‘Together in electric dreams’ Journalist Nikolay Ovchinnikov explains how Russian music is coping with the war


Nikolay Ovchinnikov

October 6, 2022

Russian popular music has been in crisis since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Some musicians have found the courage — and the creative means — to condemn the war, but confronting the conflict has proved too great a struggle for most artists. So far, the challenge from pop diva Alla Pugacheva has received the most public attention. After defending her husband, comedian Maxim Galkin, against a “foreign agent” designation and maligning the war’s “illusory goals,” Pugacheva more recently denounced her critics as “serfs” turned “slaves.” In a survey conducted in late September, the Levada Center found that 21 percent of Russians supported Pugacheva’s remarks about “foreign agency” (the pollsters did not ask about the war), while 36 percent of respondents disapproved. In a guest essay for Meduza, music journalist Nikolay Ovchinnikov reviews the state of the industry in Russia and examines how artists in various genres try to speak through music.

Alla Pugacheva’s September 18 post on social media currently has more than 868,000 likes. Hers is not the only expression of protest against the war in Ukraine by a popular Russian performer, but Pugacheva’s rebellion does not belong to a general trend among musicians. Performers in Russia have responded to the invasion of Ukraine in different ways. For some, the war, the sense of a looming crisis, and isolation from the global music industry triggered bold public statements. Others seem unaffected by the events.

To be clear, this text addresses artists from Russia, as opposed to Russian artists around the world. It would take a separate essay to probe what the Russian-language music scenes elsewhere — in Belarus (think Max Korzh and LSP), Kazakhstan (Scryptonite), and all the more so in Ukraine (Ivan Dorn and the rest) — have to say about the war. All these artists were once considered part of a single post-Soviet music market. Since the start of the war, however, these same performers have avoided touring Russia, taking pains to distance themselves from it.

So, let’s talk about music in Russia — and how it speaks (or keeps silent) about the war.

Scared and confused

Russian pop music has always stood slightly apart from politics. Popular musicians have addressed some current events, but this behavior has never been systemic. In this regard, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed nothing for many musicians. They’ve carried on recording tracks that in no way try to grapple with the events of 2022.

One of the most popular songs to top Russia’s music charts this year is Anna Asti’s “Po baram” (“Around the Bars”). It’s a typical love song in the style of the Ukrainian pop star Max Barsky, whose music trended in the late 2010s. Asti has continued to perform in Russia despite the fact that the Russian military has bombed her hometown, the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy.

Another emblem of this kind of escapism is the UKG hit recorded by Markul and Tosya Chaikina, “Arrows” — a banal love song whose protagonist longs for love and Paris.

These pleasant but vacuous chart-topping tunes completely ignore the war. “Together in electric dreams,” Russian pop stars intone, as if the invasion of Ukraine hasn’t upended life for tens of millions.

Admittedly, much has changed. Artists have switched to new streaming providers (Spotify, Apple Music, and Sony all had to be replaced), changed their marketing strategy, and exchanged old record labels for new ones. Fundamentally, however, musicians have remained faithful to the same old motto: “Dance away the trouble.”

Historically, at least, Russian rock music has had a rebellious reputation. The genre made its mark in the 1980s during Perestroika and the USSR’s collapse. But this streak changed around the turn of the century, as most popular rock musicians turned away from public life and towards personal experience. The rock scene’s relations with the state were now neutral if not friendly. Rock stars were invited to the Kremlin, and some even met with Dmitry Medvedev when he was president.

Today, many Russian rock musicians are simply waiting things out, and a handful have openly sided with the authorities.

For instance, Sergey Galanin, Alexander Sklyar, and the music group Pilot all took part in a patriotic “Z-marathon” concert called “Za Rossiyu” (“For Russia”), earning good money for this collaboration. Garik Sukachev and a group of musicians recorded a cover of Black Obelisk’s old hit, “I Remain.” That song’s anti-emigration rhetoric suddenly became timely amid a new exodus of Russians leaving the country. Even before the February invasion, some rock performers endorsed Russia’s intervention in the Donbas. Yulia Chicherina, a once popular pop-rock singer, started recording songs about soldiers of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — and then became its citizen herself (before Moscow formally annexed the territory in October 2022).

Wartime Russian rock mostly amounts to a revival of past hits rebranded under the sign of “Z,” plus some largely unpopular ultra-patriotic songs. Chicherina, for example, has clung to the spotlight by recycling her old hits, in the spirit of Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette.

Like in many places around the world, rap has been Russia’s most outspoken and socially responsive form of music in more recent decades. But artists in this genre, too, have broadly failed to comment on the war in Ukraine. Many significant new releases — the latest work by 2010s stars like Feduk, Kizaru and Yanix, for example — rely on the same old “song of myself” and tales of “Russians with attitude.” The music recorded since February has often perpetuated the rap animated by the “pathos of personal growth” rooted in longing “to be rich like the next guy.” Most Russian rap music has abandoned any sense of shared struggle for common values.

At the same time, the few but loudest voices of protest in Russian music are still rappers.

Cryocoolers and magic

“Show us who doesn’t want to go to heaven / Wake us up when February ends.” These lines appear in the song “Kriokamery” (“Cryocoolers”), recorded for the Voices of Peace project and released on September 21, World Peace Day — the same day that Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s military to begin drafting soldiers for combat in Ukraine.

Voices of Peace is a “super-group” formed by Ivan Alekseyev (Noize MC), Elizaveta Gyrdymova (Monetochka), and Vitya Isayev. All three are popular and significant Russian musicians. As far back as the late 2000s, Noize injected Russian rap with a sense of social awareness and politics. In the late 2010s, Monetochka and Isayev infused Russian pop music with a new post-ironic naivete and a responsiveness to current socio-political issues. (Gyrdymova and Isayev are married and recently had a daughter.)

