RUSSIAN ROCK MUSIC AND NATIONALISM Conceptual Carnival: National Elements in Russian Nationalist Rock Music
By MarK Yoffe (First published in Rock'n'Roll and Nationalism: A Multinational Perspective, edited by Mark Yoffe and Andrea Collins, UK: Oxford Scholars Press, 2005) Copyrighted by Oxford Scholars Press, 2005
Nationalist rock is characterized by two elements of supreme importance: anti-western sentiment and Carnivalesque conceptualism. How this music is different from other Russian rock, and how it effects nationalism, or the nationalization of the self (or whatever), is the subject of this essay.
Present day Russian rock can be best exemplified by two distinct traditions. I will call them:
1. Cosmopolitan rock
2. Nationalist rock
Interestingly it seems that these traditions exist somehow insular from each other, without directly or indirectly engaging each other or influencing each other. It is even hard to say if two systems nationalist and cosmopolitan are engaged in any kind of “silent dialog,” and if so it is happening very indirectly through cultural intermediaries.
To lay background for my discussion of national elements in Russian nationalist rock I’ll briefly characterize each of the mentioned traditions.
Cosmopolitan rock movement is primarily defined by the fact that musical, poetic and ideological realia of Russian life are mostly and quite conspicuously absent from its songs. In the lyrics of songs written in this mode there are observable minor traces of contemporary Russian landscape, but what is selected as examples of realia of Russian life are very specifically markers of the NEW: cosmopolitan westernized, fashionable and jet-setted Russian life. This new life is lived by the young and the beautiful, whose life experience is untainted by visions and memories of gruesomest aspects of present day or historical Russian existence. The world depicted in the songs of cosmopolitan musicians is utterly international and can be happening in almost any modern country. This is the world of stylish things, of beautiful boys and girls, young hedonists who have money, and live fast and decadent lives, traveling the world, enjoying luxuries, sex, drugs, nightlife, and adventures arising in this milieu due to this specific lifestyle.
The music here is westernized; it is slightly ironic, detached cool rock, with a somewhat monotonous, but highly polished and well produced sound. As examples of such cosmopolitan rock I would name Moscow bands: Splin, Mumii Troll‘, and solo performer Naik Borzov.
Their music utterly lacks any kind of nods towards Russian traditions, both in regards to Russian pop and Russian folk music. These musicians don’t quote even ironically things Russian. You certainly will not find here things reminding of Russian urban romances, Soviet nostalgia pop songs, or hints of folkloric infusions. Their highly electronic, guitar and keyboard based sound is more reminiscent of western dance genres: house, trance, techno. Cosmopolitan rock songs are usually very danceable.
Perhaps the only node towards the general historically formed Russian rock tradition one can find in these songs is the fact that their lyrics are surprisingly interesting, and meaningful in their own way: they mark not the place (Russia) but the time (post-Soviet modernity) very well.
Of course if you listen behind the lines these are songs about new Russia, Russia that does not look like the Russia everybody knows, Russia as a part of the larger European world, or even the larger globalized World. Therefore one might say that this trend is a product of globalization, and an aspiration of certain strata of new Russians towards globalization. They don’t want to be Russians in Russia; they want to be Russians in the world.
What is conspicuously absent from these songs is what these young Russians deny and want no part of. They don’t want any part of Russian gruesomeness, history of pain, destruction, starvation, cold colorlessness of everyday reality, and utter neglect for comfort and pleasure, stale world of their fathers and grandfathers. The young people behind these songs and in these songs are refined decadents of modern times. They look forward into modernity, embracing even its perverted notions, and they run from the past, inelegant history of their country, and in fact of the world…
Nationalist rock, even if we don’t find it in direct dialog with the cosmopolitan rock tradition, can still be described in comparison to it, because it has all the elements that cosmopolitan rock lacks and avoids consciously or subconsciously (as a gut reaction to dark aspects of Russia).
It is interesting that within the realm of nationalist rock we find all the negative and positive tendencies characterizing today’s Russian rock situation. And it is within this realm where we find an overwhelming presence of the brightest and the best contemporary Russian rock talents. Here arise cultural phenomena which are defining examples of Russian rock, and probably will be for posterity.
Rock is huge in Russia, but first of all I’ll say it the way I have said it in writing and lectures numerous times before –Russian rock often does not hold up in comparison to other European examples, not to mention Anglo American ones. It is not necessarily good rock or good music in general. The world knows examples of much better, higher quality rock traditions.
Scandinavian rock is formidable; Czechs and Slovaks enjoy highly developed rock culture, so do Hungarians and Poles. We find idiosyncratic but very strong rock tradition in all countries of former Yugoslavia, to give just European examples.
The level of Russian musicianship is often not on a par with these traditions. Playing tends to be crude and sloppy, Russians rarely work enough on their music, polish it, try to get it perfect. Russian albums can rarely be accused of being overproduced. Under produced is more often the norm.
The punk idiom “anyone can rock” is taken in Russia to the extreme and “three chord wonders” are found on every corner.
But how many Sex Pistols can one country handle? Apparently very many…
There are many theories regarding why Russian rock sucks and the question is still open to discussion. English rock producer and musician Brian Eno, who in 1989 produced one of the most brilliant Russian albums ever, Modern Songsfrom Russia, by Moscow band Zvuki Mu, explained this phenomenon in a typical western manner by saying that Russian music “does not come from the crotch,” and that Russians lack a national rhythmical tradition.
Others blame the poor level of musicianship on bad equipment. But today and at least for the last fifteen to twenty years Russians have all the equipment they might desire and still the results are often meager…
Or are they?
These results will probably seem to us less meager if we disassociate ourselves from western standards, and try seeing the Russian nationalist rock scene from within its system, through the eyes of Russian rock tusovka (rock milieu of musicians and fans), because it is obvious that for them their music clearly works.
It works to the extent that they absolutely prefer their native music to imported western music.
Though for an unsuspecting western listener, introduced for the first time to Russian rock, the music seems to be marginally interesting, or in best case peculiar, for Russian listeners, in their majority very well familiar with standards of western rock production, their music is still the best music there is…
Why Russian rock is effective within the Russian realm is a complex situation that we are going to analyze in some detail.
