Can music help Russians unite against the regime?

April 22, 2023
  • Anatoly Reshetnikov

    Webster University
  • Lisa Gaufman

    University of Groningen
  • Viacheslav Morozov

    University of Tartu

The authors explore how opposition-minded Russian musicians navigate the minefield laid by the increasingly authoritarian regime and offer a tentative basis for broader social solidarity against repression.

Since the radical escalation of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, one hotly debated topic has been the apparent sequacity of Russians, their unwillingness and/or inability to pose any politically meaningful challenge to the regime. This opinion prevails in spite of multiple instances of high-risk resistance tactics, such as country-wide arsons of military enlistment offices, grassroots organizations helping Ukrainian refugees, feminist activism, resistance in the so-called “ethnic republics” most heavily affected by the mobilization, and railway sabotages targeting military logistics.

Still, an observer accustomed to identifying oppositional politics with street protests, as well as with organized and formal political action, does not find much to talk about in contemporary Russia. Does this mean that Putin and his regime have successfully neutralized all internal political challengers and displays of disloyalty? Does oppositional politics have any place to go when representative institutions have been sterilized by the repressive regime, and nearly all nongovernmental media have been eliminated?

In a recently published article, we draw on the ideas of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière and his distinction between politics and police to argue that political action can be seen as not limited to either official or openly confrontational channels. In fact, in a vastly unequal and dictatorial regime, such as contemporary Russia, the traditional channels of formal and street politics are fully dominated by the police – not just the repressive machine but the routine activities of pinning everyone to their “natural” place.

Open confrontation may be the least efficient form of politics by virtue of being a familiar target for the regime with its ever-increasing capabilities for digital surveillance and repression. As a result,
“Political agency may increasingly choose alternative spaces, such as music and mass art, which, for the time being, are more difficult to control and govern, even though they certainly do not remain fully immune from state interference and repression.”
The regime has forced many artists to leave the country and harassed some who choose to stay. Even before February 2022, music and mass art tentatively offered a staging ground for wider societal solidarity against the sacralization of power, racism, inequality and imperial myths – the cultural forces that drive the current war.

As suggested by comments from audiences on YouTube and other platforms, art helps opponents of the regime to overcome psychological and social isolation, which is a crucial precondition for any potential action. Even though such actions remain sporadic and decentralized, ignoring these potentially transformative cultural challenges to the existing regime would be politically unwise and counterproductive from the standpoint of the effort to recast Russia’s political imagination along anti-imperial and emancipatory lines.

From radicalism to strategic ambiguity 

The radical feminist punk group Pussy Riot often serves as the model of artistic political engagement that continues the dissident traditions of Soviet nonconformism and post-Soviet actionism. The Punk Prayer performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in February 2012, which made the group famous, opened with the line asking the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin away.” The politics of Pussy Riot, and especially their trial and sentencing in 2012, are, however, very difficult to replicate in today’s Russia due to the hardened and systematic policing of the cultural sphere.

In our article, we discuss how popular musical collectives IC3PEAK, Shortparis and Monetochka have engaged in alternative modes of political action in their music and art, which center on subverting the symbolic repertoire of the Kremlin and deconstructing the political mythologies imposed on them as political subjects.

Importantly, they also avoid falling into preconstructed and familiar binaries, such as “West versus East,” “democracy versus autocracy,” and “individualism versus collectivism,” thus depriving the regime of the opportunity to shoot at a long-familiar target. Thus, they remain distinctly Russian while at the same time laying bare the key vices of Russia’s political identity and public perception: imperialism combined with a historically inflicted inferiority complex, as well as everyday racism. One should certainly not look at this art for any clear-cut solutions, but it can be instrumental in reimagining the Russian political community in more inclusive ways.
IC3PEAK at the rally against the isolation of Runet, Moscow, March, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
IC3PEAK: demystifying power

In their music videos, IC3PEAK often impersonate the authorities (“Death no more”) or feature symbols of officious patriotism, such as military uniforms and pioneer scarfs (“Marching”). They choose this artistic strategy instead of the position of underdogs harassed by people in power that is commonly adopted by mainstream hip-hop. This way IC3PEAK seize and tweak the agency of those “exemplary citizens”. By making them sing in creepy unison and amplifying the dark and violent parts of their political identities, IC3PEAK convey a sense of conscious political agency by hyperbolizing, rather than confronting, the official aesthetics. The authorities become ominous and blood-thirsty. The “pioneers” and soldiers remain obedient only on the surface, while their piercing gaze barely hides protest and revolt.

Thus, IC3PEAK’s music videos remain unmistakably oppositional, though it is difficult to distinguish which alternative discourse or position they represent. While appealing to the common historical experience of their audience by presenting familiar archetypes, they avoid being put into a box as a certain type of familiar political challenger (e.g. as liberal Westernizers or human rights defenders). Meanwhile,
“They also demonstrate that the regime relies to a high degree on fake performances and deception to mask its emptiness and self-centered nature. By doing so, they demystify power and compromise its seeming invincibility.
Shortparis, Petersburg, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
Shortparis: tackling inequality and racism

Shortparis was initially more of a niche musical project that sought to appeal to Western audiences. However, their more recent work manages to capture a number of post-Soviet anxieties and problems that have been extremely pertinent in the Russian society: from xenophobia and inequality to extreme militarization and violence. In light of the economic inequality that seems to be the driving force behind army recruitment, Shortparis’s focus on the lived experience of different classes across Russian society is especially relevant.

