At Culture P.S., we talk with Russian artists about their views on current culture, be it fashion, music, film or comics. Culture P.S. amplifies the voices of Russians you probably don’t hear from: regular citizens, artists and culture shapers. Here, they offer their insight into what the future of their country could look like.
For this post, I chatted with Alena Nalimova and Lera Stepanenko, musicians of the indie pop group Young Adults. They’re the type of band you’ll come across in hip, alternative scenes, like the Russian feminist Internet or underground clubs in Moscow. They met as teenagers at a music school in their hometown of Saratov, a bustling city in the south of Russia. Alena sang soprano and Lera played the trombone, a choice that sometimes earned her eye-rolls since the trombone is considered a guy thing. Now the instrument works in the opposite way, giving the women a wow-effect when they step on stage and the audience sees a female trombonist.
Photographs by Anahit Yakubovich.
Young Adults’ music is shrewd and playful, as is their approach to performing. Once they decided to have an impromptu jam session on a streetcar in Moscow, which you can see on Youtube. It’s highly amusing to watch jaded Moscovites pointedly ignore them, save for an elderly lady, who asks them to move away from the exit. But they grin and laugh and carry on.
Lera and Alena caught my attention because they sing in English as well as Russian. Their latest EP, “Fine Arts,” came out in late September and uses text from poems by American and British writers, including Wendell Oliver Smith, Carol Ann Duffy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg.
Over tea at a Le Pain Quotidien cafe near the Kremlin, I asked the musicians why they chose English-language poetry. They explained that English is easier to compose to. Russian words tend to be long and official-sounding, making it hard to mesh them with fast, pithy beats. They also said that they liked the ambiguity of English – the fact that one word can have several different meanings. Alena explained it to me by comparing Pushkin and Shakespeare. When Russians read Pushkin, they might stumble over outdated words, but the meaning of the text is always straightforward. With Shakespeare, on the other hand, readers can find bunches of different ways to interpret the work.
Composing in English is not uncommon for Russian musicians. Western music has long been considered cool in Russia, particularly since it carried a tinge of rebellion, being first banned and later frowned upon during the Soviet era. Rock and jazz became openly popular in the late 1950s, when the official ban on jazz music in the USSR was removed. (Before that, black market traders used X-rays as a substitute for vinyl records. They picked up X-ray images from trash bins outside of hospitals, cut them into the shape of a disc and burned Western music onto this makeshift vinyl.)
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Russian cover bands popped up like crazy, and during Perestroika, Western record labels tapped into Russia’s musical talent, translating songs by Russian musicians into English for Western audiences.
But in recent years, there’s been a cultural push to write in Russian. “Because of the difficult political situation, there’s a growing self-consciousness of Russianness and a strengthening of the Russian identity,” Alena explained. “More Russians want to listen to music in Russian because there’s a sense that English music is not really relevant to us – it doesn’t apply to our situation.”
“Because of the difficult political situation, there’s a growing self-consciousness of Russianness and a strengthening of the Russian identity.”
There’s also been a cultural renaissance in Russia, with a new wave of young people turning to the arts. As an ever-growing percentage of the population has no memories of the Soviet Union (just over a quarter of the Russian population is under 25), the aesthetics and mentality of the country are quickly changing.
The generation gaps are not just between Russians who remember the Soviet Union and those who don’t. Chatting with Lera and Alena, who are 27 and 28, they told me that they identify more with Russians in their 30s than Russians in their 20s. The difference? They grew up in the ‘90s, a.k.a the wild ‘90s. “The ‘90s was such a poor time and a criminal one,” said Alena. “It left its mark on us, and we carry a lot more caution and fear than younger Russians.”
That feeling, however, has not translated to their music. Give it a listen below.
Photographs by Anahit Yakubovich.