Putin’s Public Enemy

The Kremlin is going after Russian rappers, but the government can't control a culture it doesn't understand.

Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with the Kremlin-friendly rapper, Timati, during a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow, on March 5, 2012.
Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with the Kremlin-friendly rapper, Timati, during a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow, on March 5, 2012. (ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty

The Kremlin’s crackdown on Russian rappers was already in full swing when President Vladimir Putin decided to weigh in. After several weeks of police persecuting musicians and their gigs getting randomly shut down across the country, the government faced an unexpected level of resistance and had to back down for fear of alienating the youth too much. “If [rap music] is impossible to stop, then we need to lead and direct it,” Putin said on Dec. 15. While Putin may have thought he could ease tensions between Russian officialdom and disgruntled hip-hop fans, his unfortunate choice of words backfired, underlining the great gulf between Russia’s rulers and a younger generation raised on mobile phones and YouTube videos.

Rap has been a big deal in Russia since the mid-2000s as part of internet-based counterculture, unlike the kind of music you mostly hear from state TV and FM radio stations. The authorities have completely ignored it. Of course, dismissing the scale and impact of youth culture is not something unique to Russia. Nor have Russia’s current leaders been shy about bombarding the public with paeans to over-the-hill rock bands such as Uriah Heep and Deep Purple, which had big followings in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s but which today’s teenagers have never heard of.

Kremlin interest in the connection between rock music and political protest peaked shortly after the 2004 Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine, when popular musicians sided with the protesters. Alarmed advisors to Putin organized a secret meeting with the country’s own rockers. Most of the participants were stars who started their careers before the Soviet collapse. The Kremlin political impresario Vladislav Surkov reportedly led the meeting, and sources say he came away convinced that Russian rockers posed no serious threat to the regime. Even though Surkov loved to show Western diplomats and reporters a portrait of Tupac Shakur in his Kremlin office, it somehow didn’t cross his mind to check up on any younger musicians or rappers.

Over the next decade, the owners of big concert venues, the bosses who ran state TV, and the rest of the semiofficial cultural establishment took a similar view. The gap between official (radio- and TV-based) culture and fringe (internet-based) culture widened immensely. Younger musicians—even those with relatively small followings—completely gave up on state-controlled radio and TV as a means to reach bigger audiences.

They realized that internet-based exposure was enough. Young artists chose creative freedom over mass exposure, and so did the youth in general. And while the Russian authorities have tried to create the impression that they are extremely internet-savvy by recruiting online trolls to influence discussions of both internal and external affairs, they weren’t able to meddle with something they didn’t know existed. Fast forward to 2019 and Russia finds itself home to a healthy independent music scene. While in current discussions “rap” is being used as an umbrella term, it’s actually not just that.

Alternative pop bands such as Poshlaya Molly and Frendzona have hundreds of thousands of fans, and hip-hop is just an element of their style. Today, they are much more popular among the youth than most of the pop stars you can see on state TV, and it was just a matter of time before adults and, of course, the Kremlin noticed them. The meltdown began last November, when the authorities without any explanation blocked a video by the rapper Husky on YouTube and stopped him from performing live. When Husky tried to resist, he was arrested. Other popular bands such as Ic3peak suddenly found it hard to play live. The rap community reacted decisively, organizing a protest concert called “I Will Perform My Music.” Tickets sold out in minutes.

That’s when things started to get weird. Husky was released a few hours before the show started. Police officials and lawmakers organized a bizarre roundtable debate with rappers inside the Russian parliament: One of the participants, the rapper Roma Jigan, left in the middle of the conversation and said to his fellow rapper Ptaha, “This talk leads nowhere, bro.” Internal Kremlin divisions about the crackdown were hard to miss after Dmitry Kiselyov, the firebrand mouthpiece of hard-line Kremlin views on state TV, devoted a 15-minute segment on his weekly show to rap and compared performers such as Husky to classical Russian poets.

