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by Maxim Kravchinsky

Katorga ballads, street songs, and thieves' sung verses have been popular in Russia since time immemorial. Songs about uprising leaders Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachev and the legendary robber Van'ka-Cain have been around for centuries, despite the harsh prohibitions by the authorities.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, depictions of prison life and life of hard-labor convicts began to appear in literature. Among those examples — Notes from the Dead House by F. M. Dostoevsky, P. F. Yakubovich’s book In the World of the Outcasts, and travel journals of Maximov and Doroshevich about the Siberian penal establishments.

Vsevolod Krestovsky's novel The Slums of Petersburg too held sinister attraction. From the young age Krestovksy enjoyed studying the life of the urban lower classes and, while still an 18-year-old student, composed the once famous song "Vladimirka" about the Vladimir Tract (which is now called the Highway of Enthusiasts in Moscow), the route along which convicts were led to Siberia:

You go far into distance impenetrable

To the icy Siberian parts 

Oh, are you the road, the path well-trodden

You are the well-trodden Volodimir way  

Does this not sound like the forerunner to Mikhail Krug's modern hit "Vladimirsky Central"?

Public interest in the convict theme grew, but the tsarist censorship forbade publishing sheet music or songbooks with such repertoire. However, in 1902 an event occurred which largely legalized the genre. The founder of the Moscow Art Theater Vassily Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko and the writer Maxim Gorky were directly related to the story. 


As it happened, on December 18, 1902, the premiere of Gorky's The Lower Depths took place — a play in which the main characters are the inhabitants of a rooming house for the homeless. In one of the scenes, the prison song "The Sun Rises and Sets" is performed, to the motif of the old ballad "Alexandrovsky Central." According to Ivan Bunin, soon "almost all of Russia sang this prison song."

The sun rises and sets

And my prison is dark.

Days and nights the guards

Stand by my window...

The production was a staggering success. Popular musicians of the time quickly adopted the image of a singing tramp. Portraying this kind of persona did not require much talent or expense. A wrinkled cap, a vest, torn trousers, disheveled hair and a cigarette — those were all the props one needed.



And this is how the "tattered" or "vagabond" genre was born, named so either because of the costumes of the artists, or because of the repertoire which tore at one's soul. The coupletists performed with bill listings such as "Songs of the Pavement," "Children of the Street," "Songs of Grief and Poverty." In his sketch "Yes, I Am a Tramp," the most famous performer of the genre, Stanislav Sarmatov, rejoiced:

The winter has been bitter,

We suffered in the winter.

But suddenly Maksim Gorky 

Brought us out of the darkness…

A. Smirnov and P. Nevsky echoed his sentiment:

In your eyes, I'm just a tramp,

But in the eyes of Maxim I'm a vagabond!


In contrast to the "tattered" ones, "salon" coupletists also arose, singing a similar repertoire, but dressed in a tailcoat. A particular distinctness was introduced by performers who stressed their Jewish or Caucasian accents. In Odesa, Lev Singertal was especially popular. According to the legend, he was the author of the songs which remain popular to this day — "Once on Deribasovoskaya, the corner of Reshilyevskaya" and "On Perovsky, at the Bazaar." 

Occasionally "tattered" performers also offered convict songs, but it would take several more years for the genre to become ubiquitous. Only after the revolution of 1905, when censorship restrictions were somewhat weakened, the songs of katorga broke free from the twilight of the prison cells and acquired a full voice, becoming the forerunner of modern Russian chanson. But how did this happen?

In the spring of 1909, having secured the patronage of Prime Minister Stolypin, a Russified Swede, musician and composer Wilhelm Napoleonovich Garteveld (1859-1926) set off on an ethnographic expedition to Siberia. During the trip, he visited a number of correctional facilities, where he met with prisoners and recorded their songs. Upon his return, this researcher published several books: Katorga and Vagrants of Siberia and Songs of Hard Labor, Fugitives, Vagrants and Foreigners. These explorations evoked an enormous interest. The Russian Word newspaper reported the following in its February 13, 1909 issue:

"Yesterday's meeting of the Committee of the Society of Slavic Culture unexpectedly began and ended with music performances, thanks to the presence of composer Harteveld. Having returned from Siberia, where he collected songs of vagabonds and convicts, he invited the Society of Slavic Culture to host a concert of the songs he had collected."


