Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Brief History of Dissident Music in Russia, from Stalin's Death to the Present


A housing project completed under Khrushchev, lovingly
referred to in Russian by the combination of the words
"Khrushchev" + "Slum" 
Joseph Stalin's death on March 5th, 1953 arguably marked the most important change in Soviet government of its entire existence. In an instant, the paranoid monster who had personally overseen an entire incarceration apparatus that facilitated the massacre millions of his own innocent citizens, was dead. While the reaction was largely that of shocked loss on behalf of the Russian people, the sudden removal of the main source of Soviet terror. There were many results of this, but the general outcome was that of a thaw in oppression, during which the arts and sciences flourished as Russians grew excited about a future that promised new infrastructure, housing and space exploration. Within three years of his death, the Soviet leadership had denounced Stalin's terror and tenure, and Russia (and by proxy the Soviet Union) had turned a corner.

This combination of events left the Iron Curtain malleable enough to be penetrated by the most consequential musical revelation in recent history: the Beatles. Their music was (still is) catchy, it spoke to the struggles of everyday young people, but most importantly, it was available and
transportable. As rock music entered Soviet culture, many expressions of dissidence began to spring up. For example, young people began to dress in the popular Western style and meet in private, a practice which was strictly forbidden, even in the less restrictive atmosphere of the Khrushchev Thaw. This particular dissident movement is well illustrated by the (somewhat) recent Russian film on the topic: Stilyagi.

A jazz record printed, like countless
others, on medical x-ray film by
dissident musicians
While the popularity of the Beatles in Russia was unmatched by any other group, the 1970s saw a host of new bands and groups come onto the scene, playing music that was not approved by the state, and therefor subject to pressure in a variety of ways. Often, government officials would threaten, coerce or bribe venue owners to not allow rock musicians to play. This practice was very effective, although there was one prominent counter example to this trend: the Leningrad Rock Club. Originally founded under Brezhnev as a home for "respectable music", it quickly grew into the hub of Soviet rock music. This was in St. Petersburg, a city of over 4.5 million in 1980, that was only 170km from the Soviet Union's border with Finland, making it a transit hub for all Western art entering Russia. Still, the general inability to play venues and spread the word lead to the phenomenon of samizdat', or "publish it yourself" in Russian.

Very quickly a black market for not just music, but also self-published literature and art come into being in the Russian underground art scene. Some very famous Soviet bands, such as Kino, Akvarium and Mashina Vremeni used samizdat' to build their followings and become cultural icons. These bands slowly emerged from the shadows under Gorbachev's program of Glasnost' or openness, which preceded the collapse of the once oppressive Soviet regime.

Skipping forward to Putin's early tenure (2000 - 2008), during which musicians were generally allowed to speak their mind, even if it was critical of the Kremlin, so long as they did not represent an actual threat to the status quo. However, as I've covered in earlier posts, Putin's regime has pushed Russia in the direction of  authoritarianism, well demonstrated by the Freedom House Scores for Russia from 2001 to 2008, during which Russia slipped from partly free to not free.

Bolotnaya Square following the publishing of videos on
YouTube incontrovertibly demonstrating widespread
fraud in the 2011 legislative elections
Since the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2011 (in response to clear electoral fraud), Putin's regime has cracked down with increasing severity on freedoms of expression, assembly and speech. But most recently, the Ukraine Crisis has caused severe friction within Russia's music scene, pitting modern dissidents and those of Soviet period against those who are sticking to the Kremlin line and supporting Russia's actions. Most prominent among these two sides are Televizor, a late Soviet era dissident rock group, and Russian singer Valeriya, who has played extensively in western Europe while taking fire for her pro-Kremlin political views.

The regime's reaction to this cultural upheaval is a simple reapplication of the Soviet remedy: censorship and coercion. According to Televizor front-man Mikhail Borzykin, already he is having trouble keeping venues due to pressure from the regional government, which threatens the venue owners with closure for hosting "disfavored" groups. Even his band members are unwilling to play out of fear for their safety or that of their families. All this while groups that support the Kremlin and their various provocations and wars of the last 15 years play concerts unfettered by government censure, including Steven Seagal, who has baffled his American fans by supporting the Kremlin's Ukraine policy.

I feel strongly that this overt, Soviet-style censorship is an affront to human dignity. But with propaganda over the Ukraine crisis reaching a fever pitch and the fighting in Donbass dragging on, it seems reasonable, if abjectly depressing, to think that this return to a harsh climate for outspoken artists is here to stay.