Russian protest songs as signs of a maturing democracy
Almost every public rally in modern Russia features a live music performance. Russian protest songs have come a long way after World War II - from author songs created by Stalin's labor camps prisoners up to today’s punk bands.
In a democratic society people can freely express their opinions that reflect their personal views on current events. Those expressions can be found in publications, documentaries, news reports, theater plays, etc. Protest song is a very common form of expression that originated in the 1960’s.
The Woodstock Festival, the most famous rock festival of its era, featured lots of protest songs performed by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Richie Havens, Joan Baez and others. The common motif of most of them was the War in Vietnam.
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Fortunate Son (1969, Woodstock)
If we look back at the 20th century, starting from 1945 when War World II was over, we won't find a wave of protest songs similar to that we've been witnessing in the last 5 years. It's also strange that not so many protest songs have remained from previous generations of Russian rockers, which means that we can't pick up on a trend or some kind of a protest songwriting tradition.
Let's make a brief historical review of Russian protest songs over 60-year period.
It's pretty obvious that during the Soviet era protest songs were sponsored by the totalitarian state and were aimed at foreign 'enemies', such as American imperialism and militarism, exploitation of the working class, military junta/dictatorship that suppressed rights of its citizens.
Here's one of such songs, dedicated to Victor Jara (Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez; 1932–1973), a Chilean poet, writer, theater director, political activist and member of Chilean Communist party, who was brutally murdered during a coup organized by general Augusto Pinochet.
The song was written by a Soviet composer, Igor Luchenok, who also wrote many different tunes reflecting Soviet ideology, including songs about Lenin, patriotism and war.
"Song-74": Viktor Vuyachich - Hard won, Chile
Such official 'protest songs' were hypocritical because the Soviet Union itself was a notorious dictatorship and its own people were suffering from harsh communist rules and lack of human rights. There were plenty of protesters among Soviet citizens, but their protest moods were hidden in their own kitchens, where late at night they spoke in a low voice about unfairness and political repressions in a small company of friends.
People were writing protest songs but hid their message between the lines, because it was dangerous and could even have led to a real prison sentence.
Probably, the first well-known anti-Soviet songs were "Vaninsky Port" (Vaninsky Port), written by unknown author in the Gulag labor camps, and "Tovarisch Stalin" (Comrade Stalin) by Yuz Aleshkovsky (born in 1929) – writer and poet, who was sentenced to the Gulag in the early 1950’s and was forced to leave the country in 1979 after publishing his Gulag lyrics in the West. He is now living in the USA.
Mikhail Gulko - Vaninsky Port
Yuz Aleshkovsky - Comrade Stalin
In the 1960’s and 1970’s a new kind of songwriters and performers with acoustic guitars emerged at the Soviet underground scene. They were actors, scriptwriters, engineers, doctors and all other types of Soviet intelligentsia.
They wrote their own tunes and performed unofficially at people’s homes and culture clubs. They were commonly called "Bards", which in Russian means a man singing his own songs under guitar accompaniment.
Alexander Galitch (1918-1977) was one of the beloved Soviet bards. His dark humor and politically charged protest songs led to Galitch being banned from performing in public. His theatrical plays were banned from publishing as well. On top of that, he was kicked out from the Union of Soviet Writers.
All these led to his immigration in 1974 and his mysterious death in Paris in 1977.
Alexandr Galich - Silence is golden
These are just a few examples, showing that there were protest songs in the USSR, which used suggestive approaches to express people's disagreement with the system.
Today we can acknowledge that Russian rock scene has never seen before a wave of protest songs, written and performed by a younger generation of musicians. It's a new phenomena, which shows that a new generation of protest musicians moved away from typical showbiz careers, where fame and fortune are an ultimate goal.
Not long ago - in the middle of 2000's - Moscow's rock scene was full of so called "klubnie vecherinki" (club’s parties), where rock, pop and hip-hop groups entertained bored hipsters and Russian businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Clubs and bands were making good money, especially doing private parties called "korporativi", when club was rented overnight for a private "invitation-only" party by a bank, oil & gas company, construction or other company with a massive budget.
Some popular bands almost disappeared from the public eye in 2000’s, doing only such 'korporativi', where their fees were numerous times higher, compared to to an ordinary club gig. But something was quietly brewing underneath all the money, boredom, glitz and glamour.
The first public rally called "Marsh Nesoglasnikh" (Dissenters' March) was arranged in Moscow on December 16th, 2006 and led to a series of similar protests in different Russian cities in the next few years. Russian musicians soon started to participate in Dissenters’ Marchesб performing short sets on stage.
Mikhail Borzykin from Televizor (TV set) band participated in Dissenters' March in St. Petersburg in 2008, performing "Zakolotite podval" (Shut down the basement) - a song against alleged criminals in the Russian government and their supposed links to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Televizor's Mikhail Borzykin performs during the Dissenters' March on 03.03.2008
Another highly publicized series of rallies at the end of 2000's was linked to the long-standing conflict around Khimki forest, which has been partly chopped down to make way for a new government-funded road from the capital to St. Petersburg.
On August 22, 2010 a concert in support of Khimki Forest was planned at Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Police forces, however, didn't allow its organizers to use sound reinforcement equipment that led to a big scandal, because many musicians wanted to perform at this concert.