Russian rock’s enormous appeal to its audiences is the fact that it is deeply national.
Therefore the music is recognizable and relevant, an answer to the issues tormenting members of the rock milieu, and also a tool of specific identity building.
Nationalist rock is characterized by two elements of supreme importance:
Anti-western sentiment (this is why Russians don’t even try to play like westerners)
In regards to the anti-westernism of Russian nationalist rock several points can be made.
A first defining tendency which displays itself here both ideologically and artistically is deliberate amateurism.
This to a degree answers the question why the overall musical quality of Russian rock is not so high. Deliberate, sometimes radical, amateurism as a tradition harkens back to the last years of Perestroika, particularly to 1989-1990.
In 1989 Soviet (pre-Russian) rock made its one and only noticeable foray onto the Anglo-American rock scene. (One has to say that several Russian bands back then and still now made and are making successful careers on the European stage, but as we know the standards in continental Europe are different.)
That year two excellent Russian albums were released in the United States and UK by two major western producers: Brian Eno issued the above-mentioned Modern Songs from Russia by Moscow’s Zvuki Mu, and Dave Stuart released Radio Silence, a product of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) rock guru Boris Grebenshchikov and his enormously influential in Russian band Akvarium in collaboration with several major Anglo-American rock stars such as Chrissie Hinde and Annie Lenox.
The fate of these two albums in Russia was quite different.
Modern Songs from Russia, sung in Russian, evoked pride and surprise among Zvuki Mu’s devotees. This could be attributed to the semi-avant-garde status of the band, which was considered in the public psyche a thing highly artistic, elite, and somewhat obscure. Brian Eno’s fame as an “art” producer, often going against the grain of popular culture, contributed to the respect the western release of this album evoked in Russian audiences. The perception was that Zvuki Mu did not sell out, they did their songs in Russian, just the way they did them at home, and these snooty westerners, they got it! The sheer force of Zvuki Mu’s talent overpowered the west! For the elite cadre of Zvuki Mu’s fans (not an easy listening music band by any stretch of the imagination) this was a sign of success. Such success could not only be cherished by fans, it could even be forgiven…
A different fate, however, awaited Grebenshchikov’s album. Must of the songs on Radio Silence were sung in English. Most of Akvarium’s amateurish rag tag hippie musicians were replaced on the album by Anglo-American pros. Dave Stuart’s production approach is quite different from of Brian Eno’s, and it resulted in Grenenshchikov and Akvarium sounding more polished and beautiful than ever before.
In my humble opinion Radio Silence still remains one of the most glorious productions of Russian rock. It required pop savvy Dave Stuart to the make the songs of the brilliant Russian rock composer Grebenshchikov sound as good as they should.
At home, though, the album’s reception began look warm and later became openly hostile.
The high quality of the album was noted by many critics and fans, though it was perceived as a thing negative. Rock journalist Artemy Troitsky summarized the result of Grebenshchikov’s experience in the west by saying: “We’ve sent you a poet, and got a professional in return.”
It took Grebenshchikov literary several years to obtain the forgiveness of his fans and to reconquer their loyalty. Though he continued to record in the west, often collaborating with western musicians, never since then did he make an album in English. And he remained a professional, one quality that his Russian audience still looks at with a degree of suspicion.
Amateurism rules: because these fans believe that professionalism is about corporate profits, about mass produced cultural commodities, about the soulessness of pop culture, about satisfying market demands and the directives of corporate bosses and money grabbing producers. They believe professionalism lacks spontaneity, passion, and freedom.
Therefore amateurism rules!
This modus operandi is synonymous with freedom of self-expression, with soul-fullness, with not listening to the dictates of anybody, most of all of the “market.” It is about playing the way one’s heart tells one to play, not succumbing to pressures, ideologies or demands…
In the minds of these Russian rock fans and musicians, western rock is professional and therefore soulless, and Russian rock is amateurish and therefore soulful.
Below are quotes from one of most significant personalities in Russian ultra nationalist rock milieu Egor Letov, the extremely popular leader of the scandalously known Siberian punk band Grazhdanskaia Oborona (Civil Defense), which in a way summarizes the way many Russian rock fans and musicians see Russian rock music:
Russian rock, just as all Russian art has messianic character. From this messianic quality, as if from the well, is extracted creative energy of giant scale.
Where can they get such an energy in America, where can they get real rock? They are a bunch of emigrants who are making money and have no personal mentality. And Europe is already too old. Russia possesses an original ability to reconstitute energy. She raises up from the ashes like Phoenix. This is why Russian rock is from the start of primary importance…
The form could be borrowed. Form is like a play dough, just an outer shell. The main thing about Russian rock is that it is like a bottomless well from which people extract and extract energy…”
“Our rock is of primary quality, and most importantly it has substance, it is mystical. They [the west] have a kingdom of pop music, their rock is commercial.… This is alien to us. Russian rock is religious music. This is magic…. This is establishing of higher shining values through overcoming of fear, violence. Our rock is originally victorious, triumphant.
I think that these words are quite telling about the way Letov and many of his followers and sympathizers perceive their music and its difference from western prototypes. I will just allow myself to point out that he does not even describe music in musical terms, but ventures into some kind of New Agey mumbo jumbo, referring to Russian rock as “sunny,” “messianic,” “religious…”
Certainly there is no place in this form of discourse for despised “professionalism” or “production quality…”
However all this talk does not stop Letov from being an extremely talented and influential musician, a rock poet of magnificent insight and temperament…
Nevertheless as amateurish as Russian nationalist rock is at times, it still borrows heavily from the arsenal of western rock, incorporating bluesy musical progressions, employing rhythm section, and a full line up of other traditional rock instruments. This is as if Russians are saying: we can’t or don’t want to play like you, but we will use what we need from your treasure trove to make our point. (Just like Egor Letov said above about the form of western rock being like “play dough” out of which he can fashion new forms that his imagination dictates.) And to make this point, Russian bands often quite effectively blend western and Russian traditions, by “bluesyfying” Russian folk and pseudo-folk tunes, and by using western style electronically enhanced or distorted sound to play things that sound distinctly national, and as un-rock-like as possible. Russian rock musicians bring in the whole rich tradition of native Russian folk and pop genres: prison songs, criminal underworld songs, urban underbelly songs, love songs, urban romances, rural ballads, agrarian songs, revolutionary songs, Soviet war and pop songs, Odessa klezmer, Russian vaudeville and cabaret, Russian Gypsy songs and so on…
And here an interesting thing happens: these rockers blend Russian vernacular tradition, denigrated by the Soviet ideological watch dogs and cultural elites and pro-western intelligentsia, with the tradition of the culturally imperialist west, to achieve something of their own, to create a new strata of culture intensely national and anti-western.
