The problems started about a month ago, says Nikolai Kostylev, one half of the electronic duet IC3PEAK.
The group would be headed for a concert, only for venue managers to cancel at last minute, citing threatening phone calls. There would be bomb scares; unannounced fire inspections; unexplained electricity failures; sudden urges to redecorate concert halls. There would even be arrests on arriving into town.
“It’s all very unpleasant and terrorising,” Kostylev tells The Independent. “We’re doing nothing illegal, just singing our harmless, ironic songs. But we’ve found ourselves subject to a witch-hunt by the security services.”
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The latest gig to be targeted was on Thursday in Voronezh, a grey, concrete city 400 miles south of Moscow. Only a fraction of the group’s fans were able to hear the group play a 20-minute concert after plain-clothed officers blocked entry to the club, itself a replacement venue. When tour manager Oleg Mitrofanov tried to accompany more fans into the venue, he was reportedly assaulted and pinned against the wall by police.
The men in black claimed to be from health and safety inspectorate, following up reports of food poisoning.
The state’s interest in post-modern techno culture does not seem to have come by accident. IC3PEAK are, in fact, only one of a number of groups to have come up against the authorities in recent weeks.
On the same day that the band was battling “food hygiene officers” in Voronezh, the teen-band Friendzone saw a gig cancelled in Yaroslav, central Russia. Their repertoire, which includes such dark hits as “Maybe, Baby” and “Cute Boy” is, apparently, considered “extremist”.
Meanwhile, the teen rapper GONE.Fludd cancelled a show in the northern city of Petrozavodsk, following an intervention by the local prosecutors’ office. Earlier, he said he had come under pressure from “every police agency imaginable”.
Last month, another rapper, Husky (Dmitry Kuznetsov), hit the headlines after being imprisoned while on tour in the southern city of Krasnodar. Officials had warned venue owners in the city that the rapper’s lyrics were “under investigation”. Kuznetsov responded to a wave of cancellations by staging an impromptu concert on top of a car, after which he was arrested. He was released only after public outcry and the apparent intervention of unnamed Kremlin officials.
What was interesting about Kuznetsov’s story was that the musician could barely be described as an opposition figure. His breakthrough hit, “stray bullet”, revealed, if anything, a lust for guns and gangster culture over politics. He has also lent his face to Kremlin-backed separatist fighters in Donetsk, singing, last year, a rap eulogy to Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov, the notorious separatist warlord assassinated in 2016.
Lawyer Pavel Chikov, who represents some of the artists in question, says that the recent crackdown seems to have been calculated to be “concentrated and demonstrative”. The cancellations and arrests all seem to come from one central command, he says – though the exact decisions by local law enforcement “differ by region”.
“The logic is the same – getting in the way – but there is variation from case to case,” he tells The Independent.
According to one local website, which cites two unnamed sources within government, Russia’s security agency issued a black list of “undesirable” groups back in October.
This was apparently in response to two traumatic episodes for the agency: one, a shooting in Kerch college, Russia’s “Columbine massacre”, in which 20 teenagers were killed; the other, a young anarchist’s suicide bombing attack on an FSB regional headquarters in the northern city of Arkhangelsk.
But for Artemy Troitsky, a music critic credited with introducing western music to Soviet audiences, the crackdown brought back more distant memories.
“If it was rock music in the 1980s, now it’s rap music,” he says. “The methods the spooks are using are exactly the same: black lists, cancellations of concerts and arrests.”
He says he still remembers the secret gigs and no-play lists issued by Soviet authorities. Those lists came in two sections – one for underground Russian groups and the other for western pop stars. The second list would always contain helpful annotations: “David Bowie, banned for homosexual perversion and drug promotion, for example; AC/DC for alcoholism and violence.”
The critic describes the moves to ban concerts as a “ham-fisted response to the political awakening of Russian youth”.
Russian teens are “different” from their “passive and cowardly” parents and “Putin-supporting” grandparents, he says. It’s a generation that Putin “seems to have lost”, and which now forms a significant part of the protest movement headed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
“Up until now, the authorities thought the young generation was harmless, interested mainly in money, sex and booze,” says Troitsky. “They miscalculated, and are fighting back by the only way they know how – closing down their communications, the internet, and witch-hunting their heroes.”
Nastya Kreslina, the other half of the IC3PEAK duo, says the Kremlin did indeed appear to be frightened of people her age. They see “unmanageable masses”, she says, and don’t don’t know what to do about them: “Young Russians have learned to think for themselves. They look for information and they process it critically. That is very scary for the government.”
If reports are to be believed, authorities have been particularly vexed by one of IC3PEAK music videos, the outrageously macabre “No More Death”.
There’s no question the video consciously pokes around Russian taboo. It opens at the Russian White House, the seat of the country’s government, with Kreslina singing the lyrics: “I flood my eyes with kerosine; let everything burn; let everything burn. The whole of Russia is watching me; let everything burn; let everything burn.” It then moves to images of eating flesh in front of Lenin’s tomb, drinking blood, and riding on riot police in front of the Lubyanka, the infamous headquarters of the Russian security services.
The group says that only those without a cultural background would fail to understand the “irony” of the work.
“It’s all very metaphorical, without any direct appeal or single-layer image,” says Kostylev. “It’s a post-modern take, with multiple layers and vivid images. There is no single meaning, and it’s very funny when people start to interpret it in a single way.”
Troitsky told The Independent that he became a fan of the group after becoming aware of the “sensational” video, and had successfully lobbied a London-based indie record company to offer the pair a record deal.
And, he says, the authorities have “shot themselves in the foot” by unintentionally promoting the group’s work.
“The only thing their campaign will do is create a wave of solidarity among artists and young people,” he says. ”The Kremlin would be wise to learn from history. Underground rock was a significant force in causing the Soviet regime to fall. If the hawks continue with their aggressive course, the regime will end up in the same place.”
It is difficult to predict which position will prevail, and already there are signs of major differences of opinion within the walls of the Kremlin. Two fairly prominent government figures, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin and former culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, have already spoken out against “prohibitive measures”.
There has also been support from the most unlikely of quarters. On Sunday, Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, Dmitry Kiselyov, surprised viewers of his infamous news review programme by breaking out into rap. He used Vladimir Mayakovsky’s futurist poetry to “prove” Russian rappers were patriotic, not American. His message was simple: “They shouldn’t be harassed.”
And last month, another propaganda master, RT’s Margarita Simonyan, came out in support of the imprisoned Husky/Kuznetsov. Writing on Twitter, she said the musician had been freed from prison thanks to the interventions of “two or three” people in the Kremlin, and would now “hopefully” be left alone.
It was unclear how this tallied with her own claims of an independent legal system in Russia, but the official endorsement seemed to have immediate effect. On Thursday, the same day that his colleagues were being hounded across Russia, Kuznetsov was in the State Duma, Russia’s parliament, taking part in a panel about improving relations between musicians and the state. (Kuznetsov declined to comment for this article.)
IC3PEAK told The Independent that they had noticed state media had covered their problems on tour “fairly objectively”. This, they said, was evidence of “uncoordinated actions” that undermined the authorities’ overall repressive approach.
And on Thursday evening, the liberal internet TV channel Dozhd reported that the president’s own staff had become angry at the heavy-handed actions of local officials. A source “close to the Kremlin” told the channel that the president would “put an end to the idiotism”, it said.
The test of that promise will come soon enough.
The next stops on IC3PEAK’s troubled tour are the southern cities of Krasnodar and Rostov at the weekend – capitals of Cossack culture, and hardly known for a warm reception of subversive culture.