Fyodor Chistyakov: Why I Left Russia

Fyodor Chistyakov: Russia Is the Freest Country—You Can Adopt a Constitution and Then Throw It Out
Musician Fyodor Chistyakov has left Russia because of his religious beliefs, but promises to come back. True, only on tours. The newly minted New Yorker told Fontanka.Office what happened.
Nikolai Nelyubin
Fontanka.ru
July 31, 2017

Федор Чистяков: Россия самая свободная страна – можно принять Конституцию и выбросить ее
Fyodor Chistyakov

Have you really emigrated to the US?
It’s not quite like that. Circumstances are such in Russia at the moment that make it difficult for me to live there. But that doesn’t mean I’m planning to cut all the ropes and drown everything there. In the fall, for example, Nol [Chistyakov’s band] is planning to play concerts we promised to play long ago, and they should come off unless there is an act of God. We’re playing November 18 in Moscow, and November 23 in Petersburg. Otherwise, I will be spending more time in a different place.

Have you requested political asylum?
I’m not going to discuss that. I’ll just say things are in order on that front. I have an employment contract.

Did the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia influence your decision to stay in the US?
That decision turned all members of the organization, including me, into outlaws. How can I live in a country where I’m an outlaw? The answer is simple: there’s no way I can. Hence everything that has happened.

Did you or your friends get any signals or threats after the Jehovah’s Witnesses were outlawed?
Yes, we did. For example, the authorities came to a friend’s house, confiscated all his computers, and searched the place, because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. I think this is a nightmare. I have a music recording studio at home. I can’t allow the state to dig around in computer files looking for signs of “extremism.” At the end of the day, it’s simply humiliating. It’s not a matter of danger, but of your state of mind: you’re always waiting for something to happen. I do long-term musical projects. It takes six months to record and release an album. But with things like this I can’t promise anything. What if I’m arrested tomorrow, say. Then I won’t be able to fulfill my obligations.

Fyodor Chistyakov, Live interview via Skype on Fontanka.Office, July 31, 2017

But earlier you did not publicly identify yourself with the organization or did you? What are you afraid of, if you’re not promoting anything? 
A Danish citizen has been arrested and jailed in the city of Oryol. When you look into the matter, you discover law enforcement has not even formulated the charges, but the man sits in jail. This is lawlessness. There are no laws or norms, no Constitution that protects human rights. As long as no one has taken an interest in you, you are free to party, so to speak, but if something controversial comes up, you won’t be able to prove anything. You’ll be ruined.

Yes, but now that you’ve openly said why you left, how are you going to give concerts in Russia? How can you avoid the risks you’ve mentioned?
According to my beliefs, every week I have scheduled events for worshiping God. This is what the Russian authorities consider “extremism.” If, for example, I come to Russia to give concerts, that is a specific goal. I come and go. But if I live in Russia, I would have to do all this somewhere on the sly.

Meaning the corpus delicti is the religious ritual, which you will not be performing in the Russian Federation? 
Yes.

How have your friends in Russian and colleagues in the US taken the news of your move?
There are different opinions. There are people who support me, and people who openly mock me. Opinions are quite polarized.

What about the musicians in your band?
I think we’ll continue working together. There will be collaborations.

Can you explain the rationale behind the banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia? Why was it done?
The most terrible thing is there is no rationale. It’s inexplicable. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have lots of enemies. But I don’t understand why the Russian authorities had to adopt this ruling. There is talk of property they plan to confiscate. But this amounts to kopecks on the scale of the Russian state. The Witnesses were persecuted in Nazi Germany. But in the US, you ride the subway and read an ad that says if you encounter racial or religious discrimination, you can contact so-and-so.

But if someone promised you that everything here in Russia would be cool, would you come back?
That’s the thing. That’s the essence of life in Russia: there is no law. Someone says one thing today, and tomorrow he forgets it. Or he is replaced altogether. And who cares about me?

