History of Russian pop
Translated by
May 22, 2011
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Original appeared in Russkii Reporter
Author: Konstantin Milchin, Natalya Zaitseva, Dmitry Velikovsky, Yulia Ildis, Sasha Denisova, Tatyana Arefeva and Olga Andreyeva.

Twenty years of Russian history through the eyes of Russian pop music

Popular music is not just bad lyrics and layered vocal tracks, but also social psychotherapy. Pop music reflects the traumas within the subconsciousness of society, whether it is the rise of prostitution for hard currency in the early nineties or the epidemic feminine love for Vladimir Putin in the middle of the next decade. Often those songs become popular that express social complexes, which are not yet articulated in the public sphere. Pop music therefore in particular reflects our ideas about the world and the different periods of Russian life.

The first part can be found here.

The 90‘s: the white guards revival

When in August 1991 the red flag was removed from the building of the Supreme Soviet, there was nothing to replace it with.  At last a white, blue and red flag was raised. This flag had once been chosen by Tsar Alexei Michailovich for the Russian fleet. The situation at that time wasn’t so different from that of 1991. The boats of all other countries carried state flags, but the Russian fleet didn’t have a flag at all.

In the early 1990’s Russia’s pre-revolutionary history was rediscovered as the alternative to the Soviet past and the civil war became one of the favorite themes in the pop songs of the 1990’s. Alexander Malinin for example rehashed ‘Lieutenant Golytsin’, once a popular song among the White Russian emigrants: ‘[Soviet] Commissars now sit in our house. Our girls are taken into their offices.’

In 1991 Oleg Gazmanov performed a song dedicated to the White officers: ‘Captain, captain, you have left our country. Your horse is now saddled by a stranger.’

The stranger in this song refers to 70 years of Soviet power. By taking its inspiration from the white officers and the pre-revolutionary nobility, pop music rejects not only the communist past, but also the more recent perestroika. In 1989 the pop group Lyube had already dealt with the perestroika and its ideologue Gorbachev in their song ‘Atas’: ‘The raspberries blossom with wild flowers [Criminals are thriving]. Various creatures feel themselves free and easy. There is no bread, but a lot of shoe polish [drugs]. And the hunchbacked leader [Gorbachev] is mocking.’

In 1991 Gazmanov, who by then had become the main pop ideologue of the White Guards revival, hammers his nail into the myth of perestroika. In ‘hooker’ he sings:  ‘Nocturnal butterfly, who is to blame for our misfortunes? While the world spins further, I am in Afghanistan and you in a whorehouse.’

(this tv show was recorded many years later. )

Only two years later however feelings of nostalgia for the USSR appear. Masha Rasputina sings: ‘There was once a country, where I fell in love under a blue sky. There was once such a country and now they tell me it is no more.’

Igor Demarin mourns over the separation of the Soviet republics: ‘And now I live abroad, without leaving the country, without leaving the country.’

As nostalgia for the Soviet past emerges the White guards myth and the Soviet myth merge. They’re after all not so different. Both are build in the same imperial foundations. In the same year 1993 Oleg Gazmanov performs another song on television that is called ‘Officers’, in which the fusion of both myths becomes apparent. At one point in the song the singer asks, while turning to the graves of the White guards: ‘Gentlemen, officers, how did you preserve your faith?’. At another point in the song he sings ‘ Officers, Russians, let freedom shine in you.’ which is an obvious rehash of the following lines from the Soviet hymn: ‘Through storms the sun of freedom has shined upon us [ and the great Lenin has lighted the way]’. Gazmanov dedicates his song ‘officers’ to ‘them, who survived Afghanistan, who didn’t befoul their honor’, which is to say Soviet officers.

It should be noted that even the Soviet hymn itself contained an attempt to build a bridge of continuity with the historical myth of the great Russia: ‘An unbreakable union of free republics, Great Rus has welded forever to stand! Created in struggle by the will-of-the-people, The united, the mighty Soviet Union’. New states need the image of a great past for its internal and external self-confirmation and in the case of Russia such images of a great past couldn’t be found anywhere else than in the empire.

But despite the emerging nostalgia for the Soviet past, throughout the 1990’s, during which Glinka’s ‘a patriotic song’ was still performed as the state hymn, the revival of the pre-revolutionary past remained predominant. In 1995 Alla Pugacheva sings ‘Don’t Hurt Me, Gentlemen’.