So what touched off the current crackdown? The most obvious explanation is that the authorities were energized by the tragedy in the Crimean city of Kerch last October, when a troubled college student inspired by the Columbine killers shot dead 19 of his fellow students and then killed himself. At around the same time, a teenager in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk blew himself up near the entrance to the local branch of the FSB, the main successor to the KGB. When studying the social media accounts of these young men, Russia’s anti-extremism police unit discovered that they had listed the same musicians among their interests. What they apparently didn’t understand is that these groups are also popular with millions of nonextremist teenagers.

“It almost looks like some big police guy checked out his daughter’s social media page, listened to some songs, and immediately decided to ban everything,” said Gleb Lisichkin, who manages several indie acts. Husky, for example, is a known Kremlin loyalist. In 2014, he co-wrote a song with Zakhar Prilepin, a pro-Putin novelist and pundit, which features wordplay that can be roughly translated as “it’s time to shut down the opposition.” Why would somebody with these credentials get banned first? His primary offense was the video for the song “Judas,” which followed a common Russian rap trope of reflecting upon the marginalization of the genre and compared Husky’s raps to drugs and his listeners to addicts who get rejected by society (thus, Judas)—this all too easily can be interpreted by the authorities as promoting drugs to young people.

In a similar vein, Frendzona’s song “Spin the Bottle” (imagine Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” but a bit more explicit) perfectly fits the definition of the “gay propaganda” that Russian parliamentarians routinely get all worked up about. All of Ic3peak’s recent songs revolve around the idea that life in Russia is a slow and painful death, which comes dangerously close to suicide propaganda, the Kremlin’s current bête noire: In 2017, the Russian parliament, concerned by the high level of teen suicides, issued a law that banned “suicide propaganda”—meaning any descriptions of suicide in the media—because it believed that was why teens were killing themselves.

It’s no stretch, therefore, to say that the government is acting like an overbearing, concerned parent. Putin’s words on the issue back this up: “Rap and other modern [culture] rests on three pillars: sex, drugs, and protest. I am most worried about drugs, of course.”

When Putin uttered his infamous words about “directing” the music scene, he probably had in mind the way the KGB controlled the Soviet rock scene in the early 1980s. Back then, rock music was becoming an important part of youth culture and could not be banned outright. So the KGB helped set up the Leningrad Rock Club. It monitored the club’s activities and censored song lyrics for anti-Soviet propaganda, and musicians got the chance to play live in the club.

The rock club was a win-win situation for everyone. Kids in Leningrad got their own culture, and the KGB was involved enough to make sure that nothing dangerous was happening but not so much that young people felt oppressed. The prominent music producer, journalist, and Soviet rock historian Alexander Kushnir recalls that it also was a great way to make the scene self-regulating.

When the band Televizor performed the deeply political song “Your Dad Is a Fascist” live, they faced pressure not only from the club’s overseers but from fellow members as well for jeopardizing the whole scene. Later, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the rockers became part of the façade of a new and freer Soviet Union.

The fact that Putin and his advisors believe that such a scheme might work again almost 40 years later only reveals how out of touch with reality they are. The Kremlin has nothing to offer to new celebrities. These days, record production and distribution can be done from your bedroom. Television coverage is carefully overseen by the state, but rappers and indie bands don’t want anything to do with it; YouTube and the Russian social media site VKontakte are their playground. And the ongoing cancellations of concerts are a sure-fire way to keep anti-government sentiment and protests growing; if there’s one constant across generations, it’s that a state banning order only helps your popularity.

Russia’s current rulers, many of whom spent long stints working in the KGB, failed to learn one of the main lessons of the Soviet rock experience—that little can be done about youth culture. They can try to control it or to make friends with some popular artists, but they can’t, as Putin has said, direct it and make the youth behave the way they want them to. The Leningrad Rock Club worked fine at the beginning, but it didn’t help the Soviet Union when things started to fall apart.

Like in Leningrad, today’s rap skirmish looks more like an intergenerational conflict than a political one. And, as in all generational conflicts, the older generation will end up on the losing side. This is something the Russian authorities have yet to grasp. The rappers do not pose any direct threat to Putin’s regime. Rather, they already exist outside of that regime. It seems doubtful that they’ll have anything to do with trying to push Putin from power. Instead, their culture will merely outlive the president and all of the official culture promoted during his reign.

Georgy Birger is the digital director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and former deputy editor in chief of the Russian pop culture magazine Afisha.

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