Music is a powerful tool of resistance, and has been used this way for centuries. In the late years of USSR music played a big role in supporting dissent and new ideas. More recently, in Russia, which wages a full-scale war on Ukraine since February 24 2022, some musicians sided with the Russian pro-war authoritarian government, but some others became vocal in their anti-war statements.
Unfortunately, thoughtful anti-war songs in Russian get less attention than the warmongering tunes of a leather-clad Kremlin singer Shaman (Yaroslav Dronov). In 2022, he released a song titled “I'm Russian” (in Russian: “Я русский”, romanized as “Ya russkiy”). This track quickly rose to fame, becoming a significant part of popular culture in Russia. It garnered over 42 million views. However, the song also was ridiculed on various Russian social media platforms. Further on, Shaman became a welcomed singer at various pro-government and pro-war rallies. Some people compare him with models from Nazi propaganda posters. The fact of his un-ironic popularity is discussed on YouTube and in online media which publishes columns on contemporary Russian culture in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
It almost seems like there is no music culture in Russia beyond his output but there exists, in fact, also cultural resistance. If Russian antiwar music of the 2020s were a subgenre, there would be several headliners.
Popular musicians with anti-war stance
First, there’s a supergroup made of frequent collaborators, a rapper Noize MC and a high-pitch singer Liza Monetochka, joined by her partner Vitya Isayev. In a series of charity concerts “Voices of Peace” they perform their new war resistance songs, but their most popular one, a banger “People with Guns” was penned a few years before February 2022.
Its sarcastic lyrics go like this:
‘Плохих’ людей с автоматами всех убьют
Из них ‘хорошие’ сделают решето
А если всё-таки ‘плохие’ вдруг победят
Значит просто ‘плохими’ были не те
All “bad” guys with guns will be killed
“Good” ones will make holes in their bodies
And if suddenly “baddies” are to triumph
It would mean the other ones were “baddies”
Many music videos by these artists are important for their visual component. “No One Got Hurt” by Voices of Peace wouldn't work the same without the accompanying animated videos that are connected to two important periods of Russian history: depressive Soviet animation from the 1980s and minimalistic black and white Mr. Freeman, an animated protagonist from early 2010s Russia, a period defined by anti-Putin protests.
“I’ll Survive,” another song by the young singer Monetochka, has been released as a music video on YouTube. It was made from short video clips filmed by her Instagram and TikTok followers, including civilians that survived the siege in the east of Ukraine.
“Burn, Burn,” another popular song of hers, is now accompanied by an animated music video directed by Lado Kvataniya to reflect the horrors of the invasion.
Another superstar of Russian rebellious music is a rapper Oxxxymiron with his angry song “Oyda,” calling for the decolonization of Russian heritage. Miron Fyodorov (Oxxxymiron’s real name) is famous for his word puzzles and literary references.
His lyrics for the track include “Our flag/Has white snow and blue river (and nothing else),” and the video an image of a white-blue-white flag of Russia, a novel symbol chosen by some anti-war groups to deny the necessity of any bloodshed. Russian authorities label both the song and the flag extremist and forbidden.
Actually, “oy, da” is a neutral interjection that can mean both “oh, yeah” and “if you must;” One could even call it somewhat an analogue for Old English “Hwæt” in the beginning of “Beowulf.” A fortnight after the premiere of “Oyda,” a part of Russian society was shocked by the verbally similar on-stage exclamation “Goyda!” from a Kremlin supporter, actor Ivan Okhlobystin. According to a historic anecdote, the latter word was used by oprichniks, the repressive soldiers of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, right before they massacred people in the name of the tsar. “Okhlobystin” is referenced in a music video in another protest song “Anthem of the Doomed or Goyda, Orcs!” by Maxim Pokrovsky.
Пускаем газы и нефть бурим.
Пусть курит Третий Рейх, мы – Третий Рим!
Решит начальник за нас с тобой,
Кто грузом 200 полетит домой!
We are farting gases and drilling oil.
The Third Reich is no match to us, we are the Third Rome!
The boss [Putin] will decide for you and me
Which one is flying back home as a Cargo 200 [killed in action]
Pokrovsky is the front man of the famous rock band “Nogu Svelo,” and one of the most outspoken critics of Putin’s regime among Russian artists. Since 2022 he has released many tracks like “Ukraina,” “Generation Z,” and “We Don’t Need War,” that have become quite popular among Russian-speaking people all over the world.
Vladi, Zemfira and Yuri Shevchuk also recorded anti-war tracks
Another popular musician, rapper Vladi, released a full album of anti-war songs called “February Goes On and On,” meaning that the month of February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, is never ending for those who grieve this war. One of the songs, the track “How the F*** Is It Possible?,” perfectly records the first shock of the aggression from a point of view of an anti-war Russian.