Sometime later Harteveld put together a small ensemble of students from the Moscow University. Its members would appear on stage in prison robes and shackles and perform songs almost a cappella, accompanying themselves only with the clang of chains and the crackling of combs.

Two months later, on April 6, 1909, a concert was held in the Great Hall of the Moscow Noble Assembly. There was barely room to move in this huge venue. Alongside with the grandest nobility one could observe the uniforms of the Prison Department, whose officials for the first time in their lives came to listen to the songs which they knew from prisons, but now in a new and quite unusual setting. Young people sat in the gallery: students, attendees of women's courses, artisans. Harteveld, who was delivering his report, was several times interrupted by impatient exclamations from the side rows demanding for the concert begin. And as soon as the concert began, the mood of the audience changed dramatically. There was no end to the thunderous applause, as well as the demands to "sing an encore." The highlight of the program was the "Marching Song in Shackles," performed with the clanging of shackles and the screeching of combs.

In the album "Songs of Hard Labor," this song takes up only four lines, written entirely in slang and accompanied by explanatory notes:

Shpanata* and a filly in the dead of night

With a spirits chase on our heels.

At night — a prison transit, but Ivan will

Perhaps seek out a bottle for us.


*Shpanata (pl.) — junior convicts at katorga; filly (here) — the entire hard labor establishment; spirits — escort guards and in general any bosses; Ivan — an authority figure among the experienced convicts in a cell or during prisoner transit.


This way an authentic prison song, a thieves' song, entered the big stage. Seeing the success of Harteveld's "ethnographic concerts," many soloists and groups began to perform similar repertoire. On showbills across the Russian Empire names flashed: "Chorus of Convicts From the Prison of Town N."; "Quartet of Siberian Vagrants" led by Girnyak and Sham"; T. Stroganov's "Quartet of Vagrants"; Pyotr Batorin's "Quartet of Real Siberian Vagrants."

These — now fashionable — songs began to enter the repertoire of genuine stars of the time: Feodor Chaliapin performed "The Sun Rises and Sets" and "She Laughed" to the lyrics by A. Maikov.  N. Plevitskaya sang "Through the Wild Steppes of Transbaikalia" and "Grief of a Criminal".  L. Sibiryakov performed "Why was I, a boy, born,” accompanied by a note: "A thieves' song".  M. Vavich sang "Oh, you, fate," etc.

But not everyone felt euphoric at the dominance of his "prison chamber" music. In the same way in which today the genre of "Russian chanson" is scolded for being primitive and for glorifying "the criminal element," so was it a hundred years ago. One person who remained unamused by the onslaught of the fake convict performers was the discoverer of this "style" — Wilhelm Harteveld himself.

In its May 17, 1909 issue the Petersburg Newspaper wrote:

"V. Harteveld, who recorded the songs of convicts in Siberia, turned to the Mayor of Moscow with a request to ban performances of these songs in various pleasure gardens, finding that these songs of 'grief and sorrow' are out of place in such places. Garteveld's request was granted by the Mayor."

Obviously, Wilhelm Napoleonovich was not looking to ban performances of his own choir this way, but was trying to somehow cope with the commercialization of the subject- matter. In the end, he "stepped on his own rake," as the Russian saying goes. In the summer of 1909 the Hermitage Garden announced "The Songs of Convicts, a production by Garteveld, in costumes,, set in the scenery."


The performance was banned a few days before the premiere.

But the bans only added to the popularity of the now-fashionable topic. Responding to the demands of the public, along with the old convict songs, new songs immediately began to appear. In 1911, Efim Gilyarov recorded "The Boy" onto a gramophone record, a song which to this day sounds quite modern:


Chained in a castle I sit

In vain, all in vain, I gaze at the free world.

It's all over for me, a boy

It's finished, forever

And year after year

Years go by...


On the eve of the revolution, at the turn of 1916-1917, the audiences of Moscow and St. Petersburg fell in love with the young singer Anna Stepovaya, who performed the program of "Songs of the Street." This trend became another stone in the foundation of the genre. The heroes of her songs are petty swindlers, goodtime girls, pickpockets and burglars. Young composer and poet Nikolai Tagamlitsky was the author of the majority of the material she performed. Today he would be called a "producer." After Stepovaya left the country in 1918, Tagamlitsky found a new fosterling — Natalya Zagorskaya — who performed the same repertoire, but already on the Soviet stage.

