What a Convenient World: Russian Music in the Era of Big Money

This is the written version of a talk given at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference at UCLA on February 27, 2011. I’m told that a recording of the talk will be available on iTunes at some point (along with the Q&A that followed), but for now, here’s the text as finalized on the night of February 26, 2011, two alarmingly fine scotches deep. Cues for music or video clips in the talk have been replaced with YouTube links to the entire song from which the clip was taken. Many, many thanks to Eric Weisbard, the conference organizer; to the faculty of UCLA; to Katherine Meizel, my panel’s moderator; and to Chris Gaerig, source of the alarmingly fine scotch.

This presentation is about Russia, and the first thing you should know about Russia is that Russia is weird. Or at least they think they’re weird. For hundreds of years, Russian artists and politicians and intellectuals have talked about Russia’s otherness: the way it both is and isn’t part of the Western world, the way it pokes its head into Europe while its body and soul recline in Asia. Russians have used this weirdness as an explanation for why Russia must be different: why it must be governed differently; why it needs autocratic tsars and all-powerful General Secretaries. Not every Russian thinks this, of course, but enough have that even if it weren’t true to begin with, it might be now. Being weird and thinking you’re weird eventually come out to the same thing.

Russian art is weird, too. Including Russian pop music. Soviet pop music was weird in ways you could probably predict, even if you hadn’t heard any. Like lots of other things in the USSR, it was arranged along a neat dichotomy. As a rock band, you could record for Melodiya, the state label, and do your bit for the promulgation of the Marxist/Leninist historical dialectic. If you got bored of that, you could sing about the weather. Or you could avoid Melodiya, and record for no one–there were no other labels. If you did that, no matter what you sang about, you were a dissident. You were a dissident because you were by your existence suggesting that there were truths the Communist Party couldn’t tell. Art in the Soviet Union, as in every period of autocratic Russia, was inherently, inescapably political.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost in the late 1980s, much of Soviet culture abruptly unfroze, and bands that had worked underground for years could find tolerance and even success in a less strict Melodiya. Here, for instance, is a song called “Gruppa krovi”, “Blood Type”, from a 1988 album by the band Kino.

Despite being explicitly anti-war and at best ambiguous about Soviet power, Kino found success on the aboveground Russian concert circuit. The dichotomy had begun to change. Nevertheless, nothing the new bands of glasnost recorded was truly apolitical. Art in the Soviet Union remained gripped by politics to the end.

Art in the new Russian Federation–the country that’s existed since 1991–is trickier to guess about. Supposedly, the major changes between the USSR and the Federation are economic and cultural. The difference between the old and new Russias was supposed to be the difference between a medieval autocratic state full of labor camps and political prisons, and a modern liberal democracy full of McDonald’s franchises. The Russian people would no longer be mere pieces in a series of state plans. But it isn’t so easy to change a culture overnight, and even changing an economy might prove trickier than you’d expect.

Let’s look at what really did change about the Russian music industry almost the instant the Union dissolved. In 1989, Melodiya was privatized, along with much of the apparatus of the Soviet state. By 1991, it had already lost its domination of the market. Many of the new Russian ventures happily accepted foreign investment: the first FM station in Russia, Radio Maximum, was co-founded by a trio of American companies. The new Russian businessmen, the ones cut out for the new order, embraced the possibilities of capitalism with jubilation. In “Resurrection”, an analysis of early-1990s Russia, David Remnick mentions an advertisement for the very first Russian version of that decadent-capitalism icon, the credit card. The advertisement reads “What a Convenient World!”

The new Russian record labels were like any other business in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia: they were run by gangsters and bound to the state by a tangle of mutual favors. I realize “run by gangsters” sounds glib, so here’s a quick illustrative anecdote: in September of 1996, Kirill Zelenov, the “Ze” half of ZeKo Records, which was at the time the largest Russian recording company, was killed by assassins in the pay of Vladimir Kozlov, the “Ko” half of ZeKo and Zelenov’s dissatisfied partner. What a convenient world.

It wasn’t just the Russian boardrooms that went all Wild-East. 1992 saw the founding of a new staple of the Russian music industry: the annual Ovatsiya awards. The Ovatsiyas started corrupt and got more corrupt, the constant target of accusations of bribery. A decade later, the awards’ organizers dealt with this like true Russians: in 2001, they announced that money offered in exchange for Ovatsiya awards would henceforth be accepted officially.

