Culture

The 'Russian Bob Dylan' credited with bringing down the USSR

On a Tuesday evening, hundreds of people lined up in front of the Webster Hall venue in Manhattan's East Village, and most of them were speaking Russian. Expats, first-generation immigrants and tourists, they all came to catch Boris Grebenshchikov on his rare American tour. He's the man who essentially invented rock music in Russia, and has been one of the most respected and influential singer-songwriters in the country for several decades.

Grebenshchikov, 61, who started in the early 1970s with his band Aquarium, is often called the Russian counterpart to Bob Dylan. A fan of both British and American rock and the Russian literary tradition, Grebenshchikov – usually referred to as BG – synthesised contemporary Western culture with his native Russian one. Since the mid-1980s BG has assumed the role of the Russian Poet, an artist who put the nation's spirit into song. Many of his lines have become their own kinds of proverb in Russian, and hardly anyone who tries to write a song with a guitar escapes his influence.

At one point, BG tried to make it in America. When Perestroika came and the West got curious about the Soviet counter-culture Grebenshchikov went to the US to work with Eurythmics producer Dave Stewart, recording an English-language album, Radio Silence. The record managed to enter the Billboard Top 200, and BG even appeared on the David Letterman show, but the breakthrough didn't quite come and Grebenshchikov went home to continue his Russian career.

It's widely believed that the Soviet underground rock scene, led by BG and Aquarium, played an important role in helping to bring the Soviet regime to an end. But apart from his perestroika anthem Train On Fire, Grebenshchikov has rarely expressed his personal political views or affiliations, either publicly or in his songs. Months ago, he made an exception. The singer's most recent album, Salt, without naming names, offers a grim perspective on contemporary Russia and the country's social climate. The catchiest song is called Love in Wartime and alludes to the conflict in Ukraine; another, The Governor, is thought to be about the governor of the Yekaterinburg region, who persecuted a local journalist.

The morning after his New York show, Grebenshchikov talked to Newsweek about his career, his long-lasting relationship with American culture and his views on current Russian events.

Newsweek: Western media usually refer to you as the 'Russian Bob Dylan'. What do you think of it?

Grebenshchikov: "Well, I was called all kinds of things – Russian Bob Dylan, Russian David Bowie, The Russian Clash ... Of course, it's misleading. The thing me and Dylan have in common is that we both are building bridges. Dylan built the bridge between the American traditional culture and pop culture, between folk and rock'n'roll. I have been trying to bridge between Western culture and Russia. Branding is a very shallow thing; it doesn't give people any idea of what the music really is."

When you started writing songs, you said one of your purposes was to translate Dylan's songs to Russian.

You can't translate American culture to Russian, because the conditions are very different. When I started writing songs for real, in the late 1970s, there was this one thing that was bothering me. When I listened to Dylan, or the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, I felt like they knew how I felt and could express it. When I listened to music that was popular in Russia at the time, I couldn't find anything to identify with.

I was asking people, 'What's wrong? Maybe I'm missing something'. And they would tell me, 'You aren't, but rock'n'roll can't be written in Russian, because the language just isn't suited for it'.I thought, well, that's bullshit; let's see what can be done. So I started writing my own songs.

Ten years later, you came to the US and tried to make a music career. You must have built a very detailed image of America in your head. Do you remember what your impression was when you finally saw the real thing?

I remember it very well. New York was the first place I'd seen outside Russia. I thought that all the miracles around me were here to teach me something. I felt like I finally got to experience the real world, the world that had more colours in everything, unlike Russia, where people mostly had this black-and-white mentality. It was like a veil was suddenly taken off my eyes.

So did you perceive this whole American experience as a career opportunity, or was it just an experiment?

I came here to take part in an adventure. I wanted to see how things were done here, to experience it first-hand, so that I could get back and do it the real way. And that's what happened.

And then you went back and recorded the most Russian record you've ever made, The Russian Album, rather than something more Americanised.

Before I came here I had been in a cage. It was a nice cage, I can't complain; being in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s was great. But, of course, I wanted to breathe the air of the free world. Everything I recorded up to Radio Silence was basically a bridge between Russia and the West. When I got to the West, I felt the need to build a bridge back.

A lot of people argue now that contemporary Russia is also a cage, comparing it to the Soviet times.

I have to disappoint you. If you don't watch TV and spend your life on Facebook, if you go out on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow, there's a great feeling. It is changing, but for now it's still great.

And from my perspective, it is still a free country. Of course, there is a lot of controversy. Just recently there was this Victory Day parade in St Petersburg that seemed really impressive, but strange. The people weren't commemorating the fallen Russian soldiers; they were celebrating something completely different, some weird idea that was sold to them by the media.

On the other hand, in Moscow and St Petersburg, I see bright young people who do their own little things and enjoy life. When I go to Kiev, I feel great; none of the bullshit you in the news, no hostility, and people are even more loving and tender than two years ago. Like somebody said, war is over if you switch off the TV.

One could argue that all these bright young people exist in a designated ghetto surrounded by social hatred, war and lies. You can ignore TV and radio, but the majority of the Russian population doesn't.

True. But it's always been like this. In the beginning of the 1990s, we were hypnotised. We thought: well, the great wall fell down, and now everybody is going to be happy and free, and everybody will listen to great music. In a few years, it turned out that people actually wanted prison songs. And now they have all this nostalgia about Soviet Russia and Soviet culture. And I'm like, hello? Do you really remember what it was? No, they don't, but they like it. But there have always been, say, 10, 15, or maybe 8% of the population, who need what we're doing, who have this demand for the real culture.

Still, the situation in the country is getting tougher for them. Now they're constantly being persecuted.

Again, it has always been like this. Read the great Russian writers of the 19th century, that's how it was back then. And there's nothing wrong with it. Russians have always been fighters, even before they were baptised. There's a wonderful report of this Jewish merchant Ibn Yusuf who was employed by Arabs as a spy in, like, the 6th century, and they sent him to the territory that later became known as Russia. He wrote that people there are very good fighters, but they will never be a threat to anybody else, because instead of organising themselves and going to conquer someone else they'd rather be fighting each other. And that's precisely what's going on right now.

Do you think music can still be instrumental in changing society? As instrumental as Soviet rock was in bringing down the Soviet Union in the late 1980s?

I believe that, today, music is even more important. Good music is preserving the sanity of people. The 10% I mentioned, and maybe the children of the 90% that at the moment are quite aggressive and in the dark. Their children are going to be different. At least, I hope so.

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