‘Almost All Famous Artists Have Left or Will Leave, and Those Who Remain Will Be Blacklisted and Banned’
Interview with Artemy Troitsky
May 23, 2023
  • Artemy Troitsky
    Russian rock journalist, music critic

  • Aleksei Medved
Artemy Troitsky discusses the pop music scene since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and compares it to Soviet ideological constraints and repressions. In his view, today’s situation is more toxic than it was back in the 1980s.
Aleksei Medved: What was remarkable about 2022 in terms of music?

Artemy Troitsky: I remember 2022, first of all, not for music, but for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Still, I can’t help but follow music, as I have a weekly radio program and podcast on Radio Liberty. I did two or three episodes with Ukrainian war songs and several with anti-war and protest songs, both global and Russian.

The main figure of 2022 for me is undoubtedly Max Pokrovsky. He put out a powerful series of anti-war and anti-Putin songs. Followed by Noize MC. They came to us in Tallinn, along with Monetochka.

AM: What can you say about modern Ukrainian and Russian anti-war songs?

AT: Russian war songs are very different from Ukrainian ones. Ukrainian songs are similar to Soviet ones from the Great Patriotic War – “the enemy attacked, we have to fight, we need to drive this enemy back.” Usually, the songs are very optimistic and uplifting. A few compositions are marked by horror or pessimism, though they are clearly the minority.

Basically, these are songs that are calling people to the fight. Meanwhile, there are a wide variety of styles: on the one hand, it’s rappers and hip-hopers, who feature more humor. These are songs about the “Russian warship“ or the Bayraktar drone. There are also “women’s” songs with the promise of “wait for me, I’ll return.” “Ukrayinska lyut“ (“Ukrainian rage”) is a wonderful song. There’s a fairly large number of compositions, though it’s not only rock and rap, which have always responded to the current agenda, but also pop. There is this great young lady Jerry Heil (Yana Shemayeva). All pop, with these funny TikTok videos. For example, the song “I see you.” Stylistically, it is not only the “usual suspects” – rockers and rappers like Oleh Skrypka, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk and Andriy Volynets. It is also artists from whom hardly anyone expected political activity.

Russian songs, of course, are completely different. I think that the most interesting thing that was recorded in Russia in 2022 is the album February Goes On by the rapper Vlady from the group Kasta, which is entirely dedicated to the current situation. There are philosophical, satirical and, as it were, documentary songs. This is perhaps the most voluminous, the most multifaceted work.

The most powerful and popular songs, of course, belong to Noize MC. This is “Land of rains” about emigration, “Let the swans dance” – about “him croaking.”
Rock band Nogu svelo! during a concert tour in Florida (April, 2023).
Source: Twitter
Next, it’s the songs of Maxim Pokrovsky and his Nogu Svelo! group. There are a whole bunch of them: “Generation Z,” “We don’t need war,” “Goyda, orki” with a cartoon clip by Oleg Kuvaev, the creator of the animated series Masyanya. These songs were very successful, so it is not surprising that Nogu Svelo! has been very widely touring.

Yura Shevchuk’s songs could not but attract attention: both his songs with DDT and those with Zemfira’s guitarist Dima Yemelyanov. “Don’t lose your mind,” “This is not your war,” “The rooks wait in the spring field,” “Motherland, come back home!”

Thank God that Yura, even though he is practically locked up in Russia, continues to work in the studio, continues to write wonderful songs. And the people, as far as I understand, take very well to these songs.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the songwriting of our glorious veterans. I mean Andrei Makarevich, Boris Grebenshchikov and Mikhail Borzykin. They have all spoken out against the war, against Putin, against all the current Russian madness. But I haven’t heard any new songs by Time Machine or Aquarium on the current events to this point. And if there are, then their meaning is heavily veiled. Boris Grebenshchikov just released an acoustic song called “Black swan.” In it, you can catch a sense of horror from what is going on, but still it is not the song that, I think, everyone expects from him. I really hope that, besides the beautiful acoustic, bard songs of Makarevich, like “My country has gone crazy,” his group Time Machine will record something rock, a hit based the current events.

I don’t understand why Borzykin does not launch anything new on the internet, though his band Television has always been the most political of all Russian rock bands. Many of Television’s songs now sound super-relevant, for example, “Board up the basement.”

AM: What can you say about the atmosphere on the tours of Russian artists who are against the war? What performances do you remember the most?

AT: In 2022, I attended more concerts than in 2020 and 2021 combined – they were in Tallinn, in Berlin, in Prague, in New York ...

At all the concerts I went to there was a full house, full halls. The audience wonderfully welcomed all the artists, from Boris Grebenshchikov to the band Lyapis Trubetskoy.
By the way, the audience was international: there were Ukrainian flags, Belarusian, Russian, and blue-white-blue Russian oppositional flags.
Rapper Noize MC (New York, November 2022). Source: VK
Everything was great: everyone was chanting “fuck the war!”

I asked the musicians if there were any scandals, provocations, if someone shouted something aggressive or climbed onto the stage. To my surprise, everyone said that there were no such incidents at all. The concerts go on with the audience filled with enjoyment and enthusiasm.

