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)

Ilya Yashin: Life in a Russian Jail

yashinIlya Yashin. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page

Ilya Yashin Rearrested After Three Stints in Jail
Radio Svoboda
August 18, 2019

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was rearrested on Sunday after he left the special detention center in Moscow where he had been jailed for an administrative offense. He posted a video of his arrest on his Twitter account.

In the video, a police officer tells Yashin he has been detained “for encouraging [people to attend] ‘unauthorized’ protest rallies on July 18 and 19.” Apparently, he meant the gatherings on Trubnaya Square in support of the independent candidates attempting to stand in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. Unlike the protest rallies on July 27 and August 3, the July 18 and 19 rallies were not dispersed by police.

Over the last month, Yashin has been jailed three times after being charged and convicted of various administrative offenses having to do with “unauthorized” grassroots rallies. He had been in jail since July 29.

One of the unregistered candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections, Yashin took part in a series of protest rallies against the Moscow City Elections Commission’s refusal to put independent candidates on the ballot and encouraged people to attend the protests.

Earlier, Konstantin Yankauskas and Yulia Galyamina, also unregistered independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, were similarly detained immediately after leaving jail and sentenced to new terms in police custody. A court had also ordered Ivan Zhdanov’s rearrest, but when he left the special detention center, no police escort was waiting for him. Consequently, he went home.

Ilya Yashin
Facebook

August 17, 2019

The police brass is quite unhappy. How did it happen I was jailed and locked in a cell but things I wrote were posted on social media and I was quoted in the media? The brass does not get that you can send a text to the outside world with a lawyer. The brass imagines it is surrounded by treachery and betrayal.

What if there were supporters of the opposition in the police? Maybe they were providing me with access to the internet? After my letter to [Russian Central Elections Commission Chair] Ella Pamfilova was published, clearly paranoid new rules were issued at the special detention center.

The fact is that prisoners have the right to use their own telephones fifteen minutes a day. They cannot be used to access the internet or send texts, only to make calls. Until recently, the wardens were not very strict about enforcing this rule. But now there were new orders.

In order for me to make a call, the special detention center’s warden personally escorts me every day from my cell to his office, where he keeps my telephone locked in a safe, separate from all the other phones. He sits down at his desk, hands me the phone, and sets his stopwatch to fifteen minutes: the rules are strictly followed. Simultaneously, the duty officer stands opposite me brandishing a video recorder on his chest. I am thus able to convey my greetings to the Interior Ministry’s head office in Moscow.

I wave to the camera and say, “Hey, boss!” like [Yuri] Shevchuk [in the 1992 DDT song “Motherland”].

The boss smiles.

The Detention Center
They say you are curious about how things are organized here in jail. It’s really interesting, huh? Let me tell you about it.

The cell where I have lived for the past three weeks is seven meters by four meters large. There are three cots lined up in a row, a small wooden table, and a bench. There are double bars on the window.

The bathroom—a washbasin and a hole in the floor used as a toilet—is in the corner. When Nemtsov was jailed for the first time, he offered the warden to pay for making conditions in the jail more humane and, at least, install toilets.

“It won’t work, Boris Yefimovich,” the warden replied. “The leadership values things like corruption.”

The most disgusting thing is that the bathroom is not at all shielded from the living space. Prisoners usually hang a sheet around it to fence off the space.

Meals are served in the cafeteria, where prisoners who have agreed to work in the kitchen hand out food in plastic containers. In return, they get informal perks such as more telephone time and more frequent showers.

There is an exercise yard in the special detention center, a small space fenced off with concrete slabs and decorated with barbed wire. It is covered from above by bars.

And, of course, all the rooms are equipped with video cameras. Your every move is broadcast to monitors in the duty room. A prisoner’s entire everyday life is a reality show.

Conditions
Between seven and eight in the morning, the metal door wakes you up with an unpleasant creak. The duty officer comes into the cell and orders you to get up. The inmates trudge to the cafeteria, where they get their rations of porridge.

Accompanied by his entourage, the warden inspects ten cells or so. This is the morning inspection, during which personal belongings are searched. Then groups of prisoners are taken to make phone calls and exercise in the yard, which lasts for no more than an hour a day.

Lunch is followed by free time, dinner, and lights out. During the day, you are allowed to read, write, and listen to the radio. TV sets are not allowed in the cells, unlike remand prisons for people charged with criminal offenses. Backgammon and checkers are available to the inmates, however.

You also have the right to see your loved ones. It does not matter, though, how many days you have been sentenced to jail. Whether you are in for five days or thirty days, you get only one visit and it lasts no more than an hour. So, I have been luckier than Navalny and [VladimirMilov, whom the court immediately sentenced to thirty days in jail. I have been sentenced to ten days at a time, and each new sentence comes with another family visit. Not bad, right?

On Sundays, the prisoners take showers. You wonder why this happens so infrequently? No one will tell you why. It is the way things are. One of the guys asked a police officer whether the special detention center had a separate shower for staff.

“Of course,” the sergeant said, surprised. “We are on duty for three days straight. You think we are going to go home dirty after our shifts? Are we not human beings or what?”

What about us? Are we not human beings?

Daily Life
When you are admitted to the special detention center, they confiscate all the “extras,” including your shoelaces, belt, and chains. The idea is that these items could be dangerous to you and your cellmates.

Care packages containing food, cigarettes, books, and newspapers are allowed. But the guards give food items a good shakedown. Candy must be removed from wrappers, while fruit and bread are poked with a knife. What are they looking for? A nail file that you will use to make your escape? It’s a mystery. Packages of sliced meat and cheese are opened.

The way they inspect newspapers and magazines is the funniest thing. If the duty officer notices any marks and underlining, he refuses to let the periodical through.

“The brass thinks encrypted messages can be sent this way,” said an officer, shrugging.

I thought was he was joking, but I was wrong.

Experienced inmates know how to make tea in the cells and share their skills with the newbies. They use big five-liter mineral water bottles. During trips to the cafeteria, they hand them over to the chow servers, who fill them with boiling water. The bottles shrink but they generally retain their shape. Back in the cells, the bottles are wrapped in blankets and stuffed in plastic bags. You end up with a homemade thermos that keeps the water piping hot for a fairly long time.

***

Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters, lies in the cot next to mine reading the autobiographies of early twentieth-century Russian revolutionaries.

He laughs.

“Listen to this,” he says, reading an excerpt aloud.

“I immediately liked the prison. Everything there was businesslike, as befitted the capital. We were led to our cell. The comrade marching next to me was merry as if he were going to a welcome occasion. He elbowed me and wondered whether we would be put in the same cell.  We were put in a common cell with two fellow Socialist Revolutionaries we knew. It resembled a student party more than a prison. There were books, notebooks in which we recorded our thoughts, slices of sausage laid out on a wooden table, mugs of tea, laughter, jokes, discussions, and games of chess.”

Nemtsov was right. In Russia, you have to live a long time for something to happen.

Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for posting the second text. Translated by the Russian Reader