I’ll put it more simply. What must change for you to return?
I haven’t disappeared. I plan to visit. I plan to make music, only remotely.

What if the ban in Russia were overturned?
Hard to say. Right now the circumstances in Russia are quite alarming, and not only for the Witnesses. What’s alarming is that all the foundations have fallen and crumbled. Until a certain order emerges, it will be dangerous to live in Russia.

I recently read that a lawyer was unable to get a response from the court on a case. They failed to respond to his requests. He published an open letter in a newspaper, in which he described how the case had been handled by the judicial authorities. The courts should try and figure out the truth, but there is no objectivity in Russian courts. Russia is the freest country. You can adopt laws and then not enforce them. You can adopt a Constitution and then throw it out. Anything is possible. But that makes things a bit tricky if you want to have rights.

You will be told it’s like that everywhere in the world, but on a different scale.
I wouldn’t argue with that. But as long it doesn’t affect anyone personally, you can philosophize. But when the problems kick off, you just have to make a decision that will solve the problems. This is completely different.

What do think about how things in general are shaping up on the planet? You felt alarm in Russia. Is there no alarm in the US?
Things in Russia are quite disturbing. The main cause are the media. When you open a news website and read the headlines, the headlines are enough to flip your wig. Completely. But here [looks out window] life is calm. There is nothing like that here, in fact. You can avoid thinking about it if you don’t want to, if you don’t open your browser. In Russia, this is hard to pull off. You walk outside and immediately read something printed on banners. Here, on the contrary, you get the sense that politics is god knows where. The police are also god knows where. They are somewhere round the corner, but you don’t see them. I’m talking about New York. It’s calmer. As for real threats, the situation is unpleasant. It resembles the Cold War again. You could say it’s already underway. We’ve gone full circle. Everything is happening all over again, and I’m quite tired of it all, in fact. Generally, I have hope, of course, but I won’t talk about, because it is now considered forbidden in the Russian Federation. For the time being, there is little of this hope in the Russian Federation.

Okay, what are your future musical plans. “Time to Live,” the first track from the resurrected Nol, has been released. Is an album the obvious next step? Will it be nostalgic, like your previous LP, Fyodor Chistyakov: Nol + 30? Or will it be something different?
Yes, aside from the fall concerts in Russia, we have the idea to record a Nol LP. I’ll start working on it in the very near future. In any case, it will be a new album with new songs. The new song “Time to Live” I recorded with Alexei “Nichols” Nikolayev [a member of the classic Nol line-up]. It was just the two of us who recorded the track. I really liked it. It turned out quite well. I would like to keep working and record the whole album in this vein.

Will you be recording in the States or Petersburg?
It’s going to be an intercontinental project.

Better intercontinental Nol albums than intercontinental missiles, eh?
Probably. [Laughs.]

Will the new Nol album be as militant as your last songs, from the LP No Fools, and the new singles “Went Mental” and “Time to Live”? Or will it be more lyrical? How much material do you have and what is it about?
I wouldn’t say the material is ready. Some songs are more or less ready, while others are still only sketches. But, ultimately, I think the material will be good. It won’t leave you bored.

Thanks, Fyodor, for this “intercontinental” conversation.
It’s just like from a space station.

The voting in our official group broke down as follows. 84.8% of users said they understood people who leave Russia. (“Yes, it’s everybody’s right.”) Only seven percent agreed with the statement, “No, who then will be left?” An interesting outcome?
Quite interesting, and quite encouraging that there are so many people who respect the rights of others—at least, on Fontanka. Office.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up

Fyodor Chistyakov and Nol (Zero), “Time to Live” (2017)

* * * * *

No article about Fyodor Chistyakov and Nol would be complete without this oldie but goodie from a much better time, whatever the wiseguys says about it now. It was a free country then. Just listen to the lyrics. Back then the song was in constant rotation on just about every radio station, at least in Chistyakov’s hometown of Petersburg. TRR

Nol, “Song about a Real Indian” (1991)

Lenin Street

Fyodor Chistyakov and Nol (Zero), “Lenin Street.”
Live performance on Petersburg TV, 1991

 

You ask me why sometimes I’m silent,
Why I don’t laugh, why I don’t smile.
Or, vice versa, why I joke grimly,
And grimace just as grimly and madly.