Now, a completely new situation has emerged. Whereas before Maxim Pokrovsky, for example, lived in New York, but toured in Russia and former Soviet countries to make money, since his audience was there, now a very considerable part of the musicians’ audience has moved too. Not everyone, but more than enough to fill clubs or even fairly large concert halls, as, say, Time Machine and Grebenshchikov just demonstrated while on tour in Germany, the US, Turkey, the UK and Israel. The situation is actually very favorable for our musicians for touring. But how long it will last, of course, no one can say.

AM: Does the concert industry have a future in Russia? Will everything revert to Soviet formats and performances of trustworthy rockers in “palaces of culture?” Will an underground with house concerts reemerge?

AT: I won’t attempt to give any final diagnosis, as I have not been in Russia for two years and I may not sense some important things. If we talk about Russian official music, then it has come to an end. Vadim Samoilov, Chicherina are not artists at all – they are rubbish, disgusting, untalented, unfashionable, in the final analysis. On the other hand, these artists are seeing a windfall now, since the “field” has emptied out and gone over to the pillagers. Now, they do all kinds of fascist festivals, make a lot of money... Plus, there will be some kind of pop music in Russia at this official level.

Still, I have a number of friends, including old friends, who play good music while remaining in Russia. They are mostly experimenters, avant-gardists, people who perform electronic music, industrial.
Moscow group Nochnoy prospekt (Moscow, July 2022). Source: VK
Usually, this music is instrumental, without words. And if there are words, then they do not carry any special message. So, these guys are also doing pretty well now, again because the stage is empty. There is this well-known Moscow group Nochnoy prospekt by Lyosha Borisov. He says they are playing more shows now than they ever have. Just because everyone left... The clubs need to have something. Some clubs closed, but others keep going. The same goes for concert promoters. Some of them obviously left and are working abroad, but some stayed in Russia, and if they don’t want to deal with Chicherina or such artists, they can work with some young, experimental, alternative performers.

This stage is, as they say, off the state’s radar, censorship and so on, so they feel fine. Still, this does not apply to musicians who are visible on that very radar – in the first place, DDT.

Almost all famous artists have left or will leave, and those who remain will be like DDT – blacklisted and banned. So, the question about a “new underground” is logical. For Russian rock, the “golden era” was the years of the underground, the end of the 70s and the first half of the 80s. The question is, will this “new underground” emerge? So far, I don’t see any clear signs of it. Because if earlier we all stewed in this Soviet “cauldron,” now people who could make up this “new musical underground” have simply gone abroad.

AM: How much does the current music entertainment sphere differ from the Soviet era of the 1980s?

AT: The situation is completely different. There is one big plus called the internet – YouTube and everything else. There are some echoes of that potential “underground” that occasionally reach me – YouTube recordings of some completely unheard-of groups with anti-war songs. Thank God, YouTube has not yet been shut down in Russia, though I am sure that that will be done in the foreseeable future.

Let’s take a band called The Tagil. One song is called “Even worse.” The second is “Eh, brother.” Very good anti-war songs, quality recording and so on. What’s this band? I have no idea. In the 80s, there was a mighty “magnitizdat” – all these underground albums, mainly produced in Leningrad. Now, there are much more potent methods of distribution. That’s a plus.

The downside is that under the Soviet regime, the fight against underground rock was pretty careless, like everything else at that time. Everyone then worked carelessly. Now, it seems to me, the FSB, cops and the prosecutor’s office are working much more zealously. They are afraid to slip up, so they show all sorts of zeal with cancelling concerts, raids, bans on concerts, persecution over songs, statements and so on.
“Now in Russia for musicians or for underground journalists, like me at one point, the situation is more dangerous than it was, say, in 1982.”
Mexico tour poster of the Belarusian group Molchat doma (2023). Source: Twitter
AM: Recently, dark wave has become a very popular genre, with a huge number of concerts in Istanbul, Yerevan, Tbilisi. How can you explain such a surge of nostalgia for the 80s? After all, dark wave has its roots there.

AT: In my opinion, it is an international phenomenon. I was very surprised by the global popularity of the Belarusian group Molchat Doma (see more on this group in Maria Engström’s article in Russia.Post). I wouldn’t say they play pure dark wave. It’s somewhere between dark wave and post-punk. Still, the group is a huge success, and with an English-speaking audience, though they sing in Russian. There are a number of very popular Russian bands that are closer to pure dark wave, say IC3PEAK (see this Russia.Post article). I think the popularity of this style can be explained by the fact that the dark times have come, and dark wave music resonates with the audience.

AM: In the 90s, the stars of the rock underground of the 80s said that there was nothing but bans in the 80s, while now some musicians say that in the 80s no one was shutting down or banning anything. How can this be explained?

AT: The 80s were divided neatly in half. The first half was years of reaction and persecution. The second half, for my taste, was an absolutely wonderful, dynamic, free, adventurous time. There was no longer the dictate of the state or censorship, though there was also no dictate of the market, commerce, dough and the like.

In the early 80s, of course, there was persecution. There were raids at concerts and arrests. In the provinces, you couldn’t count all the instances. I was also persecuted. I was fired from my job before defending my PhD thesis and was not published for several years, even under a pseudonym. Meanwhile, in the Latvian SSR, on Latvian Soviet state television, I hosted the TV program Videorhythms. The USSR was a rather paradoxical country, and the rigidity of the order back then was partly mitigated by the carelessness with which repressions were applied.
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