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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Notes From a Very Russian Musical Underground

By Sophia Kishkovsky

New York Times

It’s another busy night at the noisy Casino de Paris here in Moscow, a grown-up post-Soviet Disneyland where burly men with expensive cell phones, their dolled-up companions and aging, wide-eyed foreigners play blackjack amid swirls of cigar smoke and snifters of cognac. But what makes the scene truly Russian is the musical entertainment. On a vintage-looking stage framed by red velour curtains, a group of musicians is livening up the proceedings with tunes inspired by an unlikely source: the gulag.

Some of the songs played by the band, Lesopoval — the word means timber-felling, after a brutal form of forced labor in the gulag — are jaunty; others are plaintively romantic. Backed by accordion, synthesizer, guitar, drums and choreographed singers, Sergei Kuprik, the lead heartthrob, sings of the long train ride to the barracks, life in the barracks, love in the barracks, memories of the barracks.

His lyrics are sprinkled with untranslatable prison slang but have the unmistakably epic sweep of this nation’s history.

This is Russian chanson, an amorphous genre (not to be confused with the French cabaret style made famous by Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour) that has become the soundtrack of contemporary Russia. In almost any city, it booms from kiosks and cars and casinos and discos, with gritty songs of Russian life that appeal to pre-teenagers and little old ladies alike and contrast sharply with the bland vanilla pop of the payola-ridden state-controlled media.

With its deeply, even brazenly romantic take on crime and punishment, it has often been compared to American gangsta rap (and, in its more soulful, renditions to country music), and it has similarly attracted an audience of people far beyond the actual criminal underworld. When Mikhail Krug, often called the king of Russian chanson, was murdered in 2002, hundreds of thousands attended his funeral. Fans still descend on his home and grave as if they were Graceland.

But even more than gangsta rap, Russian chanson has attracted the ire of politicians. In a widely broadcast denunciation, Vladimir Ustinov, who was then prosecutor general, referred to a chanson competition in Russia’s prisons as “propaganda of the criminal subculture.” In Siberia, a public official recently announced that intercity bus drivers would be “banned from listening to chanson and other obscene music.”

In Russia, where radio and television are often subject to bribery and political influence, that official disfavor can have real consequences. And so chanson, despite its popularity, is relegated to sporadic broadcasts and late-night time slots.

“They’re afraid that people who listen to pop will suddenly hear chanson and they’ll like it,” Kuprik said. “Maybe there are other reasons. Maybe censorship. There’s an idea that Soviet people shouldn’t think, reflect.”

As a result, it enjoys a strange double identity of a sort possible only in a country balancing the liberties of wild capitalism with the legacy of recent totalitarianism. It is a forbidden product that flourishes in the brightest spotlight, a phenomenon that is officially discouraged but tacitly indulged, a status symbol all the more powerful because it’s illicit.

“I like the phrase of one DJ,” said Mikhail Medvedovsky of Radio Petrograd Russky Chanson, a St. Petersburg radio station that has thrived despite the strictures on its music — a paradox that is characteristic of the Russian media. “‘Russian chanson is like a pornographic magazine. Everyone reads it, everyone listens to it, but they’re afraid to admit it.’”

Some officials and bankers, he said, don’t hide it and ask for advance copies of the latest releases. In fact, some of the most popular performers earn their biggest paychecks at parties and weddings for Russia’s rich and famous. And Lesopoval recently played at the birthday of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.

The deep roots of chanson stretch back to pre-revolutionary Russia, to the songs of serfs and tsarist political prisoners. (They may reach back even further: One of the highlights of Holy Week in the Russian Orthodox Church is a hymn called “The Wise Thief,” which Russians are known to race to church to hear.)

Some of these songs sound like Russian equivalents of chain-gang songs and have deep folkloric roots. The protest songs of future Bolshevik leaders held in tsarist prisons are also part of the genre’s history. Meanwhile, blatnaya pesnya (literally translated as “criminal songs”) have a distinct underworld air.

The roots took hold in the early Soviet era, with its bloody period of civil war and nationalization, followed by the New Economic Policy, a brief, chaotic period of liberalization — and criminality — that many have compared to the current era. The port city of Odessa, an economic and ethnic crossroads, was one of the centers of that period, and it became the spiritual home to this kind of music. When a number of Russian musicians went to sing for their supper in Paris, the musical style got a name: chanson.