For two real Katerinkas*

My beau sewed pretty shoes for me

And to those shoes he nailed rubber bands

Round, black elastic bands.

Ah, boots, I shouldn't have bought you

You ruined a girl's life

These shoes I shouldn't have worn

They always ask to take a walk

Saying that my home feels like a grave...

*A 100-ruble bill with the image of Empress Catherine.

Years passed, the government and the social system changed, but these songs did not go out of fashion. This popular genre successfully survived the revolution and, oddly enough, continued to exist in Soviet Russia. True, in order to please the new realities, the name of the genre was slightly corrected — "songs of convicts" began to be called "songs of political convicts," and a weighty clarification was added to "songs of hard labor" — "songs of hard labor and exile." After all, it is no secret that many prominent Bolsheviks spent many years studying the prison life in person. Under the new government, they not only became the new leadership, but also created the Society of Political Prisoners, along with a choir of the same name. It is not hard to guess what kind of repertoire it performed. Up until the mid-1930s, records would be released, where, just like under the old regime, the labels would say "a song of prison and penal servitude" and "a convicts' song." Sheet music and songbooks from the Songs of Penal Servitude and Exile series would also be published. The song "Tortured by Toiling in Captivity" was especially popular, which would always bear a note: "Lenin's favorite song." So the seeds sown by Harteveld fell on fertile soil.


The genre's heyday coincided with the years of the New Economic Policy (NEP), when the government, seeking to avoid an economic collapse, allowed private enterprise to return to some areas. Chic restaurants, fashionable casinos and elite cabarets began to open in central quarters of large cities. People from the working-class outskirts spent their leisure time in beerhouses, tearooms, and canteens. Every self-respecting establishment had its own music program. Citizens of the young Soviet Republic, tired of communist propaganda, would go to restaurants to rest, relax and remember the good old days. That is why it was not the drum marches that were being preformed there, but another kind of familiar repertoire: gypsy romances, frivolous chansonettes, topical couplets, street songs, and songs from Odesa:

The night is coming, the lantern is swinging

A cop is cursing into the darkness of the night.

I'm unwashed and wrapped in rags

And all broken, barely walking.


Buy the bagels, my hot bagels,

Hand over your rubles here now!

And on a rainy night take pity on me — 

The unhappy private trader...


In the 1920s, the star of a young and little-known artist from Odesa, Leonid Utesov, began to rise. He brought with him to Moscow and Leningrad the flavor and the repertoire of the City by the Black Sea. Utyosov recorded the classics of the genre: "From the Odessa Gaol," "Bublichki," and "Gop-so-Smykom" ("Pounce-and-Run"). Surprisingly, those were released in the USSR in 1931 absolutely officially. In the same year, the first Soviet sound film "A Start in Life" was also released, telling a story about the fate of homeless children. The picture was stuffed with thieves' songs like a turkey. Here one could hear the already mentioned "Gop-so-Smykom," as well as "Two Thugs," and the old convict song "Is This My Daring Head...," alongside the old hit about a thief:

Don't stand on ice —

The ice will fall through.

Don't love a thief —

The thief will perish.


In general, during the unrestrained times of NEP, such repertoire could be heard almost openly, although it often provoked criticism by the authorities.

The term "blatnaya pesnya" to denote the genre of criminals' songs appeared in the mid-twenties and is first encountered in Nikolai Khandzinsky's pamphlet Criminal Poetry (1926). Before that, these songs were called "prison songs," "thieves' songs," "convicts' songs," "Odesa songs," "Rostov songs," or even simply "Southern songs."

In the early 1920s, the Southern Song Quartet was created in Petrograd under the direction of Natalia Efron, an actress who would become well-known in the future for her portrayal of Fanny Kaplan in the film Lenin in 1918. In the early twenties, not a single serious concert would take place without the quartet's participation. Just like today, the stars performed the last, offering their most famous hit:


One night I was busy with a wet job

And wrapped it clean by dawn.

