Protest and exile: Seven Russian musicians against the war9 min read
Although Russia’s war against Ukraine started with the occupation of the Crimean peninsula 2014, it was the large-scale invasion launched on 24 February, which irrevocably changed Russia’s cultural scene. Since then, public figures, artists, and performers across the country had to express proactive or passive support for Russia or take a public stance for Ukraine. A neutral position was no longer possible. Aleksej Tikhonov, a linguist based in Berlin and Freiburg and co-founder of the journal osTraum, has selected seven musicians from Russia who publicly support Ukraine, and explains the actions they chose and the consequences they face.
Oxxxymiron (*1985, 2008 until today)
Since 2008, Miron Fyodorov, who grew up in Russia, Germany, and the UK, has performed under the stage name Oxxxymiron. From the very beginning, the artist incorporated social and political criticism in his lyrics. However, he is mainly known as a battle and freestyle rapper, who is considered by his fans as one of the major figures for the development of this genre in Russia. The critical aspect of his lyrics, which are characterised by subtle references and sophisticated language, became more and more concrete in the late 2010s. Since 2019, Oxxxymiron has actively engaged in political gatherings in support of a liberalisation of Russia. Among others, he supported Alexei Navalny and other Russian activists, who were the subjects of politically motivated trials. Since February 2022, he has criticised Russia’s war against Ukraine, and left the country. With colleagues, he toured the EU, collecting a six-figure donation for Ukrainians in need.
Musically, Oxxxymiron´s songs are often marked by a sober tone, but his chanting is characterised by a sharpness of articulation and the high speed of speech. Miron is an Oxford graduate in “English Literature of the Middle Ages” and speaks three languages fluently — Russian, English, and German.
Zemfira (*1976, 1998 until today)
Rock was and is (unfortunately) a male domain in Russia. However, Zemfira Ramazanova, or simply Zemfira, is one of the musicians who broke through this image. In less than two years, before the turn of the millennium, she became the voice of her generation — a generation that were still children and teenagers in the USSR but became young adults in a post-socialist Russia. As early as the mid-2000s, she helped to shape the emerging genre of Russian indie rock and pop. Despite her success, the Tatar-Russian musician is reluctant to talk to the press. Especially after the release of the music film “Green Theatre in Zemfira” (Зелёный театр в Земфире) in 2008 and the attempt of the press to penetrate Zemfira’s friendship with director Renata Litvinova, the artist cut off all contact with the media. To this day, it is almost impossible to get an interview with Zemfira.
The singer left Russia after the war broke out. On 4 March 2022, she uploaded a live video on her YouTube channel in which she performs the song “Let go” (Вiдпусти) in Ukrainian. On 17 March, she uploaded an unelaborated video with a song in which the message is clear:
DON’T SHOOT, I’M JUST A SHY STEP.
JUST A QUIET BREATH BEFORE STANDING STILL,
DON’T LOOK, THESE SCARS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU,
NOT FOR YOUR SAD EYES, I AM EMBARRASSED,
DO NOT BE SILENT IN THIS LOOSE SILENCE,
I WILL DIE, DO NOT BE SILENT
Face (*1997, 2015 until today)
Like Zemfira, Ivan Drjomin, aka FACE, was born in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. Drjomin had a tough time as a teenager, suffering under a Christian-fanatic and mentally ill mother and a father, who got carried away by the business confusion of the 1990s. FACE searched for his identity and concrete life plans in subcultures — from the radical right to gopniks and rap. The rapper became famous primarily through Soundcloud Rap and viral music videos that serve all clichés — sexism, turbo-capitalism, alcohol, parties, and the idolisation of fashion designers. After his breakthrough, however, the musician made a 180° turn in 2018 with the album Mysterious Ways (Пути неисповедимы). The record became thoroughly political, criticising the Kremlin, Putin, Russian economics, domestic and foreign policies, the lack of secularisation, and the strengthening ties between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church.
FACE left Russia in March 2022, and went first to Greece, and then to Poland. Together with Ukrainian and Russian musicians T-Fest, Nervy, Poshlaya Molly, Makrae and Barz, he performed in Warsaw and raised funds for the Polish charity foundation Polska Akcja Humanitarna.