Stalin’s repression and gulags added another layer of meaning, and the result was a vital new form: songs that told of the pain of life under the Soviet system while at the same time mocking it. Or at least tweaking it: These songs are sometimes referred to as blatnaya muzyka — criminal music, which is also the name of a guide to criminal slang used by agents of the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor. (President Vladimir Putin has been known to slip into it when angry, irritated or speaking of Chechen terrorists.) As Anton Yakovlev, the chief editor of Russky Chanson radio, says, “The totalitarian system of Soviet power gave rise to a second culture in everything.”

During the Khrushchev era’s thaw and the “period of stagnation” during the Brezhnev years, the songs were sung at home and in closed concerts, and recorded in secret apartment studios. Recordings were distributed samizdat, passed hand to hand like carbon copies of Solzhenitsyn’s banned novels.

By 1980 the music had become so popular that the death of Vladimir Vysotsky, a gravelly voiced bard who is the genre’s godfather, nearly shut down Moscow. But the music also developed on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain.

In the 1970s, Little Odessa — New York’s Brighton Beach — became the Western cradle for chanson. On the emigre circuit, these uncensored evocations of Soviet life gave audiences bittersweet memories of home. But the recordings also made their way back to Russia, sneaked in by sailors and diplomats, many of the same people who were bringing in banned books.

A strong strain of political protest runs throughout. “That’s one of the themes,” said Dmitry Andreyev, the executive director of Russky Chanson, a Moscow recording label that trademarked the term in the ‘90s, “the injustice of the system, which is characteristic, if you draw parallels, for rap and chanson.”

One of the biggest stars, Sergei Trofimov, recently filled a Moscow concert hall playing “Generation Pepsi,” which expresses disappointment with the post-Soviet experience. And Lesopoval recorded a song that honors soldiers fallen in Chechnya, a subject usually swept under that carpet.

But as diverse as the style and delivery may be, the lyrics almost inevitably return to blatnaya pesnya.

Chanson’s popularity is undeniable, but it is hard to quantify. Piracy accounts for such a vast and uncounted portion of all music sales that concerts do not so much support record releases as make up for them. “There is no doubt,” Andreyev said, “that pirates produce millions of our discs.”

Whatever the numbers, with its simple, hummable melodies and resonant subject matter, chanson “can be defined as songs about life, from the soul,” suggested Kuprik, the singer from Lesopoval.

Songs about Russian life, Soviet or post-Soviet, necessarily involve an ambivalent relationship to the government. And when it comes to chanson, the feeling is apparently mutual.

For all the official condemnations of the genre, Radio Chanson, an easy-listening version based in Moscow, is No. 3 in the market, and no less than the Interior Ministry choir performed the station’s theme song at a recent awards show.

In St. Petersburg, the music’s unofficial capital, Alexander Rozenbaum is one of the biggest stars. “It’s an oppressive city formed by tsarist power,” he said. “You feel it most near the State Department. If you’re here, you feel it near the Kremlin, near the Winter Palace.” But Rozenbaum embodies the paradox of chanson’s forbidden-but-cherished status: Onstage, he sings of lone wolves and bandits in the night, packing halls across the country. Offstage, he has a seat in the State Duma as a member of United Russia. Even Putin may have given chanson a boost.

In 1999, the weekly Argumenty i Fakty reported that one of his pastimes as a student at the KGB’s foreign intelligence school in Moscow was making copies of recordings by Mikhail Shufutinsky and Villi Tokarev, both of whom left flourishing mainstream careers in Russia for the United States in the ‘70s.

Tokarev drove a New York cab and plowed his earnings into recordings that made him a star all over again, in Brighton Beach and across the entire Soviet Union. But this time around he wasn’t performing pop; he was singing songs about emigre life that sound as if they’re set to Balkan turbo-rock.

Now 72, he still performs them with unfathomable energy for any age. He drew the largest crowd ever to the Lubavitcher-run, oligarch-financed Moscow Jewish Community Center in May. Concert organizers credited him with helping to raise the Iron Curtain, and despite his Kuban Cossack origin, there are plans to nominate him as the Jewish community’s man of the year.

In an interview after the concert, he said that chanson’s “main mission is to convey what happens to people.”

“These are very truthful songs,” said Tokarev, who has a handlebar mustache and performed in a canary-yellow suit. “There can’t be any lies or hypocrisy in them. Such songs would immediately betray themselves.

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