Stylistically, the popular music of the new Russia owed a lot to the burgeoning rock scene of the late Soviet years. The bands liberated by glasnost were the founders of a new genre called “Russkii rok”. Style broke along loosely regional lines: bands that came out of the Moscow and Petersburg rock clubs leaned towards folky classic rock probably best represented by the old dissident group Akvarium, whose leader Boris Grebenshchikov got called “the Russian Dylan” a lot. Cities in the famously severe expanse of Siberia, meanwhile, produced ragged punk rock that didn’t always adapt so well to the changes of the 1990s. Bands like Grazhdanskaya Oborona adopted pretty much the kind of value system you’d expect if you took the pugnacious purism of hardcore D.C. punk, moved it to the Siberian tundra, and pitted it against an autocratic police state. These bands weren’t exactly suited for the new world, which, for those not busy becoming immensely rich with the collusion of the government, could feel disorienting, upsetting, and vertiginously amoral.

Better suited were the less political, less confrontational rock bands from the central Russian city of Sverdlosk. The Sverdlosk bands were dark and brooding, but usually about drugs or romantic art, not politics. In 1995, the same year BMG opened an office in Russia, the Sverdlosk-based Agata Kristi co-headlined the first annual Radio Maximum rock festival. Agata Kristi owed a lot to Kino, sounded like a slightly droopier version of the Cure, and sang about gauzy scenes of romantic decadence. Here’s a song called “Opium dlya nikovo”–“Opium for No One”.

I got kind of addicted to that song while writing this, but its apoliticism and slightly rusty sound are part of the reason lots of young Russians began to turn against “Ruskii rok” during the 90s. Melodiya might have lost its monopoly, but the Melodiya attitude was alive and well: entertainment and collusion. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin “ran for reelection”, against a worrisome challenge from the Communist Party. Calling in favors from media-oligarch buddies like Boris Berezovsky, Yeltsin enlisted the services of many of Russia’s rock and pop stars. Things culminated in June, at a rock concert in Rostov, where Yeltsin’s team arranged for this to happen.

The election demonstrated in how many ways the Soviet cultural model persisted. Once again, Russian artists were essentially divided into collaborators and dissidents. The collaborators were optimistic about Russia’s capitalist future, but they were also nostalgic for its Communist past. Toward the end of the 1990s, Boris Berezovsky’s corporation LogoVAZ founded a radio station called Nashe Radio. “Nashe” is the Russian word for “our”, but it can have weird nationalist implications depending on who’s using it. Today, over half of the neo-Nazis in the world live in Russia, and “nenashe”–“not ours”–is the kind of thing they might call a Russian Muslim, or a Jew, or an African. So the radio station’s name needn’t be taken as explicitly political, but it sent a clear message. Nashe Radio would play Russian music: not American, or British, or Ukrainian, or Chechyan. The station was a tremendous success, and spawned its own festival. A more recent Nashe hit, Oleg Gazmanov’s “Sdelan v SSSR”–“Born in the USSR”–represents the brand nicely.

Gazmanov’s lyrics here are almost entirely nostalgic: he’s listing famous Russians, from Rurik, the legendary Viking conquerer of Kiev, to the Romanov dynasty of tsars, to Pushkin, Lenin, and even Stalin. He’s also listing territories–the Ukraine and the Baltic states amongst them–that were overseen by Russia until the Soviet Union’s collapse but are now, conspicuously, not. On one hand the song’s a celebration of a shared cultural heritage that undeniably exists; on another, it’s nostalgia for Russian domination of countries that in many cases fought major political battles to escape Russian domination. Many citizens of the Ukraine, of Georgia, emphatically do not want to be “nashe” anymore.

The really funny and telling thing about Nashe Radio, though–the thing that makes it so representative of post-Soviet Russia–is its ownership. The station is actually a joint venture of Berezovsky’s LogoVAZ and the Australian News Corporation. The crypto-nationalist, anti-Western, Soviet-nostalgic Nashe Radio is co-owned by Rupert Murdoch. Because Rupert Murdoch’s business is finding markets and selling to them.

Let’s return to the decline of “Russkii rok”. Because it wasn’t just the guys singing about Stalin or dancing on stage with Boris Yeltsin who had begun to seem terribly uncool. It was the elder statesmen of dissidence, the artists who had fought the Soviet state in the 70s and 80s.

Bands like Akvarium and DDT had enjoyed a few years of triumph. Akvarium’s frontman Boris Grebenshchikov, the Russian Dylan, was in the late 80s and early 90s considered to be more than a rock star: he was an artist, a poet, and a freedom fighter. Akvarium continued to release albums into the 1990s, and beyond, but something strange happened.

Opinion of artists like Grebenshchikov declined sharply throughout the 90s. In the early 2000s, performing field work for a paper about Russian rock music, David-Emil Wickstrom observed that the younger bands had a grudge against dissident icons that went way beyond the standard kill-your-idols thing. The ska-ish punk band Leningrad, for example, attacked DDT in their song “My Name Is Shnur”: “the stench has been around so long that my nose hurts”. Akvarium, meanwhile–“aquarium”–“that’s where serpents and vermin live, horrible for all to watch. But they’re just happy.”