It is interesting that a similar process took place in America in nineteen twenties during the first serious movement to assert the autonomy of African American culture. According to the insightful observations of Dale E. Peterson in his article “Underground Notes: Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin, and the African American Confessional Novel,” African American culture of that time “formed a sympathetic alliance with Russian forms of expression.” 
During the Harlem Renaissance, ushered in in 1925 by Alain Locke’s manifesto of the modern Black Arts movement, The New Negro, the words of African American cultural liberation were
.…uttered with a sideward glance at the prior success of nineteenth century Russia’s “soulful” literature and music…. Here originality of substance (black “soul”) is understood to reside in the undersoil of a peasant vernacular culture, the same subcultural layer that Russian artists had so successfully turned into literate rows of print. Similarly, Locke called for the evolution of a new musical idiom that would carry far and wide the strains of Negro spirituals: “their next development will undoubtedly be, like that of the modern Russian folk music, their use in the larger choral forms of the symphonic choir.” Here, too, the New Negro art quite openly shares the ambitions of a Russian cultural nationalist like Mussorgsky, whose grand operas were intent upon making a resounding and technically distinctive music emerge from the denigrated speech and song of an ancestral folk culture. American Negro artists of the Harlem Renaissance were being encouraged to fashion verbal and musical texts that would achieve a refined synthesis of artistic genres commonly found in the separate and unequal cultures of morality and literacy. The New Negro manifesto was thus as much steeped in the artistic ideology of Slavic nationalism as Dvorák's New World Symphony was grounded in the musical idioms of Negro Spirituals.
A somewhat similar process of readaptation of unrefined and looked down upon native musical forms, rejected by cultural elites, and blending them with ennobling and enabling western forms (one of these western forms paradoxically became African American blues, the music of the underdog turned into a western pop cultural canon) lead to a true renaissance of Russian pop music, with creation of ugly yet appealing hybrid child: Russian rock. This bastardized art form has become, through Perestroika and into the present day, a most effective form of national creative discourse, outstripping even glorious Russian literature, a traditional cultural leader of the country, in its prominence, influence and popularity within Soviet Union. I believe that Russian nationalist rock is the most authentic and original post-Soviet art form that Russia has created thus far.
Psychology from the underground
An example of an ideological world outlook espoused by Russian nationalist rock community can be found in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s in his Notes from the Underground. Of course here we step into a slippery and complicated three centuries old debate between Russian Slavophiles and westernizers, a debate as old as Russian national statehood and as irresolvable as it was in the day of Peter the Great, Petr Chaadaev, Konstantin Leont’ev and Vasilii Rozanov. I won’t enter the murky jungle of this argument, but will point out that Notes from the Underground contains two parallels to psychology we find behind the behavior of today’s Russian nationalist rockers.
In the article quoted above, Dale E. Peterson also writes
In the first part of the Petersburg diary we overhear a tirade of self-justifying “philosophizing” against the smug calculations of a western rationalism that defines mental maturity as “enlightened self-interest.” But this prolonged argument with utilitarian measurements of reasonable conduct is finally a defensive screen erected to hide a deeper-laden insecurity about measuring up to certain other imported western notions, particularly the seductive literary models of Romantic heroism and willed self-transcendence…. The underground man is conducting a bitter critique of two sharply contrasting western ideologies that had attracted Russian thinkers in Dostoyevsky’s lifetime. First, withering irony is directed at scientific materialism’s utopian systems of rational behavior modification, then bitter mockery is hurled at the sublime egotism promoted by the poetry and prose of literary Romanticism. The voice from the Russian underground launches a powerful double attack against imported western theorems that human nature can be shaped by a “rational egotism” or an “egotistic altruism.
The situation pointed out here is amazingly similar to what we see in today’s Russian nationalist rock milieu. The realia perhaps are different, the specific ideas rejected by new Russian underground men are different from the ones dealt with in the Dostoyevsky’s Notes, but systemically the situation is the same: there is present in the psychology of Russian rockers deep “insecurity about measuring up” to western standards, in this case standards of musical professionalism. This is why they choose not even to compete by embracing deliberate amateurism. This is why all along they claim, like Egor Letov does above how much greater Russian rock is than western rock.
As Dostoyevsky’s underground man, Russian nationalist rockers reject what is currently perceived in Russia as a domineering western ideological belief in rational behavior modification. In this case though, what is meant is not the nineteenth century ideas of socialist modification of society, but present day rationalist belief in the power of the market economy to mechanically change society and establish a system of “enlightened” control over the population. Here is how one of the leading ideologues of Russian rock ultra-nationalism Sergei Zharikov, a founder of the once scandalously known Soviet period Moscow band DK and an influential rock journalist and political provocateur, says about his vision of today’s western civilization: “Every super-national system becomes irrational. Here is western civilization… Super-rationalism, total totalitarianism, when everyone is spying after everyone else, all are spinning like little nuts and bolts. The system becomes irrational, it starts to devour itself. Snake biting its own tale. We are optimists. Let them devour themselves.”
Within Zharikov’s milieu, capitalist behavior modification and perceived totalitarian tendencies are viewed with suspicion as once were Socialist totalitarian tendencies before the end of Soviet Union. Thus is rejected western rock’s approach to music with its system of production factories, industrial efficiency implemented by armies of producers, engineers, promoters, publicists and emphasis on sales of formulaic mass produced popular “commodities.” The result is too rational, too produced, too calculated to be able to reveal the soul of the artist. Real music is made in garages, apartments and basements: in the underground. It is a product of divine inspiration.
