On my first fieldwork trip to Moscow in 2016, I asked the singer and songwriter, Sergei Sirotkin, what I thought was a straightforward question. What language did he believe would be more used in Russian indie music (indi) in the future? His answer was unexpected: “That’s a difficult question…that’s almost a geopolitical issue.”
What I learned as I carried out my PhD research into contemporary Russian music was that language choice was central to answering complex questions around identity. These issues sit at the crossroads between national culture, international politics and the intimate space of the self, and the musicians I spoke to reflected deeply on them.
In the mid-2010s the indi scene was in a period of linguistic transition. Arvid Kriger, leader of the post-punk band Human Tetris, told me that at the start of the last decade “everyone in Russia was saying it was great to sing in English…there could be no such thing as a Russophone band”.
Just a few years earlier English-language groups had risen to nationwide popularity in unprecedented number. These bands and artists affiliated themselves to an imagined, cosmopolitan and global community. They were the tip of the iceberg of a collective effort aimed at placing Russia on a par with western European trends. “It was the striving towards the West, the love towards the West…like, we also can, we’re not worse,” the indie-pop singer Nadia Gritskevich (aka Naadia) said.
The journalist Aleksandr Gorbachev told me this movement was “a manifestation of a larger project in society”. “If we, as Russia, are part of the West, it means that we, as musicians, should make music and behave as if we were in the West,” Gorbachev argued.
In the relative relaxation of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, between 2008 and 2012, new cultural spaces based on the Western model began emerging, particularly in places like Moscow. Meanwhile the old ones, like Gorky Park, underwent major renovation. The idea of Moscow as a cool and “comfortable city” had as its local soundtrack music sung in English, as a celebration of Russia’s hope for the integration into a European identity.
Then, in 2012, members of the band Pussy Riot were jailed for two years for hooliganism in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. What this case revealed was that modernity and urban transformation didn’t equate to political democratisation and tolerance of dissent.
This change in perceptions was enhanced in 2014 by the conflict with Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But the Russian President Vladimir Putin flipped the isolation and economic crisis that Russia experienced after the Western sanctions (and Russia’s own contra-sanctions) and turned them into a source of national pride.
In the view of the new official ideology, upheld by most of the media, Russia could now dissociate itself from the liberal cosmopolitanism of the European Union and stand alone as a culturally sovereign power. This new epoch was characterised by “patriotism” based around Russian language, traditions and history and culminated in the creation of a narrative around Russia’s “uniqueness”.
The operation was successful – if the results of the Levada Centre survey in 2017 were anything to go by. The survey showed that 64% of the Russians questioned thought of their country as having a special place in history, while 72% viewed Russia as a world superpower – the highest number in Russia’s history.
The new zeitgeist affected the indi community. As Sirotkin told me, “whether we are interested in politics or not, and regardless of what point of view we hold in politics…this greatly affects the music people listen to”. So between 2014 and 2016, in the immediate post-Crimea period, several bands switched from English to Russian. This operation was filled with a certain pride. Naadia said: “I think that the trend now consists of getting deeper into Russian culture and this is wonderful.” Nikolai Komiagin of Shortparis, one of the most experimental bands in Russia, added:
The awareness of our own national identity, our traditions, is being expressed in music. We look less at the West, we take less from the West.
Naadia, Shortparis and Sirotkin had all sung in English at the start of their careers. But as Russia changed, singing in English became untenable. In an isolated and autocratic environment, the cosmopolitan songs of the Anglophone musicians no longer chimed with the priorities of the indi community.
Indi musicians and the state, however, use the Russian language in two different ways. Naadia argued that singing in Russian was “a means to understand what makes you Russian”, a way of thinking about “your personal patriotism” and what Russian language and culture is – instead of what you’re told it is.
As police brutality increased, musicians became more vocal on the anti-democratic condition of their country. By embracing Russia as its primary source of inspiration, indi has reflected upon the the country’s socio-political problems, protesting about them in its own language.