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Kvartirnik: Russian community revives home concert tradition in Covid-times

  • October 16, 2020

Russian-Kiwi singer Marina Bloom was preparing to perform to a sold-out crowd when Covid-19 lockdown struck early this year.

Bloom, whose music is described as “world melodic pop”, was on her first national tour when news of the first lockdown broke – and the tour had to be cancelled.

But the popular singer, who last year released six singles and made it as a finalist in multiple global songwriting competitions, says she is in no rush to get back on stage and performing to big audiences.

Born in Sochi in Southern Russia, Bloom moved to New Zealand in 2003. She said the geographical isolation and peaceful political environment drew her here.

About 20 people attended the kvartirnik home concert at singer Marina Bloom's home. Photo / Supplied.
About 20 people attended the kvartirnik home concert at singer Marina Bloom’s home. Photo / Supplied.

When New Zealand got to alert level 2, and the number of people allowed at gatherings was limited, Bloom brought back the unique Russian tradition of kvartirnik – concerts in private residences – which has proven so popular, there’s a queue of people wanting to get to the next one.

“For a lot of Russians, performing is in our blood. It’s our reason for gathering, for celebrating and just for being happy,” Bloom said.

“Covid-19 may have stopped public performances, but it won’t stop the Russian love for performing. The show just has to go on.”

Popular Russian-Kiwi singer Marina Bloom enjoys performing at kvartinik gatherings after her public shows were called off because of the virus pandemic. Photo / Dean Purcell
Popular Russian-Kiwi singer Marina Bloom enjoys performing at kvartinik gatherings after her public shows were called off because of the virus pandemic. Photo / Dean Purcell

Uniquely Russian, kvartirnik translates to mean a concert in an apartment. Its history goes back to Soviet times in the 1960s when official policy banned performances of many music genres, including rock.

Kvartirniks became the underground creative space for musicians to show their work and talent, with many top Russian singers like Boris Grebenshchikov and the late Viktor Tsoi also performing at such gatherings.

In the 1980s, kvartirniks were common in Russia but were prohibited by law by the Soviet regime. Until then, it was the only form of nonconformist public music performance in the USSR.

There's been a flurry of interest since singer Marina Bloom posted about the kvartirnik gatherings in her home. Photo / Supplied.
There’s been a flurry of interest since singer Marina Bloom posted about the kvartirnik gatherings in her home. Photo / Supplied.

Bloom’s first kvartirnik in July was attended by about 20 – singers, poets, visual artists, stand-up comics and theatre performers.

Besides the concert, the gathering also included a potluck dinner, personal sharing, jam sessions and “plenty of vodka”.

“For many who came, it’s like a part of our Russian history being brought back to life in New Zealand and it was so exciting,” Bloom said.

Victoria Tishko who moved to NZ from Moscow in 2017 says its wonderful that kvartirniks are happening here. Photo / Supplied.
Victoria Tishko who moved to NZ from Moscow in 2017 says its wonderful that kvartirniks are happening here. Photo / Supplied.

Bloom said that after those who attended posted their photos and shared their experiences on social media, there came a flurry of interest.

“Strangers were messaging me asking when is the next one, and if they can attend,” she said.

Bloom said there was now a waiting list of about 80 people, and she will be deciding with a few others on who will be invited to the coming kvartirnik gatherings.

“We will still limit the numbers to about 20 for each kvartirnik to keep the gatherings intimate,” she said.

There are an estimated 15,000 Russians living in New Zealand and about 60 per cent of them live in the Auckland region.

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Victoria Tishko, 39, who moved from Moscow to Auckland in 2017, said since the first gathering, the community has also taken kvartirnik to small cafes and other creative spaces.

Tishko, an event organiser back in Russia, used to organise performances attended by thousands, but said she was drawn to the small-house performances.

“Unlike public concerts, kvartirniks are very personal, warm and cosy and ideal for people to mingle and get to know each other better,” she said.

“Many of us know about it but didn’t get a chance to attend one back in Russia, so it is just wonderful that they are happening here.”

Tishko, who enjoys sharing and reciting her own prose and poetry, said because of growing interest, the community was considering the inclusion of people from former Soviet bloc countries such as Ukrainians, Belarusian and Kazakhs.

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