“In my understanding what we sing is not even music. Our fans gather because they need that energy we give them. And there is sunny energy behind us, sun is shining into our backs” is how Egor Letov perceives his music. The touch of western production machine is a kiss of death to Russian nationalist rockers, as the old case Boris Grebenshchikov’s western made album proved it.
Like Dostoyevsky’s underground man mocking “sublime egotism promoted by the poetry and prose of literary Romanticism” Russian nationalist rockers reject the romantic notions of rock stardom so entrenched in the west. They behave like most unlikely rock stars, they refuse to be rock stars; they are anti-rock stars. And this behavioral element leads us to the final part of my discussion of the peculiarity of Russian nationalist rock music which is the conceptual carnival quality of it.
In 1990, when I was working on my dissertation on Soviet rock tradition, I was fortunate to interview two members of Zvuki Mu, the musicians Alexander Lipnitskii and Pavel Khotin. Surprisingly, I asked them to name characteristic elements of Soviet rock, both brought up its conceptualism.
What they meant here was that the works of Soviet/Russian rockers are characterized by a very high degree by the ideas present in them. According to Lipnitskii and Khotin, Russian rock songs are more vehicles for certain ideas, than pure “art” or pure “fun” musical entities.
This corresponds to the traditional definition of conceptualism in art, found in standard art dictionaries, where a work of art (sculpture, song, poem) “is regarded as no more than a vehicle for the communication of ideas or means of reference to events or situation…”
Of course being conceptual is not the exclusive prerogative of Russian rock. Western rock knows endless number of examples of conceptual rock: Pink Floyd, Beatles, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Henry Cow, Soft Machine, and the list can go on.
The only difference here is that Russian rock is EXTREMELY conceptual. Conceptualism totally dominates Russian rock scene today, as it did back in the Soviet days. This has to do with the traditional Russian attitude towards rock music, which I observed since early seventies and through today: Russian rock fans perceive rock music as something very serious, as no “fun” matter.
Neither performers nor listeners consider rock music to be “entertainment;” they do not view it as “fun.” In fact the very concepts of “entertainment” and “fun” are lacking meaning in Russian context—they don’t even translate directly into Russian and there is no word for “fun” in Russian. 
Rock performers consider it their duty to give their listeners something more than just pretty melodies, and rock audiences expect performers to do their duty. Rock songs are often made to deliver “messages” and “messages” are received at the receiving end of this dialog between bands and their audiences.
Essential to Russian nationalist rock is the means by which this serious and heavy conceptualism is conveyed, played out, on the rock stage. Russian nationalist rock, as idiosyncratic and amateurish as it is, has a very strong grip on its audience especially because its conceptualism is based on Russian national carnivalesque features that make nationalist rock so dear to the hearts of its fans. It’s “their” music.
Here I finally bring in the loaded code word “carnivalesque” that stems from the concept of “carnival” developed as a cultural notion by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his ground breaking books Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable I narodnaia- kul’tura srednevekov’ia I Renessansa, and Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo. 
How do the principles of Bakhtin’s carnival theory work within the body of Russian nationalist rock music?
Off course all rock music, not just Russian, is deeply carnivalesque in its essence. But just the way it is very conceptual, Russian rock is also extremely carnivalesque, to a degree, that it practically has no value outside of carnival, nor can it exist without carnival.
Carnivalesque theory, boiled down to its essence, presumes temporary (for the period of carnival duration) suspension of the normal rules governing society and substitutes normal rules with provisional new ones: carnival presumes free marry-making, buffoonery, clownade, a circus atmosphere, humor, parody and the satirizing of every day reality. It is the normal world turned in side out, when the King becomes a street sweeper, and the street sweeper becomes a King.
Carnival stylistics deals with things that are otherwise taboo in society: lower body functions, sex, gluttony, drunkenness and such. Closely related to taboos is the Bakhtin’s juxtaposition of official and unofficial culture. There is such a dichotomy in all societies: the official culture of the state/government and official church vs. the unofficial folk culture of simple people; the crude culture of urban streets vs. refined culture of upper social strata and various oligarchies.
Carnivalesque tendencies in Russian rock
How exactly are these carnivalesque tendencies present in Russian rock?
First, they manifest in the use of overwhelmingly omnipresent humor and satire, by mocking and satirizing the icons and realia of Russian experience.
Second, these tendencies include bizarre post-modern musical and poetic collages and pastiches, tunes and lyrics endlessly borrowed from numerous attributable sources, quoted, misquoted, misattributed and spliced together in an absurd and provocative manner. Within one song there can be found elements of American blues, Ukrainian Jewish klezmerim, Soviet revolutionary songs, French chanson, and so on. Irreverent borrowing of unrelated elements woven together into a complex tapestry of allusions and associations is a hallmark of Russian nationalist rock. This satirical borrowing and quoting is well-known to millions of its practitioners as steb.
There is no easy way to translate steb, and there is no single English word with corresponding meaning. In some way it translates into English as camp, though it presumes much more than the traditional definition of camp: liking of tasteless, bizarre and outlandish things. Both notions are somewhat related, but steb is much wider phenomenon.
Steb also can be characterized as a form of ironic mockery, double talk engaged in by the “initiated,” or those “in the know” who presume that their utterances, aside from signifying the obvious, also signify something else, often the opposite of what is being stated straightforwardly, often making fun of it, rendering it absurd or exposing its false and hypocritical nature. Steb is a very complex form of humorous cultural discourse that permeates entirely Russian nationalist rock. Its influence as a cultural phenomenon is enormous and deserves a special study.
Steb: a short overview
Steb’s origins in Russian culture are as ancient as carnival itself. You can find deep traces of it in very early works of Russian literature. I detect the first traces of steb in the mysterious thirteenth century work known as Daniel the Exile’s Lament (Molenie Daniila Zatochnika) in which Daniel, a very gifted and erudite young man fallen in disgrace, addresses his Prince with a poetic lamentation in order to arouse sympathy for himself and to show off his great learning and rhetorical ability. Along the way he reveals his talent for ironic discourse and his smart-Aleckey nature and personal pathologies. 
