The wildest lo-fi music videos of Post-Soviet Ukraine

Following economic collapse, Ukrainian musicians in the 90s were forced to produce videos on a shoestring budget -- defining an entirely singular aesthetic.

by Rolien Zonneveld
08 May 2020, 6:00am

Still from Olga Yunakova - I Will Fly For Love

Watch one of the many popular videos of Ukrainian model and professional raver Bogdan Romanovic dancing in the middle of a highway -- sporting shiny tracksuit bottoms, a tank top and tinted glasses -- and you can't help but feel instantly transported to a different era. Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with the nostalgic nature of VHS (or the implication of camcorder use), but medium aside, his dance moves exude big 90s Eurodance energy. Ask where he gets his inspiration from and he cites bygone dance acts like 2 Unlimited of “No Limit” fame, but also a whole host of obscure Ukrainian acts that have never really seen the light of day outside of the country. Take Ван Гог for example -- Ukrainian for Van Gogh, which has to be the best name for a music act ever.

As it turns out, post-Soviet Ukraine -- declared fully independent in 1991 -- truly is a goldmine for the most wild music videos and idiosyncratic dance acts. While they all lean heavily into musical genres (pop, rock, dance) that were popular in the West at the time, they’re all given a distinct Slavic flavour. Accompanying videos are shot on VHS tapes and make use of nostalgic lo-fi special effects, read: trippy transitions, and lots of them.

Due to the economic crisis which lasted from 1991-1994, a direct result of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, musicians were forced to make videos on extremely tight budgets, which definitely bred a unique aesthetic. Shooting on VHS had been popular since the 80s due to its accessibility, practicality given the lack of equipment needed, and the fact that it didn't require much professional directing. Stick a green screen up in lieu of a real location, place someone in front of it and go wild in the edit. No wonder it became the modus operandi in a resources-starved Ukraine.

Funnily enough, the last decade has seen a huge throwback to this particular era of video making. As music videos had evolved into huge, polished productions, the appeal of lo-fi, DIY creation became increasingly more apparent. Slick, expensive videos were often ditched in favour of shaky, handheld videos with some incredible results (Frank Ocean, we see you). It's no real surprise, then, that some of those once-hidden gems from the Ukraine have managed to find their way to people's radars. As with anything, in order to filter through the noise, all you need is a good guide. Luckily for us, Bogdan is stuck in isolation with not a lot to do aside from digging deep into his video archive and sharing his seven favourite post-Soviet Ukrainian music videos. "To me, these people -- who still managed to make music and videos under tough circumstances -- are true heroes of mine. They forged an entire post-Soviet era of new Ukrainian music. People studied, had fun, ran away from home, danced at discos, fell in love, broke their hearts and were reborn from the ashes via these songs. These tapes, they will never disappear or age," he says.

1. Olga Yunakova - I Will Fly For Love

Olga Yunakova, the daughter of a pilot, first performed on stage at the tender age of four, in the television contest Funny Notes. Thanks to adoring letters from viewers, she went on to win the competition with the song "Cheburashka". She was catapulted into the public eye and many years later, after a spell as frontwoman of the band Side by Side, she launched her solo career in 1995. In "I Will Fly For Love" she seems to pay tribute to her family's roots with a video of her flying through space. The styling -- full latex looks, braided hair sculptures and black lipstick -- look almost as though it could’ve been done today.

2. Phantom 2 - Two

On our first attempt to unearth literally any information on this dance act, all we were left with were details of an armored tank. And frankly, it doesn't get more obscure than that. Delving a little deeper though, it seems that Phantom 2 was a Ukrainian Eurodance band that originated in 1996 and consisted of lovers Roman Matiash and Olga Grechko. In October of that same year they released their first album Star Wars, which sold more than a million cassette tapes. Phantom 2 were on fire. In this completely insane video for album track “Two”, Roman appears to crash their Jeep, get rushed to hospital, die during surgery, visit his ghost wife in heaven, and then come back to life to flash an OK sign at the surgeon who -- get this -- was also him. No, we don’t understand either.

3. Aqua Vita - The Clouds Will Melt

A common theme among 90s Ukrainian dance acts seems to be a sincere love of space and the sky. Aqua Vita also went down this route with their 1997 single "The Clouds Will Melt". Call us crazy but somehow it reminds us of the Madonna "Frozen" days -- or maybe we're just being overly nostalgic. Founded in 1993 by Igor Balan, the band initially consisted of himself and singer Natalia Luchnikova, who soon quit. Just when it seemed to be impossible for him to find a new soloist, Igor got introduced to Irina Filatova, who mesmerised him with a rendition of Sam Brown's "Stop". They joined forces and went on to achieve ultimate Ukraine-wide fame.

4. Ivanov Down - I Walk My Fish

Experimental rock band Ivanov Down was formed in Kiev in 1990. Frontman Lesha Maket Degtyar discovered a love of music via the army orchestra during his military service. His ultimate dream was to create an intuitive musical language that could convey his moods and associations. It is for that reason that some of their early concerts could be best described as total chaos, consisting of dissonant chords accompanied by shamanic spells instead of words. Visitors were often seen leaving the venue with their hands over their ears. The world probably just needed to warm up to them a little bit, because that winter the band was hailed "most promising act of Kyiv". One critic dubbed their sound as something between "the howling of a mammoth and the explosion of shrapnel" -- lovely.

5. Van Gogh - Don't Fly Away

Van Gogh was a Ukrainian synth-pop band formed in March 1995. Their name was often stylised as "Va'n'Gog", a hectic mash-up of "Vasia and Goga", referring to Vasyl Pavlyk (keyboard instruments, backing vocals) and Igor Dobryansky (songwriting, vocals). In 1996 the two broke onto the Ukrainian showbiz scene with their single SOS, which became an instant hit. "Don't Fly Away" is a video which can only be summarised as: squad goals. A bunch of leather clad lads can be seen roaming around a ruin of some sort, alternated with some heavy 90s club scenes. Hopefully those days will arrive soon.

6. Alexander Ponomarev - Asterisk

Before becoming the prolific singer he is today Alexander Ponomarev was a bit of a hooligan who loved getting into fights. His one true passion was boxing but when a severe blow to the head in one of his matches impacted his vision, he decided to devote his life to music. After graduating from music school in 1993 he won a prestigious award for best vocal performance, and at the end of the same year he was hailed best pop singer in the Ukraine. "Asterisk" is a video which could have been shot today -- Mac deMarco-style. With his stylish undercut, loose fitted blouse and slick sunglasses Alexander basically looks like your boyfriend. He still makes regular appearances on Ukrainian television today, hosting or judging singing competitions.

8. Marina Ivanova - Crazy

In her video "Crazy" pop singer Marina Ivanova is channeling a strong Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted energy. Doe-eyed and with a short pixie cut, she appears to be cradling a doll in a psychiatric hospital. At some point a rather nightmarish nurse makes an appearance to deliver her a birthday cake. Very fever dream-esque. Marina had a good run as a pop artist, and even made the list of 'Honoured artists of the Ukraine'. The last album she brought out in 2006, however, mainly consisted of Christian songs -- indicating quite a turn in her career.

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