In the end a cop nabbed me,

But I quietly let my revolver speak:

Alyosha-sha take it half a tone lower,

stop telling tales,

Don't sit much closer and

stop remembering Odesa...


Further development of the genre is directly linked to the appearance of the SLON — the Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp, which became the forerunner of the GULag. There a bond developed for the first time between the "cream of society" and the lower classes, because along with the "noble blood" (military, priests, nobles, intelligentsia) the convicts also included the "black suit" — criminals, card-sharpers, scam artists, embezzlers who lost in the casino, prostitutes, cocaine dealers… All of them brewed in one cauldron. They listened to each other's songs, sang and composed new ones. In Solovki, in the course of experiments in re-educating the "harmful social element," theater groups, orchestras and ensembles were being created. Among them was the choir group called Ours, that is, consisting of criminals. It is not difficult to guess what kind of repertoire they performed. But the government was not yet thinking about such trifles as songs. Moreover, one of the prisoners of the Solovetsky camp, the former actor of the Tairov Theater — Boris Glubokovsky — even published a pamphlet in the camp publishing house devoted to the study of the folklore of the "criminal element."


The nuts and bolts began to get tightened by the mid-thirties. Songs ceased to be viewed exclusively as entertainment, and finally turned into a propaganda tool. The famous writer Anatole France once said, "A merry verse can overturn the throne and overthrow the gods." And those in power have always understood the power an influence a song can wield. Therefore, already by the winter of 1923, according to the decision of the Council of People's Commissars (which was the name of the Soviet government from 1917 to 1946), the Committee for the Control over Spectacles and Repertoire (Glavrepertkom, or the Main Repertoire Commission) had been set up. And in 1924, the Collegium for Control over the Gramophone Repertoire had been created, which published "Lists of gramophone records to be withdrawn from sale." These were records released under the old regime. Another circular dated May 25, 1925 demanded strict control over the distribution and importation of records into the USSR. Records of "monarchist, patriotic, and imperialist content; as well as pornographic records, and records displaying disdainful attitude toward peasantry" were now forbidden and were to be confiscated by OGPU (an acronym for the United State Political Administration, an organization which had been created to fight "the enemies of the revolution," the forerunner of the KGB). If censorship instructions were violated, such cases were to be transferred to the internal affairs bodies.

To ensure control over music performances, all entertainment establishments were ordered to allocate one permanent seat — no further than in the fourth row — as well as free coat hanging spaces and programs, to the representatives of the OGPU Repertoire Committee.

The Proletarian Musician magazine (in its issue no. 5, 1929) urged: "We, proletarian musicians, cultural workers and members of Komsomol [the Young Communists' League - Ed.], must finally meet the enemy face to face, chest to chest. We need to understand that our main enemy, the strongest and most dangerous enemy, are songs pattered after Gypsy melodies, cheap jokes, jazz, thieves' songs, foxtrot and tango... This kind of hack work corrupts the proletariat, attempts to instill in it a petty-bourgeois attitude to music, to art and, in general, to life. This enemy must be defeated on a first-priority basis. If we don't do this, the working class will not accept our proletarian creativity."

However, despite the political repressions and total control, the genre did not die. Instead it went underground, where it continued to be performed and continued to develop.


Much later, the dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky in his article "Fatherland — Blatnaya Pesnya" (1979) would write, "Blatnaya pesnya is remarkable in that it contains a cast of the soul of the people (and not just the physiognomy of a thief), and in that capacity, throughout a variety of examples, it can claim the title of Russia's national song..."


Forbidden outside of captivity, these songs were heard loud and clear in the camp barracks and in the trenches. It is well-known, for example, that during WWII new, topical lyrics were being composed to the motifs of famous thieves' songs. Leonid Utyosov, for instance, recorded a song titled "From the Berlin Gaol" to the tune of "From the Odesa Gaol." There were dozens of similar examples. Reverse metamorphoses also happened: the military song "Stalingrad Tango" morphed into a labor camp song after the war — "In Kolyma, Where the Tundra and Taiga Are All Around." And such facts are numerous in the history of the genre. But the thunder of the war died down, and the victors began to return home.

Trophies were brought from defeated Germany: the higher ranks sent home freight loads of paintings, dinnerware sets, services, crystalware, and even Horch or Mercedes automobiles. Mid-grade officers carried suitcases with carpets, watches and records. Privates grabbed more modest objects. 

