A new reality reverberates through Russia's music scene Canceled concerts, lawsuits, existential turmoil. As Russia has cracked down on anti-war speech, the country's music scene reaches a particularly high pitch.

A new reality reverberates through Russia's music scene

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1109345102/1110962278" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Cancelled concerts, lawsuits, existential turmoil - as Russia has cracked down on anti-war speech, the country's music scene has seen this play out at an especially high pitch. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The day I talked to Manizha Sangin, she's supposed to be a top headliner at a music festival in Russia's second city, Saint Petersburg. Instead, she searches for a quiet spot outside a shelter housing Ukrainian refugees.

MANIZHA SANGIN: She's dancing (laughter).

SELYUKH: The festival had abruptly removed Manizha from the lineup. It was her second of three concerts to get canceled under pressure from authorities. A vast cyberbullying campaign had declared her an anti-Russian traitor.

SANGIN: Because of my words, because of my position.

SELYUKH: In February, when Russian troops attacked Ukraine, Manizha posted her opposition on social media, calling it a fratricidal conflict against the will of the people. Her new song...


SANGIN: (Singing) Soldier, Soldier.

SELYUKH: ...Planned months earlier, came out with eerie timing.


SANGIN: (Singing) When the war is over, who will wait for you? Stop our, stop our war. Stop our, stop our war. Stop our, stop our war.

SELYUKH: For half her own life, Manizha herself was a refugee of a civil war in Tajikistan, fleeing as a child.

SANGIN: (Through interpreter) And it is heinous. I am 31, and I still remember. And at our table we always say this - let there be peace.

SELYUKH: Except new Russian laws have criminalized anti-war statements, sometimes even the word war, especially from influential figures. Many Russian artists did line up in support of what the Kremlin calls its special military operation in Ukraine. Plenty go on in silence, afraid or asserting their art to be outside of geopolitics. Some protest and keep performing, while others get blacklisted and taken off air. Rock music legend Yuri Shevchuk faced prosecution after a video from his concert in May went viral.


YURI SHEVCHUK: (Speaking Russian).

SELYUKH: All this death, for what, some Napoleonic plans of our latest Caesar? Shevchuk went on. Homeland, he said, is not the president's behind that has to be constantly kissed. His legal case was dismissed, but his band DDT soon suspended concerts.


ZEMFIRA RAMAZANOVA: (Singing in Russian).

SELYUKH: Another big rocker, Zemfira, rereleased an old track called "Don't Shoot," with video showing destroyed Ukrainian towns.


RAMAZANOVA: (Singing in Russian).

SELYUKH: Don't be silent, the song urges. Zemfira fled Russia in the spring exodus of dissenters and joined other Russians playing concerts for Ukraine aid. Indie artist Kate Shilonosova also recorded a charity album...


SELYUKH: ...For a group that helps Ukrainians evacuate. She performs as Kate NV, describing her sound as pop that's tender with a sprinkling of weird. Before the war, she had planned some trips to the U.S. for a music partnership. Now she's in Brooklyn, feeling existentially adrift.

KATE SHILONOSOVA: (Through interpreter) I'm a bit lost right now. I feel like anything I might do is insufficient and bad. To characterize my current state, I generally don't understand anything, really just nothing.

SELYUKH: She found herself unable to listen to music, putting on headphones and absorbing silence. Her life plans only extend two months out. Kate will return to Moscow in the fall with nowhere to live, no idea what she'll do or who'll even be there. Beyond that, she says, the future is a gaping emptiness. One thing still gives Kate energy - writing music. But she says she feels like a depleted car battery. Summoning mental strength requires a jumpstart. And once you stop running, it's all over.

SHILONOSOVA: (Through interpreter) Every day, you're kind of thinking, what's the point of my life? What's the point of it all? What's the point of me making music? So I literally question my occupation every day.

SELYUKH: Back in Moscow, Manizha has been pouring her focus into her refugee support foundation, one big reason she says she does not think about leaving Russia. The day her second concert got cancelled, she wrote new songs.

SANGIN: (Speaking Russian).

SELYUKH: You have fragile shoulders, but a strong back, she wrote, because you're not alone. Manizha says she and other artists have been meeting up to sit in silence or ask each other what to do - a bit like children, she says, approaching their instruments for the first time. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.