Another important song is “Meat” by rockstar Zemfira, an uncomfortable, sorrowful tune, her singing ranging from the whisper “What did we come here for?,” that expresses the muteness of Russians, to the cutting scream “It’s midnight in Mariupol,” the prominent city's destruction being just one of the horrors that shocked the songwriter.
Young producer and score composer Dmitry Emelyanov has worked with many popular Russian artists, including Zemfira, but hit the spotlight in 2023 with the album “Wolves at a Shooting Ground,” that he co-wrote with Yuri Shevchuk, the front man of the famous rock band DDT, founded in 1980. In 2010 Putin embarrassed himself by pretending not to know who Shevchuk is — the artist's tongue-in-cheek answer “I’m Yura, a musician” quickly became a meme and the name of a documentary about him. His latest album includes brilliant tracks like “Motherland, Return Home,” and the hopeful “The Funeral of the War” that may appeal to a more conservative audience due to its deceptively old-fashioned sound.
Спой песню светлую, чувак
Спой о любви — и будет так
Со всей землёю для войны
Устроим похороны мы
Dude, sing a bright song,
Sing about love – and let it be
We will unite with the whole world
To plan a funeral for the war
Music puts emphasis on the tragedy of mothers losing their children in this war
Manizha Sangin, a civil rights activist, the last Russian artist to perform in Eurovision, and Lado Kvataniya’s spouse, released “Soldier,” a dance-centered performance in English, that puts an emphasis on the tragedy of the mothers losing their children during their military service.
The same idea is behind the music video of “Happy New Year, My Son” by Maxim Pokrovsky — mentioned earlier — and his band Nogy Svelo starring Chulpan Khamatova and Arthur Smolyaninov, two famous Russian actors in exile.
Little Big, a popular band that was supposed to go on Eurovision in 2020 released a video, “Generation Cancellation,” that angered some viewers for not putting blame on any side of the conflict
Some musicians do not directly condemn the war but use other means of expressing the stance
At the same time many Russian artists release compositions that have multiple readings. Some fans might perceive them as anti-war, but many would call this opinion either a stretch or wishful thinking. It is in tune with many people willingly replacing censored words like “war” and “blast” with substitutes offered by state media. Softer lyrics allow the promotion of a song despite Russian censorship. Popular in the early 2000s rock singer Diana Arbenina’s tracks “A Night without a War Declaration” and “Don’t Be Silent” still exist only as records from her live shows posted by fans online.
The anxious song “I’ll Have to Be Silent” from a much younger Erika Lundmoen sounds like a direct answer to that. As Apple Music describes, Lundmoen is a singer-songwriter who infuses the Russian pop scene with her unique blend of escapist melodies and heartfelt vulnerability.
And for some musicians “to be silent” was a good piece of advice: recently Arbenina’s concerts were prohibited in Russia, which also happened to most of the people mentioned in this article.
Read more: For school New Year's Eve parties in Moscow, some music is apparently deemed inappropriate
Some songs and artists have a sudden comeback in playlists of anti-war audiences. Take for instance Alla Pugacheva, a Soviet superstar who for decades was a fairy godmother of mainstream Russian pop. As soon as her husband, TV comedian Maxim Galkin, opposed the war and their family left the country, she faced a terrible fake news campaign aimed against her. “I once asked Yaroslav Dronov [Shaman] to say one important thing, now I will say it too, although no one has asked me to: ‘You will hear from me again!’ Whether you like it or not, life has shown I am still in your hearts,” the diva wrote on Instagram earlier this month.
While all living Russian musicians must pick a side, even dead artists are resurrected with some help from AI technologies to make a point. For example a popular in the 80s rock singer Viktor Tsoi, who died in 1990, is AI-resurrected in this music video. His electronic copy sings the critical anthem from 1988, “A Train on Fire,” originally written by another rock star, Boris Grebenschikov. The metaphor of the train on fire is about the country, from where there is no escape and which is in war with its people.
If one checks any comment section under the music videos in this article they will see that listeners often regret the small size of the anti-war music audience, even if the same video was streamed millions of times, making this sorrow futile.
Acclaimed producer Roman Liberov has recently united some of the artists mentioned above and many other musicians. Together they filmed the concert “We Exist,” that premiered on December 12, 2023. Through this musical project anti-war artists oppose the narrative of Russian war resistance as a marginal point of view. Perhaps their music will help to overcome the narrative of an imaginary or not pro-Putin majority in Russia.