It’s the Apocalypse, and We’ve Got Our iPhones

A still image from the DDT video “Shadow on the Wall.” Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

It’s the Apocalypse, and We’ve Got Our iPhones
The Summer’s Best Music Videos: Aquarium, DDT, Oxxxymiron, Vasya Oblomov, and Amen
Yan Shenkman
Novaya Gazeta
July 14, 2021

There are almost no concerts, albums are released rarely, because they require significant outlays of cash, and everyone is running out of money. And peace of mind ran out long ago. But the ancient art of the music video has suddenly blossomed amidst the apocalyptic coronavirus climate. Dozens of worthy clips have come out one after another this summer. We have chosen five. They are very different, but their subject, if you think about it, is one and the same: saying goodbye to the past and fear of what may be about to come.

Aquarium, “Masala Dosa”

This is almost the only item in Boris Grebenshchikov’s gigantic chest of songs with obvious gangster music motifs, something like “Fried Chicken.” The lyrics, which Loza has already dubbed a meaningless jumble of words, find BG up to to his usual absurdist playfulness: there are mentions of Indian tea, a People’s Commissariat of Education office, and Kali Yuga. It’s a bizarre canvas that seemingly has nothing to do with what is happening here and now, but it does. The line “And if they ask why we are sitting here, say, ‘I don’t know, but the people are invincible!'” is about the present moment. We are firmly sitting our hearts out, “invincible.”

The video’s director, Sergei Debizhev, is no stranger to Aquarium. He shot Grebenshchikov back in the 80s at the Leningrad Documentary Film Studio. Debizhev’s most famous feature film is Two Captains 2, starring Sergei Kuryokhin and BG. The film is an enchanting parody of everything at once: the early Soviet aesthetic, silent cinema, the heroics of dangerous journeys, and adventure bombast in general.

There is something of Two Captains 2 in “Masala.” Grebenshchikov was filmed in a Petersburg garage with a vintage car in the background, and then documentary footage was added to the mix: machines operating, a woman taking bath, the bolt of a weapon clicking, a blast furnace blazing, X-ray skeletons dancing. Some will see irony in all this, while others will see references to the broken wheel of history.

DDT, “Shadow on the Wall”

DDT is not the most cheerful group, especially recently. Their videos are always frankly gloomy, albeit with glimmers of a hope that fades and fades. But even against this background, “Shadow on the Wall” is something beyond hopeless. For seven minutes, a man walks along a country road among hills to meditative trip hop, eventually arriving nowhere. The key line is “I couldn’t do it, but I tried.” And yet, this is one of the most powerful and majestic works by DDT in recent years. Because the “tried” turns out to be more important than “couldn’t do it.” Life is, in fact, about trying.

The images in the black-and-white video, directed by Timofei Zhalnin, match the lyrics: we see a food delivery courier going nowhere, a young blindfolded man weaving from side to side, men pointlessly hammering posts into the ground, and a riot policeman pointlessly performing somersaults. You get the sense that, camouflaged and wielding a baton, he is attacking himself.

Fans have identified the location where the video was shot as the Koltushy Heights, ancient sand hills in the Leningrad Region, a Unesco-protected natural monument. Today, their existence is under threat. Greedy developers want to build residential complexes on the heights, basically destroying them. Activists have been fighting back, of course, but the fight is clearly one-sided: “I couldn’t do it, but I tried.”

Oxxxymiron, “Verses on the Unknown Soldier”

Oxxxymiron has not released anything new since 2015, since the legendary album Gorgorod, that is, for six years. This track is an exception: it was recorded specifically for the January tribute album Preserve My Words Forever, in honor of the 130th anniversary of Osip Mandelstam’s birth, featuring Shortparis, Noize MC, Ilya Lagutenko, Tequilajazz, Pornofilms and other first-class artists.

The video was shot by Dmitry Maseykin, a music video director who has worked with Monetochka and Husky, and received Cannes Lions and other awards in his time. As interpreted by Maseykin (and writer-producer Roma Liberov), “Verses” is about the clash of world religions and civilizations, followed by the apocalypse. It’s a dicey interpretation: it is hardly what Mandelstam meant when he wrote about “millions killed cheaply.” And the Jewish theme, accentuated in the video, is definitely not in the poem. But what Mandelstam and Oxxxymiron/Maseykin share is a premonition of slaughter and apocalypse. The poem, one of the most poignant anti-war texts, was written in 1937. Mandelstam would die a year later, and a year after that the Second World War would break out.

It’s the apocalypse, and we have our iPhones. When you read “Unknown Soldier,” the horror of Mandelstam’s prophecies  overwhelms you: “There will be cold frail people / Who will kill, starve and become colder”; “Am I the one who drinks this broth with no choice, / And under fire do I eat my own head?” Even more terrifying are the famous lines “—I was born in ninety–four, / —I was born in ninety–two…” People born in [nineteen] ninety-two, ninety-four and ninety-one, like Mandelstam [born in 1891], walk the same streets as we do. I don’t even want to think about what awaits them.

But when you watch the video, you feel no terror. It is grounded in something else — in the grandeur, solemnity, and significance of events. So, after watching it, I felt like saying, “The apocalypse is cool.” Maybe, but not for those who will live to see it.