Along with household items which were inaccessible to ordinary Soviet citizens, our savvy craftsmen turned their attention to the latest Western technology. This way huge Underwood typewriters, neat Elektrola gramophones, and mysterious Telefunken devices (designed to copy gramophone records) made their way to the USSR. Besides, not only did they replicate records, but were also capable of recording directly — through a microphone.

Tormented by rousing songs about "how wonderful it is to live in our Soviet state," the people experienced real culture hunger, and do-it-yourself tinkerers soon found ways to satisfy it. No matter how much the people were afraid of Stalin, no matter how the citizens of the Land of the Soviets trembled from a simple wave of the tyrant's hand, it was becoming more and more difficult for the aging dictator to keep an eye on everyone. Already by the mid-forties, entire syndicates were appearing throughout the country which produced and sold homemade records of  "forbidden" songs. The era of "music on the ribs" had begun.

["Music on the ribs" or "music on the bones" was the name of home-made records made from x-ray imaging plates. Recording devices for making these records could be assembled from parts of conventional turntables. A cutter with a sharp end was used to record music onto those x-ray plates from the original vinyl discs. - Ed.]

So what kind of music was being recorded on those discs? First of all, recordings of emigre artists who were free to record any songs they liked, without regard to censorship, be it songs patterned after Gypsy melodies, or frivolous couplets, or the White Guard romances, or thieves' ballads. The undoubted leader of those underground "hit parades" of the 1930-1950s was Petr Leshchenko:


          Forelock, forelock, curly forelock

          The forelock flutters in the wind

          Before, I used to love you

          Now I can't forget...


The process of producing "music on the ribs" consumed not only the black market profiteers, but also many "bright young things," and especially the bohemians. Immortalizing oneself "on the ribs" became a fashionable trend in the late forties and early fifties. To this day one can come across compilations of famous Soviet actors and actresses (who played upright commissars and Komsomol members in the movies) performing completely "unbecoming" 


In 1951, a well-known Soviet sports commentator, and in the past the goalkeeper of the Leningrad Dynamo football club — Viktor Nabutov — at the request of his friends, sang a dozen "yard ballads." They turned out heartfelt and soulful, and began to be replicated "on the ribs" and sold. When the merchants were detained, they gave out the name of the singer. He was a famous man, and he was tried in a show trial where he was threatened with a prison term and expulsion from the Communist Party, but managed to get off — slightly frightened and excommunicated from the air for 12 months. Recently I managed to find one of his records, where he performs the famous "cruel romance" from the Odesa life:


A beer bar has opened on Deribasovskaya

Hosting a company of thieves

Girls Marusya, Roza, Raya

And with them Vaska, the cabby for working girls...

In the second half of the fifties, tape recorders began to come into use. These "miracle machines" became the gravediggers for "music on the ribs." Regular people could now independently record  whatever their hearts desired. During the years of the Khrushchev thaw, hundreds (if not thousands) of Soviet citizens picked up guitars and began to compose and record songs on magnetic tape.


The Communists did not immediately understand what kind of genie they have let out of the bottle. The authorities actively fought against the spread of prohibited literature (samizdat): in order to copy documents on a copying machine, one had to have a special permit. And a typewriter could only make three or four carbon copies, making the process long and unproductive. But tape recorders and magnetic tape were being sold freely in stores. And it was impossible to control the turnover of magnetic tape. This is how the concept of magnetizdat came to life.

Recordings of amateur singers immediately became very popular. Mostly because their work was completely different from what was being performed on the official Soviet stage — songs about the Party and the government, folk tunes, or sugary lyricism. Bards, on the other hand, took up sharp topics from real life around them in their songs. Initially, all "guitar poetry" was lumped into one general genre, but very soon a number of independent trends began to clearly emerge: performers of original "author" songs who did not touch upon hot social topics, or did so in an allegorical way; performers who walked on the thin ice of censorship and openly sang about the vices of the Soviet regime; and, finally, those who performed old thieves' songs or skillful author's stylizations of them.

In the margins, I will note that by the beginning of the tape recorder era, not only labor camp ballads or songs about thieves, but almost all banned genres were being called blatnaya pesnya: street folklore and soldier folklore, White Guard and émigré songs, sharp satire of the government, couplets of homeless children, Odesa songs, erotic songs and obscene folk rhymes. 