In 1996 Gazmanov sings ‘With the return of the double headed eagle the Russian language will be continued’. The group ‘White Eagle’ is perhaps the ultimate example of this nostalgia for the pre revolutionary past. In 1998 ‘White Eagle’ writes a song that brings together all mythologized cliches about Russia’s 19th century, from Pushkin to Tolstoy: ‘How delightful are Russia’s evenings. Love, champagne, sunsets and lanes. Ah, those beautiful summers, entertainment and walks. Balls, beauties, lackeys and junkers. And waltzes by Schubert. And the crunch of French bread. And only the sky in the blue eyes of the poet.’

The white guards revival however is an utopian project. Advancing under the banner of a Russia, which was lost and cannot return, it could never offer any real results.

The gradually developing financial stability and satisfaction eclipse the nostalgia for a great past. This process is also reflected in pop music. In the 2000s more Russian princes appear. There are even several types: The president (and strong men in general, capable of making decisions), businessmen (oligarchs, rich sportsmen, famous rappers and so forth) and for the girls in the provinces even simple Muscovites become princes. Men from Moscow now present the same opportunities for girls in provinces as foreigners did for Moscow girls in the early nineties. In the second half of the 2000s Timati raps: ‘She is right. She needs to move to the capital, to get a university degree and find her prince.’

The Russian market of brides and grooms overcomes its stagnation. In 2003 and 2004 the number of divorces increases, not the least because now married men also become objects of female competition. In pop music a new generation of rivals appears; not the dishonest girlfriends and the unhappy mistresses of the 1990s, but young, beautiful and self confident women, who compete for the role of second wife. Glyuk’OZA sings about them: ‘A car stops. You come to me, you, looking like a cake. So white and beautiful. I won’t give you away to no one. I will take, take, take her place. Your honest bride, honestly.’

The groom in the song characteristically has ‘a black interior with crocodile leader’ and ‘the traffic police will not give him problems’.  The book ‘Casual’ by Oksana Robsky, published in 2004, is the confession of a ‘Rublyovka wife’ (Rublyovka is Moscow’s most prestigious neighborhood), who has been left by her husband in favor of one of these amazons, hunting for rich men. Amidst a flood of legal proceedings between these ‘Rublyovka wives’ and the mistresses of their [former] husbands, the group ‘Stiletto heels’ sings: ‘I should have fallen in love with a prince with a Porsche a long time ago, because stiletto heels cost money too.’

By the way, in the 1990s and the early 2000s quite a few pop songs were written about children, but in the second half of the 2000s  – even despite the introduction of the state subsidies for young families with children – the subject is crushed in the bud. Pop stars still sing about children, but the child becomes a problem and hindrance for the relations between lovers of the new generation, even before its birth. In 2006 ‘White Chocolate” sings: ‘He made her a child and then stepped aside. What a sissy! He hid under the bushes and under his mothers skirt. He proposed to do an abortion and hang up the phone’.

In the 1990’s the average pop star was older than the current singers. Correspondingly the subjects were ‘older’ too. The infantile (in all its meanings) pop songs of the end of the 2000s return to the individualism of the 1990’s, although from a different angle. The more recent songs are not as much about the struggle caused by the responsibility of each person for oneself and his or her close ones, including material responsibility, but about an acquired feeling of satisfaction, stability and security, also very much in the material sense.

For the elder generation this new sense of security is put to words in 2003 by Verka Serdyuchka: ‘Fi-ine, Everything will be fine. I know.’

For the younger generation Glyuk’oza sings: ‘Marriage, marriage, ring, ring. I love to love you, my sunshine. Marriage, marriage, everything will be fine.’

With the emergence of the new middle class the White Guards revival is buried forever. And above its debris surprisingly appears  ……. the old Soviet flag.

In 2006 the irony of the next ideological shift from ‘the new Russian’ to ‘a re-interpreted Soviet’, was captured by Boris Moiseyev: ‘I left, I left for Saint Petersburg, but I arrived in Leningrad.’

2000’s – The Soviet revival

In the year 2000 the parliament approved a new anthem based on the old Soviet melody with new lyrics. Of particular interest to us is the old line ‘the sure bulwark of the friendship of the peoples!’, which was replaced by ‘the age old union of brotherly peoples.’

In the middle of the 2000s pop responds with the actual unification of Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian music. This process reaches its peak at the Eurovision 2009, when the Ukrainian Prikhodko for Russia sings ‘Mamo’  in the Ukrainian language and Russians support Alexander Rybak, a Belarussian with a Norwegian passport, like he is one of their own.

The 2000s are a times, not of remembrance of the remains of Soviet life, but of something neo-Soviet.  The Soviet past is being re-interpreted, having taken into account the capitalist present. 

The transformation of social roles and stereotypes of the Soviet life’ had already been noticed in the year 1992 by Masha Rasputina: ‘Even though I was born in a modest village, where they thought us to live like Lenin, I do not wish to become a slut, nor do I want to be a milch cow.’