Vasya Oblomov, “Youth”

This is a rare instance for Vasya Oblomov: Russia’s principal musical satirist and feuilletonist has recorded an unusually kind, touching and lyrical song. It’s not like he doesn’t have any such things in his repertoire. They exist, of course, but they are far and few between.

The video and the song are about the time “when you are seventeen years old / And the answer to any question / Comes,” about a time of endless and inevitable happiness: “I close my eyes / And I see twenty-five years ago, / How happiness simply, without obstacles / Finds us.” Here’s what Oblomov told Novaya Gazeta about making the video:

“In the video, my friends and I are recording the first songs by our group, Cheboza, in the studio in Rostov-on-Don in 2000. These are people who are dear to my heart, with whom I started my musical journey, people without whom I would not have become what I became. It was captured on film because Ilya Filippov (one of us, he is sometimes present on screen and shot the footage) got a video camera somewhere. The tape lay in the closet for twenty-one years and was put to good use in ‘Youth,’ which I dedicated to my friends. After the video was made, I sent the link to it to the people in it asking them to film themselves watching it for the first time. I think it turned out great.”

The magic of the shoot is incredible. The band members are all young, happy, and silly, and there is light and love in their eyes. When you again feel the urge to write on social networks that Vasya Oblomov is a spiteful person, says nasty things about everyone, doesn’t like people, and mocks the Motherland and its underpinning, just watch “Youth” and take those words back.

Amen, “Sailor Girl”

Although the Moscow band with the strange name Amen has been playing for several years, it is virtually an underground band and not involved in big-time show business. That’s a pity, because their strange and not very typically Russian mix of post-punk, electronica and garage rock, sporting clever, non-linear lyrics, would wow listeners. Amen are crooked, melodic, and brazen and sing about people like us. Amidst all the current clean-cut artists, fawning, servicing and entertaining their audiences, Amen are a big lungful of pure oxygen.

Not only is this song, “Sailor Girl,” good. The entire album Amen put out this year, Let It Be So, is good. You can listen to the whole thing on YouTube

I also recommend the video for “Don’t Get Hung Up,” a kind of locker room exercise in Schopenhauer, an amazing mix of street corner braggadocio and a profound understanding of the foundations of being.

Amen, “Don’t Get Hung Up”

“Sailor Girl” is urban art song in a form that is comprehensible and interesting to current twenty-somethings. The story is simple: the singer’s pal has gone missing and sends a letter: “A sailor girl has carried me away.” You’re living in the urban jungle when suddenly you fall into another world.

The video, featuring crazy dancing in sweatpants, was shot at the Event Theater by director Yurate Shunyavichute. And it is really an event. It is not so often that artists with their own aesthetic and their own voice emerge in our country.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Amen, Let It Be So (LP 2021)

How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia

The horrific famine of 1921 confronted the Soviet government with an inevitable decision: to recognize the disaster and accept foreign aid. Within a short time, more than twenty agreements were signed with international organizations that had expressed a desire to help Soviet Russia. Third on the list was an agreement between the People’s Commissariat and the Quakers. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, is a Protestant Christian church whose history of interactions with Russia dates the seventeenth century. From 1916 to 1931, the Quakers were able to cooperate quite peacefully and fruitfully with all the authorities: with officials of Tsarist Russia, with the Czechoslovak Legionnaires, and with the Bolsheviks. This cooperation helped save hundreds of thousands of people, people who survived thanks to Quaker rations, doctors, tractors, and horses. In Russia, almost nothing is known about this assistance: the names of the saviors have been forgotten, and their good deeds have been consigned to oblivion. Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia and a researcher of Quaker history, is committed to restoring historical justice with his book. The book features an introduction by Vladislav Aksyonov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History (RAS) and a member of the Free Historical Society, which situates the Quakers’ efforts in the socio-political context of the era.

Sergei Nikitin has written an amazing documentary book. We are taught that we are surrounded by enemies, but this book is about how this isn’t the case at all. We are taught people do everything only for their benefit, but it turns out that there are people who live quite differently. Books like this change the world.

Boris Grebenshchikov, musician

This book by Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia, is dedicated to one of the most important values of human civilization—love for one’s neighbors, no matter how close they really are geographically, ethnically, or politically. Religious feeling and compassion lead thae book’s characters, British and American Quakers, to distant Russia to help the starving and dying. The author opens this page of Russian history for the first time, carefully and thoroughly extracting hitherto unknown facts. This is not just a chronicle of humanitarian aid, but a history of humanity.

Mikhail Fedotov, lawyer and civil rights defender

No matter how you look at the story told by Sergei Nikitin, it contradicts commonly held notions in modern Russia: the English and Americans help refugees and starving people in Bolshevik Russia; Quakers cooperate with the Soviet government to combat hunger and establish health care; a religious society serves as a channel of communication between a diplomatically isolated country and the outside world. The book also discusses the commonalities between the Communist utopia and Quaker ideals, and whether it is possible to emerge victorious based on your own idea of what should be done, despite the framework in which you are placed by politicians at home, the host government, and even those you help. These are deeply personal stories, intertwined with the history of our country—a history that we need to know.

Ivan Kurilla, historian

Sergei Nikitin talks about his book How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia

Source: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the heads-up.