Russia’s complicated political history has always made it hard for musical trends to have staying power. Soviet pop, for example, was precision engineered to promote the communist lifestyle, but it lost its appeal as more carefree western tunes started seeping into the ears and minds of the Russian youth. Once the Soviet Union was dissolved completely, a whole new era of pop music began in earnest, almost immediately rendering Soviet ideas (including music) outdated. All of a sudden, Russian artists had to compete with world-renowned acts and fight for their slots on radio and television. The production, lyrics, and overall appeal had to be taken to a whole new level, leaving no time for musicians to wrap their heads around how they’d keep ‘the Russian spirit’ intact.
In the mid-2000s, a wave of internet-driven indie musicians in Russia drew their biggest influence from the 1980s – or rather, western culture’s portrayal of the 80s. Bands like Tesla Boy and Pompeya looked, sounded, and performed like their childhood heroes; all they needed were leather jackets, synthesizers, and the ability to downplay their Russian accents when they were singing in English. But it was only possible to pursue nostalgia for so long, and soon it was left up to younger artists to modernise Russia’s legacy.
Stalin’s regime quite literally killed much of Russia’s cultural landscape in the first half of the 20th century, and the wave of globalisation that hit after the fall of the Soviet Union made it even harder for the country to develop its own artistic language. Today, though, it’s precisely this history that many young musicians are exploring. The artists on this list were born on the brink of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, meaning all of them grew up listening to an eclectic mix of Western pop, Russian rock, Soviet Estrada music, and a distant echo of Slavic folk. With such a range of ingredients, the music can end up being as eccentric as you want it to be.
From trap-dated Orthodox chants to a fictional foul-mouthed Soviet poet, these Russian and Ukrainian acts prove that they can be inspired by Slavic chic and Soviet swag without the vodka-loving balalaika-playing bears clichés.
To a westerner, ‘classic Soviet cinema’ usually refers to heavyweights like Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky – but Russians themselves have slightly different cinematic staples. One of the most beloved characters in Russian cinema is Shurik, played by Aleksandr Demiyanenko, who appeared in three comedies by Leonid Gaidai in the mid-1960s. A happy-go-lucky student who always ends up in some sort of trouble (from creating a time-travel machine to preventing the kidnapping of a female friend), Shurik was the Russian equivalent of Archie or any other boy-next-door archetype, and getting familiar with the imaginary of the Soviet do-gooder is vital to understanding the appeal of Moscow’s rising hip hop star Antoha MC. ‘I don’t get it – is he always like that, or is he in character?’ is a common reaction Antoha MC gets on his official page on social media monster vKontakte. Antoha stands out, and it’s not just the felt boots he wears on stage we’re talking about. He plays, perhaps subconsciously, with the illusive romanticism of the Soviet era and leaves an impression of a well-behaved student which, in modern Russian culture, is pretty much the most rebellious thing you can be. Armed with a trumpet, hypnotic hip hop beats, and everlasting themes of homeland, productivity, love, and unity, Antoha MC’s army keeps on growing.
Naadia are an electropop band fronted by Nadezhda Grickevich. Since 2013 they’ve been giving fans more drama than The Law of the Concrete Jungle, the children’s TV show whose theme song Naadia covered as a haunting ballad. With a flower crown on her head, Naadia is the definition of a folklore-inspired artist, with vivid lyrics about transcending reality and the fatality of relationships that will most likely be lost in translation. Still, the melancholic vibe is so powerful that it barely needs any context. Naadia’s mournful delivery borrows heavily from Russian poetry and Slavic folk music, which was far more introverted than the upbeat, propaganda-heavy songs of the Soviet era. Her knack for incorporation profanities and complicated synth melodies are the only ‘modern’ twists in Naadia’s music; the rest could easily be a re-recording of a long lost song written by some unknown Slavic devushka.
Pop music of the Soviet era (or ‘Soviet Estrada’) was all about promoting the joys of proletariat lifestyle and cementing the values every Soviet man and woman should have cherished: love for the people and love for the country. Everything had to be uplifting, top-notch (these artists could really sing), and controversy-free, since the pop was closely monitored by the Soviet powers. Fast forward to 2015 and Saint Petersburg nine-piece Birtman decided to put a spin on this style of 70s pop, creating a fictional character called Zinoviy Birtman, a poet who’s a little bit more outspoken than his Soviet colleagues and knows words like ‘selfie’. Fronted by charismatic Dmitriy Naumov, the band is most known for its feel-good music video “A Shitty Man”, which sees the controversial sports commentator Vasily Utkin waltzing around Moscow. Nostalgic sounds mixed with cheeky lyrics is hardly new, but humour has proven to be a winning formula when it comes to conquering the hearts and ears of Russian public many times before (let’s not forget the enormous success of Leningrad).
With a name like Oligarkh, you’d expect this Saint Petersburg collective to rap about the lavish lifestyle of Russian elite. Yet Oligarkh opted for something much more ambitious than caviar anthems: they decided to mix Orthodox hymns with bass music. The trick is not all that new: in the early 90s, Romanian-German project Enigma brought classical music to clubs around the world, while back in the late 90s, Russian group Ivan Kupala’s danceable Slavic folk appeared between Britney Spears and Russian pop artists on radio stations across the country. Today, though, a new generation are listening to folk-inspired trap bangers. Playing around with Orthodox themes is a bold move in the post-Pussy Riot Russia (flirting with anything church-related can be easily considered blasphemous, leading to severe consequences, like when a blogger ended up in a remand centre after he filming himself playing Pokemon Go inside a church), yet OLIGARKH’s straight-faced approach made it hard for anyone to accuse them of mocking the church. It quickly brought the trio exposure, expensive videos, and touring opportunities (they’re going to China soon). The band that literally took us to church eventually took the church to the dancefloors across Europe, with their latest tour nabbing the appropriate title “Erases the Borders”.
Having worked on several musical projects in the past, in 2013 Nata Zhyzhchenko felt like it was time for her to create something of her own, forming ONUKA as an unconventional coupling of Ukrainian folklore and electronic music. Updating a traditional folk sound using modern instruments is not that new, but Onuka went the other way around, creating modern music using folk instruments. For Zhyzhchenko, it wasn’t just a clever way to create something that would stand out from the rest of the Ukrainian electronic field – it was a personal matter. The word ‘onuka’ means ‘granddaughter’ in Ukrainian, and Zhyzhcenko picked this as the band’s name to honour her grandfather, a renowned producer of folk instruments. No wonder Onuka’s studio looks like a music museum, with countless ancient instruments that add to the band’s unique sonic palette. The band implements the sounds of plucked string instrument bandura, flute-like sopilka, and alpine horn trembita, none of which were particularly present in the contemporary music scene prior to ONUKA’s arrival. Combined with the forward-thinking fashion of Patoka Studio and Zhyzhcenko’s own cosmic swagger, ONUKA is a sharp example of folk-gone-futuristic.
Follow Mikhael Agafonov on Twitter here @themikeymoscow