Research project: Estonian punk (1985-1995)

Punks in Tallinn, ca. 1982. Photo: Arno Saar, collection of Tõnu Trubetsky.

The first punk bands in the ESSR were established at the end of the 1970s. Punk was blacklisted in the ESSR, after youth riots erupted at a September 1980 concert of the punk band Propeller. During the first half of the 1980s the punk movement was small but steady in size. The punk’s main ways of expression were extravagant behaviour and clothes, organizing illegal concerts and social life in Tallinn’s cafés. Nevertheless, being a punk was socially frowned upon and meant problems with family, in school and in public where the youths were ofter arrested by the militsiya.

Punks before perestroika and glasnost

In addition to having problems with the militsiya, punks mainly were in conflict with two ohter groups: Russians living in the ESSR and the disco-guys. Widespread stereotypes were the main reason for the conflicts between Russians and punks, often ending in violent clashes. The main reason for opposition, was the two groups’ different stance on the Soviet reigime; the Russians being in support of the USSR while the punks were extremely hostile toward the Soviet system. In addition to opposing political views, the punks interviewed mentioned that amongst Russians there was a widespread patronizing and dominating attitude towards them. According to the interviewees, this attitude lessened considerably after the demise of the USSR due to the spread of democratic values. Nevertheless, the interviewees did not describe their relations with Russians to be bad without exeption. The punks mentioned having exeptionally good relations with visiting punks from the Russian SFSR.

Conflicts with the disco-guys (youths who frequented discos) were also mainly based on opposing views: the materialism, conformity and anti-intellectualism valued by the disco-guys were widely despised by the punks. The disco-guys, on the other hand, did not approve of the way punks dressed and acted, regarding it to be different and „unaesthetic“. Physical conflicts were common between the two groups up until the 1990s when the number of punks drastically declined and many new subcultures emerged (indie, grunge, techno, rave culture etc) with the two large opposing groups largely dissolving.

Interviewed: Villu Tamme, former frontman of the Punk band J.M.K.E. (Photo: J. Vangonen 2013)

The interviewees’ relationships with their families were mixed to moderately positive. Only a few interviewees reported having family-realted problems and saw punk as a way to rebel. A vast majority of the punks reported their families being only moderately unapproving or not understanding towards their lifestyle.

These interviewees  said that their families’ actions only had a marginal effect on their beliefs. Some interviewees even described their families’ attitudes as being positive towards punk, and approving of their opposition to the cultural mainstream.

The acceptance of punk

The public opinion on punk vastly changed in 1987 when the influence of Mikhail Gorbatchev’s democratic reforms finally became noticeable in the ESSR. The unapproving attitude towards punk that had been mandatory before was now changed to a positive, even praising attitude that put punk at the forefront of the political fight for restoring Estonia’s indepencence. The punks themselves expressed contradicting views on the sudden change in public opinion. Some of the interviewees saw the democratic reforms as a positive change, the others saw it as the end of punk as a counterculture. Being universally praised and associated with the nationalist movement widely irritated the punks.

Vertical: Mihkel Raud Harpo Valdek Kangert Urmas Tunderberg Villu Tamme. Horizontal: Risto Kivi Hendrik Sal-Saller ca. 1982. (Photo: Arno Saar, from the personal collection Tõnu Trubetsky).

The punks as a group went through a series of changes. First, a great deal of former punks felt the need to distance themselves from the movement. Second, the overall number of punks skyrocketed due to the immense number of the so-called perestroika-punks that had joined the movement due to its popularity. This new generation of punks and the decline of Soviet influence caused the punk movement to lose goals and values.

With the restoraion of Estonian independence the public interest in punk declined.  By the early 1990s, the number of punks had again dried up. At this time, alcoholism, violence and criminality were widespread in the group. Thus the beginning of the 1990s marks a new low for the Estonian punk movement. This low was characterized by the lack of a raison d’être and the disappearance of previously existing social ties within the group.

A new surge in activity slowly became noticable during 1993 when one of the most popular Estonian punk bands, Vennaskond, returned from Finland to Estonia, holding concerts and realeasing numerous studio albums. Between 1994 and 1995, a number of new punk bands were established with even more studio albums being released. The activity of Vennaskond, combined with the global emergence of pop-punk saw an increase in public interest towards punk. The Estonian punk movement had overcome its old opponent, the USSR and had found  new enemies in cowboy capitalism and public indifference.

