Punk in Siberia

2003

Late autumn in Minsk. A concert by Grazhdanskaya Oborona (in abbreviated form Gr.Ob.) is planned in the club Reactor. As is usual for this band, no one knows if the gig will actually happen, or whether it will be cancelled by the police, the fire-brigade or the democratic opposition. I see a crowd near the entrance and slow movement. Some people are already inside. Another sign indicating that the concert is more likely to happen than not is an older guy with a Che Guevara beard crying near the entrance and shouting something at the guards.

He had been waiting for this event for more than three years, but had overdone it with alcohol before the show and the security would not let him in. It seemed that this was the biggest disappointment he had experienced during these three years. You always see such touching scenes at Gr.Ob. concerts, where the audience is usually overexcited and cannot control themselves, while the guards are not used to such a public and react too violently. This night I take it as a good sign: if the guards are seriously filtering people, then the band should be on stage very soon. 

Sistema

Most of the articles and reports written about Grazhdanskaya Oborona start with the introduction, “How did Gr.Ob. change my own life?”. Apparently, it is not by chance: most of the audience at their concerts do not look like people who are there to listen to the music and dance, but like a religious sect. Some come in groups (mostly young ones), some (usually 25 and older) spend the whole concert standing alone just smiling, crying or speaking to themselves. Throughout the club I see grown up people behaving like teenagers, living the eschatological texts of the band’s leader Egor Letov. There are also real teenagers wearing t-shirts with hammer and sickles, chanting: “NATO is worse than Gestapo”. Right near the stage five FC Dinamo-Minsk hooligans are sharing one bottle of Soviet Champagne. Probably it is the cheapest alcohol in the bar. The band impassively plays one piece after another, while Egor has nothing to say between the songs – it is November 2003, not November 1989. 

Grazhdanskaya Oborona(eng. Civil Defence) is the band which for the first time made me seriously think about the relations between politics and music, or, more broadly, between politics and mass culture. I was around 13 when my neighbor in Minsk gave me their records – from the end of the 1980’s and to the end of 1990’s Gr.Ob.’s founder Egor Letov was the most popular hero for the young and dissatisfied all over the ex-USSR. Although from the very beginning the band existed in a very deep underground, totally excluded (and consciously excluding itself) from the media and prosecuted by the state (in the late 1980’s Egor was arbitrarily sent to a psychiatric hospital and another band member to military service), its influence on the youth was tremendous. There was a joke that one cannot find a single lift in a block of flats in the entire Soviet Union, where Grazhdanskaya Oborona or the name “Egor” is not written with a marker or scratched into the wall.

1982

At the same time, everyone who tries to say something about this band ends up with banal claims that this is the band’s paradox, something uncanny, that we cannot really treat rationally. We can just either trust them or not. Probably the most reasonable way to explain the popularity of Gr.Ob. is to speak about the authenticity of their protest and their brutal experiments with the prevailing ideologies. In a way Egor Letov, who was singing “I will always be against”, has shown how far one can go being a counterculture musician in a period of political “transition”.

The band was formed in Omsk, a 1,000,000 inhabitant Siberian city, in 1982 and in many respects has served as the central point of the Siberian punk community. In a way Gr.Ob. and the other local bands or short-term music projects represented the Soviet periphery and stood in opposition to the two centers of alternative culture – Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the late 1980’s the heroes of these established alternative culture centers were gaining more and more media attention, while their shows were becoming more and more commercialised. On the contrary Gr.Ob. has never been on the radio or TV and played mainly illegal or semi-legal concerts that were terribly organised, with very poor technical support and constant fights near (and sometimes on the) stage. Their way to assert themselves was to disseminate as much material as they could: during the first 10 years of their existence Gr.Ob. released around 50 albums (including Letov’s side-projects and concert records). As Egor used to say, “no record – no band”.

An important feature of the band was its strong political engagement and the radical change of the content of this engagement over historical periods. In the 1980’s Letov called himself an anarchist. At that time he was labelled as anti-Soviet and spent 6 months in a mental hospital. From the end of the 1980’s he was saying that he is and had always been a real communist, which has nothing to do with what was propagated as “communism” in the Soviet Union. At that stage it was popular to say that nothing had really changed and that Egor was protesting against the same people, who turned from being Communist Party members into the new Russian elite.

