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Shortparis and a strategy of defiance against the Kremlin

2018 saw increasing political repression against independent artists in Russia. Artists who are outside the mainstream have become a new target for the regime. Amidst such repression, they have also been exploring new strategies of resistance.

February 1, 2019 - Wojciech Siegień - Articles and Commentary

Shortparis at Haldern Pop Festival 2018 in Haldern, Germany. Photo: Martin Schumann (cc) wikimedia.org

2018 in Russia will be remembered as a year of unprecedented repression by the authorities towards young artists in the post-Soviet period. The most highlighted event was the court case of Kiril Serebrennikov, theater and administrative director of the “Gogol Center” theater. Although he had attempted to flirt with the regime, he unexpectedly fell from grace and was accused of financial fraud. This has led to a show trial currently under way. Observers underline his example as a strong warning sent by uniformed institutions of the state to (almost) independent artistic circles who are often critical of the authorities.

Another resonating case, also of more international reach, was the arrest and imprisonment of a Ukrainian film director from occupied Crimea. Oleg Sentsov who was sent to a faraway penal colony. He was controversially jailed by Russia on disputed terrorism charges  and faces a lengthy prison term. Many artists and politicians from a number of countries have declared their support for him. The director had started a hunger strike but was forced to suspend because of the danger to his life. Putin remains deaf to the voices asking for his release.

Outside of the few cases that were raised internationally, 2018 showed that the policy of repression towards independent artists is becoming more restrictive every month. Recently the main target has been independent artists outside of mainstream music. Therefore, last year there was an interesting display of the polarisation of the Russian music scene.

On one side we have artists one could call the mastodons of the scene. Those who occupy federal state television channels, feeding the viewers with an inconceivable amount of musical kitsch sold as a sophisticated work of art. The last presidential elections revealed how the regime cohabitates with “sanctioned” artists who pay the price for some TV time. Ahead of the elections famous artists would “spontaneously” and in great numbers post pro-Putin content and encourage people to vote on their social media accounts. There were also cases of more enthusiastic artists making music videos of a servile nature, praising the current regime in Russia.

On the other side, from the Kremlin’s perspective maybe a bit unexpectedly, a totally independent music scene sprouted. It is made up of artists who combine hip-hop and experimental electronic music. The majority is not criticising the regime openly. They do not encourage protests or support Navalny. Their focus is conceptualised art or dealing with the real problems of today’s young people. Many of them are openly distancing themselves from opposition politics. However, artists from this scene have caught the gaze of the authorities and their concerts have suddenly been canceled in droves. A representative case is the rapper Husky, who supported the annexation of Crimea and War in the Donbas in 2014. He did not receive any gratitude for that, as his concerts were canceled all over the country in 2018. Finally he was arrested under the charges of destroying property and not following police instructions.

After this case the avalanche of repression widened. Alternative electronic group IC3PEAK was banned from performing, with the same happening to a pop-punk group called Frendzona. The hip-hop performers Face and LJ soon faced the same issues. The uniformed authorities were soon backed up by local authorities who organised expert commissions and counsels. They claimed they were dealing with the negative influence this music has on the youth leading to drug use and suicides (a long-disproven charge of conservatives against alternative music).

The echo of this wave of repression reached the federal level. The panic of the regime is seen in its ridiculous attempts to deal with this “crisis” on the independent music scene. As often is the case in authoritarian structures, it was suggested that there should be a move to centralize this realm of art and culture through grants to hip-hop artists, so that they would rap about the positive sides of life (thus indirectly praising the regime). A new level of absurd was reached when the main propagandist of the Kremlin, Dmitry Kiselyov rapped the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, trying to prove this was the first Russian rapper.

Nonetheless, it remains true that the potential for social critique that the Russian independent music scene has is enormous. Perhaps the most interesting band which found its place in the consciousness of Internet users in Russia last year was Shortparis. A post-punk electronic music outfit from St. Petersburg, they have only been around for a few years; they caught people’s attention with their newest material. Between December 18th 2018 and January 2019, their music video for the song Strashno (Dreadful) was viewed by over 800 thousand people, while Styd (Shame) was seen half a million times.

In the music video we see a group of young men with shaved heads enter a school, passing other scared pupils in the hallway. They come into a gymnasium where terrified people, with “migrant features,” as they say in Russia, are gathered on the floor. The sweatshirts of the intruders have what seems to be Arabic writing. Quite unexpectedly, the whole scene transforms into some kind of musical. We see the scenography change with theater curtains, carpets, choreographed dances. The last scene is probably the strongest. A group of people trudging through mud and tall grass, are headed towards an unknown destination carrying a boy with a Russian flag on a procession float. In the background are grey blocks of flats and Shortparis sings: “Eternal and Honest”.

The lyrics of the song combined with the story of the music video are one of the more interesting diagnoses of the social situation in Russia. It is a list of portraits from the symbolical imaginarium of the Russians that could be understood as the triggers of hidden, traumatic content. Words such as school, immigrants, gymnasium, major, Kalashnikov, ice, a housing estate, child with a flag, an image of Arabic lettersand a young man with a bag in front of a school. This all releases a sequence of pictures linked with suppressed traumas: the terror attacks in Bieslan and Kerch, the Chechen wars, the Caucasus, state violence, militarisation, the futility of resistance, conformism and indifference. The title Strashno is a key word, according to the artists themselves. It defines the atmosphere in today’s Russia. It is a feeling of endangerment, an undefined fear that hangs over Russian housing estates, as over all of Russia. The musicians put together the track based on what they have caught from pieces of conversations around them.  

Shortparis’ work is troublesome for the authorities because their ingenious combination of images thatresonate with the collective imagination. It is also hard to censor formally because the experience is felt more than it can be explained with words. This is why what Shortparis gave us in 2018 was most likely the single greatest answer from critical artists to manipulation, TV propaganda and oppression from the state apparatus. It might turn out to be the best template for how to create a strategy for resisting the growing authoritarianism of Putinism.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Wociech Siegień works at the Department of Social Sciences in the University of Gdańsk. He has been researching the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. His main interests are educational ideologies and the different processes of militarisation in post-Soviet countries.

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