All three artists now reside outside of Russia and perform in anti-war shows around Europe and the South Caucasus (where there are large and expanding Russian diasporas). Their Voices of Peace tour raised more than $335,000 in aid for Ukrainian refugees. In his interview with Meduza, Alexeyev said the concerts grounded him in the war, offering the chance to help people who suddenly find themselves abroad “with completely uncertain prospects, not knowing if they’ll ever return to normal life and see their hometowns again.”

Russian music has no centralized anti-war current, but the number of musicians who do speak out against it is growing, despite the increasing censorship.

Other popular Russian rappers like Oxxxymiron (Miron Fyodorov) and Face (Ivan Dryomin) also went abroad with tours in support of Ukraine. (At his Istanbul concert last March, Oxxxymiron raised $30,000 in support of Ukrainian refugee children.) Both artists previously filled large venues for big money, and both have given up those lucrative opportunities to condemn the invasion. In his interview with Yury Dud, Face said he would no longer perform in the Russian language and also criticized performers who do not speak out more against the war.

At a London charity concert in March, Oxxxymiron performed alongside Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov. “BG,” the songwriter and lead singer of the equally iconic band Aquarium, is once again among the musicians who have been silently banned from performing in Russia. (In July, the news website Fontanka published an unofficial list of “forbidden performers” reportedly distributed as guidelines to venue managers in Russia.) Grebenshchikov lives and performs outside of Russia. His new album, “The House of All Saints,” is an indirect comment on current events, but a comment all the same. “Those by the bonfires among the craters, it is them, not us,” he sings, accompanied by a mellow hip-hop beat.

The unofficial list published by Fontanka mentions more than 30 different performers, many of whom remain in Russia and face problems with staging concerts. For example, the music group Anacondaz (which has consistently criticized the regime’s politics and the war) was forced to reschedule or cancel most of its concerts planned for an upcoming nationwide tour.

Yuri Shevchuk, the lead singer of another celebrated rock group, DDT, has also faced pressure from the state. When performing on May 18 in Ufa, Shevchuk made an anti-war speech, telling a large audience that “the Motherland is not the president’s ass.” He was fined 50,000 rubles (roughly $870).

After refusing to perform under a banner inscribed with a giant “Z,” the band Bi-2 also encountered sudden problems. In response to the same pressures, the rap collective Kasta (“Caste”) concocted the idea of “secret concerts,” similar to Soviet-era apartment concerts (“kvartirniks”).

Several groups have altogether quit performing in Russia and moved abroad. Together with Face and the Ukrainian music group Nervy (“Nerves”), the punk group Pornofilmy went on a European charity tour. Manizha, who represented Russia in the 2021 Eurovision contest, embarked on an “Uncancelable Tour” in former Soviet republics. Little Big, one of the most globally popular Russian groups, relocated to Los Angeles. When critics faulted the group’s anti-war music video, “Generation Cancelation,” for being too vague in its politics, front man Ilya Prusikin replied that “art is separate from political statement.” “It would have been stupid,” he said, “to sing about Putin, that he started a war.”

Oxxxymiron is known to have returned to Russia to record the music video “Oida.” Filmed against the backdrop of St. Petersburg’s streets, canals, and courtyards, the new song includes the lines: “Oida, take away the house! And move into the house! And choke inside that house! We’ll rebuild it.”

There is indeed quite a lot to rebuild — including the Russian music scene itself.

Rebuilding Russian music

Mainstream Russian pop is currently frozen creatively. By failing to respond to the invasion of Ukraine, the industry has lost its share of the post-Soviet music market and jeopardized its own future.

So, what comes next? The question interests both the musicians trying to adapt to Russia’s zeitgeist and the authorities who are eager to prevent a popular challenge to the state. In the past, the Kremlin has failed to appreciate pop music’s full potential as a political instrument, but this has changed.

Meanwhile, musicians themselves, even those who have left Russia, have resisted calls to adopt more direct, overt slogans in their art. Performers continue to treat the Russian language as an experimental space where power resides in the style, not the content, of what is said. In this context, Kriokamery’s simple line, “Wake us up when February ends,” is unexpectedly eloquent.

The phrase taps into something felt by many people, maybe everyone.

Russia’s new generation of popular musicians is actively looking for new intonations. The texts and sounds that emerge from their search are discordant. The pain of living in this time, the urge to change something, and the despair that follows all clash in the sound of this new music.

We hear this in “Woe,” a mourning song recorded by the folk-reanimation project Hodíla Ízba, and in “Panikhida,” Nasha Tanya’s song depicting a religious ritual for a dead forefather who “hears no one.” The popular indie group Samoe Bolshoe Prostoe Chislo (The Largest Prime Number) has these bluntly delivered lyrics in the song “Mezhdu Strok” (Between the Lines): “If it all was in vain; if it was a sunset, not dawn; if it all was in spite of, not thanks to; then what sense is there in struggle?” For all the music industry’s conformism and inadequacies throughout the war, songs like “Between the Lines” may capture more of what the public feels than any opinion poll can grasp.

A generation of more passionate artists has demonstrated that it can deliver anti-war narratives in the colorful packaging that makes pop music popular. There’s even evidence that the Kremlin’s adversaries are winning on the music front, despite all the resources available to the authorities. Consider the latest music video from “Rapper Rich,” which pro-invasion, Kremlin-loyalist bloggers promoted aggressively. On YouTube, the song has almost 200,000 views. Compare that to the 1.9 million times people have watched Oxxxymiron’s “Oida” music video.

Translation by Anna Razumnaya