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Deja Vu? Russia’s Return to Soviet-Era Censorship of Popular Music7 min read

 In Analysis, Culture, Russia
While I was still too young to understand, I can clearly remember Vladimir Vysotsky’s deep, hoarse voice bellowing in passionate frustration through my parents’ old Soviet cassette tapes. He and many other Soviet artists would accompany me on morning rides to school and summer road trips. It was only years later that I realized that the soundtrack to my childhood was composed of carefully crafted political satire on the Soviet way of life.

Throughout much of the Cold War, the Soviet establishment restricted both the music that Soviet artists were able to produce and the foreign music allowed to enter the country. While popular rock music had taken the world by storm in the 1960s, citizens of the USSR were lucky to obtain a bootleg recording, with records by groups like The Beatles few and far between. In place of The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, singer-songwriters known as Soviet bards, such as Vladimir Vysotsky, were played through nearly every 8 track and record player in the Soviet Union. Vysotsky’s satirical criticisms were masterfully layered into eloquent vocal depictions of the everyday idiosyncrasies of Soviet life. This allowed him to avoid provoking the ire of the Soviet elite, and earned him hero-like status among those living in former Soviet states as well as in its global diaspora. It is rumoured that his admirers consisted of both Leonid Brezhnev and the short-tenured Yuri Andropov, which if true, would have certainly gone a long way toward explaining how Vysotsky managed to avoid severe persecution by the state.

One of his songs, “Инструкция перед поездкой за рубеж” [Official Instructions Before Crossing the Border] criticized the strict controls that prohibited Soviet citizens from virtually any travel abroad, while another, “Охота на волков” [Wolf Hunt] discussed wolves that were being hunted by the government. None of this was ever explicit – listeners would have to read between the lines in order to understand the deeper meaning.

Though Vysotsky was never arrested for his music, he did suffer at the hands of the regime – songs had to be officially approved before they were performed or recorded, songs recorded for motion pictures were excluded from the final cuts, he was rejected from parts and the release date of movies he was able to star in would often be delayed. Some fans believe that such constant government scrutiny led to his chronic abuse of alcohol and drugs, and ultimately, to his untimely death at age 42 in 1980.

Western Rock Seeps through the Iron Curtain

In the late 1980s, the Soviet bloc began to liberalize through policies such as Glasnost [openness] and Perestroika [restructuring]. It led to greater access to information and decreased censorship which allowed artists to gain more freedom of expression and openly adopt Western styles of music. It also enabled rock groups such as Kino, Mashina Vremeni, Aquarium, and DDT (who were previously forced into the underground by Soviet censorship) to move into the mainstream.

Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet rock legend and frontman of the band Kino, came to prominence during this period when the Soviet Union was opening up to the rest of the world. Starting out in Leningrad’s underground music scene and moving into the Soviet mainstream by the mid-1980s, Tsoi reached rock stardom through instantly-classic hits and film appearances that would cement an iconic status lasting long past his death in 1990 (the honorary “Tsoi Wall” in Moscow is now the site of graffiti-tributes from around the world, laden with the popular slogan “Цой жив!” [Tsoi lives!]). While Tsoi’s lyrics were not explicitly political, he embodied the essence of counter-culture and youth with his long, shaggy hair and all-black outfits that were unmistakably influenced by the rock and post-punk groups imported from the United Kingdom and the United States. Tsoi’s style of rock music was a product of an era characterized by Western culture seeping in through the widening cracks of the iron curtain. 

In the 1987 Soviet film “Assa”, formerly underground rock culture that could only be experienced in cramped venues and through unlicensed recordings, was now on display in theatres throughout the country. The film featured one of Tsoi’s biggest hits “Хочу Перемен” [I Want Changes], including lyrics such as “Our hearts demand changes! Our eyes demand changes! In our laughter, our tears, and the pulse in our veins: We long for changes!” Though Tsoi himself noted it was not explicitly intended to be a song of protest, it quickly became an anthem for the fall of communism and has since been used repeatedly during instances of resistance across the former Soviet states – most recently, during and in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections in Belarus

Back to the USSR

While the 1990s and early 2000s were marked by severe economic and political turmoil, artists were relatively free from restrictions on the art they were permitted to create. The resurgence in censorship only began to occur in the context of the controversial 2011 Russian legislative elections and the mass protests in response to reports of election rigging. In terms of effects on popular culture, the renewed censorship most infamously manifested itself through the incarceration of members of punk group Pussy Riot after their protest-performance inside one of Russia’s most important cathedrals, which was aimed at the Orthodox Church’s support for President Vladimir Putin’s reelection.

Throughout the past decade, government pressure on musicians has grown into a trend, with IC3PEAK, an experimental-electronic-hip hop duo from Moscow, just one notable example. In an interview with the Independent in 2018, members Anastasiya Kreslina and Nikolai Kostylev, explained that a slew of their shows had been cancelled for reasons as diverse as bomb threats to reports of food poisoning. Kostylev explained that “It’s all very unpleasant and terrorising. […] We’re doing nothing illegal, just singing our harmless, ironic songs. But we’ve found ourselves subject to a witch-hunt by the security services.”

It’s easy to see why the Kremlin might not be overly fond of the group: the music video for one of their most popular songs, “Death No More”, features members in various politically provocative situations: dining on raw meat while outside Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, sitting atop the shoulders of riot police in front of the Russian secret service headquarters, drinking what appears to be blood outside of the Kremlin walls, and pouring gasoline onto themselves outside the Russian White House. The lyrics are no less provocative, with descriptions of the police running over cats and warning that others will be arrested at the city square. 

In IC3PEAK’s interview with the Independent, Russian music critic Artemy Triotsky, compared restrictions that musicians in Russia currently face to the censorship that was prevalent during the days of the Soviet Union, explaining that the “methods the spooks are using are exactly the same: black lists, cancellations of concerts and arrests” and that “if it was rock music in the 1980s, now it’s rap music.” In fact, rap music has become the focal point of the government’s attention in recent years, with Putin proposing that the genre be controlled but also admitting that banning it completely would be impossible. Many popular Russian rappers have been outspoken critics of the Kremlin, with one of the country’s best-known musical artists, Noize MC, openly denouncing police brutality, Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Russian oligarchs who act with impunity. Noize MC has previously been arrested and jailed for his politically provocative lyrics, with the Kremlin also cracking down on other rappers who it accuses of perpetuating immoral and anti-family values. These renewed restrictions on artistic freedoms in Russia represent a larger slide back to the days before the fall of communism, when state censorship was widespread and artists were punished for producing any music considered politically subversive or generally undesirable.

Now, 20 years later, I am the one playing groups like IC3PEAK for my parents, with YouTube links replacing cassette tapes and electronic/hip hop music replacing Soviet bards and Perestroika-era rock. In stark contrast to my younger self, my mother was instantly shocked by IC3PEAK’s overtly political lyrics, noting that Vladimir Vysotsky and others who criticized the Soviet establishment were often more discreet in their efforts to evade censorship. Recently, the Kremlin has favoured an equally overt approach in its repression of politically charged and so-called undesirable popular music. Will this period of renewed censorship lead to political liberalization and tolerance, as it did with the dawn of Perestroika and the music of Viktor Tsoi in the 1980s? Only time will tell, but the one thing we know for certain: despite Russia’s tightening grip on artistic freedom, popular music continues to provide a platform for dissent.

Featured image: Popular music / Amanda Sonesson
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