyong – if it is even available to them. North Korea, where the majority of the population works in the military or agriculture, is a far cry from its geographic neighbor, the highly technical South, which has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world.
Along the 38th parallel snakes the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a 250km long and 4km wide border between the two countries. Long one of the tensest frontiers between countries, it remains one of the most fortified borders in the world, with large troop continents on both sides. It is the most physical reminder that the 20th century war between the two Koreas never formally ended. But in considering Kwangmyong, one is equally reminded that in the 21st century, borders can be erected digitally just as well as physically. The “Walled Garde”, then, turns from yet another nutty story about North Korea and the breathtaking extend of its dictatorship into a pertinent tale: If modern borders are digital, the dream of a truly global network remains just that – a dream. And while other governments hardly go as far as the DPRK, the idea of digital censorship remains uncanny.
To see where it leads, you don’t even have to go back to China: South Korea, technically developed as it may be, not only blocks propaganda from the North but also internet pornography.