The Legends of Russian Popular Music

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the performing arts in Russia: Bodies in Motion.  Twelve articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine the current trends in theater, music and adjacent forms of art both as creative activities and as social institutions. The following article is part of this collection.

Russian popular music is extremely diverse, although music critics have noted a general decline in its quality and originality in recent years. But while one-hit-wonders and mass-produced boy and girl bands are the order of the day, Russia can still boast of outstanding performers both in its past and present—those who have become national celebrities and even those who are famous abroad. Below is an overview, in alphabetical order, of the most noteworthy and influential Russian singers.

BORIS GREBENSHCHIKOV was born on November 27, 1952 in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). A singer-songwriter, he is one of the most influential rock stars in Russia. His band Aquarium has been playing since 1972, combining Bob Dylan-inspired rock with folk influences and Eastern spiritualism. Grebenshchikov has a degree in applied mathematics but chose to concentrate on music early on, spending much of the 1970s touring and drinking across Russia. Any serious career was out of reach due to the moral standards expected of musicians by the Communist Party. This changed in 1980, when the band was invited by influential critic Artemy Troitsky to perform at the Tbilisi Rock Festival alongside Kraftwerk. The band continued to perform and record throughout the 1980s, catching the zeitgeist of the perestroika years. In 1986 a smuggled recording of Aquarium was released in the United States. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Grebenshchikov went West and recorded two albums, aided by British band Eurythmics. But a career in the West was not to be, and he returned to Russia, recording under the Aquarium brand once again throughout the 1990s. Over the years Grebenshchikov has written over 500 songs and recorded over 20 albums with various line-ups of Aquarium. He also writes and presents a radio show on the Russian Radio station.

ILYA LAGUTENKO was born in Moscow but raised in Vladivostok, and gradutated from the Far Eastern State University with a major in Eastern Studies. He founded his famous rock band Mumiy Troll in 1983, after which he served in Russia’s Pacific Ocean Navy Fleet and worked as a consultant in China and Great Britain. The day Lagutenko released his “Morskaya” album – April 2, 1997 – is often referred to as the fateful day when Russian rock’n’roll changed forever. The band’s popularity skyrocketed then and it still retains its fame to this day. Lagutenko also took up acting, starring in Timur Bekmambetov’s first Russian blockbuster “Night Watch,” and is an acclaimed trendsetter and style icon among Russia’s show business elite. Mumiy Troll’s biggest hits, such as “Vladivostok 2000, “Bride,” “Wash Away,” “This Is Out of Love,” and “Without Cheating” are still getting airtime with radio stations all across the country.

ANDREI MAKAREVICH, the leader of the rock band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), dreamed of becoming a scuba diver, a marine biologist and a paleontologist. But in 1966 he first heard music by The Beatles, and his fate was sealed. In 1969 he founded his own band with his classmates. Makarevich was expelled from the Moscow Architecture Institute for his musical undertakings and only received his diploma in architecture in 1977. In 1980 his band signed a contract with Roskontsert, thereby legalizing the group and allowing it to perform and tour all across the country. The band is currently best known for its hits such as “The Turn,” “Marionettes,” “Blue Bird” and others. Makarevich was heavily influenced by the work of Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky, and also performs bard music as a solo artist. Although Makarevich had a negative attitude toward the Soviet authorities, he never openly criticized them, and claims that his music is not politicized (his fans sometimes claim otherwise). The band performed on the barricades for the defenders of the White House during the putsch of 1991, and Makarevich had a close relationship with Boris Yeltsin. The musician is a stringent opponent of piracy in Russia and a defender of animal rights.

BULAT OKUDZHAVA was born on May 9, 1924, in Moscow. A musician and writer of Georgian and Armenian descent, he was influential in creating the bard (singing poet) movement in the Soviet Union. Okudzhava wrote about 200 songs, fusing Russian traditional folk songs and poetry with French songs popular at the time. Okudzhava’s parents were devout communists until the purges of the late 1930s, when his father was executed and his mother handed an 18-year sentence in the GULAG. Okudzhava went to live in Tbilisi with relatives at this time, before serving as a teenager in World War II. In 1945 he returned to Tbilisi to complete his education, before working as a teacher in Kaluga at the beginning of his career. He returned to Moscow following Stalin’s death, and found work at literary magazines. By the mid 1950s he was writing and performing songs. Despite having no formal musical training, Okudzhava’s simple melodies and strong lyrics made him popular throughout the Soviet Union. In the 1980s he increased his prose output, benefitting from a more liberal approach to artistic work in the late Soviet era. In 1994 he won the Russian Booker Prize. Okudzhava died in Paris in June 1997, and his body was returned to Moscow to be buried in the Vagankovo Cemetery. A monument on Old Arbat street in central Moscow and a museum at his dacha at Peredelkino pay tribute to the singing poet.