Grebenshchikov occupies a cultural place in modern Russia kind of like the one Bono occupies in the West. He’s old, he’s very famous, he’s involved in politics, and lots of people can’t stand him. But there’s a key difference. When people make fun of Bono, it’s because he comes across pompous and self-aggrandizing. Grebenshchikov does too, but that’s not why younger musicians are angry at him, or at Yuri Shevchuk of DDT. They’re angry because the concentrated beam of opposition these artists held on the Soviet state has been broken in the prism of commerce. Both Shevchuk and Grebenshchikov are devout members of the Russian Orthodox Church, although, confusingly, Grebenshchikov also identifies as Buddhist. In 2006, Shevchuk and several other Orthodox musicians met with members of the Moscow Patriarchate to discuss the use the Church could make of Russian rock. A year earlier, Grebenschikov attended a similar meeting with the Putin administration.

And then there’s this. In another paper in 2009, Polly McMichael quoted a Russian Akvarium fan thus:

“1986. Summer. I borrowed a second cassette recorder from a friend to re-record the new Akvarium record that Boris had got hold of somewhere … I cancelled work, Boria skipped classes. Having bought, with some difficulty, five bottles of dry wine, and poured the first glass, we put the tape on to record. Each song was a storm of joy … We were happy. And now, I go to Gorbushka and buy an MP3 disc. All of Akvarium on one disc–go figure! Convenient. Modern. Economical. And boring.”

Now, it’s probably safe to say that no matter what you were listening to amidst five bottles of dry wine in the summer of 1986, it’s not gonna sound as good when you put it on your iPod now. But there’s more than that going on here. In 1986, glasnost had only just begun, and even listening to an Akvarium record–never mind reproducing one–was still a political act. And there’s a certain kind of joy in political acts, especially defiant ones, that can bring people together who’d otherwise disagree. In the Soviet years, a kaleidoscope of conflicting ideologies–Western-leaning democrats, socialist reformers, Orthodox churchgoers, various kinds of nationalists–were drawn together by their opposition to the state. But in the 90s, oppression and injustice flowed not only from the state but from the private sector, the same one in which the triumphant dissidents were now enjoying such success. And in the 2000s, as Vladimir Putin cracked down on the gangsters who had run Russia for a decade, forcing oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky to flee to Europe, authoritarianism, nationalism, and aggressive Orthodoxy probably didn’t seem so bad to patriotic and comfortable stars like Grebenschikov. He certainly wouldn’t have been the only one. Sergei Shnurov, the guy who a minute ago was singing about the serpents and vermin, was present alongside Grebenschikov at that meeting with the Putinites.

Now, Sergei Shnurov isn’t necessarily a Putin fan. In 2004, he caused a small stir at a press conference when he said flat-out he “didn’t like Putin’s Russia”. “I don’t know if Putin is to blame,” he told the St. Petersburg Times the same year. “Every one of us, even I, suddenly feel self-censorship. It’s not a very good sign.”

“Self-censorship” is an interesting word. The history of Russian art has been at every turn a history of censorship. Catherine the Great censored Aleksander Radischev when he wrote a satirical pamphlet exposing the inequities of Russian society. Nicholas I censored Pushkin when he feared the poet had been associated with the Decembrist uprising. Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev censored Anna Akhmatova, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Josef Brodsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and uncountably many other opponents of the Communist regime. In the 1990s, the state-sponsored gangsters treating the Russian people the way miners treat mountains did their share of violent supression of their enemies–or of Boris Yeltsin’s. Now, in the calmer, stabler, quieter Russia of Putin, artists talk of self-censorship. Well, why? And what’s the difference? And is it really self-censorship, or just a smarter, subtler, more inescapable kind of state censorship?

Here’s a funny story. There’s a guy named Aleksandr Yelin–another ex-dissident rock and roller. Like his colleagues, Yelin found success in the privatized Russian music industry with a series of projects. In 2002, Yelin says he bet a friend $300 that he could write, record, and release a major hit without a significant budget. “All I needed,” Yelin says, “was the right message.”

Now, this is capitalism. A scrappy entrepreneur taking his country’s pulse and writing something unrefusable, something absolutely attuned to their moment in historical time. The people Yelin was writing for, once the citizens of the second-most-powerful country in the world and soldiers on the vanguard of a worldwide revolution, had just staggered to the end of a long decade of economic and cultural chaos presided over by a gangster-coddling kleptocrat who’d cheerfully drunk himself to death on worldwide television.

