Not back in the USSR: Russia’s battle over rap highlights cultural shifts

Why We Wrote This

A crackdown on Russian rappers may look like a continuation of Soviet-era cultural controls. But the debate it has engendered in Russian society shows that much has changed since Soviet days.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Fans cheer during a concert in support of the rapper Husky in Moscow in November. Some of Russia's popular rap artists had gathered for a charity show in a sign of solidarity for the artist, whose real name is Dmitry Kuznetsov, after he was sentenced to 12 days in jail for performing on top of a car.

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Russia is a place where, until a generation ago, the Communist Party tried to determine everything people could see and hear. So the cancellation of the concerts of at least seven prominent rap musicians since October, as well as the November arrest of popular rapper Husky, looked to many like more of the Soviet pattern. But while some things remain similar in today’s Russia, a great deal else has changed dramatically. Unlike Soviet times, when rock musicians had to dodge the police and hold their performances in illegal venues, today’s rap is a huge and lucrative industry in Russia. Perhaps more significantly, many top establishment figures – including the deputy head of the Kremlin administration – have openly spoken out in defense of rappers’ freedom. And a judge ordered Husky’s 12-day sentence canceled after just four days, letting the rapper walk free. “It would have been inconceivable in Soviet times to have these publicly expressed divisions within the country’s leadership,” says Masha Lipman, editor of political journal Counterpoint. “But the disagreements between those who think imposing heavy-handed controls is a good idea and those who think it isn’t are completely out in the open.”

Public debate over popular music – and the cultural fault lines it often straddles – can reveal a lot about how a society has changed. The recent controversy in the US over radio stations playing the 1940s classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a good illustration.

The issue currently roiling Russia is the place of defiant and often obscene hip-hop and rap music, as performed by a new generation of outspoken young artists. And it suggests that while some things remain similar in today’s Russia, a great deal else has changed dramatically.

Since October at least seven prominent rap musicians have seen their concerts mysteriously canceled. In late November, one of the most popular young rap stars, Dmitry Kuznetsov, who goes by the stage name Husky, was arrested and sentenced to 12 days in prison after he protested the cancellation of his concert in the southern city of Krasnodar by holding an impromptu performance in the street atop an automobile.

Russia is a place where, until a generation ago, the Communist Party tried to determine everything people could see and hear, and was prepared to utilize all the tools of the state, including the KGB, to ensure its decisions were followed. Today, cultural eruptions are still taken very seriously. The police may weigh in, and even the president can quickly get involved.

Artyom Geodakyan/TASS/ZUMA Press/NEWSCOM
Dmitry Kuznetsov, a Russian rapper who performs as Husky, performs at Moscow's Adrenaline Stadium on Dec. 12. He was released on November 26 after four days in jail for alleged hooliganism.

Given the Soviet-era record, when the state tried to squelch what it saw as degenerate foreign musical genres such as jazz and rock, it was not hard for some to see history repeating itself. And much like Soviet leaders, Vladimir Putin found it necessary to pronounce an official view. While he opposed an outright ban on rap music, he sounded a lot like a Communist leader by suggesting the state should “guide” musicians away from the destructive artistic course they were taking.  “Rap ... rests upon three pillars: sex, drugs and protest," Mr. Putin said. “I am most worried about drugs. This is the way towards the degradation of a nation.”

That Soviet urge to control, shape, and direct artistic expression seems clearly present, despite the ambivalence in Putin's statements, says Artur Gasparyan, music critic of the Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“Rap is the only powerful trend that isn’t yet under censorship or the authorities’ control,” he says. “For almost two decades the process of pinching off pieces from the pie of freedom has been going on. First it was the mass media, then the political field, and now they are after popular musical genres. For some time the authorities paid no attention to rap, but in an authoritarian country an independent sector of freedom cannot be allowed to exist.”

‘Our music is about our reality’

Russia’s young rap artists, who speak for the first generation with no memory of Soviet life, appear to confound expectations of both the authorities and the old-line liberal opposition by speaking their minds fearlessly about what they see around them, while expressing no interest in organized politics whatsoever.

Unlike Soviet times, when rock musicians had to dodge the police and hold their performances in illegal venues, today's rap is a huge and lucrative industry in Russia. They often play to sold-out stadiums. Successful rappers become big media stars and often get rich in the manner of their Western counterparts. Some enjoy massive social media followings.

An example is Russia's fifth most popular rapper, Roman Chumakov, who goes by the stage name Zhigan. Speaking to the Monitor, he decried the arrest of Husky and rebuffed the criticisms of the genre made by Putin and many leading Russian social conservatives.

“Ours is the music of good, even if it is not as positive and jolly as somebody wishes it to be,” he says. “Even if it’s gloomy, it happens to be about our reality. Why should someone get arrested for rapping? We live by our concerts, and if these problems persist, we will go out into the streets and perform there.... You know, I respect Putin a lot, but if I were to meet him in person, I’d talk to him frankly about the problems in our country.” That kind of talk would have been a ticket to the Gulag a couple of generations ago.

One remarkable difference today is that many top establishment figures have openly spoken out in defense of rappers’ freedom. The deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, said that canceling rap concerts was a “stupid idea,” while the chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service suggested that rappers should be given state grants instead. Influential television pundit Dmitry Kiselyov defended rap on his state news show last month, and even delivered a “rap performance” during an appearance on a comedy show Thursday.

Most significantly, a Krasnodar judge – almost certainly acting on signals from above – ordered Husky’s sentence canceled after just four days and let the rapper walk free.

“It would have been inconceivable in Soviet times to have these publicly expressed divisions within the country's leadership,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a Russian-language political journal published by George Washington University. “But the disagreements between those who think imposing heavy-handed controls is a good idea and those who think it isn’t are completely out in the open.”

Fear of awakening the beast?

It’s not clear how the campaign against rap artists even got started; it’s not at all likely to have been a Kremlin initiative. It might even have been triggered by anonymous complaints to various regional authorities from parents who were alarmed to discover what their children were listening to.

“There are a lot of older people who may look into their kids’ playlists and think something should be done about it,” says Alexey Kozin, head of Navigator Records, a Russian recording company. “There is a younger generation that doesn't use traditional media; they prefer direct contacts. I feel their nihilism. They are people who want to be absolutely independent, not to be obliged to anybody about anything. They gravitate to artists who read rap in cool and interesting ways. They declare their own positions in what they wear, how they communicate with each other, and what music they listen to. Cracking down on their favorite artists will not draw a positive response from them.”

One key takeaway from this controversy is that the “Putin generation” – young people who have grown up entirely during the near-20-year rule of Putin – remain very much a mystery, especially to their Soviet-bred elders. While a few have displayed political activism, by taking to the streets in favor of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, most display outward conformism by eschewing politics and embracing consumerism, education, career, and their own artistic preferences.

Some experts say the authorities quickly backed off the anti-rap campaign for fear of awakening them.

“The young generation growing up under Putin must be tired of him, and of all the propaganda of conservatism and traditional values that permeates our times,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer and activist with the Solidarity liberal opposition movement. “Rap is nonpolitical in its essence, but authorities’ attempts at prohibition will quickly make it a very political issue.”

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