The End of the Era or Two Russian Deaths: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Yegor Letov
By Mark Yoffe
By strange coincidence last year Russia lost two of its most spectacular cultural figures: rock star Yegor Letov in February and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in August.
As different as Solzhenitsyn and Letov were professionally and generationally, they were never the less amazingly similar in their enormous notoriety within their own country, their ideology and even character trends.
They both contributed greatly to the downfall of the Soviet Union and both were extremely critical of the West and of post-Soviet Russia with its pro-Western anti-spiritualism, materialism and gangsterism.
Like most unlikely twins Solzhenitsyn and Letov resembled each other…
Both were humorless, severe, heavy, judgmental, deeply intellectual and passionate. Both possessed almost morbid fetishized attachment to their country, which with its messianic convictions went far beyond trivial nationalism, into a stratosphere of nationalisms where patriotic notions verged on the absurd. It seems that their love for their country was first and foremost anchored on the pain and misery it had endured through its endless historic turmoil. And Russian people were specifically dear to them in their sufferings. To be Russian for them was to be long suffering, and long suffering with gusto…
Both were viewed in Russia and abroad as Russian traditionalists, conservatives, not without flirtations with anti-Semitism. In case of Letov the later was an absurd accusation that stemmed from his association with variety of right-wing personalities and movements, and not from him ever expressing anti-Semitic sentiments. Though such expressions were erroneously attributed to him, even leading to cancellation of his concerts in Israel, on the contrary, more than once Letov expressed in his songs his empathy with the Jews. He after all loved people who suffer…
Both were driven men. Solzhenitsyn produced endless volumes of his unreadable historical fiction, racy memoires, impassioned political treatises, tendentious historical studies, and articles, with none of his later work ever surpassing or even approaching brilliance and influence of his work from 1960-s and 70s. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Gulag Archipelago were the crowning jewels of his literary power and achievement.
During the Perestroika punk rocker Yegor Letov was unmatched in his notoriety and popularity. A supreme leader of the anti-Soviet youth countercultural underground who, upon the collapse of the regime which he so passionately helped to undermine, made an abrupt turn and pronounced himself a Communist, Letov became a mouthpiece of embittered nationalist Russia, critical of rapid Westernization, of abandoning “traditional” Russian values of communality and anti-materialism.
Through his almost 30 years on the rock stage, Letov produced a massive stream of bleak and joyless albums, which never the less and almost paradoxically carried his passionate message through his dark, innovative, and surprisingly witty lyrics, set to painfully crude and semi-atonal music, with delivery that made you think of Russian Holly Fools throwing fits on the steps of cathedrals and obscene Medieval jesters called skomorokhi barring their rears to the crowds in the paroxysms of sadomasochistic antics.
Both Solzhenitsyn and Letov were thoughtful chroniclers of their time, tragic, passionate, relentless. Both were men of paradoxes, one of which being that their obvious aesthetical deficiencies never hampered their notoriety and their influence, but on the contrary were often perceived as a mark of their authenticity. Strangely both of them came from the DIY (do it yourself) tradition: Letov from Spartan garage rock crudeness of Russian punk, and Solzhenitsyn from the austere prison camp barrack tradition with its simplicity and aversion to needless ornamentation. They both were very conservative aesthetically. Letov never grew up from semi-atonal wall of noise early punk tradition and Solzhenitsyn never departed from monotonous didactic traits of Russian realism, in the worse traditions of Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko.
Letov’s songs are as joyless as Solzhenitsyn’s prose is and in the same time endlessly as effective. Letov in his music was like Solzhenitsyn in his prose. If Solzhenitsyn could sing he would sound like Letov.
On the surface it might seem that Solzhenitsyn and Letov would never find a place next to each other at the same table. Solzhenitsyn’s distance for rock music was well known, after all. But on the other hand his literary work had an enormous influence upon Letov, who referred to GULAG in his songs.
Both were Russia’s pop stars of the first magnitude, though only Solzhenitsyn’s stardom shone brightly outside of his native land.