An important change away from the Soviet past is the emancipation of women in the middle of the 2000s. Salaries increased and new forms of leisure become available to women. When in the years 1998 and 1999 middle class restaurants and clubs appeared, men stop harassing women in bars and for women it becomes normal to visit restaurants without escort.

Under these conditions, the early marriages and child births, once so important for the Soviet ideology, transform from a blessing into a annoying hindrance. In 2002 the group ‘Hands in the air!’ sings: ‘Tomorrow morning you will get married. So young and so little happiness.’

In 2003 the group ‘Fabrika’ sings about how at the age of 20 years it is still to early to think of marriage or even a permanent relation: ‘I love you, but I will not marry you. Do you hear me, Lyolik, my sunshine. I want to fly a little.’ and ‘Trainer, masseur, but no one’s admirer. The spirit should only be positive and merrier’, the girls insist and at the end of the song they have the following conversation:

Sasha: ‘Are you going to Nice?’
Sati: ‘Me and my boyfriend are traveling to Cannes.’
Sasha: Do you really want to go?
Sati: Well, I am not so sure …
Ira: To hell with these boys!
All: Yes, because the three of us will not be bored.

In contrast to the women of the nineties, the emancipated girl of the 2000s apprehends a love affair not as the first step to a marriage, but as an attack at her own independence. In the song ‘Attempt no. 5’ VIA Gra confesses ‘I have loved but a little. The second one bored me. The third one I forgot. The fourth one disappeared on Tuesday. About the first one I don’t remember a thing. The fifth one however is not like that at all” and they complain they may loose their independence.

The struggle for independence does not only take place within the family, but also on the level of the nation. In the middle of the 2000’s an outburst of anti-western sentiments occurs and by the end of the decade the rejection of west in pop music becomes predominant. Even the apolitical Glyuk’OZA sings ‘Dance Russia! And cry Europe! I have the most beautiful, beautiful, beautiful bums.

In the spring of 2008, at the same time when the youth movement Nashi conducts its action ‘Russia, Forward’ in front of the US Embassy in Moscow, the boy band ‘Chelsea’ promises all football fans: ‘We will score soon. Russia is ready!’. The song is also an anthem for Russian products: ‘Not whiskey, but vodka. No tonic, but beer, No palm trees, but fir trees.’

The camp of westernizers never completely disappears from pop music. They rather join in with ‘the glamorous escapists’. The American life is still seen as a beautiful and unattainable model, but no longer because Russians cannot travel to the US, but because the demands for the quality of life have been raised and by now an emigre life in an American suburb no longer meets their wishes. Now they want ‘to live in Manhattan and share secrets with Demi Moore‘, the group ‘Band’eros’ sings. This however is again an unachievable dream, another utopia. The Hollywood aristocracy has practically become hereditary. For the cheeky emigre-parvenu there is no place in their ranks.

2000 – The patriotic resurgence

Not the least because in the early nineties especially the white officers were extolled, the patriotic myth of the new Russia was aggressively defensive from the start.

In a way this process contributes to the future ‘social-political events’ such as the patriotic youth movement ‘Walking together’, which quickly progresses into aggressive demonstrations. On the 7th of November 2000 several thousands gather for their first mass action on the Kremlin embankment.

The first program for the patriotic education of Russian citizens is launched, which in essence provides for the military patriotic preparation of the youth with the aim to strengthen the defensive capacities of the country. By the year 2001 the group ‘White Eagle’ comes to the logic completion of the romanticization of the white guards and the defense of the motherland my military means. ‘Grad rocket launchers stand in an open field. Putin and Stalingrad are with us.’

In the beginning of the 2000s an entire series of songs about Putin are produced. The new president becomes a model for the Russian man. If we believe the group ‘Singing together’, only Putin can meet the quite modest demands of Russian women, who only want ‘Someone like Putin, full of strength. Someone like Putin, who doesn’t drink. Someone like Putin, who will not treat me badly. Someone like Putin, who will never leave me.’

In 2006 the theme is continued by the group ‘Ultraviolet’: ‘My love is called Putin. And that is the problem. He is inaccessible. Beautiful, athletic and not stupid at all. But unfortunately too well protected’. The chorus sounds: ‘Vova, Vova, Vova, Vovochka, Volodenka, my man’.

After in 2004 terrorists seize a school in Beslan, the reforms in the power agencies begin and pop music in the person of Alexey Goman responds with the words ‘A Russian bloke doesn’t run from bullets. A Russian bloke doesn’t feel any pain.’

In 2005 ‘Bright Girls’ perform the song ‘My brother, the paratrooper': ‘The motherland is with you. Every day, another fight.’ These are the key words for the patriotic project of the 2000’s: ‘In life, lads, rank doesn’t matter. Life is a struggle for survival.’

