How Russia Fights Art

The Russian gangsta rap group Krovostok pushes the genre's aesthetics to the extreme, telling stories of ruthless killers and drug dealers, even though the band's MC and lyricist are both art school graduates. This week, a Russian court ruled their lyrics to be illegal.


The lyrics of a rap group created in the early 2000s by two art college graduates were ruled illegal by a local court in the Russian city of Yaroslavl on Wednesday. The court agreed with the prosecution in its allegations that the band's songs contain descriptions of killings, drug propaganda and "calls to deny human morality"—not exactly surprising findings, considering that Krovostok is, well, a hip-hop band (their name means "blood groove" in Russian).

For the past 12 years they have been consciously pushing gangsta rap aesthetics to the extreme, writing brilliantly detailed, believable and witty—though completely fictional—stories about the turbulent and adventurous lives of drug dealers, street gangs and hit men (with all the cursing one can imagine that entails). In fact, the narrative quality of their songs is so impressive that their fan base was originally mostly composed of Moscow journalists and intellectuals.

None of this impressed the Federal Drug Control service office in Yaroslavl, which filed a complaint to the regional prosecutor shortly after the band's March club gig in the city. The case's judge and the experts that examined the band's lyrics on the prosecution's request didn't turn out to be Krovostok fans, either. Now the band has been given one month to appeal the court's decision, and if the ruling stands, Krovostok's website, which contains all their lyrics, will be blocked by the Russian government.

It's unclear how the court's decision may affect the band's ability to perform or put out records. "We're glad, of course," the band's manager and primary lyricist, told Vozduh. "If our songs are illegal, that means we're the crown jewel of the market, ironically speaking."

Petr Pavlensky

Pussy Riot aren't the only group in Russia to use performance art for political protest. Actually, St. Petersburg native Petr Pavlensky does way more radical things than a punk gig in a church; basically, he considers his body his own artwork. Since 2012, he's sewn his mouth shut to protest the case against Pussy Riot, wrapped himself in barbed wire to protest political oppression in Russia, nailed his testicles to the stone pavement in Red Square to create a metaphor of political apathy in the country and built a barricade on one of the most famous bridges in St. Petersburg, burning tires and shouting slogans to celebrate the victory of the Ukrainian revolution.

The Red Square thing got him charged with disorderly conduct (however, he wasn't convicted). The Maidan celebration resulted in Pavlensky and his accomplices being charged with vandalism. He is on trial now. On July 15, Pavlensky gave a vow of silence after the court refused his request to add to his defense team a man who previously had been an investigator assigned on his case.


A modern version of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser, staged in the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theater in December 2014, included, among other things, a poster of an imaginary movie about Jesus Christ with a crucifix placed between the open legs of a woman. Considering how sensitive the Russian Orthodox Church has been recently, that was a recipe for disaster. Soon enough, a local priest who hadn't even seen the show but was told that it wasn't all right demanded the launch of an investigation, stating that the opera was offending the faithful.

In an unlikely turn of events, a local court dismissed the case, but the church found another supporter in Vladimir Medinsky, the Russian minister of culture, who, despite the fact that the Russian theatrical community almost unanimously denounced the allegations against Tannhauser, fired the longtime general manager of the theater and appointed a new one, Vladimir Kekhman. And one of Kekhman's first orders of business was to take Tannhauser off the theater's repertoire. In April, Kekhman, who is as much a culture entrepreneur as he is a businessman, became the main suspect in a huge fraud case. He's since left the general manager position, but still serves as the theater's creative director.

Child 44

A movie starring Tom Hardy as a disgraced KGB agent who, while trying to investigate a series of child murders, has to fight the Soviet system as much as a mysterious serial killer, was a box office flop. It took nearly $50 million to make, and earned just a little over $3 million both in the U.S. and internationally. The critics weren't happy either: The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw called Child 44 "a heavy, indigestible meal of a film."

So maybe, all things considered, Russian audiences should be glad they didn't get to watch it—though it wasn't because of Child 44's aesthetic value. On April 15, a day before the movie was scheduled for release in Russia, the Ministry of Culture recalled its distribution certificate. Later, together with the distributor, the ministry published an official statement saying the movie "distorted historical facts and offered peculiar interpretations of the events of World War II and after and the Soviet citizens of the era." Medinsky later published a separate, passionate statement, in which he accused the movie of presenting the Soviet Union of 1930 to the 1950s as Lord of the Rings's hellscape Mordor, "where only physically and morally handicapped subhumans lived."

"We have to put an end to this endless schizophrenic self-consciousness," Medinsky proclaimed. "We have to view ourselves as the heirs of the great and unique Russian civilization."

Cannibal Corpse

When you have released albums titled Gallery of Suicide, Torture and, simply, Kill, as has seminal extreme-metal band Cannibal Corpse, you should probably just expect that Russian people won't tolerate you—and they don't. First, the band's Russian tour last year was disrupted by the police and Orthodox activists: Three of the shows were canceled on various pretexts; a gig in Nizhny Novgorod was abruptly terminated halfway through by the police, who came to the venue for a drug search; and the show in St. Petersburg was canceled at the last minute, after fans had already showed up (they rioted, and 18 were arrested). Then, last November, a local court in Ufa banned the band's songs in Russia, ruling that the lyrics' translations contained "the depictions of suicides and physical and mental violence towards people and animals," which could cause harm to underage listeners (apparently the court didn't take into consideration that to discern the lyrics in the actual songs is an ordeal in itself).

It has to be said, however, that Russia isn't the first to consider Cannibal Corpse's music offensive—the band's records and performances have been banned in Australia and Germany, and in 1995, then-U.S. Senator Bob Dole cited the band among the examples of popular culture that threaten "to undermine our character as a nation."

"Dumb Ways to Die"

You may think that a successful, award-winning viral music video released by Metro Trains Melbourne is a funny way to promote subway safety, but Russian officials take these things very, very seriously. After a popular Russian blogger posted the video on his Livejournal page in February 2013, criticizing a Russian government that "creates laws that forbid [talking] about suicide" while "normal guys shoot cool videos about it," Roskomnadzor, a government agency overseeing the media, blocked the blog and, subsequently, the video on YouTube. Roskomnadzor stated that the video contained depictions of ways to commit suicide, such as eating glue, and that those depictions were made in "a humorous manner attractive for children and teenagers." As of now, the YouTube video is still blocked in Russia.

This video has been watched already more than 100 million times; however, it's illegal in Russia.

Golden Mask

Since the mid-1990s, the Golden Mask theater awards and festival have been on the forefront of Russian theatrical life, bringing together the most talented, innovative and groundbreaking performances from Moscow and the rest of Russia, as well as abroad. However, in the view of certain officials, "groundbreaking" nowadays amounts to immoral.

In May, a deputy ministry of culture, speaking at an official meeting, said that the festival "has been systematically supporting performances that evidently contradict moral norms, provoke our society and contain the elements of Russophobia," adding that the government doesn't have the right to financially support the festival. Several days later, an open letter to the minister of culture from the Independent Union of Cinema and Theater Actors followed, accusing the Golden Mask of ignoring local theaters. Even though the organizers of the Golden Mask published an extensive response to the allegations, explaining how the awards and festival work and how they reflect the diversity of Russian theater, the ministry decided to look into the issue. On July 15, a special working group was formed "to make the festival even better."