Monetochka (1998, 2016 until today)
Elizaveta Gyrdymova was born in the metropolis of Ekaterinburg, just 40 km east of the so-called border between Europe and Asia in the Ural Mountains. Already as a teenager, she wrote poems and shared them in poetic forums on the internet. In 2015-2016, she shared self-produced songs and videos on VKontakte and YouTube and within a few months, became known among Russian music journalists. Her self-made approach and her socially critical songs, which could also be children’s songs thanks to the singer’s soft voice and piano accompaniment, made Monetochka (en.: small coin) an unusual phenomenon in the Russian pop landscape and attracted the attention of well-known producers. Today, Monetochka has published three albums, 13 music videos and has become a star… at least in Russia. But instead of keeping her career alive in Russia, she decided to take an active political stance on 24 February 2022, condemning the war against Ukraine and leaving Russia. In April 2022, she and the Russian musician Noize MC gave a series of joint charity concerts in the EU in aid of Ukrainians in need. Her hits are becoming more and more topical:
WHEREVER YOU LOOK, WHEREVER YOU SPIT,
EVERYWHERE IS THE STATE,
THE GREY-HAIRED WEAR DESIGNER JEANS,
THE JOKE IS THAT THE MULTICULTURAL COUNTRY
NO LONGER HAS A CULTURE.
Noize MC (*1985, 1997 until today)
As a teenager in the late 1990s, Ivan Alekseev discovered the music of Nirvana. Soon, Nirvana, and also Prodigy, were among his favourite musicians. This preference is reflected in his music. At the intersection between electro, pop, rap and rock, Noize MC is one of the first musicians in Russia to experience success with hybrid forms of music. Even before the Russian offensive against Ukraine, Noize MC was one of the opposition musicians in Russia. After 24 February 2022, he decided to leave the country and played charity concerts, among others with Monetochka. He has already played in Berlin, Tashkent, Tel Aviv, and London. In late 2022 he was declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian authorities.
Shortparis (2012 until today)
The band Shortparis was originally formed in the Siberian industrial city of Novokuznetsk, but their musical development and prominence came only after the founding members, Nikolay Komyagin (vocals), Alexander Ionin (bass and electric guitar), and Pavel Lesnikov (drums and samples) moved to St. Petersburg. Before founding Shortparis, the musicians and friends were active in various other bands and projects. Due to this background the musicians combine a variety of styles, including jazz, funk, indie rock, folk rock, and classical music.
Two weeks after the outbreak of the war, the band released their music video for the song Jablonnyj Sad (The Apple Orchard), in which they criticise the senseless deaths of soldiers. As a feature, they were able to win none other than the Koslov Veterans Choir, the singing ensemble was founded in 1975 and originally consisted exclusively of Soviet veterans of the Second World War. In the video, the musicians and the veterans dig a mass grave in which apples are buried — a metaphor that alludes to the deaths of young Russian soldiers and conscripts, some of whom were illegally sent to fight in this war. The band’s lyrics are highly poetic, which is probably why it has been impossible for the state authorities in Russia to take action against the musicians until now:
THE GREAT COUNTRY IS ASLEEP
THE EVENING SEEMS TO BE ETERNAL
OVER THE CATHEDRAL OF THE KREMLIN
A STORM IS BREWING
This is not the band’s first music video to sharply criticise social and political drawbacks in Russia. Their first video to receive significant attention was 2018’s Straschno ([I’m] Afraid) about the Beslan hostage crisis in September 2004, the stigmatisation of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Russian nationalism. Shortparis are the only musicians in the list who have not yet left Russia so far.
IC3PEAK (2013 until today)
Anastasia Kreslina and Nikolaj Kostylev are IC3PEAK — probably the most famous electro act from Russia at the moment. From the very beginning, the duo has been better known abroad than in their home country. Just one year after their formation, they performed on stages in Europe, and since 2016 also overseas. Initially, their compositions were musically and poetically abstract-avant-gardist, and reminiscent of the songs of the London duo Crim3s. In 2017, the sound of Ic3peak changed a lot marked by the release of the tracks Grustnaja Suka (Sad Bitch) and Smerti Bol’sche Net (There is no more death):
The sound became rougher, the lyrics more political. Ic3peak criticise the corruption in the Russian state apparatus, the environmentally damaging, monetisation of fossil energy sources, sexism, militarism, disrespect of the Russian authorities towards their own population, and much more. In their latest video, they address the excessive police violence and the increasingly restricted freedom of expression:
Since 2018, Ic3peak has faced state sanctions. Their concerts have been sabotaged by the state power in uniform and in civilian clothes, the operators of the concert halls have been intimidated, and fans have not been allowed into the halls. Ic3peak left Russia shortly after the outbreak of the war and has already played in Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, and Great Britain.
What is special about Ic3peak is that they have worked as independent artists from the beginning — no management, no label, no investments, no contracts. They do everything themselves and see themselves less as musicians and more as audiovisual terrorists.
This article was originally published in German on 26 June 2022 by our media partner osTraum.