No Kidding

Russia for the Rueful: A Map of Fear | Ivan Davydov | Republic | 7 December 2021

Once upon a time, an influential, respected person and I came up with a project meant to illustrate the absurdity of the Russian Criminal Code’s infamous Article 282, the one about “inciting hatred and enmity.” Oh, what a long time ago it was. Back then, there were simply no other articles in the Criminal Code that covered thought crimes. Can you imagine?

The idea was simple: gather quotes from classic Russian literature that were obvious violations of Article 282, make a website, and send an angry letter to the authorities. How long must this go on? we would write. Enough is enough! Ban books that sow hatred!

Actually, that’s why we focused on the Russian classics. It would have been easy to find the same kind of incitement in Homer, but uniformed readers might not react to his name. But they had definitely heard the surname Pushkin.

When everything was almost ready, however, my senior colleague (a wise person) said, “You know, let’s not do this. After all, they might just up and ban these books. But we have to go on living. How will we live with ourselves then?”

Patriot Games

I recalled this story while reading the amazing news about the Investigative Committee’s war on Russian rap. First, an alarming dispatch appeared on the newswires: the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, after receiving an appeal from a “pressure group of patriots,” had ordered an inquiry into the new albums by Oxxxymiron and Noize MC. The pressure had informed the general that the rappers had whitewashed Nazism and promoted extremism.

It was a news item like any other. There is no other kind of news nowadays in Russia, nor can there be any other kind of news.

But then there was more news: the text of the letter by the “patriots” turned up on the LiveJournal blog of a moderately successful online humorist. The country’s chief investigator was not bothered, it transpired, by passages such as the following: “To tell the truth, the faces of Russian law enforcement chiefs are really not always so elegant, and when they start talking, they sometimes seem like aggressive morons, thus generating depression and suicidal moods [among the populace]. It’s also good that they’ve stopped showing the MP Irina Yarovaya on TV. Something needs to be done in this case, because our enemies exploit this weakness.” Famous for his habit of viewing publications on the internet through a magnifying glass, Bastyrkin failed to notice the ridicule.

Alexander Bastyrkin, checking whether the internet is whitewashing Nazism. Photo: Russian Investigative Committee

The author of the “letter” has now been making the rounds of the media, trying to prove that he had been joking. But it doesn’t matter: Veterans of Russia, which is a real (not fictional) pressure group, said that they would write an actual denunciation against the rappers.

Forbidden Topics

It’s basic knowledge that you don’t kid around with policemen, judges, and border guards. Lately, everyone has been recalling what they did during the “snow revolution” protests, ten years ago, so I’ll indulge in remembering what I did too. In the spring of 2012 (not the winter of 2011), I was tried and fined for being involved in an “unauthorized” protest in which I was not involved. At the trial, I decided to take issue with the arrest report, according to which it had taken the paddy wagon ten minutes to transport me from the Nikitsky Gate (in the very center of Moscow) to a police station in the suburbs.

I contacted experts, who calculated that the unfortunate PAZ bus would have had to race at a speed of 600 kilometers per hour. I presented my thoughts to the judge.

The stern lady looked up at me with tired eyes. “Are you questioning the capabilities of the domestic automotive industry?” she asked. I resigned myself to my fate. Plus the fines were humane back then, nothing like the current ones.

But the list of those who cannot be trifled with is outdated. On Monday, the supremely pro-Kremlin polling agency VTSIOM published data on what things Russians now consider it impossible to laugh at.

Many of our fellow Russians are sure that they have a sense of humor. Overall, forty percent of the respondents said they had a sense of humor, and more than half of the young people surveyed said the same thing. And yet, Russians laugh at the jokes of the Ural Dumplings and love KVN, which makes one wonder about their assessments of their own sense of humor. But let’s get to the point.

A screenshot of VTsIOM’s polling data about subjects that Russians consider off-limits for humor. It should be kept in mind that it was VTsIOM that compiled this list of “forbidden” topics, not the people who were surveyed. And Ivan Davydov says as much, below.

