‘Almost all famous artists have left or will leave [Russia], and those who remain will be blacklisted and banned’

Image by RussiaPost, published with permission.

Artemy Troitsky is a famous Russian journalist, music critic, writer and concert promoter. Since 2014 he has lived in Estonia, where he is a lecturer, and a radio host: he has a weekly program and podcast about music on Radio Liberty. Russia Post's Alexey Medvedev asked Troitsky about the situation within the Russian music scene during the past year. Global Voices published an edited version with permission from Russia Post.

RussiaPost (RP): What was remarkable about 2022 in terms of music?

Artemy Troitsky (AT): I remember 2022, first of all, not for music, but for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Still, I can’t help but follow music, as I have a weekly radio program and podcast on Radio Liberty. I did two or three episodes with Ukrainian war songs and several with anti-war and protest songs, both global and Russian.

The main figure of 2022 for me is undoubtedly Max Pokrovsky. He put out a powerful series of anti-war and anti-Putin songs. Followed by Noize MC. They came to us in Tallinn, along with Monetochka.

RP: What can you say about modern Ukrainian and Russian anti-war songs?

AT: Russian war songs are very different from Ukrainian ones. Ukrainian songs are similar to Soviet ones from the Great Patriotic War — “the enemy attacked, we have to fight, we need to drive this enemy back.” Usually, the songs are very optimistic and uplifting. A few compositions are marked by horror or pessimism, though they are clearly the minority.

Basically, these are songs that are calling people to the fight. Meanwhile, there are a wide variety of styles. On the one hand, it’s rappers and hip-hoppers, who feature more humor. These are songs about the “Russian warship“ or the Bayraktar drone. There are also “women’s” songs with the promise of “wait for me, I’ll return.” “Ukrayinska lyut“ (“Ukrainian rage”) is a wonderful song. There’s a fairly large number of compositions, though it’s not only rock and rap, which have always responded to the current agenda, but also pop. There is this great young lady Jerry Heil (Yana Shemayeva). All pop, with these funny TikTok videos. For example, the song “I see you.” Stylistically, it is not only the “usual suspects” — rockers and rappers like Oleh Skrypka, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk and Andriy Volynets. It is also artists from whom hardly anyone expected political activity.

Russian songs, of course, are completely different. I think that the most interesting thing that was recorded in Russia in 2022 is the album “February Goes On” by the rapper Vlady from the group Kasta, which is entirely dedicated to the current situation. There are philosophical, satirical and, as it were, documentary songs. This is perhaps the most voluminous, the most multifaceted work.

AT: The most powerful and popular songs, of course, belong to Noize MC. This is “Land of rains” about emigration, “Let the swans dance” — about “him croaking.”

Next, it’s the songs of Maxim Pokrovsky and his Nogu Svelo! group. There are a whole bunch of them: “Generation Z,” “We don’t need war,” “Goyda, orki” with a cartoon clip by Oleg Kuvaev, the creator of the animated series “Masyanya.” These songs were very successful, so it is not surprising that Nogu Svelo! has been very widely touring.

Yura Shevchuk’s songs could not but attract attention: both his songs with DDT and those with Zemfira’s guitarist Dima Yemelyanov. “Don’t lose your mind,” “This is not your war,” “The rooks wait in the spring field,” “Motherland, come back home!”

Thank God that Yura, even though he is practically locked up in Russia, continues to work in the studio, continues to write wonderful songs. And the people, as far as I understand, take very well to these songs.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the songwriting of our glorious veterans. I mean Andrei Makarevich, Boris Grebenshchikov and Mikhail Borzykin. They have all spoken out against the war, against Putin, against all the current Russian madness. But I haven’t heard any new songs by Time Machine or Aquarium on the current events to this point. And if there are, then their meaning is heavily veiled. Boris Grebenshchikov just released an acoustic song called “Black swan.” In it, you can catch a sense of horror from what is going on, but still it is not the song that, I think, everyone expects from him. I really hope that, besides the beautiful acoustic, bard songs of Makarevich, like “My country has gone crazy,” his group Time Machine will record something rock, a hit based the current events.

RP: Does the concert industry have a future in Russia? Will everything revert to Soviet formats and performances of trustworthy rockers in “palaces of culture?” Will an underground with house concerts reemerge?

AT: I won’t attempt to give any final diagnosis, as I have not been in Russia for two years and I may not sense some important things. If we talk about Russian official music, then it has come to an end. Vadim Samoilov, Chicherina are not artists at all — they are rubbish, disgusting, untalented, unfashionable, in the final analysis. On the other hand, these artists are seeing a windfall now, since the “field” has emptied out and gone over to the pillagers. Now, they do all kinds of fascist festivals, make a lot of money… Plus, there will be some kind of pop music in Russia at this official level.

Still, I have a number of friends, including old friends, who play good music while remaining in Russia. They are mostly experimenters, avant-gardists, people who perform electronic music, industrial.

Usually, this music is instrumental, without words. And if there are words, then they do not carry any special message. So, these guys are also doing pretty well now, again because the stage is empty. 

This stage is, as they say, off the state’s radar, censorship and so on, so they feel fine. Still, this does not apply to musicians who are visible on that very radar — in the first place, DDT.

Almost all famous artists have left or will leave, and those who remain will be like DDT — blacklisted and banned. So, the question about a “new underground” is logical. For Russian rock, the “golden era” was the years of the underground, the end of the 70s and the first half of the 80s. The question is, will this “new underground” emerge? So far, I don’t see any clear signs of it. Because if earlier we all stewed in this Soviet “cauldron,” now people who could make up this “new musical underground” have simply gone abroad.

RP: How much does the current music entertainment sphere differ from the Soviet era of the 1980s?

AT: The situation is completely different. There is one big plus called the internet — YouTube and everything else. There are some echoes of that potential “underground” that occasionally reach me — YouTube recordings of some completely unheard-of groups with anti-war songs. Thank God, YouTube has not yet been shut down in Russia, though I am sure that that will be done in the foreseeable future.

Let’s take a band called The Tagil. One song is called “Even worse.” The second is “Eh, brother.” Very good anti-war songs, quality recording and so on. What’s this band? I have no idea. In the 80s, there were all these underground albums, mainly produced in Leningrad. Now, there are much more potent methods of distribution. That’s a plus.

The downside is that under the Soviet regime, the fight against underground rock was pretty careless, like everything else at that time. Everyone then worked carelessly. Now, it seems to me, the FSB, cops and the prosecutor’s office are working much more zealously. They are afraid to slip up, so they show all sorts of zeal with canceling concerts, raids, bans on concerts, persecution over songs, statements and so on.

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