Changing the tune: Can Russia’s ethnic minority musicians challenge imperialist connotations of Russianess?

May 9, 2022
Gulnaz Sibgatullina
Postdoctoral fellow at Amsterdam School for Regional, Transnational, and European Studies (ARTES) at the UvA and the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University. 
Gulnaz Sibgatullina on how the cultural scene of ethnic minorities has confronted the ethnocentrism of Russianess long before the war and how it has attempted to contribute to a decentering of what it means to be Russian.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 triggered tectonic shifts. It has not only irreversibly altered Russia’s relations with neighbors, upending the balance of power in Europe, but also put under scrutiny the very nature of being Russian. The pertinent questions—why did the war happen? how can the next one be prevented?— have led to a reexamination of Russian national ideas, culture and politics, which are now increasingly understood as structures of imperialist thinking.

Being russkii (Russian) has always been a complex identity, continuously redefined and filled with new meanings by a broad array of actors. If the early 1990s witnessed the rise of ethnic nationalism, sometimes in radical forms, the term russkii has visibly shifted in connotation during Putin’s long presidency, at least in the official rhetoric – from a narrow, ethnic-centred definition to being projected as more inclusive of neighboring Slavic nations and the multiple ethnic minorities within Russia. However, the invasion of Ukraine and the consequent discrediting of the “Russkii mir” (Russian World) idea has made any kind of Russianness toxic.

The redefinition of Russianness in a new, positive, post-colonial sense will take time and require creative energy from within the country. And in this search for new connotations and images for what it means to be Russian and a citizen of Russia, the contemporary music scene may provide some inspiration.

Russkii beyond official interpretations

Like in the past, Russian artists today reflect and express sentiments felt by the country’s young generation. If in the 1980s, songs like Kino’s “Peremen!” became the embodiment of protest energy against the stagnating Soviet regime, the 2010s marked the birth of a new kind of counterculture: in the aftermath of the massive crackdown on civil society following the 2011-13 and 2019 protests, the post-Soviet generation has creatively reconsidered symbols closely associated with Russian culture, including Red Square (with blood), the cult of the Soviet army and Ded Moroz (the Russian analogue of Santa Claus) bringing a war for presents.

These new voices have demonstrated — or rather reminded us — that Russia is much more than just bohemian Moscow, which is economically and culturally detached from the rest of the country. Most of those musicians who broke through in the 2010s came from small cities and made their way without initial connections to elite show business. Easy-to-enter music platforms, such as VK Music, the Russian analogue of Spotify, have catapulted young artists to fame. Poetry, beats and visuals were both a channel of self-expression and an instrument of influence for the youth, which has been otherwise practically excluded from power. Young artists, shaped by and deeply rooted in the globalized world, have also contributed – albeit relatively modestly – to promoting a different kind of Russian culture abroad, one that is edgy, self-reflective and incredibly diverse. The existence of a variety of voices, as well as their oftentimes outspokenly critical position on the current regime at home, supports the argument against qualifying all Russian culture as propaganda.

Non-Russian Russians

Some of the most powerful voices challenging ethnocentric and imperialist connotations of russkii come from those who do not fit into neat ethnocentric definitions. The Russian-Tajik singer Manizha, who wittily called herself nedoslavianka (“not quite a Slav” in Russian), represented Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 with the song “Russian Woman”. During her performance, she confronted issues sensitive to the Russian audience like violations of women’s rights, oppressive beauty standards and ethnic discrimination. For her, a Russian woman is all women of multi-ethnic Russia who struggle against dominant patriarchy. Manizha revealed how the risks of activism – already quite high in the country – rise disproportionally for non-Russians advocating a progressive agenda, with the “usual” xenophobic vitriol becoming amplified in her case by anti-feminist and anti-LGBT+ hostility.
Whether Manizha’s performance indeed worked to challenge or on the contrary imposeassimilationist Russian imperialism remains a subject of debate. In any case, she did succeed in bringing Russia’s minorities into the bright spotlight of Eurovision and contributed to normalizing hybrid Russian identities. Meanwhile, contesting the prevailing ethnic hierarchies, groups such as Otyken, which draws on Khakas aboriginal musical traditions, as well as Chuvash and Udmurt indie artists combining local folklore and Russian and minority languages with modern music genres, have made their minority ethnic identity an element of pride.