In first place on the list of forbidden topics are jokes about the “health characteristics of other people,” and this is probably a good thing. It gets more interesting from there. Eighty percent of those surveyed believe that it is impossible to joke about the [Russian Orthodox] Church. Sixty-nine percent do not see anything funny about “the ethnic traditions and peculiarities of different peoples.” The same number are convinced that there is also little funny about the history of Russia, the USSR and the Russian Empire. (Here, by the way, I agree: there is little that is funny about Russian history.) This includes the sixty-three percent who are against jokes about “historical figures who are not living now.” Fifty-three percent would not touch “the army and the armed forces.” And fifty-one percent consider President Putin off limits (or untouchable?). Reverence for government in general is so strong that forty-five percent are afraid to joke about “other heads of state.”

Joking Aside

The list is quite revealing. But it has nothing at all to do with a special species of hypocrisy peculiar to our population. It has to do with the state’s attempts to train the populace like animals. After all, the list perfectly correlates with the news about the campaign that the state has been waging against thought criminals. The feelings of religious believers are fragile, and the more that official spokesmen of traditional confessions talk about love and mercy, the higher are the chances that they would tear you apart for making an innocent joke. Or their particularly zealous adherents would do this: it makes no difference to the targets of their outrage. There has been a lull in the “buttocks war,” but the echoes of this war are still capable of scaring people.

Why people would steer clear of “ethnic traditions” also needs no explanation, nor is it an example of their outstanding political correctness. They understand that some traditions have their own specifics. Some peoples have a tradition of taking offense and demanding an apology on camera after having conversation with the offender that is fraught with bodily injuries of varying severity.

Nor is our reverent love of history love at all. “Whoever remembers old things, pluck out his eyes,” says the proverb. “Or maybe give him five years for whitewashing Nazism,” the Investigative Committee would add. We now have our own favorite stories on this score. The stories about the Investigative Committee and Alexander Bastrykin’s personal campaign against “Hitler’s accomplices” are well known to everyone. In the Chelyabinsk region, a homeless man who decided to dry his socks at the Eternal Flame was charged with whitewashing Nazism. What can we say about smart people who risk talking about the past? Yes, it’s better not to say anything—you’ll be safer. And if you think that all this concerns only the Second World War, then you’re thinking wrong. In Novosibirsk, investigators had a strict conversation with a scholar who dared to speak about Alexander Nevsky without sufficient respect. In St. Petersburg, the probe into the blogger who hung his own portrait in the Hermitage’s Gallery of Heroes of 1812 so that he could take selfies has not yet been completed. And so on.

The fact that the Russian President rounds out the list of topics forbidden for humor is a direct rebuke to Federation Council member Andrei Klishas. The law he wrote on mandatory respect for the authorities is not really working. (Although the police on the ground have been trying: they have been catching jokers on VKontakte and rolling out gigantic fines for them.) The Investigative Committee should probably take a closer look and figure out whether there has been any sabotage on Klishas’s part. Times are turbulent: there’s a hybrid war underway, and the enemy can entrench itself even at the Federation Council. You can’t let your guard down for a minute.

A Map of Fear

I don’t know what the pollsters at VTsIOM hoped to achieve when they did their survey. But they have produced a perfect map of fear. The state has been trying to intimidate its subjects, and, as we can see, its efforts have not been in vain. Although we should note that the Church, the “traditions of certain peoples,” and their own history frighten Russians more than the authorities, which is evidence that the state cannot finish the job even in this case. They cannot pull off everything: the police-state vertical has not yet been built. But I have to give them credit: they keep on working, they don’t give up.

What can I say. Let’s remember that laughter is the most effective cure for fear. By setting traps for pranksters, the country’s current proprietors do not demonstrate their own strength. They only point up their own weak spots. By intimidating us and nurturing our fears, they demonstrate their own fear. It’s good to see this. Although this is cold consolation for someone who has been imprisoned for making a joke.

But to avoid succumbing to excessive pessimism (and thus delighting government officials), let’s recall these lines of verse by Nikolai Karamzin, the founding father of Russian historiography:

He who, bored, summons the Muses
And the gentle Graces, their attendants,
With poems and prose amuses
Himself, strangers, and dependents,
And laughs in all sincerity
(Laughing is really not a sin!)
At everything that makes him grin
Will get along with the world in amity,
And won’t cut short his days
With sharp blades or poisons…

Translated by the Russian Reader

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)