It has all ended up with spontaneous performances by Yury Shevchuk, Russian veteran rock star and Kremlin critic, and Barto rock band.
After their performance criminal charges were brought against Barto, because one of the lines in their song "Gotov" (Ready) was considered to be an example of extremism under Russia's Criminal Code.
Protest gig on Pushkinskaya Square
Barto - Ready
When the 2010’s arrived, protest songs became an integral part of various rallies across Russia. Not every protest can be accompanied with a music performance due to technical or organizational difficulties, but such possibility always remains.
In the 1980’s a new Russian rock style emerged. Musicians in their twenties recorded their own tunes, which sounded like Western rock, punk, blues, new wave and electronic music, using Russian language as a main expression tool.
Looking back at protest songs of the 1980’s we can distinguish a Leningrad-based group called Televizor (TV set) and its leader Mikhail Borzikin, whose songs were very different from those of other Soviet underground bands.
The band soon faced problems with Soviet censorship, because some of their songs were not "zalitovany" (didn't get censorship clearance). Televizor performed those songs through thick and thin, which led to a 6-month ban from live shows in the Leningrad Rock Club.
Televizor - Get beyond control
It’s worth mentioning that the band faced all these problems with censorship during Gorbachev’s Perestroika that declared greater freedom and openness in the Soviet society. It illustrates that civil liberties and freedom of expression were allowed in the USSR only to a certain degree. Another song by Televizor, which was written in the 1980’s and created a lot of controversy, was called "Your father is a fascist".
Everybody understood that it targeted Soviet bureaucrats and communist nomenclature, regardless of what they said about democratization and freedom during Perestroika. Due to protest flavor in their songs Televizor's clips have never been shown on TV or aired on radio, either in the Soviet Union or in today’s Russia.
Mikhail Borzykin and Televizor - Your dead is a fascist
The largest rally in recent years happened in Moscow on December 24, 2011 in an echo of the disputed parliamentary election. By some tallies, there were more than 3,000 complaints of voting violations - from "carousel voting," in which the same people cast ballots at multiple locations, and "centralized voting," in which managers of various organizations pressure employees to vote for a specific candidate.
According to unofficial estimates, over 120 thousand people attended the rally, which included live performances from various musicians mixed up with political speeches.
Alexey Kortnev - Sasha walked down the road sucking a dried biscuit
The nature of modern Russian protest songs is very eclectic. Some of them may be inspired by a certain event. For example, a highly publicized fatal car accident involving LUKoil Vice-President Anatoly Barkov.
The February 2010 car crash on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt killed two doctors - Vera Sidelnikova and her daughter-in-law, Olga Alexandrina. The accident sparked widespread public outrage, mostly because of alleged police cover-up. An investigation was opened only two days after the accident.
The videotape from surveillance cameras lining Leninsky Prospekt, which should record events on Gagarin Square at the time of the crash, disappeared. Renowned Russian rapper Ivan Alexeyev, aka Noise MC, posted a protest song called "Mercedes S 666" and video on the Internet condemning Barkov.
Noize MC - Mercedes S666
Prior to presidential election in March 2012 Alexey Navalny, the face of Russian opposition politics, announced a contest to create a music video about upcoming voting.
Rabfaq group became a winner of the competition with a humorous song called "Our madhouse votes for Putin". The band also performed live at various rallies.
Rabfak - Our madhouse votes for Putin
Hip-hop artist Vasya Oblomov writes smart tunes, full of criticism of the current system, using various techniques and incorporating different elements - from jail songs to a light comedy. In his songs Oblomov sometimes makes critical remarks about Putin, such as, for example, in a tune called “VVP”, a Russian abbreviation which is both the Russian term for GDP and the Russian premier's initials.
The video also features two well-known Russian TV personalities - Leonid Parfyonov and Ksenia Sobchak.
Vasya Oblomov, Ksenia Sobchak, Leonid Parfenov - VVP
Russian Airborne Troops (VDV) veterans formed a music group called "VDVshniki" in order to perform protest songs. It was very unusual, because ordinary Russians took as read that the military always took side of the government, which paid their salaries. However, it’s not a case of this group, which called Russian President to stop lying and destroying the country, and to leave his post in a song "Nobody but Us".
VDV (airborne) veterans against Putin - Nobody but Us
Punk rock band Louna wrote its own manifesto, calling young musicians to wake up because “Time X has come - to replace a criminal kingdom of the 1990’s and moral ruins of 2000’s with angry and active 2010’s”. Louna performed at 'March of millions' in Moscow in June 2012.
Louna - If not us - who?. Live 12.06.2012 March of millions
Over the last few years more and more anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric can be heard in various state-controlled media outlets. From numerous TV shows, reminiscent to Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, to brand new laws that bans American families from adopting Russian orphans.
Opposition activists consider all these as an attempt to distract public attention from large-scale theft of state property by officials and make Russians blame the USA for their problems.
EzhoFF Band, St. Peterburg-based group, has protested against ongoing anti-American propaganda in Russian official media with the song called "The United States of America".
EzhoFF Band - The United States of America
There are much more protest musicians in Russia today. In the Internet era they can make their voices heard even without appearances on state-controlled TV channels and radio stations. More and more protest voices can be heard in Russia today sending a clear message to the current system - "It’s time to go!" and "We want changes!"