One of the biggest trends in Russian music — and one that has been cooking up for several years now — is electronic music and hip hop drawing heavily on Russian Orthodox and folk musical traditions. Critics and journalists praise bands like Oligarkh for developing a Russian musical identity, but do these groups really have much to offer beyond stereotypes?
Trendy music in Russia has always been inspired by the West: whether during perestroika, when Russian underground bands presented their own spin on rock music, or in the nineties and noughties, when an entire generation of pop stars made MTV Russia one of the most important experiences for millennials. While this has always been a topic of heated discussion — usually featuring angry conservatives and cultural purists who hate Britney Spears and everything she represents in the same way they keep protesting the ever-growing influence of the Harry Potter saga — the trend was an obvious way to produce pop culture that felt natural and unproblematic to those who grew up in newly independent Russia. So when some musicians started to insert the sounds of church bells, Orthodox prayers and traditional music into their songs a couple of years ago, many wondered if they were finally doing justice to Russian culture, bringing about a pop music of our own, healthy and hip enough to counter the West’s.
Heading the trend is Oligarkh, a band that mixes electronic sounds and hip hop with church bells and prayer chants; one of the main sweethearts of Russian music media, they were formerly an anonymous project, whose creators decided to enter the limelight only recently. Their merch is adorned with the band name spelled in an Old-Cyrillic-looking font, and album covers feature a selection of Russian stereotype-themed art: from Prokudin-Gorsky pictures to ballet dancers. The band name itself is what you might hear when someone says “Russian” during a game of word association. In interviews they talk of the mysterious Russian soul.
The act could possibly have balanced on the right side of the line separating kitsch from quality, but instead stumbles across it face-first straight into embarrassment territory
Neuromonakh Feofan are a band that take the trend even further: the musicians wear traditional Slavic dress (although admittedly of cheap historical reenactment quality), and one of the band members performs dressed as a giant bear. The act could possibly have balanced on the right side of the line separating kitsch from quality, but instead stumbles across it face-first straight into embarrassment territory (and their cringy drum’n’bass sound doesn’t help). Other, smaller bands like Otava Yo follow in their steps, although some, like The Hatters and Little Big (two bands who share producers and some musicians) are clearly crafting an exquisite Gogol Bordello-style joke at the expense of the broader trend with their songs like Everyday I’m Drinking and Russian Style.
Music critics, however, seem to be taking the trend seriously, especially when it comes to Oligarkh; a group of hip, bearded men clad in black seems to always mean “serious about music”. The main selling point in their passionate recommendations of the band seems to be that Oligarkh are “big outside Russia” — but while the band really was for a while more popular in China and some European countries than back home (they are from St Petersburg), using that as praise hints that the Russian public is unable to identify a musical treasure even when it’s staring them in the face (or ringing church bells in their ears), or that bands need to ensure foreign audiences’ approval first before garnering domestic praise.
Music critics seem to be taking the trend seriously, especially when it comes to Oligarkh; a group of hip, bearded men clad in black seems to always mean “serious about music”
A whole different matter is the inclusion of folkloric traditions in pop music in order to make it “more Russian”. The phenomenon of “folk-pop” is a longstanding one in eastern Europe; especially in the Balkans, where the influences of Roma and Turkish music are hard to avoid in pop and often produce spectacular results. Globally, though, pop culture is generally detached from folklore traditions, and is more reflective of sociological and political histories — as well as its own. When it comes to Russia, where folk-pop is much less developed, there is no evidence that Russian pop music needs to be intrinsically linked to folklore culture to be “Russian”. This is why attempts to market Oligarkh, Neuromonakh Feofan or any other bands seem insincere and exploitative of both sincere, healthy and self-reflective patriotism and the more crazed variety that is on a mission to cleanse Russian culture of anything remotely Western. It’s self-exoticising in a surprisingly shallow way, and the stereotypes are only a step beyond true kitsch, faux Cyrillic or calling your album From Russia With Love. Time to move on.