Pussy Riot Isn’t the Only Band Rocking on Russia

[27 February 2014]

By Chris Kjorness

From clever Soviet-era symphonies to current black market recordings, Russian musicians have a long history of working around the state’s culture of censorship.

This month Russia took center stage as televisions throughout the world displayed gorgeous images of the Caucasus mountains. The centerpiece in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quest to return Russia to its former place of global prominence, the Sochi Olympics, has not been without controversy. Animal rights advocates were outraged when the stray dogs of Sochi were rounded up and euthanized before the Games. LGBT activists called for a boycott of the games in protest of Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law. And human rights advocates have criticized the oppressive police presence at the Games and Putin’s “ring of steel”around the Games. Not to mention questions raised as to the role Russia plays in ongoing conflicts in Syria and neighboring Ukraine.

Perhaps the most well known critics of Putin and the Sochi Olympic Games are the members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Jailed in 2012 for their staged performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the women of Pussy Riot have become international symbols of the fight against censorship and the the unholy alliance between religious conservatism and heavy-handed governments. (See interviews with members of Pussy Riot on Colbert Nation.com ,Part 1 and Part 2.)

But the ladies of Pussy Riot are not the first Russian musicians to be muzzled by Russian authorities. Censorship was an institution in tsarist and imperial Russia. And during the Soviet era, some of the nation’s finest composers, like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, found their artistic licence limited by the strictures of Stalinism.

While music was a great source of pride, Soviet authorities were always on the lookout for music that, in their view, would alienate the proletariat. Music that was overly intellectual, too closely mirrored German classical conventions, or simply didn’t meet the aesthetic preferences of Stalin himself was said to exhibit “formalism”. And to have one’s work labeled as such in Pravda, the state newspaper, was tantamount to a professional death sentence.

When told to write a symphony celebrating the Soviets victory over Nazi Germany, Shostakovich, in one of the more clever acts of anti-Soviet subversion, produced a rather light-hearted work, which set the composer’s affinity for contrast and juxtaposition in a framework reminiscent of classical era composers like Haydn or Mozart. A move that was officially labeled as a clear symbol of “ideological weakness”.

But it was not just bourgeoisie classical music that was censored in the Soviet Union. Jazz was initially welcomed as an accoutrement to comic films. But after World War II, as jazz became more intellectual and musicians pursued a-freedom-at-all-costs aesthetic, the music was labeled bourgeoisie and subversive by Soviet censors. Not to mention that it did not originate in Russia, prompting Soviet officials to derisively label the music “cosmopolitan”.

But in spite of the harsh denunciations and state restrictions (or maybe because of them) Russia’s jazz culture persisted. Rebellious youths, referred to as stiliagi, built a counterculture of hot jazz, hip slang, and flamboyant clothes, promoting their culture through self-manufactured, samizdat, recordings and magazines.

While receiving official recognition from the Soviet authorities as “the People’s Artist of Russia” in 1993, George Garanian’s music reflects the explosive spirit, as well as the culture diversity of this vast country.

While Soviet authorities went back and forth on what to do with jazz and classical music, they had no such uncertainty when it came to rock ’n’ roll. Vapid, commercial, and utterly foreign, rock ’n’ roll was outlawed, with Nikita Khrushchev calling the electric guitars an “enemy of the people”.

To young Soviets, rock music was a symbol of liberties denied. In his book Rock and Roll in the Rocket City, scholar Sergei Zhuk has put forward the theory that the rock ’n’ roll culture, specifically the shared values and social practices developed among the young Soviet fans of the music, was integral to the downfall of the socialism.

But it was more than just the underground consumption of “Western” music that took root in the Soviet Union. In the ‘60s, bards who, like the folk revivalists of the United States, accompanied their original and traditional songs on acoustic guitars, flourished throughout the Soviet Union. Performing in informal, private settings the bards were largely out of the reach of the censors. As a result, bard songs became vehicles for social commentary.

Poets and songwriters like Aleksandr Galich and Novella Matveyeva wrote avtorskaia pesnia (“songwriter’s songs”) on everything from naturalist escapism to the legacy of Lenin. Some bards even sang blatnaya pesnya, ballads about outlaws and their experiences in the Gulag.

While music genres occurred in unsanctioned, underground settings, their impact was far reaching. Students exchanged songs in dorm rooms. And looser travel restrictions after the death of Stalin in 1953, prompted many young Soviets to take up camping and backpacking—making campfires a primary public meeting place. Here we hear bard Yuri Kukin sing a traveling song which draws on these ideas of wanderlust and the solace found in the hazy forests.

While music was often spread person-to-person, emerging technology played a role, as well. Magnitizdat was the practice of spreading information through dubbing self-produced tapes. Home tape recorders became readily available in the ‘60s, and unlike printing presses, tape recorders were not illegal to own. A combination of person-to-person transmission and the proliferation of underground dubs meant that the songs of local amateur artists be known the Soviet Union.

While today the power apparatus is far less visible, and Russian citizens ostensibly have far greater freedom of movement and expression than in the days of the Soviet era, there are still great concerns among artists. They’re concerned about the lack of a free press, about a tightening of censorship in Putin’s second premiership, and most of all, they share a persistent sense that people’s lives exist at the whim of Putin. A fear that was validated earlier this month when authorities declared they would be more stringently enforcing a ban on lace undergarments for women. (See
Protests over Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan ‘ban’ on lacy underwear, by Ivana Kottasova, CNN, 21 February 2014.)

From the Tsars to Putin, Russian leaders have a history of oppressing the arts. But just as noteworthy is the persistent and clever ways in which Russian artists have combated censorship. They have been resourceful, using underground printing and recording to spread their art. They have been clever, using context as a weapon. In the same way that Shostakovich forced the hand of Soviet authorities to denounce a seemingly innocuous piece of music, the members of Pussy Riot, by staging their protest in a church, pushed Russian authorities to overreact, very publicly, and to sentence two women to two years in prison for the egregious crime of lip-synching.

The 2014 Winter Olympic torch has been put out. Bob Costas has packed his antibiotics and headed for home. And it appears Vladimir Putin has leave Sochi with the PR victory he was hoping for from the Games. But what does the future hold for the people of Russia? And in what new ways will the artists of Russia challenge, subvert, and frustrate state authorities?

It remains to be seen. We will be watching. And listening.

A graduate of the New England Conservatory, Chris Kjorness works as a writer, musician, and educator in Northern Virginia. When not wielding the weapon of the future, you can find him indoctrinating his two young boys with music snob specials.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/179301-beyond-pussy-riot-the-long-history-of-subversive-russian-music1/