Last August when Russia mourned passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn it mourned not only its most celebrated 20th century writer, but also its most famous pop star. I choose these words intentionally, as Solzhenitsyn was indeed an international-pop star of enormous proportions. Like him or hate him, but his notoriety in 20th century can only be compared to the one of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John Paul II, John Lennon or Leon Trotsky. In the Russian context of the late 20th century only one cultural figure possessed similar level name recognizability and influence – this was great late cult hero singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky who died in 1980 and who still is the greatest star in Russian pop culture pantheon.
Unlike Solzhenitsyn Letov was almost unknown outside of Russia, and he liked it that way. He perceived the world outside of Russia at best without interest and at worst with utter hostility, especially the Western world. But inside of Russia it is hard to think of any artist, ever since Vysotsky (to whose art Letov as any other Russian rocker was greatly indebted), who achieved the same level of influence and notoriety. His concerts gathered enormous crowds. His statements, especially political ones, were received by his admirers as mantra. His political endorsements were sought by radical parties and politicians. And his 1993 endorsement of National Bolshevik Party brought thousands of young people into the ranks of this scandalous, known for its absurd theatrics and witty sloganeering party, one of the most notable political-cultural phenomena in 1990s Russia.
With Yegor Letov’s passing Russia is left with rock music as banal and predictable as anywhere else, its national uniqueness, authenticity and wit substituted by “production values” of homegrown producer and manager culture. Culture which is not yet Western quality sleek, but also not unabashedly DIY anymore. This started happening while Yegor Letov was still alive, and he painfully and desperately tried to find his place in this new reality.
He was a representative of the younger wave of first generation of Soviet rockers, a generation which grew up and formed to the sounds of titanic struggle that Alexander Solzhenitsyn led against Soviet regime in the mid 70s, and which was the most important and influential political and cultural event within the bleak landscape of Brezhnev’s period of stagnation and repression.
Despite of Solzhenitsyn’s aversion to rock music and modernity in general, he became a cult figure for the first generation of Russian rockers, who took his struggle first to underground “apartment” concerts and clandestine recording studios, and gradually to the club and concert hall stage, and finally with blooming of Perestroika threw off the chains of censorship, hijacking the very national discourse.
In the late 80s rock music became, like no other contemporary art form in the Soviet Union the single soft power, single cultural phenomenon that contributed the most to the fall of Soviet ideology and cultural constrains. Indeed it picked up the relay torch lighted by Solzhenitsyn, leaving the glorious Russian literature far behind, as a cultural flagship of opposition, and used this spark to set the whole country ablaze. By the end of the 80s rock-inspired idioms of freedom permeated every aspect of everyday discourse in the country. Even babushkas in the markets were quoting rock songs. The names of Yegor Letov and other rebel rockers became household items and were well known even to people who never listened to the music itself. The rest was history and soon Soviet Union was no more.
By the end of 1990s it became clear that the time of heroes like Yegor Letov and AlexanderSolzhenitsyn had passed and their relevance was back in the glory days of countercultural struggle. The country has moved on, and now it seems to enter a period of new predictable bleakness, though bleakness sleek, modern, and “produced” by packagers who self-appointed themselves, and quite successfully so to feed Russia the cultural commodities they believe it wants. And Russia being true to itself swallows the potion without asking too many questions.
Indeed in the current period of Russia’s new cultural stagnation, downing of which can not even be attributed to ideological repression (for the lack of any clear and unified major ideology in the country) it is not the absence of cultural phenomena (the way it was in the Soviet days) that is striking. Not at all! It is all out there: music-- classical, rock and pop, theatre, film, television, literature, even often-embattled journalism. Singers are singing, dancers dance, rockers are free to perform and record, videographers are being whimsical, ironists ironic, literati can say whatever they are pleased, any form artistic experimentation finds its venue, any form of conspiracy theory or revisionist history, any mode of language, and any form of obscenity finds its publishers, distributers and consumers. Everyone in the milieu of arts and letters travels everywhere, enjoys visiting scholarships at Western universities and relaxes in Eastern ashrams and so on.
And still this all leaves an impression of a handsomely dressed, made up, and well manicured “exquisite corpse” with dead smile on its face. Russian artists may work with producers now, but what is missing from culture is passion, and with it its ability to be interesting, unpredictable and therefore relevant…