You see very clear and overt manifestations of steb stylistics in discourse both verbal and gesticular of the endless procession of Russian iurodivyi” Holly Fools (often sanctified in popular perception religious zealots) who, by calculated choice or by psychological pathology, behave in the name of Christ in the most obscene and outlandish manner: walking naked in the dead of winter while wearing only chains or covering themselves with feces while making from the steps of the churches apocalyptic pronouncements, for example. They prophesize and preach often in a very convoluted, highly metaphorical, ironic and grotesque manner, employing a great deal of obscene vocabulary.
These Holly Fools were very effective preachers and “performance actors” of the time, as they were allowed to utter what was forbidden to “normal” contemporaries, and used a great deal of national folk humor and satire. They were highly regarded by the local populace and often feared by corrupt oligarchs. It was believed that in their insanity the Fools were able to see the ideal reality and therefore mocked the given contemporary reality from the point of view of their ideal knowledge.
You find these Holly Fool steb antics in performances of old Russian street jesters called skomorokhi whose shows were known for their obscene humor, irony and satire. Traces of steb are found even in the discourse of the infamous sixteenth century Russian tyrant Tsar Ivan the Terrible in his brilliantly ironic letters to treacherous Prince Andrei Kurbsky.
Probably the most magnificent manifestation of steb is found, however, in the works of the seventeenth century leader of Russian religious schism Archpriest Avvakum, whose brilliant literary works can only be compared to the depth of pathology underlying his fanatical religious zealously. Avvakum who often acts like a typical Holly Fool, employs the whole array of steb devices—fake lamentations, ironic sermons and endless amount of self-depreciating talk in order to reverse it at some point and to show himself in his spiritual glory and polemic brilliance. But most striking of all is his ability to use obscenity and lowest strata of language with inventiveness unseen in Russian literature before him and not encountered until the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Later we find steb is found in the works of the eighteenth century satirist Nikolai Chulkov, punished for his irony by Empress Catherine the Great. In the nineteenth century steb becomes more noticeable in the pristine wholesome and virginally pure body of Russian literature: brilliant satirist Nikolai Gogol was a master of it and Dostoevsky was capable of superb steb (as Notes from Underground shows, among other things). Count Alexis Tolstoy demonstrated great steb in his Kozma Prutkov writings. Early twentieth century essayist Vasili Rosanov was less obscene, but just as pathological as Archpriest Avvakum and became a master of the most ironic steb in Russian literature.
Futurists Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk, and Aleksandr Kruchenykh ushered steb into the public discourse with their performance art “happenings,” and, in nineteen twenties, members of OBEREU literary group Daniil Kharms and Aleksandr Vvedenskii perfected the art of steb in literature. After Kharms and Vvedensky there was no steb in Russian life for a long time, except, for elements found in Andrei Platonov’s novels and to a greater extent in Nikolai Zochenko’s satirical short stories. Under Stalin and until the end of the nineteen fifties steb was quiet for obvious reasons. It started to slip in back into Russian discourse in the nineteen sixties in the early songs of Russian singer-songwriters (bards). Steb is clearly visible in songs of Vladimir Vysotsky, the best and most influential representative of this movement.
In 1970 however, a ground breaking event took place: Venedikt Erofeev wrote his “poem” Moscow to the End of the Line (Moskva-Petushki), which was almost entirely written in steb. Russian literature and more-over the whole national discourse was never the same after that. The degree to which Erofeev’s steb influenced Russian literary and even non-literary speech is enormous. Since the nineteen eighties, it seems that the young and hip can not even speak in other style. Double-entendre, double-voicedness, double-talk became the “hip” speak of the day. And it remains such today.
As long as society is divided into us and them, culture and counterculture, official and unofficial strata there will be steb. Steb is present in every culture, in every nation’s discourse, but some societies manifest it greater than others. I would dare to make the assumption that the greater is the social strife and social stratification in a nation, the more there will be steb in its cultural discourse.
In Russia in the late was adopted by the general population as “one of the possible ways to speak.” Today sleek commercial publications, which by their nature are very far from counterculture, utilize steb. You will find it on the pages of serious newspaper such as Nezavisimaia gazeta or magazine such as Kommersant. Interesting that, according to the legend I heard in Moscow, in the late eighties when Kommersant was beginning to morph into the magazine for the new commercial elite of Russia, its editorial board invited well known Moscow children’s writer and film critic Alexander Timofeevskii, a member of counterculture and one of the most brilliant practitioners of steb in literature, to shape Kommersant image creating the “steby” style the magazine is known for.
Later someone decided that steb is the way to communicate with the new rich in Russia: steb became the modus operandi in Russian fashion shows, fund raising happenings, performance art shows, art exhibits, night club shows, all sorts of “presentations,” openings, vernisages, and such. From these bastions of daring hippness, steb spread into theatres, TV and film studios, editorial offices and such. In today’s Russia, if not everyone speaks in steb, at least everyone is familiar with it.
But the Russian rock community has a sort of patent on this form of discourse. After all, after Erofeev’s book it was not literature, but rock music, that adopted steb as the style of its own. It is from rock that steb was borrowed by Kommersant and every one else.
Again we find an interesting parallel to the formation and usage of steb in Russia within the cultural practices of nineteenth and twentieth century black America and the way African American speech was constructed due to local social and ethnic strife and stratification in the U.S. In his already quoted article “Underground Notes,” Dale E. Peterson refers to Henry Louis Gates Jr’s. enormously influential study, The Signifying Monkey (1988) when he writes
Significantly, the terminology that Gates employs to express his sense of the African American experience difference is derived from the linguistic theories and discourse analysis of the Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin. The fundamental premise of Gate’s argument is that African American speech has always necessarily been constructed as a “double-voiced” discourse. In a pun that Bakhtin would have appreciated, Gates argues that black folk invented a practice of witty, behind-the-back signifying(g) at the expense of what the master’s standard dictionary was signifying. In short, the expressive culture of African Americans has always conducted a hidden insubordination and a knowing contestation of the dominant culture’s assigned meanings: “Free of the white person’s gaze, black people created their own unique vernacular structures and relished in the double play that these forms bore to white forms… Whatever is black about black American literature is to be found in this identifiable black Signifyin(g) difference.
