You can get fifteen years in Russia for condemning the war against Ukraine. This is also the case with Boris Krebenshikov, who gave a concert in Budapest with his band Aquarium, formed fifty years ago – at the Aquarium. He considers the war against Ukraine an insult to Russia, so he used the 12 million dollars (about HUF 4.2 billion) income from his concert in Berlin to help Ukraine, which is a serious crime under Russian law.
The singer-poet-painter, who turned 70 this year, was one of the defining figures of rock, both forbidden and tolerated, in the Soviet Union. From the second half of the eighties, the system almost supported the genre, and Aquarium Samistat could emerge from the world of records. Krebenshikov recalls the years of perestroika as a time of amazing changes, but for him, the essence has never changed, so it is not surprising what Russia will become by 2023. We spoke to the artist before the concert.
Twenty years ago, your fiftieth birthday concert was held in the Kremlin, and on your seventieth birthday this year it would have been unthinkable.
Yes, our manager at the time believed that the Kremlin was a worthy place for this. Well, so be it, I thought. By the way, we played in the Kremlin twice, and both times I sang the song Communists Got a Boy. [Ez az egykori lágerlakó fizikus Nyikolaj Viljamsz ironikus verse a hatvanas évekből arról, hogy a KGB bevisz egy fiatalembert, aki jól megmondja nekik, hogy a kapitalizmus hamarosan úgyis darabokra szedi a Szovjetuniót. Az Egyesült Államokba emigrált szerző még megérte, hogy a vers valósággá lett, 2006-ban halt meg – a szerző.] I probably wouldn’t have sung anywhere else, so I had fun. As for these days, I don’t want to play the same joke over and over again anyway.
The aquarium was established fifty years ago, and the first twenty were spent in the Soviet Union. How much does the post-Soviet Russian state oversee and control culture compared to those times?
Ah, it’s like an ant trying to control an elephant. These are incommensurable things.
So it didn’t work?
These are incommensurable things, they are simply in another dimension.
If I think about how to talk about the war against Ukraine in Russia today, it can’t even be called a war, and that’s why it seems to work. At first there were those who opposed the war, then, in compliance with the Kremlin, they believed in special military action, singing a neo-patriotic song along with many singers.
It must be a matter of conscience of the artists concerned. But I still know many great Russian bands in Russia and write their painful, sharp songs. It’s just that they can’t do it. That’s why these geniuses keep creating. But it was the same fifty years ago. Nothing has changed.
Since the beginning of the war, when I went to Ukraine, I felt a change in the way people talked about those in charge. First Putin, then the Kremlin, then the military, and now Russia in general, Russian society.
Undoubtedly, for understandable reasons, it can be said that the attitude of the outside world towards Russians is complex. Of course, everyone has the right to blame anyone. However, this only reveals his state of mind and nothing else.
So, maybe he performs with this awareness in concerts, to shade this image and show that among Russians there are people who think differently from the authorities?
I have never felt obligated to speak for others. I do it myself. But in fact, I often hear that society can do whatever the Kremlin does. In such cases, I usually ask the childishly simple question of what the Russians could have done. But because of this, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people in Russia still oppose the war. Everyone in my circle of acquaintances. But they ask: What can we do? Should we go to the square to be beaten to death?
Maybe society missed an opportunity?
No one asked the community. When the current “Kaiser” was elected, no one asked the people. When people go to vote, the outcome of that vote is already known. It’s always like this. Before and after the Soviet Union. Society has little influence over those who govern it. Two million people took to the streets in Kiev. Russians are different, I’m so sorry. I won’t go into details, because I don’t want to be superficial, but from what I saw, I came to the conclusion that Ukrainians are different.
But in 2016, he said that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, they speak a little differently.
Well, there was Kievan Rus, that’s where it all started, and only when Andrey moved his headquarters to Sustal, “Northern Rus” appeared. But there is no doubt that after Soviet history and the Holodomor we cannot speak of any unity. When Ukraine was given the chance to secede, they took it, and they had every right to do so. Baltic states and everyone else.
Putin also mentions that the people living in the region made a decision when talking about secession of Donetsk, Luhansk regions and Crimea from Ukraine.
Of course, but these polls were organized with a cunning hand, and you can’t give them credit. But should he have come to the concert? Because I don’t know what Putin has to do with it.
Today the world is very confused.
Come on, it’s always like that! Was it better in the Middle Ages, when European countries fought each other? Aquarium is not interested in any government of any country. We are far from it. That’s why people listen to us. Because they can finally blow themselves up.