It’s just that I live on Lenin Street
And I freak out from time to time.
It’s just that I live on Lenin Street
And I freak out from time to time.

What do you want from a sick mind?
In childhood kind folk pounded nails into my head.
At school they douched my ears and mouth.
So I got the useful knowledge I needed.

After all, I was born and raised on Lenin Street,
And I freak out from time to time.
After all, I was born and raised on Lenin Street,
And I freak out from time to time.

It’s just that I live on Lenin Street
And I freak out from time to time.
It’s just that I live on Lenin Street
And I freak out from time to time.

How I hate and love my motherland,
And there’s really nothing surprising here, comrades.
She’s so blind, deaf, and ugly,
But I have nothing else to love.

And that’s how I live on Lenin Street,
And I freak out from time to time.
And that’s how I live on Lenin Street,
And I freak out from time to time.

It’s just that I live on Lenin Street
And I freak out from time to time.
It’s just that I live on Lenin Street
And I freak out from time to time.

_________

The Big Zero
By Sergey Chernov
St. Petersburg Press
July 18–24, 1995

The work of a St Petersburg musician who lived a wild life, was thrown into prison and then a mental asylum before joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses is now on general release. “Polundra” (“Stand from under”), the 1992 recording of the now defunct and much missed local rock band Nol, fronted by Fyodor Chistyakov, has finally found its way onto cassette and CD. Nol (Zero) was formed in the fall of 1985, making its debut at the Leningrad Rock Club in December 1986. By that time they had a home-produced tape called “Music of Rough Files,” featuring styles varying from traditional rock and roll to art rock.

The group provided a striking contrast to St Petersburg’s other leading rock bands. Most of them were dominated by 30-year olds, while the two original founding members of Nol were only 16. The trend of the day was to write philosophical and metaphorical lyrics, but Nol’s songs were distinctly street-level. The band’s leader Fyodor Chistyakov turned out to be the original folk poet, writing lyrics about what he saw around him at that time — food shortages, over-populated communal flats and shameless Soviet propaganda. Still he was dealing with these subjects in his own very unique way. The song “A Fairy-tale About Sausage” explored the sexual dimension of this then much sought after foodstuff. “Tools Ahead!” again combined sex with workshop terminology. “School of Life” was a parody on military marches. Later Chistyakov moved on to write more mature and dramatic material. Chistyakov’s singular and somewhat out-of-tune singing and the fact that he played button accordion — an instrument totally ignored by local rock musicians at that time — made the band stand out. The fresh folk-punk spirit of the resulting mixture has invited belated comparison with the Pogues, who originated at roughly the same time.

No other Russian band could really compete with Nol in terms of energy. Legend has it that at one concert Chistyakov played so vigorously that he tore his accordion in two. Performances given by Nol in the late eighties invariably attracted crowds of shouting fans. The band was featured in Western documentaries on Russian rock music and was invited to play in Germany, Ireland, France and Finland. The success of Nol led to the formation of several groups, which followed the same formula. The most interesting and popular is Ukrainian band Vopli Vidoplyasova (VV), which combines punk rock with Ukrainian folk music. And its leader, Oleg Skripka, also plays button accordion. Nol folded in 1992 when the fast living and excesses of his rock lifestyle led Chistyakov first to the infamous Kresty prison and then to a mental asylum. As was recently reported, Fyodor Chistyakov joined Jehovah’s Witnesses, and has subsequently refused to have anything further to do with rock-n-roll.

Polundra CD and cassettes, as well as Nol’s previous release, Pesni o bezotvetnoy lyubvi k rodine, are available from local music shops and music kiosks.

Editor’s Note. Fyodor Chistyakov resumed his musical career in 1997.