The self-image of the punks

The views of the interviewees on negation in punk fell into three groups. The first group described negation in punk being most important in the form of opposing specific phenomena (for example, the USSR). The second and most prevalent group saw negation in punk as an important tool for creating their worldview and saw negation as a general attitude towards the outside world. The third and smallest group did not find negation to be important in punk.

Conformism, more specifically nonconformism, was seen as an important tool for creating and carrying out personal worldview. Nevertheless, the interviewees described nonconforming as being an illusion due to the individual’s inability to completely seal itself off from the influences of the society. Nonconforming was mainly not only seen as an important way to oppose popular ways of thinking but also as a way to overthrow the campaign-like mentality of the society. Interviewees admitted to being influenced by other punks within the group but did not see it that influence as a necessarily negative thing, considering it to be natural and far less of a burden than the dictate of the society as a whole. A bigger tolerance towards different people or differering ideas were cited as being some of the main reasons for this diference.

Interviewed: Freddy Grenzmann, frontman of the Estonian punk band Psychoterror (Photo: J. Vangonen 2015).

The question of belonging or not belonging to the group received mixed answers. On the one hand, having a small group of supporters in the punk movement itself was seen as a necessity which was described as a moral support system. On the other hand, the interviewees expressed reluctance towards considering themselves a part of the group, especially towards adapting to the group’s value standards. The interviewees expressed the wish to both belong to a group and keep their own personal views (possibly contradicting the group’s views in the process) and thus to maintain their individuality and independence.

Methodology of the thesis

The aim of my master’s thesis „The role of punks in estonia and their relationships with the society 1985-1995“ is to analyze Estonian punk, concentrating on the personal views of the punks who were involved in the subculture in the years forementioned. The importance of the thesis lies not only in the insufficiency of previous works on the subject, but also the continuing relevance of punk in today’s Estonia and a wish to contribute to the academic writing on subcultures in the ESSR.

Qualitative research method was used to effectively reflect the subjective nature of experiences. The phenomenological approach was chosen in order to describe the relation between punks and the Estonian society as the punks saw it. The main method of the phenomenological approach is the half structured interview. This was one of the main research methods used for this thesis. In addition to conducting interviews, document analysis was used to analyse articles, interviews, biographies and the undigitalized files of the Estonian National Library.

Gathering data from previous written sources was needed in order to draw up the list of interviewees, as well as to determine the exact questions for the interviews. In addition to collecting historical data, the aim of the interviews were to gather the personal views of interviewees. Information gathered during the interview was then compared to data collected from written sources and data from other interviews.

Conclusion

In my thesis, I set out to analyze the interactions between Estonian society and Estonian punks. This relationship has proven to be a complex subject in need of further study. The factors that influence this relationship include but are not limited to: the changing influence of the Soviet Union, the pre-existing conflicts between Estonians and Russians, the particularities of cowboy capitalism, and the prevalent nationalist sentiments in Estonia during the study period. The effect of these factors can further be analyzed by conducting additional interviews with an even wider array of punks. Due to the exhaustion of all existing written sources, interviews would become an even more valuable source that would need to be further studied in possible future studies.


Joonas Vangonen

I began my academic studies at the University of Tartu in 2011, specifying on punk in Estonia/Estonian SSR. My bachelor's thesis (supervisor Dr. Olaf Mertelsmann) was titled "Punk in ESSR 1980-1991" and was defended in 2015. As of now, I am finishing my mater's thesis titled "The role of punks and their relationships with the Estonian society 1985-1995" (supervisor Olaf Mertlesmann) with the defending taking place in May 2017. I am mostly interested in the punk movement in Estonia but also in the Republics of the Soviet Union where it remains - due to the unaccessability to the historical documents - a largely unstudied subject.

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2 thoughts on “Research project: Estonian punk (1985-1995)

  1. P. S. I live in the USA, and cannot imagine what it was like to live in Baltic countries dominated by the USSR.

  2. I love this site. I am a big fan of J.M.K.E. I found an email address on an article about Villu Tamme (English, William Oak), about his singing certain songs and getting arrested. He continued with these songs with the Russians putting him in a mental institution and banning him from art school. Anyway, I emailed him, never expecting to hear from him. He actually wrote me about 3 times. I should have kept in contact. I know that during Russian domination, they could go to prison for displaying the Estonian flag. But Tamme said he never hated the Russian people, it was the Russian government. This is a great article you wrote.

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