It’s obvious that African American culture has produced it own steb out of its own set of historical circumstances, and it works the same way it worked for Soviet counterculture during the Post-Stalin years of Soviet oppression, and works now in Russia when its counterculture fights new capitalism. It works through irony; it speaks to the initiated. It lampoons the straight, buttoned up, utterly “uncool” participants in official culture, the ones who bought straightforwardly, stupidly and naively into its most obvious, straightforward messaging, and who are unable to read behind the lines, to hear the word that is not uttered, but is presumed, to see the gesture that is not made, but is there. This is why hip white American teenagers are ashamed to be white. This is why hip Soviet teenagers spoke to each other as if quoting from editorial articles of Soviet propaganda newspapers. This all comes from steb sensibility. Counterculture makes its stand against the domineering culture with steb as its main tool.
Thirdly,closely related to steb and steb stylistics is the phenomenon of self mockery, self parody, conscious lowering of one’s own image, trying to present oneself as pathetic, ugly and degenerate, behavior engaged in by many rockers all over the world, just as it was very successfully done by the Holly Fools of Byzantium and Russia and all sorts of obscene carnival jesters, such as the Russian skomorokhi I mentioned. This behavior was also engaged in during the ground breaking years of formation of Russian Futurism and European Dadaism early in the twentieth century, to be repeated later by the New York Dolls, Ramones, and Iggy Pop… And later in Russia by some of its greatest bands, such as Zvuki Mu, Nol’, Grazhdanskaia Oborona, Zharikov’s DK, Leningrad, and many others.
Fourth, the crudeness of music, performance and lyrics. The primitivist tendencies of early punks like the Sex Pistols and the Clash or pre-punks like Velvet Underground left a very deep imprint on the stylistic sensibilities of Russian rockers for whom crude minimalism became a main form of artistic self-expression.
Fifth: bringing into the body of music and the accompanying poetic texts an overwhelming amount of elements borrowed from Russian urban and rural folk tradition. However, once again, these elements are utilized ironically: they are often vulgarized, distorted, made absurd and satirized.
Conceptual carnival in action
Examples of Russian bands that employ the carnivalesque idioms described above, in their highly national if not nationalist musical works, are many.
To choose some over the others is hard, though I will. Here comes to mind a whole array of bands, beginning with the same venerable Zvuki Mu, mentioned earlier, Russian nationalist rock ideologue Sergei Zharikov’s band DK, Nol’, Kalinov Most, Mongol Shuudan, Grazhdanskaia Oborona, Chaif, Diuna, Bakhyt Kompot, as well as two late demi-gods of Russian nationalist rock Aleksandr Bashlachev and IAnka Diagileva.
As my first example, however, I would like to choose the brilliant Saint Petersburg ska band called… Leningrad.
Leningrad is the conceptualist project of obscenely talented singer-songwriter Sergei Shnurov, a.k.a Shnur (rope).
Starting with its highly conceptual name this band is full of surprises. Why is a modern Saint Petersburg band naming itself the old Soviet period name of its city? For Russians, the name is highly loaded—it presumes nostalgia of course and retro-nationalism, for example: We miss the times when we were ourselves, when we were stupid Soviets unrefined and crude, but somehow innocent. It also suggests that things in Russia don’t change. You can name the city SAINT PETERSBURG, or even Paris if you wish, but people in it will be the same, going about their business just the way they always did, drinking, fighting, loving, fucking…
Another surprise, also loaded with conceptualism is the kind of music Leningrad plays: very hard powered, very fast, very mean, punk ska. This is nothing that Russians play or listen much to. And Leningrad plays it amazingly well, thanks to a killer brass section (that in also performs ska as Spitfire, a separate band).
What is conceptual about a band named Leningrad playing ska?
Because there was never ska in Leningrad when the city was named that, because even today ska in Russia is exotic, and only few listen to pure ska without Shnur fronting the band.
The music of the Caribbean in Leningrad, the city near the Polar Circle?! Some kind of reality is clearly suspended here. Shnur himself comments on this absurdity, this postmodernist splicing of two unrelated worlds in his song “Bananas“, a melancholy observation of the colorlessness of Russian life and the craving for something from another world, a world where there is the sun, bananas, and marijuana:
It is raining in the street
The stores are locked for lunch till 3 p.m.
And wherever you might stop by
There is no bananas, no bananas
Refrain: Give me bananas, marijuana!
Give me sun!
Another great surprise in Shnur/Leningrad’s work is language. This is one band that Russian radio refuses to play, not because of ideological considerations, but because the songs are so loaded with obscene language that they are indeed inappropriate for radio. In some of the band’s songs, at least fifty percent of the lyrics consist of nothing but hard core obscenity.
A funny effect occurs here: due to the fact that there takes place such an enormous bad language overload, such over saturation by curse words, the songs do not sound ordinarily crude: they transcend pedestrian obscenity and catapult the listener into obscenity stratosphere. On that level of linguistic badness, once again the formal rules governing society are temporarily suspended. Here a confession of love can be rendered in most vulgar vocabulary gestures, as in the song “I am fucked without you” (Bez tebia pizdets). In this song, the inarticulate crudeness of the narrator’s speech turns into a most sincere cry of longing and love:
… and all these thwats
that are sitting down upon my prick
and I fuck with all of them
but I am fucked without you
I am fucked without you
I know, I know you are only one like that
I know, I know you are only one like that
Aside from obscenity and in agreement with other principles of carnival theory, there is present in Shnur’s song almost every classical element of carnivalesque: his songs swarm with all sorts of degenerates: drunks, hooligans, drug addicts, sexual maniacs, simple idiots. All sorts of degeneracy is paraded here on the background of new Russian urban landscape, where “new neighborhoods are rising up like ships, If you want to live here make sure your fists are hard.”
Shnur himself is a scrawny little man. His face, that of an alcoholic, is most impressive with a huge black eye he at times likes to sport. He looks like the epitome of a Russian every man—crude, inarticulate, pathologically horny and always drunk, sexually confused, but capable of love, and even able to peel himself off the stinking urban sidewalk and soar above the vulgarity of everyday life, as he does in his hauntingly beautiful song “I want in to the sky” (Mne by v nebo).