Visually and semantically, Shortparis refers to workers’ lifestyles and the simple folk in such works as “KoKoKo” (2020) and “Twenty” (2021). In addition, they invoke the so-called “deep nation,” conventionally pictured as supportive of the regime, but also apolitical, combining this with clear references to the iconic moments of political reawakening (e.g. the 1968 protests in France). In both videos, Shortparis appeals to, and associates itself with, socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Yet they also create new linkages and alliances, broadening the emerging political collective. The most diverse social strata – from artists and intellectuals to hipsters and hooligans – are invited to join the common people’s cause, to unite and amplify their silenced voices.

The problems of racism and xenophobia, combined with reflections on some post-Soviet and post-imperial traumas, such as the Beslan school hostage crisis, are most visibly addressed in “Dreadful” (2018). The music video starts in a desolate residential area, showing a school building and kids dressed in school uniforms. The musicians, resembling skinheads in their attire and hairstyle, enter the school’s gymnasium, filled with people who would be racialized in Russia as non-white labor migrants.

However, the anticipated climax of racially motivated violence never happens. Instead, both the band and the labor migrants join in a sparkly dance performance with unmistakably queer undertones, in sharp contrast with the song’s somber lyrics. By creating this sensory shift and making the routinely invisible labor migrants equal participants in the visual, the artists flatten the racial and class hierarchies and suggest that anyone can be both a source of fear and a fearful subject.

Importantly, while Shortparis quotes French philosophers and conveys queer aesthetics, its online audience does not perceive the band as a Western import, as becomes evident from the comments to their videos. Engaging with and recycling various Russian tropes, images and music, its art bears distinct cultural markers, be it the aesthetics of post-Soviet suburbs, Russian romance or references to specific social groups, such as migrants, military veterans and young delinquents. This is what makes its art so subversive, but also evasive, when it comes to direct repression.
Monetochka, Petersburg, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
Monetochka: deconstructing imperial myths

Monetochka, with her girly aesthetics and poetry, is probably the most familiar and digestible for the Russian public, even if dismissed by some critics for her “weak” and “high-pitched” voice. Her interface with political opposition mostly amounts to deconstruction, the result being the replacement of othering with painful identification. This is particularly evident in “Russian Ark” (2018), which is said to be “rising to the surface” – just as Putin’s Russia is claimed to be “rising from its knees” – while at the same time broken and surrounded by “slop and dirt.” Against this background, the seemingly patriotic chant (“Russia! Russia!”) collapses the national sublime into its own ugly underside and forces listeners to own up to both, making it impossible to identify only with the brighter side of Russianness. In this way she confronts state-centered narratives with universal living experience that cannot be pushed out of the picture.

Deconstruction of foundational myths through simultaneous distancing and identification is perhaps the most important of Monetochka’s aims. In “The 90s” (2018), she offers a clearly ironic take on the official narrative about the hardships of the 1990s, which has established a key negative historical Other for Putin’s Russia. The comment section to the video on YouTube is filled with younger people suddenly realizing that maybe the decade was not that bad after all. Or, as Yuri Saprykin notes, a time that is interesting to remember but not an era one wants to return to.

In her most recent album Applied Art (2020), Monetochka deconstructs the myth about the West, in both its liberal and nationalist versions. The myth is not rejected but rather recycled, in a psychotherapeutic fashion. Thus, “America” taps into a long tradition of utopian imagination in Russian popular and alternative culture.
Contrary to the conventional opposition between pro- and anti-Americanism, Monetochka presents America as a land that never was, but whose image is still crucially important for the here and now.
Her relationship with America is also quite personal, even intimate – which points to another key dimension of her art. It conveys an acute feeling of living through History, whose formidable forces make everyone feel weak and vulnerable at times, yet also hopeful and resilient. “I will survive” from the same album is the prime example here – a song that combines vulnerability and strength, nostalgia and irony, in a mixture that is at the same time unsettling and deeply curative.

A wider solidarity against the war?

While it is true that Russian society remains atomized and not as vocal as one would wish in the context of the ongoing aggression, the key question is how to de-atomize and re-vocalize that society. What peaceful means remain available when the ruling regime forcefully maintains its monopoly on both information and violence, silencing any dissent?

One option is to explore the possibilities offered by the politics of art, or the politization of aesthetics, which has often been a preferred mode for various anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian movements. As Walter Benjamin argued, in the age of mechanical reproduction, mass art opens the possibility “for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art,” the potential of which is unlocked when an unmistakably oppositional and unifying message can be conveyed (1) to a very large audience and (2) in a register that remains immune from both legislative and ideological retributions. At least for a time.

What the musicians we discussed above are seemingly trying to accomplish is to politicize their art in a way that would address and attack the most durable vices of the Kremlin’s rule – the sacralization of political authority, militarism, the promotion of imperial myths, normalization of inequality and everyday racism. By doing that, they appeal to and attempt to consolidate wide audiences committed to stopping the war. At the same time, they use a mode of expression that cannot be easily classified and proscribed by means of the vocabularies that are available to the regime. Instead, the appeal is to the general condition of a human being waging an uphill battle with the overwhelming forces of History, which could create alternative grounds for broader solidarity.
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