There are times when it is unavoidable, for example, last year you mentioned that you are ready to give a concert in Donetsk or Crimea, which is part of Ukraine, so you can get there via Kiev. So, you cannot avoid politics.
It’s not politics, I’m just saying that if we do something, it should be legal. Breaking the law is dangerous.
However, this happened only in the seventies. Isn’t that Samistad record release?
Come on, it’s not! What we could have done, we made the best records we could, and a million people were excited about it.
But then, as if the tide had turned, the Red Wave appeared in America in 1987, with four rock bands from Leningrad, including songs from Aquarium. And then, suddenly, they might appear officially in the Soviet Union. Didn’t you suddenly feel that politics would take advantage of you after Prohibition?
He didn’t take advantage of me! I’ll tell you what the history of Red Wave is: Jonah Stingray put it together, he’s smart, he puts out records.
Well, that required some more illegal…
There was nothing in it, simply, no one asked him. So, the Red Wave came out, and then the KGB got him because they were scolded from above. They came to me, but they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. After that they stopped looking for me. Instead, the Kremlin’s state-owned record label called Melozija, saying, “What the hell, this record came out in the West, but not here yet?!” Immediate release! The evaluation was carried out by the Council of Arts, and Voznesensky and Bukasova were invited as experts. [Andrej Voznyeszenszkij költő, 1933–2010, Alla Pugacsova, a Szovjetunió és Oroszország legismertebb énekesnője, Magyarországon az eredetileg általa énekelt Millió rózsaszált ismerhetik sokan, S. Nagy István fordításában, az eredeti szöveget épp Voznyeszenszkij szerezte – a szerző.] They stayed there for a minute and then they came out and said everything was fine.
Pugacheva has now left the country.
Well, the country is not a cage.
But it was when it was.
It depends on one’s own feelings. It could have been abandoned a long time ago.
It is wonderful that he talks as if the Soviet times were not tragic.
It was a terribly interesting time. In fact, I spoke to many people abroad, including Iggy Pop, who said he was actually jealous of us. Because rock and roll works when banned.
If you were in Russia right now…
No Conditional Method…
Well, it’s no accident that he’s there now.
I came three years ago, before the whole war.
Are you planning to go back?
Well, of course they’ll find a place for me in a camp somewhere near Magadan, but I want to stay away from it for the time being.
So, you will have questions for the authorities.
Yes, but why should I go home? Concerts are prohibited in aquariums. We just came to Budapest because we have a good impresario, she was born in Donetsk and lives in Israel. He organized concerts at this venue, also known as the Aquarium. We always wanted to come here. Then we go to Belgrade and Sofia, and the performance was the old plan in both places. But even though we received many requests, we could not fulfill all of them. It’s physically impossible, and then I have to work between concerts, and I’m still working on four albums. They don’t have a title yet, that’s the last thing.
Has the war in Ukraine affected those jobs?
Actually yes, very strongly. All the dirty, disgusting things that happen around it have a huge effect and really spoil my mood. But it seems that God has placed such a test upon me, and I try to conform. There is only hope that it will succeed.
Do they hear about your foreign appearances and statements at home?
If the government wants to isolate the community, the internet should be shut down completely.
And is it impossible?
Well, I can’t know that. But I’m not saying you should listen to me. My voice was heard enough. I speak because I consider it my personal duty to the Almighty. I would do it if I was given such a wonderful life. I paint, write songs, poems, books and translate. I don’t think they are listening to me. Everyone knows that whatever I am saying here is punishable by fifteen years imprisonment. That’s why many of my good friends who stayed there don’t release their songs anymore.
And yet, he says, it has always been this way, which also shows that there were different times. I lived there in the nineties, at the beginning of Putin’s time, who could I meet as a journalist, what organizations could I talk to, many of them have arrived or are in prison, many organizations are now banned. That’s why it seems so strange to be now.
See, many people believed that I was doing well at one time. I have many honest, intelligent acquaintances who are now amazed. I asked them, don’t you see where all this is going? And the answer was always, well, we saw it, but we thought it was going to happen somehow.
This “it will happen somehow” is scary. It’s not like it’s going to happen anyway.
I speak as a mathematician. But anyway: if a motor hangs on the stage in the first act, it goes off in the third act. And the motor is always hanging over our heads. Throughout the fifties and beyond. No one took it off. Also, the entire decoration is always made of mortars.
And will it stay that way?
Divination is beyond my skill.
But would you be surprised if the motor is missing?
I would be very surprised.
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