Konstanty Usenko: The Spirit of Breaking Free From Systemic Violence
default, Konstanty Usenko:
The Spirit of Breaking Free
From Systemic Violence, Konstanty Usenko, photo: Jędrzej Nowicki / Agencja Gazeta, center, #000000, 2_konstanty-usenko-fot-jedrzej-nowicki_ag_jn180815010-2.jpg
What kind of music is connected to the protests currently happening in Belarus? Konstanty Usenko – a musician, journalist and author of two books on the Soviet and Russian underground – talks about the Belarusian independent music scene.
Patryk Zakrzewski (PZ): The song ‘Khochu Peremen’ (We Are Waiting for Changes) by the Soviet band Kino has become an anthem of the protests in Belarus.
Konstanty Usenko (KU): It isn’t the first time this song has been heard on the streets of post-Soviet cities during freedom protests; it became one of the most important protest songs in the former USSR. But it has never before played as significant a role as it does now in Minsk.
‘Our hearts demand change, our eyes demand change.’ Viktor Tsoi always said this song was really about something else – about doubts and dilemmas, and the inability to escape from the vicious circle of the dissident cuisine ethos. The song was written in Leningrad in the mid-1980s, before there was even any mention of perestroika. The spirit of freedom was usually expressed only within the confines of flats inhabited by members of the intelligentsia, where the hosts and guests revelled until the wee hours of the morning next to a radio tuned to medium-wave broadcasts, drinking tea and vodka, smoking cigarettes and playing bards’ songs on a guitar.
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One of the final verses of Khochu Peremen says: ‘and all of a sudden we feel afraid to change anything’ – we fear change in the world, but also, above all, in our own lives, because we’re afraid of leaving the vicious circle of eternal drinking and discussion. But it’s clear that the new generation has broken out of this circle and has obliterated the previous meaning of this song. In this new context, the message in Khochu Peremen can actually be compared, to a certain extent, to Kaczmarski’s song Walls – a protest song with a catchy chorus but carrying another, bitter underlying layer (‘and the singer was also alone’).
16.08.2020 Беларусь (Минск) - Виктор Цой "Перемен". Стела. Выборы 2020. 4к.
[Above: Video from the protests in Minsk, demonstrators singing the song ‘Peremen’ by Kino, 16th August 2020]
By the way, Walls came from Catalonia, where people were fighting against Francoism (the song was originally written by Lluis Llach), via Poland, and finally reached Russia, where it was performed live by Arkadij Koc’s punk-folk band at many environmental protests and blockades, and recently also at marches in Khabarovsk. One can also currently hear Walls on the streets of Belarusian cities – sung in both Belarusian and Russian.
Tsoi’s lyrics are very simple and minimalistic, but also multidimensional – this is what makes them so powerful and timeless. Kino’s leader has always been a figure emanating an aura of self-respect and individuality. These are the most important features that help destroy the ideological inflexibility in people’s heads. This is why the explosive power of Tsoi’s songs is still so huge, even 30 years after his death.
PZ: Other songs have been used lately in the protests, too. For example, in photos taken in Minsk, I saw banners printed with a quote from a song by the Grodno-based punk band Contra La Contra, which can literally be translated as: ‘Power that is created from black rubber’ (or more freely translated as: ‘Power that is built with police truncheons’).
KU: In photos from Minsk and Grodno, I saw that there were even more quotes from Contra la Contra written on banners. Nowadays it’s an absolute classic of a generation and one of the foundations of the Belarusian DIY music scene in the early 2000s. In Poland, an electro version of this song about power built from black rubber was sung by Zdrada Pałki, and this version is also very well-known beyond Poland’s eastern border and often played during various manifestations. This content has already gone beyond the hardcore/punk scene – it’s also quoted by people from outside strictly punk environments.
