The Center for German and European Studies and the Russian Studies department invited prominent Russian journalist and music critic Artemy Troitsky to give a talk last Thursday. He gave an overview of influential Russian musicians from the twentieth century to the present, focusing particularly on musicians who have used songs as vehicles for political protest. 

Troitsky explained that Russian rock music differs from American rock, saying, “There is a little sex, not much, but lots of literature.” According to Troitsky, instead of the trademark American catchphrase for the wild lifestyles of rock stars, “sex, drugs and rock’n roll,” for Russian rock stars, it was “sex, drugs and Dostoevsky.” Russian rock stars “made the Russian public think,” Troitsky explained.

He began the talk by listing of the most prominent musicians who protested the actions of the Soviet Union. One of them was Alexander Vertinsky, a leader of a Russian arts revival in the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Troitsky, Vertinsky wrote a song called “I Don’t Know Why They Have Done It” criticizing the senseless slaughter of the 1918 October Revolution. With the exception of this song, however, Vertinsky composed relatively apolitical songs, allowing him to have a successful, decades-long career in Russia and throughout the world.

Next, Troitsky talked about Alexander Galich, a Soviet dissident during the early years of the Soviet Union. Galich was a folk singer and playwright who became increasingly critical of the USSR as his career progressed, leading to his exile and eventual death under mysterious circumstances. 

The last few major musicians of the Soviet era were less political. Vladimir Vysotsky was a singer, poet and actor. Vysotsky sang in a distinct guttural style about the plight of ordinary people, evading the worst of political censorship through clever wordplay. According to Troitsky, Vysotsky achieved a level of popularity in the former Soviet Union almost at the level of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. 

Finally, Alexander Bashlachev was a singer and poet who lived during the final years of the Soviet Union. Troitsky said that Bashlachev might have been a “slightly lesser-known Russian rocker, but in my humble opinion by far the deepest, most talented and most interesting of them all.” He explained that Bashlachev’s strength lied in his beautiful poetry. Unfortunately, Bashlachev suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide in 1988. 

Troitsky said that the fall of the Soviet Union led to an identity crisis within the music scene. He explained that “Russia became a country of unlimited possibilities,” and that as a result, Russian music, once serious and passionate, became trendy in an effort to appeal to the outside world. In addition, oil prices rose in the early 2000s, helping the Russian economy recover from its post-Cold War downturn. Alongside these improvements was an increase in “prospects for healthy careers … the main agenda for Russian teenagers,” Troitsky said.

A new wave of protests began in 2010 after a controversial accident in Gagarin Square, Moscow. Anatoly Barkov, vice president of prominent Russian oil company LUKoil, collided his heavily armored limousine with a small French car, immediately killing the two women inside. The police immediately blamed the accident on the two women and were reluctant to investigate further. 

Troitsky said that protests continued in 2011 when President Dmitry Medvedev announced he was handing the presidency back to Putin. While Medvedev was regarded as a puppet for Putin, “he wasn’t as disgusting as Putin,” Troitsky said. The band Pussy Riot developed out of this protest, releasing subversive music in unusual locations such as in the Cathedral of Jesus Christ the Savior. According to Troitsky, while popular western musicians support Pussy Riot, the Russian music community has mixed reactions, mainly because of Pussy Riot’s irreverence in setting their music video in a cathedral.

Despite significant protest, Putin was re-elected, leading to a widespread feeling of pessimism, Troitsky said. He argued that Russia experienced a similar level of political polarization to the United States, except that instead of a two-sided split between “Trump lovers” and “Trump haters,” 10 to 15 percent of Russians are strongly against Putin, 10 to 15 percent are in support of Putin and a majority “don’t really care,” Troitsky explained. “They are unhappy with the country but they don’t have the guts to do anything about it.” Troitsky said that the music community has been harshly censored since the 2010s, leading to a long stretch of silence on political matters. 

The last segment of Troitsky’s talk was about the recent revival of political protest. He explained that recent political rallies have revealed a surge in political activity from young Russians not seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Although the Russian government has attempted to crack down on these protesters, Troitsky said that their job has become harder because of the increasing ease of communication over the internet. 

Recently, the band IC3peak released a song called “Death No More,” comparing the Putin regime to a swamp. According to Troitsky, the government may have retaliated by preventing the band from performing on tour, but they could not prevent millions of people from watching the music video. He concluded his lecture by saying, “I’m sure that this generation … will not choose to survive in the swamp, [that] they will finally make a radical move for Russia to become a democratic country.”