This can be clearly seen in the example of the underground artist Arkady Severny (1939-1980), who is often called "the King of the thug song," although of hundreds of cassettes recorded by him, hardly a fifth contains exclusively "criminal" material.

The first recordings of Arkady Severny date back to 1963. No one knew what he looked like, but his voice was known throughout the Soviet Union, from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Underground impresarios earned huge money from his work, while the performer himself received from 25 to 200 rubles for one recording, and oftentimes received nothing at all. A paradoxical fact: Arkady Severny and other underground chansonniers sang not for money, but at the call of the soul. He and his peers from other cities (in the USSR there were no more than 20 underground performers of thieves songs: Sasha Komar from Voronezh, Boka from Baku, Vladimir Shandrikov from Omsk, Alexander Lobanovsky from Leningrad, Konstantin Belyaev from Moscow) recorded and composed simply because they could not help but sing, although this could often lead to serious trouble. Some of them, for contrived reasons, were sentenced to prison terms, some were beaten by the police and fired from their jobs. But, despite the zigzags of fate, they did not stop creating.

The recording of blatnye pesni was most often done in specially rented apartments. The musicians would arrive at the appointed time. Usually they were members of some restaurant ensemble. The organizer would set the table, where there would always be vodka and snacks. For conspiracy reasons and for better acoustics, the windows were being tightly hung with blankets. They would stretch a rope across the middle of the room, on which microphones secured with clothes-pegs would be attached, a separate one for each instrument. A separate microphone would be placed for the singer. The organizer would act as a sound engineer. Several tape recorders would be running at once. At the end of the concert, copies would immediately be sent to different cities of the USSR, where they would be replicated at underground studios to be sold for money. If the police found out that a recording was being made at an apartment, the organizer faced a fine and even expulsion from the city.


By the end of the 1970s, the name of Arkady Severny, along with the name of the main Soviet bard Vladimir Vysotsky, thundered throughout the country. His cassettes were in every car, he sang at "off-limits" concerts for the Soviet nomenklatura, sang in country restaurants for the USSR national hockey team, but never performed officially.

Arkady Severny died in April 1980 at the age of 41. And three months later, the most popular Soviet bard, Vladimir Vysotsky, died too. 

For several years, there was a lull on the underground Soviet stage, until 1982, when a young doctor from Leningrad, Alexander Rosenbaum, recorded the concert "In Memory of Arkady Severny".

Two years later, at the other end of the country, in Sverdlovsk, the novice musician Alexander Novikov began to perform his songs. Popularity of these new performers grew incredibly fast. One tape bought in the black market in Moscow would instantly get copied by hundreds of people. and a week later would be played in Vladivostok. Magnitizdat was spreading across the USSR at the speed of a forest fire.

By this time, the former KGB chief Yuri Andropov came to power. He decided to "bring order" to the country and began to tighten the nuts and blots. In 1984, on charges of speculation in radio equipment

(but, in fact, for his sharp-tongued songs) Alexander Novikov was sentenced to 10 years in the camps.

At the same time, in Moscow, the performer of hooligan songs Konstantin Belyaev was sentenced to 4 years (formal reason: illegal business — Belyaev had a huge collection of vinyl records and copied the music for money). The underground rock musician Konstantin Nikolsky and a number of other performers also were sentenced to prison terms.

It is a well-known fact that the Soviet government exercised severe censorship. In addition to the prohibitions on performances of blatnaya pesnya, other barriers stood in the way of amateur musicians. People without special musical or acting education could not perform on stage. Only songs written by composers and lyricists who were members of the professional unions could be performed on air, on stage, and on TV. There were no private music studios, everything was under state control, and in order to make a record at a state-owned studio, it was necessary to pass a special artistic board resolution and get censorship approval. The controlling bodies not only vigilantly monitored the repertoire, but also decided what kind of costumes and hair styles the artists could wear, and how they could behave on stage.

Many musicians, even those who were widely recognized, refused to exist under such conditions. When in the early 1970s opportunities arose to leave the USSR for the West, many pop singers took advantage of this. By the early 1980s, a huge number of performers found themselves in the USA, France and Germany.