From the beginning of the 1990’s Letov started to say that if you wanted to be a real counter-culture you needed to be both a communist and a Russian patriot. He launched the so-called “Russkiy Proryv” (eng. “Russian Breakthrough”), a platform connecting ideologically similar musicians and bands, while his band started to play a lot at the political gatherings against President Yeltsin and capitalism. “Russkiy Proryv” ended in 1996, but till the end of the 1990’s most of the Gr.Ob. concerts were organised by the youth branch of the Russian Communist Party Avant-garde of Red Youth.

1997

These experiments with ideology constantly mobilised new people as the audience of the band, yet they also made older fans disappointed. I remember the anger of my friends when in 1997 we heard that the concert of Gr.Ob. in Minsk was organized by the Belarusian fraction of certain Russian fascist political sects, while Egor said from the stage “long live the President of the Soviet Union and Great Russia, Alexandr Lukashenko!”. Whoever you are, you cannot say such things from the stage in Minsk – people who come to rock-concerts will never buy it. At that moment, most of those in the city for whom culture and ideologies meant something said that Letov did not exist for them anymore, neither as a poet nor as a person.

My feelings were rather different. My reaction was not to what Egor had said, I just started to think about what it means to build one’s “career” upon some ideology and what makes the content of this ideology change. From today’s perspective, it’s not only the fluctuations of ex-USSR’s politicians’ careers in the 1990’s that seem funny. Region-specific residue of the ideologies from Soviet times and the uncertainty of political cleavages made the biographies of many counter-culture music bands similarly strange. These strange fluctuations started to fade out after the first decade of “transition” and Gr.Ob. was probably the most sensitive tuning fork for it.

At the beginning of the new century Gr.Ob. basically broke with political movements and ideologies. Over the last 10 years Letov stated that he has become disappointed in the very nature of politics, although during the time when he was actively participating in it he earned so much political weight that one of the most important Russian parties (he did not say which one) offered him a place in parliament. He refused and till his death in February 2008 avoided any contacts with political players. Talking about the history of Grazhdanskaya Oborona in the first half of the 2000’s, Egor said that the distance between the band and the audience was growing greater and greater. That most people think about what is on stage first of all in terms of political slogans (communist, patriotic, fascist, anarchist, etc.), whereas for the musicians the most important thing is pure discontentment and the eschatological message.

From the time when Egor was released from mental hospital, death was the main topic of his lyrics and gradually it also became one of the most recognisable motives within Siberian punk in general. When “transition” is “over” and the political realm becomes frozen like a container for media stars and brands, then eschatology becomes unnecessary. It was really necessary when the communist past and the post-communist future were not just empty images, not solidly bridged historical layers, leaving space for speculations about time and history. The unobvious relations between what was performed by Gr.Ob. on stage (and how) and different political ideologies is one of the most remarkable speculations on the past and future from the time of the changes in the Soviet Union. The story of Grazhdanskaya Oborona is one of the most noteworthy lines of the unobvious transition from the Soviet to the post-Soviet.

2008

Before the recent presidential elections in Russia my friends and me were joking that it is already clear to everyone, who will be elected and that the only intrigue is how the name and the image of the next President will be used by consumer goods’ brand developers. There is a tradition in Russia to make a brand of vodka out of President’s name. First there was vodka Gorbatshev, after it – Yeltsin. Currently Putinka still remains the main hit for the drinking population. One of my friends from Moscow told me that when it became clear that Medvediev will be a candidate for the President, some alcohol producing companies registered and authorized the brands Tsar Medvied (Tsar Bear) or Vova i Medviedi (Vova/Vladimir and the Bears; here Vova refers probably to Putin). Ironically Gr.Ob. has been arbitrarily placed in this new political context. The vodka Grazhdanskaya Oborona is a new project of Russian brand developers and in 2008 it is already not so clear what is the referent for these two words scratched on the walls of blocks of flats.

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