- Russia’s diverse ethnic composition accounts for the country’s complex, multifaceted music scene. Ethnic Russian music is closely tied with rural life and its traditions. It is primarily vocal, with the Russian folk song being an integral part of daily life in a village. With the demise of rural life in the 20th century, the traditions of singing and performing have been maintained through professional music ensembles, choruses, and singers. No musical instruments are used in Orthodox churches, following the ban on musical instruments that dates back to the middle of the 17th century. Liturgy music is normally performed by a female chorus with male voices of the clergy leading the ritual.In post-Soviet Russia, there is declining interest in traditional Russian folk music, and performances by folk artists are increasingly rare. However, acts such as Lyudmila Zykina, the Piatnistky Russian Folk Chorus, and the Aleksandrov Song and Dance Ensemble of the Soviet army enjoy a devoted audience of music connoisseurs. More recently, Russian folk music instruments and chastushky (a short song of humorous or satirical nature that is rapped) have been successfully incorporated into contemporary music.Russia’s ethnic minorities each possess a rich musical culture. For example, Buryats are known for their distinct folk music that uses a two-stringed fiddle (morin khuur). As in other historically oral cultures, Buryat music is heavily focused on narration, evoking heroic deeds of the past. Contemporary Buryat music combines traditional styles with lyrics in the Russian language. Tatar music employs the pentatonic scale, which indicates links to East Asian musical traditions. Tatars employ musical instruments such as the kubyz (Jew’s harp) and the zurna, a double-reed wind instrument. In the Soviet Union, musical concerts by Russia’s national minorities were a common feature of state holidays and a staple of the all-Union festivals of arts and music. They were regularly broadcast on television, and the state supported musical education and preservation of musical traditions in the ethnic republics. In post-Soviet Russia, while the state continues to support ethnic traditions, public musical performances are confined to philharmonic concerts and special programs on the Kul’tura television channel.Despite some interest in ethnic traditions of music, the market in Russia is dominated by the Russophone and Anglophone popular music. Popular, mainstream music had an ambivalent status in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the state propagated “ideologically correct” songs (for example, songs from the Stalin-era film musical Volga-Volga) and was willing to allow for popular tunes at times of national hardship (like during World War II, when the famous ballad Katiusha was sanctioned by the state). On the other hand, the state opposed any form of popular music that seemed to be outside the accepted ideological and aesthetic canon (for instance, jazz, labeled as the music of the bourgeoisie, was banned for decades until it was “rehabilitated” in the 1970s) or hinted at market conditions necessary for the proliferation of a popular music industry. Music distribution was controlled by the state through radio and television channels as well as the state recording monopoly, Melodiia. During the Brezhnev era, music played a pivotal role in maintaining a cheerful spirit and hopes for a “brighter future,” and generally was used by the state to distract the population from critically examining social and political issues. This resulted in the emergence of genuinely popular stars like Alla Pugacheva, who dominates the contemporary Russian pop scene even now through her network of hand-picked “starlets.” Classical music was always seen by Soviet officials as a safe option for popular entertainment as, first of all, it symbolized the Soviet notion of enlightenment, and second, it rarely contained elements that aimed to critique the regime. The traditions of classical music have been maintained in post-Soviet Russia, with every major urban center having a philharmonic orchestra and one or two concert halls and music education institutions. Moscow and St. Petersburg remain the country’s centers of classical music, with the Moscow Conservatory and other institutions producing world-famous performers. The Kul’tura television channel and the Orpheus radio channel specialize in broadcasting classical music. Russian contemporary classical music composers include Boris Philanovsky and Anton Batagov, among many others. While Philanovsky’s music is highly experimental and combines complex abstract forms and evocations of Russian postmodern literature, Batagov’s music is a synthesis of European notation and Buddhist spirituality.Rock music played a crucial role in undermining the Soviet regime. Genealogically linked to the Soviet intelligentsia tradition of the bard song, Soviet rock formed an important stratum of Soviet unofficial culture. Underground concerts and samizdat copies of musical albums served as a channel of dissemination of free thinking and as a form of social mobilization. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that rock music brought about the changes associated with perestroika and glasnost, with one of the songs by Viktor Tsoi, Peremen! (“We expect changes!”), becoming the unofficial anthem of the period. In post-Soviet Russia, rock music is as diverse as in any Western country. Other genres of popular music are equally represented, with a variety of music festivals dedicated to every genre occurring across contemporary Russia.The dramatic change from a highly regulated music scene of the 1970s to a thriving music culture of the new millennium has to do with a few factors. First of all, the abolishing of censorship under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin enabled musicians to express themselves freely, using the style that they thought was most appropriate for their work. Second, Russia’s lenient intellectual property laws permit almost unbarred circulation of musical content on- and offline. Paradoxically, this disrespect of authorship facilitated creativity during the national crisis of the 1990s as musicians and fans were still able to remain attuned to Russian and foreign music developments despite the lack of economic means to purchase music. Furthermore, as Russian musicians have little hope of making money by selling music recordings because of widespread piracy, they are forced to perform live, which in the end serves as a boost to the music industry. Third, with economic stabilization under Vladimir Putin, Russian teenagers, who have no experience of life in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), have fully embraced the new market conditions and view music culture as part of their personal independence and freedom.While Russia’s contemporary music market caters to all kinds of audiences and tastes, the state has continuously failed on the music front. In 1991, Yeltsin’s government adopted the new Russian anthem, Mikhail Glinka’s “Patriotic Song” (1833). Unfortunately, the anthem did not contain any lyrics, and despite the popular demand for lyrics, the national anthem remained wordless. Putin’s government replaced the 1990s-era hymn with an adaptation of the Soviet anthem originally composed by Aleksandr Aleksandrov in 1944. Although Putin’s choice contains new lyrics that do not refer to the Soviet regime, it invariably taps a lingering nostalgia for the Stalin era. In the past few years, music has been used for other political purposes. Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, came to Tskhinvali in South Ossetia in the aftermath of the 2008 South Ossetian War, and performed a concert near the ruined building of the Ossetian parliament to pay tribute to the victims of the war. An Ossetian himself, Gergiev made no secret of his political intentions.In 2007, the Ukrainian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest caused a scandal when a song by Verka Serduchka (a female persona portrayed by Andriy Danylko) contained the lyrics “Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” which, in the context of color revolutions, were interpreted in Russia as “Dancing Russia Good-Bye.” Danylko had made his career in Russia and in fact remains a Russian celebrity; however, his performance at Eurovision cost him access to Russia’s major television channels. In 2009, when Moscow hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, the Russian entry for the competition was a song performed by Ukrainian pop star Anastasiya Prikhodko. Her song “Mamo” (Ukrainian for “mother”) was composed by a Georgian musician and featured lyrics in both Russian and Ukrainian. Many viewed this entry as Russia’s attempt to reconcile with its neighbors, at least in the field of popular music.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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