CIEE Kvartirnik: Understanding Through Music

Authored by:
Arina Vlasova

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” 
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What connects people all over the world? What gives us the power to go on? What needs no words to express thoughts and feelings?

Of course, it's music. Music provides us with the comprehensive language we intuitively know from our very birth. During hard times, people intuitively unite under the influence of music and create beautiful things which are capable of changing the world around us. A great example of such bonding are квартирники ('kvartirniki'), a unique Russian cultural phenomenon.

To understand what kvartirnik is, we just have to take a look at its etymology. In Russian, квартира (kvartira) means an apartment; a flat. Thus, it is quite easy to guess that kvartirnik is an acoustic concert at someone's private residence. Besides the concert itself, kvartirnik includes some kind of a potluck, sharing musical experience, and jam sessions. Mostly, Kvartirniks are a place for little-known groups or individual performers of rock, bard songs, less often — folk music. For obvious reasons, mainly acoustic instruments are used. The atmosphere at kvartirniks is very warm, cozy, and lively, providing an opportunity for everyone to get closer personally and creatively. There is also a literary version of the kvartirnik where participants share and reсite their own prose and poetry.

Kvartirnik. Moscow, 1988. Image via

The history of kvartirniks originates from the Soviet times; particularly, the 1960s. The regime itself and the official policy regarding culture denied many popular music genres, including rock and bard songs. Until the very fall of the Soviet Union rock musicians had very few possibilities to perform, being denied in giving concerts. Their individualism, critique of the existing regime, and protest included in their songs could not co-exist with the Soviet system. For many musicians, kvartirniks became a creative underground of some sort and also an opportunity to show their work and talent. Besides the smaller protesting artists, many famous Soviet Russian singers, such as Viktor Tsoy, Mike Naumenko, Boris Grebenshchikov, and etc., also performed at kvartirniks. For the 1980s kvartirniks became extremely common, and soon they were prohibited by law. It was possible to either get a fine or even some jail time. Home performances were perceived as a competitor by the Roskonsert that had a full monopoly of the field of culture at the time.

The tradition of kvartirniks didn’t stop in the 90s, continuing throughout those years and the 00s. Up to this day, kvartirniks are dearly loved by those who live in Saint Petersburg. However, nowadays, since there is no need to hide anymore, instead of apartments they often take place at small cafés and creative spaces. 

This piece of culture just couldn't go past our attention unnoticed: kvartirniks inspired our center to create our own version of this phenomenon. So the idea of first ever CIEE Kvartirnik came true this month! With the assistance of Anton Stepanov (CIEE St. Petersburg Program Officer) and Arina Vlasova (CIEE St. Petersburg Student Life Assistant), American students learned about the history of kvartirnik and prepared various songs performances in Russian. 

To recreate the cozy atmosphere of kvartirniks, we chose the attic of our campus building. The whole place, decorated with string lights and posters of old music bands, was reminiscent of a real apartment. The attic quickly filled with people; with all the talks, dim lighting, tea, and cookies it really started to feel like home.

David Waisman (University of California)
David Waisman (University of California) and Anton Stepanov (CIEE St. Petersburg Program Officer)

And then the magic began. David Waisman (University of California) sang a song by a renowned Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky; the public was greatly impressed with David’s voice and amazing whistling skills. Next song, a soundtrack from a well-known Soviet movie The Irony of Fate, was performed by Braxton Birchard (University of Vermont) who was rewarded with a round of applause. Emmy Kim (University of California), accompanied by Matthew Pinerola (Ohio State University) and Anton Stepanov, made everyone in the room cry with her gentle and soulful singing, presenting two songs: one by the Russian singer Zemfira and another by the Russian band Mumiy Troll'. Finally, Buyandelger Tsetsengarid (University of Illinois) absolutely rocked the international crowd with her incredible rendition of a popular song by the Russian band IOWA. No doubts, singing in a foreign language is challenging, but our students made it in the best way possible.

After all of the prepared songs, the event continued in an open mic format. It was amazing how many talents shined brightly that night! Several Russian guests took the initiative and showed their talent to everyone, performing famous Russian songs such as those by the bands Kino and Splin. Just in a few minutes Emmy Kim and Merrie Hunter (University of Richmond) created a wonderful improvised duo; and the room was almost set on fire by the incendiary jam session of Braxton Birchard with his harmonica and Matthew Pinerola with his guitar.

The further into the night, the more Americans and Russians sang everything together, creating a beautiful harmony with their voices. No one wanted to leave, but eventually, we had to. However, it's definitely not the last Kvartirnik at CIEE St. Petersburg; there will be more songs and warm get-togethers in the future. 

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