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Highway to Jail: Musicians Against Putin’s Russia

Feminist punk band Pussy Riot is only the latest in a growing list of rockers feeling the wrath of the authorities.

by Sofia Lotto Persio 13 July 2012

Heavy metal overlords AC/DC may have been on a highway to hell, but in Russia, the road for some rebellious rockers can lead straight to jail.


The recent detention of members of punk group Pussy Riot made international news, but the band’s plight is hardly unique. A handful of Russian musicians in the past several years have suffered arrest, censorship, or other forms of pressure for performing songs denouncing President Vladimir Putin, the police, and the dismantling of democratic freedoms.


Modern-day music censorship in Russia is subtler than in the Soviet era, Mikhail Borzykin, longtime front man for the band Televizor, told the Guardian in 2009. It is often understood, rather than written anywhere, which bands get airplay or club gigs and which ones program directors and club owners should avoid.


But sometimes it is more explicit.


In the case of Pussy Riot, the members had played cat and mouse with police in Russia for months, staging guerrilla performances of songs like Putin Pissed Himself in public places and then disappearing. It was their February performance of a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral that ultimately led to a detention that looks likely to turn into a prison sentence.


The song, titled Holy Shit, calls on the Virgin Mary to get rid of Putin, saying, “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin away!” Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina are accused of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred. They have been locked up for five months and preliminary rulings by the judge in their case have swung for the prosecutor. If found guilty of hooliganism, they face up to seven years in prison.



In the same spirit, punk rockers PTVP, whose full name is Posledniye Tanki v Parizhe (Last Tanks in Paris), released the song FSB Whore in 2002. (The title refers to the Russian security service that succeeded the KGB.) The lyrics urge: “Don’t listen to anything! / He always lies to you! Putin, Putin, Putin! / A pig will always find mud to roll in!”


That was a year after the band had put out the Hexogen album, named for the explosive authorities said was used to blow up apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999.


PTVP has been part of St. Petersburg’s underground music scene since 1996, and Russian TV channels or radio stations rarely play its songs. In 2009, police rushed onstage and tried to stop a concert after the band performed FSB Whore. Front man Alexei Nikonov was arrested but soon released without charge.


“We accept the fact that they come to ‘watch’ us,” Nikonov told the Guardian, referring to security services’ monitoring of his band. “They used to follow me in cars. It does not bother me. I know I'm not doing anything that's not allowed by the constitution.”



Putin has been called things other than a liar and a pig. In a reworked version of one of its most famous songs, Televizor called him a fascist.


When the band performed Your Dad Is a Fascist at a rock festival in August 2008, Borzykin was threatened with detention, but other musicians helped hustle him away after the performance. “There were 3,000 police watching our performance with only 1,500 spectators on hand,” he told the Guardian.


Borzykin, an outspoken critic of Putin, denounced the unofficial form of censorship to which controversial musicians are subjected. In 2008, his band was due to perform on a St. Petersburg television channel, but the show was canceled after station staff reviewed the lyrics of the songs the band intended to play. According to the channel, they contained “inappropriate language,” but to Borzykin it was a case of political censorship: “We provided the lyrics to three of our most recent songs, Nail Down the Cellar, Spectacles, and Stay Home, and then the editor of this music program called me and said, ‘Well, you understand that this is not a political program, we can’t play this,’ ” he told The St. Petersburg Times.


Televizor has been playing, and defying authority, since the 1980s. The band’s 2009 Déjà vu album argues that Russia is reliving the Soviet experience. “The spiritual and psychological atmosphere today is very similar to that of the early 1980s,” Borzykin said.



Noize MC might agree. In 2010, the rapper, whose real name in Ivan Alexeyev, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for disorderly conduct.


The arrest occurred at yet another heavily policed festival where the singer performed Smoke Bamboo, a song denouncing police brutality. In the refrain, Noize MC raps, “A citizen, stop-stop, in the pockets, clap-clap, in the kidneys, bang-bang,” apparently referring to both the corruption and the violence for which Russian police have become notorious.


The official reason given for Noize MC’s detention was that he described the police officers, who wear red-ringed hats, as “beautiful animals with red cockades” as they tried to stop a stage routine in which he follows the song Throw Your Money in My Hat by asking the audience to do just that. The police accused him of begging.


After the concert it appeared Noize MC had defused the situation by offering police a copy of his latest album, but he was subsequently arrested while signing autographs.


The police later announced Noize MC had made, and they had accepted, an apology. The supposed apology, which took the form of a video called Ten Days in Heaven, was distributed by police to local TV channels and streamed online. Noize MC’s producer claimed the rapper was tricked into it, but authorities said he’d done it voluntarily. Either way, the rapper declared the apology was ironic and not to be taken seriously.



Yuri Shevchuk, an iconic rocker and leader of the band DDT, has not been arrested, but he is clearly a thorn in the side of the authorities.


In 2010, Shevchuk made international headlines for “breaking the protocol with Putin,” as The New York Times put it, during a televised meeting with the then-prime minister and Russian cultural figures to promote a charity concert. During the meeting Shevchuk said he had been asked by Putin’s office beforehand not to ask “sharp questions.” Putin denied the request had been made, and Shevchuk leveled queries regarding the state of political and civil liberties in Russia, sparking a heated debate.


Later that year, police first permitted, then banned, a concert scheduled to take place after a Moscow rally to save the pristine Khimki forest outside the Russian capital. Shevchuk, who was supposed to perform, defied the ban and managed to sing two songs, armed with his acoustic guitar, while the crowd chanted “Russia without Putin!” and other slogans.


Shevchuk is close to Artemy Troitsky, a prominent music critic and opposition figure. During a 2010 DDT concert, the two men handed out prizes for the best and worst police officers in Russia. Troitsky was sued by one of the officers and was ordered to pay a 130,000 ruble ($4,000) fine. The Moscow City Court later upheld the finding of defamation but not the fine.


Sofia Lotto Persio is a TOL editorial intern.

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