Yelin won his bet. The song he recorded was and remains a tremendous success. So what was it? What was the right message?

“Takova kak Putin”

“Takova kak Putin”, “One Like Putin”, was produced by Nikolai Gastello, who was at the time head of the press department for the Russian federal courts. (Now he’s a DJ.) Together, Yelin and Gastello tracked down a couple of girls to sing the song–Gastello spotted one in a nightclub, just like the Runaways. In an interview with PBS, one of the singers, Irina Kozlova, calls Putin “trustworthy, smart, and charismatic”; the other singer, Yana Daneiko, says that “you can see it’s in his veins to be a leader, and to be loved by the people.”

Let’s make this bluntly clear: Vladimir Putin is the head of an authoritarian police state whose idea of staying loved by the people is to assassinate journalists. But many, many, many Russians love him, and it’s not because they’re stupid or deluded or misled. “Trustworthy” might be a stretch, but Putin is undeniably smart, and charismatic, and it’s hard to argue that leadership’s not in his veins. And the key thing about his Russia is that people like Kozlova and Daneiko don’t think he’s something he’s not. They know he’s an authoritarian; that’s why they like him. Putin–like Peter the Great, like Alexander I, like Josef Stalin–is a strong leader, a tough one. Putin, the argument goes, is the leader Russia needs. Because Russia is weird.

“Takova kak Putin” was embraced by its subject, played at campaign rallies and on TV commercials for years. And it was embraced by its other subject, too–the Russians who really did long for a strong leader like a girl for a better boyfriend. It remains a staple of karaoke bars and girls’ nights out throughout Russia. It’s a kind of anthem.

But there’s a strangely Russian ambiguity about this anthem. The music video–the song, even–is a joke about propaganda, at least partially satirical. So is this a case of too-subtle criticism being cluelessly co-opted by its target? Well, remember, the song was written on a bet. There’s not a lot of money in subtle political satire. Does Yelin want to have it both ways–to be a megasuccessful propagandist while clinging to some noble scraps of dissidence? “I’m a professional,” he says in the PBS interview. “I can write whatever you want.” And, yes, if he were asked to write an anti-Putin song, he’d do it–“za dengii”. For the money. “And then I’d laugh,” he says, “because a song like that has no future. There’s no market for a song that criticizes Putin.”

There’s no market. There’s the answer: Aleksandr Yelin is a capitalist. He cheerleads for the state not out of patriotism or fear but “za dengii”.

And there’s an answer, maybe, to our big question: what’s the difference between art in the Soviet Union and art in the Russian Federation? Besides propelling a cutthroat few into fabulous wealth, what did the collapse of the Soviet Union really change? Well, the Russian Federation supports people like Aleksandr Yelin. It supports Bruce Springsteen homages eulogizing Soviet imperialism, and nationalist radio stations owned by Rupert Murdoch. It supports rock stars who sell their services to the Orthodox Church and label heads who have each other assassinated. The world of the new Russia is more fluid, more negotiable, and much more convenient. Just as in the Soviet Union, art in the Russian Federation is inescapably political. “One Like Putin” is a political song; so is “Born in the USSR” and “My Name is Shnur” and even that one about opium. It’s just that now, politics, like the Ovatsiya awards, are a commodity. Politics can be bought and sold, just like everything else.

The Russian people, who have for a thousand years been pieces in the plans of tsars, secretaries, and gangsters, are pieces still, in the latest version of a giant financial and political game. And there are only a few ways to respond to being a piece in a plan. Even in the Russian Federation, with its networks of money and influence and bribery and entrepreneurism, with its brand names and franchises and independent radio stations and private clubs, there are really only two ways to respond. You can be for the system or against it. You can be in acceptance or in defiance. You can be a collaborator or you can be a dissident.

The last song I’m going to play is by a dissident–one of those idealistic Siberian punks. It’s called “Vsyo idyot po planu”–“Everything Is Going According to Plan”–and it’s from 1989, amidst the last moments of the Soviet Union. I’m going to play the last verse from it.

“Vsyo idyot po planu”

Russia’s no longer waiting for Communism, but this song maintains a powerful life in Russian culture, particularly youth culture. It’s the kind of song you learn the guitar for. It’s the kind of song you sing drunkenly with your friends at two A.M. on a city street, or scream out around the campfire together. YouTube is filled with kids looking into the camera and giving the song their best shot, sometimes rearranging verses, changing words, adding lines about Yeltsin and Putin, using the song to help make sense of their own Russian era. It is a subterranean national anthem, an anthem for dissidents. And the beautiful thing about Russian art has always been this: they know better than anyone how to write anthems for dissidents.


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