Playing strange in Russian context Caribbean music, its absurdly adapted stylistic medium of musical self expression, Leningrad creates a powerful idiom to characterize the modern Russian every man—confused by the changes of modernity, stripped of identity, shattered in its masculinity, clinging to phantoms like the old name of the city. His is the world of post-Soviet confusion in its ugliness and pain, through which one can see human faces, though often disfigured in grotesque grimaces.
The carnivalesque strangeness of Leningrad, its moral ambivalence, its refusal to be critical of anyone, the colorfulness of its musical and verbal gestures, makes this band a darling of modern Russian hipsters.
Another Russian carnivalesque buffoon of rock music whose work I would like to discuss in some detail is Garrik Sukachev. Sukachev a veteran of the Soviet rock scene, first became prominent in the nineteen eighties as the front man for the Moscow combo Brigada S. In the nineteen nineties, while pursuing his solo career, he built his post-Soviet identity as a quintessentially Russian singer-song writer. Like Leningrad, and unlike more militantly nationalist bands such as Grozhdanskaia oborona or Mongol Shuudan, Sukachev is a cultural retro-nationalist. Unlike Leningrad, however, he does not constantly allude to the brutal ugliness of the Russian past. His vision of the past, particularly the Soviet past is less dark; it’s more playful, melodramatic and cabaret-like, with great degree of appreciation of Soviet kitsch and camp. Like Shnur he knows very well the world of Soviet urban underbelly, the brutality of the Soviet streets, drug, alcohol and criminal excesses. But, unlike Shnur Sukachev looks for heartwarming regalia of the past, as if saying: this is our life, this is how things were, they were horny, sweaty, ugly, often pathological, but they are ours, and there were some good moments and we had fun while living our lives the way we know how.
Therefore his album Songs from the Outskirts (Pesni s okrainy) is full of stylization of Soviet pop and Soviet urban folklore, where listeners hear old fashioned urban romances, tangos, waltzes, and variety of other once popular in the Soviet Union dance genres. Accordion, a staple of Soviet dance floors, plays an extremely important role on this album.
The musical homage to the past represented in the selection of the songs on the album underlines its conceptual nature.
Here Sukachev recreates the world of musical tastes of a typical Soviet, man or a woman, one of the millions living in the drab tenements of outskirts surrounding every Soviet city. The album leaves the impression that Sukachev is attempting to legitimize authenticity of the musical and cultural tastes of that milieu. This is what these people loved, this is what contextualized their lives; these are the tunes that accompanied or could have accompany their loves, hatreds, joys, and sorrows. Therefore the songs on the album present a wide spectrum of genres, styles, and themes.
Probably the most surprising selection on the album is a 1963 French song by Salvatore Adamo “Tombe la Neige” which Sukechev performs in French.
What does it do on an album about Russia?
Anyone remembering the music world of Soviet nineteen sixties would remember how enormously popular this one song by Adamo was in the country. Very few parties happened without a tape recorder playing it at some point in the night. This melodic, passionate and extremely sentimental song in a language strange, but charming to so many Russians, became an integral part of the Soviet musical landscape of the sixties.
Interestingly, “Tombe la Naige” and a nineteenth century Russian “brutal” romance “Remember the Night?” (Pomnish li noch?) are the only authentic “period” pieces on the album. The rest of the songs are clever and very well crafted stylizations. They show a variety of influences and the high degree to which Sukachev is aware of the styles, senses, and sensibilities he is attempting to re-create on his album.
Almost as an anthropologist he takes musical and factual realia, and blends them into his own product, inauthentic due to its authorship and the time when it was created (1996), but so in tune with the real thing, that I had to ask myself time and time again while listening to the songs: is this a cover or is this Sukachev?
The first song on the album “Month of May is Outside of the Window”(Za okoshkom mesiats mai) is probably meant to be its conceptual corner stone. This is a kind of anthem to the cultural landscape of the past. It is largely a song about landscape as it paints a picture of Moscow cityscape on a vibrantly sunny May day with all the realia of life dear to the heart of the Soviet everyman/woman.
Though the song is about post-Soviet Russia, the realia presented in it are of universal nature, realia that did not disappear with the fall of old regime, that connect today to the past, that is permanent in the national psyche, not withstanding the political situation. Everything in the song could take place under any regime: Putin, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and Stalin. These are the fundamental things that Russians think of when they think of Russia.
The song tells of the clicking sound of the girl’s high heels on the asphalt, the nightingale singing in the threes of the city square, black tea in a white mug, Belomor-Canal cigarettes, older men, playing their dominos… The magic of May, the heat of a spring time city turns the head of a neighbor a retired anti-aircraft defense forces colonel, who is going crazy with love for a woman who refuses to marry him. This is a picture of normal life and Sukachev underlies the vibrancy and homely beauty of it by treating it with kind irony and a soft smile, but most of all with love and longing. The song culminates with authorial voice confessing to being totally enamored with Moscow, its way of life and its inhabitants.
Musically this song is loaded with allusions: it starts with somewhat awkward guitar cords, very reminiscent of ones found in urban criminal folklore, accompanying Sukachev’s singing. This is the part where the clicking of girls heels on the pavement is mentioned, and it sounds almost sinister, because in similar sounding criminal songs bad things happen to girls when accompanied by similar guitar cords. At this point the song can turn any possible way. But it turns out unexpectedly nicely, the band comes in and takes over, and from stylized criminal folklore the song morphs into a stylization of a typical Russian nineteen fifties dance floor tune, almost a waltz.
This is a very clever musical construction on the part of Sukachev, because it connects two urban realms of Moscow: its criminal underbelly and the middle class normalcy of people dancing to waltzes. Fast and aggressive accordion with its retro sound caries the song through, and the only hint that the song is a creation of nineteen nineties rocker is the fast and steady rock-like beat of the drums and occasional hoarse and “rocky“ modulations of Sukachev‘s voice.
Another song on the album, which once again paints a Moscow cityscape of an undefined modern period, is far less upbeat. “Vit’ka Fomkin” is a rather gruesome song, which strangely begins with a slow, languorous, loungey kind of “prelude” and then turns into a fast mix between old tango and again nineteen fifties dance floor waltz, which towards its tragic end, and through Sukachev’s voice overly dramatic modulations, develops a likeness with “cruel” urban romances.
