In January this year, the Russian singer Boris Grebenshikov was sitting on the beach in Mexico. Palm trees, not politics, were on his mind.
But the two new songs that came to him were sad, angry and – as it turned out, when he returned to St Petersburg a few weeks later amid rumblings of an annexation of Crimea – eerily prescient.
Now 60, Grebenshikov is known as ‘the Russian Bob Dylan’. This is not only because of the outsized influence the discovery of Dylan had on him as a young musician in the culturally isolated Soviet Union; it also owes something to Grebenshikov’s outsized popularity in that country. His audience includes, in the words of one professor, “pretty much any educated Russian between the ages of 30 and 50”.
While the Soviet-era music of Grebenshikov and his band, Aquarium, was not explicitly political, the songs took on political significance in the USSR’s repressive social conditions. "In a totalitarian regime the significance of something truthful was utterly different," says Russian rock critic Artemy Troitsky. "Then it was dangerous and important. Now, it’s only entertainment."
But in March, as violence broke out in Ukraine, Grebenshikov called a film crew to his St Petersburg studio. There, he held an emergency recording session for one of the new songs. “I feel how the shadows become thicker, the river’s on fire, but the bridges are up,” he sings, from behind his dark glasses, in the video he immediately posted for Love in the Time of War.
Right away, Grebenshikov’s Facebook account filled with death threats. “We thought for a long time we joined the rest of the European world,” said the artist, recently, in his studio in St Petersburg. Over tea and chocolate cake, he sighed. “Now, some people are saying, ‘we don’t want to be part of the European world.’ Others want to be. It’s a divide.”
Here and there
Increasingly, this divide appears to be taking on concrete proportions, as liberal Russians with the resources to do so buy apartments in Estonia or Latvia; New York, London, Paris or Berlin. There are no hard numbers, as borders are infinitely more porous than in Soviet times, and this group has not officially left the country (often, for now, they continue to travel back and forth). But in artistic and intellectual circles, the talk is of another wave of Russian emigration; one that is taking place right now.
For Grebenshikov, who described the USSR as “a very nice labour camp,” the indifference with which the current departure of so many talented people is being met, both by the government and by the populace at large, is tragic. “My heart aches,” he said.
He himself has plenty of experience with staying, leaving and coming back again. Still one of the most important figures in Russian rock, Grebenshikov (known in Russia simply as BG) founded his band, Aquarium, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1972, after hearing The Beatles on Voice of America.
Though inspired by the West – a place that Grebenshikov said he never imagined being able to visit – Russian rock (a genre Grebenshikov helped found) has always had distinctive characteristics. Tending towards the literary, rock in Russia is an art form practiced by intellectuals. “I always say, ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ translates, in Russian, to ‘Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky,’” says Tomi Huttunen, a Finnish professor of Russian literature who wrote a book about Russian rock.
While the beat-up jeans and leather jacket uniform of the 1980s was much the same on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the social role of Russian rock stars diverged from that of their colleagues in the West. “Since the 80s, it was [Grebenshikov] and his peers…. who played the role of the Russian poet with a capital P,” says Alexander Gorbachev, editor-in-chief of Afisha magazine. “The one who put the nation's spirit into words and songs, the one who tries to find the meaning of what's happening around, the one who becomes the voice of the generation and of a certain age – or, in BG's case, a handful of them."
The political changes of the 1980s brought about completely unexpected transformations for the group, which had never officially existed (Grebenshikov once described them as touring through the Soviet Union “like mythological animals”). In an about-face, shortly after Gorbachev came to power, the state record company released Aquarium’s first official album. In 1988, the band – which had spent years gathering in Leningrad kitchens to study maps, following along in their minds with the international jaunts of their musical heroes – found themselves in New York with Grebenshikov, who had a contract from Columbia Records. “At the end of the ‘80s, the Soviet Union was very cool,” said the Russian rock critic Artemy Troitsky. “It was Gorbymania in the West.”
Grebenshikov and his band remember this period as a magical time – one they still see in dreams. It was also a chance to test imagination against reality. “We had recreated the world outside in loving detail,” Grebenshikov says. “Like, ‘the West is where half-gods are dwelling, playing really good electric guitars.’ You get there, and you see it’s ordinary people playing really good electric guitars. But that’s ok.”
“For me as a musician, conditions here in Russia are always much better than elsewhere,” says Grebenshikov, who frequently tours the far reaches of Russia, where people liken his concerts to church services. “This is my place, where the people I love are, where the people need what we’re doing, need my songs. And I need these people.”
Nonetheless, he delights in traveling the globe. “The world I always knew existed, because I read about it in books, now I’ve been there, once, twice, three times. It becomes part of me,” he said. “I’m sitting here in St Petersburg but part of me is walking down the Boulevard Saint Germain, or in St James’s Square, or the streets of New York.”
To stay or go?
Grebenshikov is recording a new album, which he says constitutes an atypically personal, emotional reaction to current events in Russia and the world. It will come out 1 November. He has recently released a song from the album, If I Leave This Place. Despite its title, the artist insists it is not about the current wave of Russian emigration. Instead, it takes a longer view.
“I wrote that song in 1984, ‘85,” he said, sitting in a small front room hung with religious icons and the amateur pastoral paintings he picks up on his travels across Russia. “A lot of black cars started waiting outside our door every day, for some reason. You grow paranoid after a while, you go, ‘what if?’”
One day, one of these black cars picked up Aquarium’s cello player. They drove him past his apartment, and told him to take a long look, because it was the last time he would ever see it. Later, they let him go. After that, Grebenshikov composed the song. “I thought, ‘I’m nobody, living in this place that doesn’t officially exist, this little apartment on the roof. I can disappear and never appear again and no one will have the nerve to ask. Or I can go away, but I lose everyone I love.’”
Soon after, he befriended a couple of important poets, and this afforded him a degree of protection. The black cars disappeared, and If I Leave This Place languished, unfinished, for three decades. Recently, though, the song came back to him, he said, and asked for a last verse, which he wrote.
Window faces the sky, but there’s a dark spell on the house
Morning is still far away
That’s alright, we’ll wait.
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