Music has become a means to push back against Soviet-imposed interpretations of minority identities and the secondary role of non-Russian languages. In the Republic of Tatarstan back in 2006, local activists launched the initiative “Min Tatarcha söyläshäm!” (“I speak Tatar!”), which besides handing out an anti-award for disrespecting the official Tatar-Russian bilingualism in the republic, also features a yearly concert of independent Tatar music.

Attracting youth attention with native-language songs is crucial for the preservation of Tatar amid the increasing pressure to Russify: in 2017, Tatarstan parliament abolished the compulsory study of the Tatar language in schools after President Putin’s remarkon the “impermissibility” of compelling students to learn languages other than Russian. Moreover, minority languages remain relatively free from federal censorship and state control, thus allowing non-Russian activists in ethnic republics – who are especially vulnerable to repressive legislation against extremism – to vocalize their discontent.
Inclusive (non-)Russianness

The war has seriously damaged relations between Russians and neighboring nations and ethnic minorities within the country. Restoring trust will be impossible without first recognizing these peoples’ political, economic and cultural sovereignty. Within Russia, if the preservation of federalism is sought, the undoing of colonial mentalities and practices must go beyond “either/or” dichotomies. Contemporary Tatar culture and language, for instance, have been under Russian influence for more than five centuries, which not only makes the simple cancelling of everything “Russian” practically impossible but also would alienate many of those with hybrid identities. The experiences of young Tatars in Russia today are unique and marred by very particular challenges; still, they share many grievances with other young Russians and non-Russians who have grown up under Putin’s regime.
A sense of a common struggle for justice, for instance, can be a powerful impulse understood by many regardless of ethnicity or language. This was proven by the electronic hip-hop duo of poet Aigel Gaisina and musician Ilya Baramiya, who gained popularity after their debut album 1190 (2017). Inspired by the arguably unlawful imprisonment of Aigel’s ex-partner, the album featured the track “Kötäm” (Tatar for “I’m waiting”) and the hit “Tatarin” (“A Tatar man”). The duo’s fourth, all-Tatar album Pīyala (Tatar for “Glass,” 2020), prompted the “cool kids” to pick up Tatar-Russian dictionaries and fed into a brief vogue for Tatar culture. For Tatars themselves, Aigel’s performances were a recognition of the traumas caused by the abolishment of the Arabic script following the 1920s Soviet language reforms and of the unbridgeable distance between generations that resulted from that.
The ongoing war further complicates this already-extremely challenging process of creating inclusive ethnic and national identities. After February 24, the larger Russianness available to ethnic minorities has been deflated to “Ruzzianess,” the Latin letter Z standing for support of the invasion. Worse still, the war has muddied ethnic minority identities as well. Non-Russians make up a disproportionally high number of war casualties. Moreover, these citizens by default become complicit in crimes the Russian state is committing in Ukraine and also risk receiving the lion’s share of responsibility for these atrocities.

Changing tune

The young generation of artists, who have found their voice in reaction to oppression and trauma, will hopefully continue to speak on behalf of those who are silenced today. Already before the war, the alarming rate of cancelled concerts showed that they are not invulnerable from state repression; in the current context in which the very use of the word “war” is criminalized, artists remaining in Russia may have to resort to Soviet writers’ strategies of concealing anti-regime sentiments.

On this artistic grass-roots level, Russianness as a potentially (self-)destructive force has been understood and confronted long before 2022. Yet there is still a long way to go before various identities, including minority ones, are recognized and incorporated on their own merit into the alternative interpretations of Russianness. The Russian-speaking diaspora abroad, in particular, risks replicating the existing ethnicity-based dividing lines: while a new Russia is in the making, some could be seen as more Russian and thus more deserving of support than others. The experience of the music industry shows that collaborations actually help to expand one’s fanbase, learn new skills and stay in tune.
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