ALLA PUGACHYOVA was born on April 15, 1949 in Moscow. An institution in the Russian pop world, she has been performing since the mid 1960s, successfully gaining new fans in each generation. She was the most successful Soviet singer by record sales and received numerous state awards from both the Soviet and Russian governments. Pugachyova spent the late 1960s and early 1970s touring the Soviet Union and providing backing vocals for a number of bands and recording film soundtracks. She got her big break in 1975, when she won the Golden Orpheus competition, gaining attention from East German and Bulgarian record labels. In 1976 she recorded the vocals for the main female character in the Soviet comedy classic “The Irony of Fate.” Pugachyova was well placed to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and used her status as a household name to launch various media and fashion lines. In 1997 she represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest, but came a disappointing 15th. Pugachyova’s private life has kept Russians shocked and entertained for generations. She has had numerous affairs with her protégés—whose careers she has the power to make or break. She has released nearly 20 albums over the course of her career and in 2009 retired from singing at the age of 60.

VICTOR TSOI is a cult Soviet artist, musician, actor and composer, best known for his leading role in the Kino rock band. Born in 1962 to a Russian mother and a Korean father in Leningrad, he started out as an underground musician and was soon noticed by Boris Grebenshikov, the famous founder of the Aquarium rock band and an authoritative musician. The Soviet KGB deemed the group ideologically harmful, and its popularity among dissidents skyrocketed, spurring the so-called “Kino-mania.” Tsoi was killed in a car accident in 1990 at the peak of his musical and acting career, but left behind such mega hits as “The Star Named the Sun,” “Blood Type,” “Mother Anarchy,” “Eighth Grader,” and “We Saw the Night,” as well as noteworthy performances in the films “Assa” and “Needle.” Tsoi’s numerous fans were shocked by the musician’s death, and some are even rumored to have committed suicide. His songs remain popular to this day. Paying tribute to the “tragic hero cult,” Russian musicians still dedicate songs to his memory. Numerous monuments have been erected to Tsoi across Russia and the Baltic States, while fans have turned a wall of a building down a side street off Moscow’s famous Arbat alley into a graffiti memorial.

VLADIMIR VYSOTSKY was born on January 25, 1938, in Moscow and was one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the Soviet Union. Vysotsky displayed theatrical flair from an early age and began acting and guitar classes in 1953. By the late 1950s he was acting in theater and film roles, graduating from the Moscow Art Theater Institute in 1960. But it was his music that was to make Vysotsky so popular across the Eastern Bloc. He wrote his first song in 1961, and from the early 1960s bootleg recordings were distributed across the Soviet Union and further afield. His informal style and unusual lyrics turned his songs into miniature plays, in which he played the main characters, taking on different accents and mannerisms, which made a huge number of people relate to him and his music. He continued to act, however, joining the Theater on the Taganka, where he would work until his death and perform Hamlet in one of the Soviet Union’s most critically acclaimed productions. By the late 1960s Vysotsky was battling a serious alcohol addiction which had put him in rehab several times. He also faced opposition from the Soviet authorities, who saw his music as immoral. Married three times, Vysotsky’s third marriage in 1970 to the glamorous French actress Marina Vladi added to his allure. In July 1980, Vysotsky’s addictions finally caught up with him when he died, officially of asphyxiation.

ZEMFIRA RAMAZANOVA was born on August 26, 1976 in Ufa. An alternative rock singer, she has been performing since 1998. Zemfira went to a specialized music school at age five before becoming interested in rock music as a teenager and turning her back on classical music. She completed her musical high school education, however, before studying singing at Ufa Art College. Throughout her studies Zemfira performed in local bars and restaurants. After graduating she worked at the Europa Plus radio station as a sound engineer, recording her own singles in her spare time. She formed a band under the name Zemfira in 1998, and was quickly spotted by Ilya Lagutenko from successful rock band Mumiy Troll, who brought the band to Moscow to record an album. In 1999 this album was released and Zemfira has been a popular and successful part of the Russian rock scene ever since. She is unusual among Russian female vocalists, standing out for her laid-back style and musical credibility in a music scene dominated by surgically enhanced stars who have little to do with the production of their music.

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