Protest Rock Is Dead
I have followed Boris Grebenschikov carefully since I learned enough Russian to understand the profundity of his poetry and become a huge fan of his music. Grebenschikov (known to followers simply as “BG”) is a songwriter of the rebellious generation of Soviet rock-and-roll, and was at the forefront of the St. Petersburg counterculture that defined the experience of Russia’s late-Soviet generation (roughly speaking, those called “Generation Y” in North America). He is also longtime front-man of the band “Akvarium,” which has appeared in several incarnations since 1980 or so.
It is hard to overemphasize the cultural importance of singers/songwriters/rock stars in Russia. Popular music may be omnipresent in most countries, and popular rock acts fill stadiums everywhere, but Russian rock-and-roll artists are expected to fill a number of other roles as well, most importantly that of political provocateur. Those of BG’s generation – Yuri Shevchuk of DDT, Vyacheslav Butusov of Nautilius Pompilius, Viktor Tsoi (until his death) of Kino, and others – fill a particularly important cultural void in a nation that has few high-profile dissenters.
Some play this part more willingly than others. Yuri Shevchuk has always been the most outspoken and unabashed of his generation. Konstantin Kinchev, of the early hard-rock group Alisa, was a thorn in the side of the government until his conversion in 1990 to Christianity. Since that time, he has been a spokesman of the conservative wing of the Orthodox Church, and not much else. BG has had an off-and-on relationship with political spokesmanship. He was radical in his own way in the 1980s, including a controversial performance at the 1980 Tbilisi Rock Festival, which was the first sanctioned rock-and-roll concert in the Soviet Union. BG openly criticized Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s, but has been fairly silent about Vladimir Putin, though not for political reasons. He has become obsessed with Buddhism and Eastern religious thought, as well as with original Western religious texts and philosophy, and that has apparently sapped his energy for political activism.
The other day, Snob magazine interviewed BG, and hounded him about his reaction to the protests and Vladimir Putin. Indeed, fully half of the questions were political in nature. This is not unusual of such an interview in Russia, even an interview with an avowedly apolitical rock star. Rock musicians of BG’s age are supposed to represent some sort of political stance, and most willingly fall into that role. BG, in his interviews with Snob and other journals, seems to grow increasingly tired of these questions, often talking around them by quoting scripture or philosophy, returning again and again to “ancient wisdom,” as he puts it. Of course, this prompted a comparison by Snob with Shevchuk, whose open support of the anti-Putin movement seems more appropriate to the role of rock-musician in Russia.
“Do you speak with [Shevchuk]? Do you fight?” asked the interviewer.
“I see Yuri once every few years at random concerts and say hi; that’s all of our contact. And we have nothing to fight about; he has one way of doing things; I have another. Like one of the apostles said, we need all kinds of people and all kinds of people are important.”
This is typical of his responses. As BG has become increasingly interested in the mystical and apolitical, his impatience with those who try to give him a political position grows more apparent. In a revealing interview two years ago, also in Snob, the interviewer pressed him on political truth and the obfuscations of the Kremlin.
“And what should a person feel like…when he doesn’t know the truth?”
“Simple. Who killed Kennedy? We don’t know. It is easier to accept that and for that to be the end of it. Truth in politics cannot exist. Truth in other things surrounds us. There’s a cloud in the sky, here’s sunlight, there’s a bird singing. That is truth. The really surprising thing is that we are sitting on this wonderful veranda in the center of London and somehow talking about Russian politics.”
This from the man whose songs and statements urged people to question the authorities during the most volatile time in modern Russian politics.
In 1992, as the Soviet Union was collapsing around him, BG released “The Russian Album.” Filled with thinly-veiled references to the political and social situation he saw all around him, “The Russian Album” marked the beginning of BG’s most politically active period: the Yeltsin years. In “Milady” (“Gosudarynya”), he sings to his just-forming nation:
Remember how we were building this house?
Fine it was, we thought – but empty.
For how many years
Did we sew silver on snow,
Fearing to touch acid?
So, was it completely in vain that
For so many years we were building this house?
Is it really our fault that it’s empty?
And now it seems
We’ve learned how it goes with silver;
Let’s see how it goes with acid.
(my translation – as painfully literal as I can be)
BG has gone from provocateur to political commentator to Zen-obsessed overgrown hippie, but those Russians who lived through that period and were aware of his music will always remember his words and songs during perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union. He will always be what he was then.
Ultimately, of course, BG can do and say what he wishes. In fact, there is something reassuring about his emphasis now on not using his fame to make statements about anything other than his music and philosophy. But it is clear that he is breaking the implicit contract between Russians and their rock stars. They are more than musicians. They are representatives of the intellectual class to the people, and the only countercultural icons who can speak with impunity. BG may be done talking politics, but Russians are clearly not ready for him to have finished.
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