In this song Sukachev depicts Russian street life’s absurd brutality: Vit’ka Fomkin, a mechanic, was paid an advance at his factory (a symbol of Soviet industrial enumeration, the only nod in the song towards specific time period), split a bottle of vodka with his comrades, bought a shawl for his loving and tender wife Lus’ka and now is making his way home on his infirm legs through the night streets of Moscow. And Moscow’s are cruel streets: the wind is cold, there are puddles in the alleys and behind every turn one can hear whistles of militia men. In addition to that, the bladder of drunken Vit’ka starts to over boil, and in detailed passage, quite unusual in the song, particularly as it is a mix of tango and waltz, Sukachev describes process of Vit’ka’s urination in the alley, complete with the opening of a zipper and a brilliant depiction of playful stream running down the rough surface of the wall.
While sweating in this process Vit’ka does not notice three shadows appearing from behind, and has no time to react. He is hit on the head and dies, but his assailants are caught in the morning, and the absurdity of it all is that all we learn that they were taxi cab drivers, and they were identified by the crowbar left in two steps from Vit’ka’s body. Why taxi cabbies are walking around night Moscow knocking people on the head is never explained. It is not significant in the context of Sukachev’s Moscow except as another absurd realia of the time and place.
In the least complex level of this song we were told just a gruesome story. Where is the place for nostalgia here? How does it testify to national or nationalist sentiment?
It seems that even here Sukachev is perversely attracted to elements of the traditional Moscow way of life. Yes, life in this city was and is brutal and dangerous, but this was a natural law of the place. This is how things are. Everyone knows that if you stay out late you take chances, but this doesn’t stop people from taking joy in partying with friends, loving their wives, and even taking Rabelaisian pleasure in urinating in alleys. This last gesture of course is a clearly carnivalesque element in the song (the celebration of lower body functions).
This was and is a way of living and dying for millions of Vit’kas. This life perhaps is crude, but it is ours, says Sukachev. This probably is the underlying meaning of the entire album.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 Russian rock music found itself at the crossroads and in a desperate search of its identity. This calamity sparked a creative process that led to emergence of modern Russian rock culture.
Loosing the country—even as hated as it was—turned out to be an event more painful than many could imagine. Together with freedom and a market economy came crisis and eventually a sense of loss. On a very basic level the change led to a split in the artistic community that mirrored the split that took place within the entire population: some people embraced the change wholeheartedly while others were more hesitant and still others reacted with utter hostility.
The ages old Russian schism between westernizers and Slavophiles once again became widened and inflamed. The same schism hit the Russian rock community which for years had presented a unified front against the Soviet regime. In addition to that thirteen years after the fall of the Soviet power an entirely new generation came upon the rock stage, a generation that grew up in free Russia and had no first hand knowledge of totalitarianism. All these factors in the end contributed to greater richness of Russian rock music, led to new inventiveness, to alive and vibrant musical milieu, where artists have to face endless variety of challenging issues and choices, both artistic and ideological. Since 1991 Russian life has became more varied and dynamic than ever before. Even the grungiest retro-Soviet nationalists are now free to travel, make fun of Putin and his cronies, and express the most politically incorrect opinions.
Today’s Russian rock is a thing of constant and turbulent evolution. Notions of professionalism and patriotism are linked now with ability or inability to adapt to market demands. What is clear, though, is that the search for self, the reassessment of nation’s past, the rediscovery on national musical traditions and fads, became a very fruitful process for many rockers. Even the ones who wholeheartedly deny the Russian past are still shaped by it, even as their music becomes a tool of this denial. But the ones who treat the past with nostalgia and respect (however ironic) are for better or for worse at the forefront of creating the new sound of Russia.
Alain Locke, editor. The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: Boni, 1925.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable I narodnaia- kul’tura srednevekov’ia I Renessansa. Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1965.
———. Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo. Moskava: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1965.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Petersen, Dale E. “Underground Notes: Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and the African American Confessional Novel,” in Bakhtin and the Nation. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2000.
Stender-Petersen, Ad, editor. Anthology of Old Russian Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
Troitsky, Artemy. Tusovka: Who’s Who in the New Soviet Rock Culture. London: Omnibus Press, 1990.
Vladimir Bondarenko Rossiia—strana slova: moi sobesedniki. Moskva: Paleia, 1996.
Yoffe, Mark. “Back into the Underground: Russian Rock ’n’ Roll Community in Search of New Adversaries and Identities,” in East European Meetings in Ethnomusicology, Bucharest, Romanian Society for Ethnomusicology, 7th vol.
———. Interview with Brian Eno, “The Mu Sounds of Russia,” International Musician and Recording World, no. 8 (July 1989).
———. Russian Hippie Slang, Rock ’n’ Roll Poetry and the Creativity of Soviet Youth Counterculture (dissertation). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1991.
 Mark Yoffe, Back into the Underground: Russian Rock’n’Roll Community in Search of New Adversaries and Identities, East European Meetings in Ethnomusicology, Bucharest, Romanian Society for Ethnomusicology, 7th vol., 2000, p.105-112
 Interview with Brian Eno, “The Mu Sounds of Russia,” International Musician and Recording World, no. 8 (July 1989), pp. 28-32.
 Troitsky, Artemy. Tusovka: Who’s Who in the New Soviet Rock Culture, London, Omnibus Press, 1990, p. 23.
 Quoted from the transcript of round table discussion Russkoe rok soprotivlenie: Russkii proryv (Russian Rock Resistance: Russian Breakthrough-94), in the editorial office of right wing newspaper Den’ (Day), in the book by Vladimir Bondarenko Rossiia -- strana slova: moi sobesedniki, Moskva, Paleia, 1996. Pp. 574-575. Translation is my, M.Y.
 Dale E. Petersen, Underground Notes: Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and the African American Confessional Novel, Bakhtin and the Nation, Lewisburg, Busknell University Press, 2000. P. 33.
 Quted by Peterson from Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation, New York, Boni, 1925. P. 202.