Some (such as Willy Tokarev, Mikhail Shufutinsky, Anatoly Mogilevsky, Lyuba Uspenskaya) began to perform in restaurants and to record in studios. Characteristically, having found themselves in conditions free from censorship, the former Soviet singers began to perform repertoire which was banned in their homeland. And it was the blatnye pesni which were most in demand among the emigrants of the third wave. These records were smuggled into the USSR by diplomats, athletes, sailors. They were of excellent quality, were recorded to the accompaniment of professional orchestras, brilliantly arranged and became real competitors to the Soviet pop scene. During perestroika, these performers, who were until very recently forbidden, made a triumphant return to the USSR and gathered full houses in the country's best concert halls.


In 1989, the once-banned Willy Tokarev gave concerts in a hall opposite the Kremlin, while the Soviet underground bard Alexander Novikov was still languishing in a maximum security labor camp in the Urals. But two years later the situation changed dramatically. Novikov, under pressure from the public, was released, and the genre, which had been outlawed for many years, gained a powerful, loud voice. 

In 1991, the first festival titled Russian Chanson — The Songs of Our Streets and Backstreets took place on the stage of the Variety Theater headlined by yesterday's convict Alexander Novikov. 

At the same time, the genre bearing the unpresentable name blatnyak [short for blatnaya pesnya - Ed.] got a new sonorous name — "Russian chanson." This brand change was due to a change in the rules of the game. The genre was coming out of the underground and becoming a part of show business. It acquired its own studios and record labels; cassettes and CDs started being released in huge circulations; concerts and festivals were being organized... In the 1990s, during the times of "wild capitalism," which in Russia received the name of "the dashing nineties," songs about bandits and "the new Russians" became especially popular. New stars have risen in the sky of Russian chanson: Mikhail Krug, Ivan Kuchin (who himself had spent 16 years in prison for thefts), Garik Krichevsky, Alexander Dyumin...

Blatnaya pesnya turned out to be in demand. Even the official Soviet composer, author of many popular hits, Mikhail Tanich, created a group in 1989 with a "criminal" name Lesopoval. [Lesopoval is the Russian word for harvesting timber — one of the harshest forced-labor activities of the Soviet penal system. - Ed.


And in 2000, Radio Chanson was formed, which still remains among the top five in Russia and, until recently, held the annual Chanson of the Year award ceremony in the Kremlin.


It is worth recognizing, however, that nowadays Russian chanson is not the same blatnyak the way blatnyak was some 40 or even 20 years ago. When life in the country returned to normal, and criminal gangs ceased playing a dominant role in society, and when censorship bans disappeared, songs glorifying bandits and thieves lost their popularity. Today, the genre of Russian chanson is a hybrid, a synthetic style, which includes old thieves' songs, retro pop music, bard songs, folklore, military songs, romance, and many other currents. Having become a fully-fledged part of the Russian show business, chanson shook off all of its traits of social marginality.

This genre in its pure state — as it was known and loved during the years when it was banned — is almost impossible to come across today. As such, it is being performed by only a handful of artists for a small group of true connoisseurs. Such songs can be heard on stages of small, lost outskirts of Moscow, in Butyrka tavern (now shut down) or in other similar clubs. Otherwise, now it is a product lacquered for the general public, seasoned with only a couple of slang expressions, the way one seasons a dish with pepper. Previously, these songs were being performed at the call of the soul, now — only for money.

Russian writer Maxim Gorky had once said: "Russian song is Russian history." It is hard to argue with this. The song in Russia, and especially the one that comes from the people, has always been a mirror of Russian life. And therefore, perhaps it's for the best that blatnyak had become the past.

Today, the mission perviously fulfilled by the genre songs, has passed to performers of rap. It is they who in their songs raise the acute issues of today, sing about the inhabitants of the city outskirts, about drugs, gambling and corrupt love. Rap — as a genre — is being aimed primarily at the younger generation, which does not listen to the radio in the FM band, but draws information from the Internet. Rappers can afford to be independent in their repertoire, not to conform to the format dictated by the radio stations, and this means they can be more relevant and in demand. But this is a topic for a separate discussion.

© Maxim Kravchinsky, Ph.D.

Email:                                      YouTube: Максим Кравчинский / ProПесни

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