The idea that Russia is surrounded by enemies and that the country’s national mission is to defend itself from them becomes predominant in mass culture. At a summer camp of the Nashi youth movement, the Kremlin’s chief spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky orates: ‘You are not brutal enough. You should be ready to  break up fascist demonstrations and physically oppose attempts of anti-constitutional coups.’

This aggression also penetrates the family. In the second half of the 2000s the group ‘White Chocolate’ produces the anthem of aggressive feminism: ‘A man beats his wife, hits her like a beast. He dreams about his mistress, a secretary at the Ministry of Finance.  At strange legs he looks with lust. Hastily he leaves trough erotic magazines. The pervert  touches his sweaty body at odd moments. He touches you,  breathing the smell of beer in your neck. Turn around and punch that nasty piece of scum in the eye. Protect yourself, girl. Kick him in the liver. Plant your high heels in his spleen. Knock out his teeth. He tried to dirty you. Now he pays for it. This is it. There has been enough. Sentimentality is no longer in fashion. All men are bitches.’

And so by the end of the 2000s the defensive position in Russian mass culture finally turns to the offensive – and once again appeals to the symbols, inherited from the Russian empire, only not longer to the [elitist] white guards, but now to the [people’s] Kossacks. MakSim and Legalize sing: ‘The ones born for knightly glory die of boredom when they have to plough. Their heart belongs in the Cossack camps among the warriors, their friends. While our churches burn and brothers sell each other for gold, our sacred mission is to demand reparations for their lawlessness. So let us go out to foreign lands. Let us try our strength, have some fun and let the expensive churches of the traitors [infidels] burn with righteous fear.’

The end of the 2000’s: wherein lies our strength?

Today’s pop music is torn between patriotic and glamorous projects. On the one hand there is the unbridled patriotism and aggressive rejection of everything western. On the other hand there are ‘the pink glasses’ and the cosmopolitanism of the new generation, for whom the European capitals offer a more familiar and pleasant place of residence, than the Russian cities. In 2002 The group ‘Roots’ sings ‘I loose my roots. I fly into the sky. Whereto I do not know.  I only know that I haven’t been there yet.’

In 2004 The singer Irakli adds: ‘London, Paris. Doves in the sky. Reflections in the rooftops. An old boulevard. And the villages burn.’

These are songs for a middle class in formation. Quality recordings, good lyrics and most importantly no agony. Unlike the pop music from the nineties, these songs do not express social complexes or try to heal the psychological wounds of society. Perhaps that is why this pop music for the middle class hardly ever generates truly memorable hits.

It is however also true that today’s middle class suffers from a lot less complexes than the Russians in the nineties. They have less psychological trauma’s. They don’t get shocked easily. In 2009 Bogdan Titomir sings: ‘Finances, credits, the hysteria in the world – it is being shown on TV sets all day. What will the future bring, when the crisis is only beginning? I have no clue. The crisis doesn’t concern me.’

But if Titomir’s prognosis will come true and the crisis will not really affect the middle class, then something very interesting will happen. The new quasi class system, which has developed in Russia over the past few years, will strengthen and become more rigid. Social mobility will decrease and that means that feelings of nostalgia will appear for times (or places) when (or where) it was possible to make prince out of mud and not by the time of your pension, but instantly, without requirements like two educations and long work experience at mid level functions.

About what pop music will sing when it will not have any more ideological projects?

Maybe it will start to generate myths about the 90’s, all the more so because the first steps were already been taken by the serial ‘Brigada’ and the movie ‘Boomer’. In 2004 the entire country sang along with Seryoga’s refrain: ‘Black boomer, black boomer, rolling bye in front of your window.’

Maybe the new myth will look back towards the Civil War. After all, the ‘evil nineties’ may very well too heavily discredited in the public consciousness, to claim a role as the source for a new ideology. The social instability from the times of the Civil War on the other hand, is in itself very attractive to a rigid class society. Not for nothing one of the most successful recent movies was Admiral, the beautiful and tragic love story about admiral Kolchak.

Or perhaps, pop music will find a new social trauma to work with. An ideal candidate could be the relations between the capital and the regions, the social tensions between Moscow and non-Moscow. Not without reason a girl from Novyi Urengoi by the name of Valeria Gureyev, who entered a Moscow institute in 2003 and took the pseudonym ‘Lera Masska’, despite all this continues to sing idyllic songs about her city of birth: ‘On the edge of the earth, there is a land without borders. There it lies. The city where I was born. There people still offer each other honest advice. From far they wave each other goodbye.’