About a decade ago, Grodno became a very important place of political activism not only for Belarusians but also Russians – a mine of radical inspiration and anti-fascist attitudes. In addition to Contra la Contra, there was also the band Deviation, led by Staś Poczobut, and later the band Mister X, whose lead singer, Igor Bantser, was recently arrested. These bands regularly played in Poland and had a huge influence on the Polish punk scene. Over time, these Belarusian bands and musicians changed the Polish underground reality and enriched it with their wonderful, unique, friendly energy, as well as their sensitivity, warmth, honesty and courage.
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Contra La Contra - Из черной резины сделана власть
Contra la Contra could be called Grodno’s Guernica y Luno or Homomilitia, but it’s worth remembering the references they make to Soviet underground music from the 1980s. At one time, they played Bluzhdajushchiy biorobot (The Wandering Bio-Robot) by the Leningrad-based band Nol – one of the most powerful Russian-language ecological protest songs. And so, there’s a certain continuity; despite a feeling of hopelessness and stereotypes of social apathy, the spirit of protest is being passed on from generation to generation. New artists are clearly showing their fascination with alternative music from 25 years ago. It’s present amongst young, popular but uncompromising rappers such as Face, from Ufa in the Ural Mountains. His lyrics condemning systemic violence are a driving force for today’s 20-year-olds, whose energy has been the most powerful fuel in the protests in Russia and Belarus.
Grodno is a city with strong connexions to Poland, and this is especially clear in alternative communities. There’s a wonderful bar called Nesterka in the iconic modernist building of the Grodno Regional Drama Theatre. Many Polish bands have played there, such as Siksa and Ukryte Zalety Systemu. A lot of people consider it the best punk bar in Eastern Europe. Most of all, though, it’s an invaluable place for local initiatives in which progressive youths from all over the city are involved.
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PZ: We’ve been discussing the punk scene, which is fundamentally outside the mainstream. But for many years, there was a paradoxical situation on the Belarusian music scene: on the one hand, it was a very underground phenomenon, while on the other hand, there was a phenomenon I would call the ‘mainstream underground’: bands like N.R.M., Lyapis Trubetskoy and Brutto, which play accessible music and are very popular, but which have had trouble performing due to political reasons.
KU: Yeah, there were other generations, different music scenes and different attitudes about certain things. What Contra la Contra represented was niche but at the same time very universal and firmly embedded in a global context. In their lyrics, bands such as N.R.M. paid homage to the Belarusian-language tradition which was connected to the intelligentsia, but musically it was traditional rock, often with a bit of folk mixed in. What I mean is that they had a Slavic folk approach to melody and phrasing – a phenomenon that’s also popular in Ukrainian rock music.
Lyapis Trubetskoy used to be very popular throughout the former USSR; they performed at rock festivals in large music venues and stadiums. Bands from the DIY scene, on the other hand, played in squats when performing abroad, and at home – only in a few small clubs. Most of the time, they organised illegal, underground concerts in outdoor locations. Sound equipment and a generator were set up somewhere in the forest, info was passed around by word of mouth – and via the Internet, later on. These concerts were stopped by the militia time and time again, but many of them were never discovered – it’s not so easy to find an event in the forest in a country where forests cover a significant percentage of the terrain.
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Піт Паўлаў з гітарай «штурмуе» Палац Незалежнасці
[Above: The guitarist of the N.R.M. group, Pit Paułau, performs the song ‘Tri Czarapachi’ in front of the police cordon during protests in Minsk, 23rd August 2020]
During the current protests in Belarus, all these elements exist together and intermingle. When workers joined in, a completely different narrative emerged – these people became a powerful force that the government and OMON started to fear. They don’t want privatization, they don’t want their companies to be ‘swallowed up’ in the future by corporations from Russia or the West, they’re classic Soviet people – who, however, decisively opposed the pseudo-kolkhoz dictatorship, which they say is like the Gestapo. This is a completely new phenomenon. They’re all united with each other like never before in the face of this savage violence. I think about them constantly, with hope and fear, and I believe very strongly in them.
PZ: You’ve spoken about the elements of ethnic music. There are also Belarusian bands playing folk punk and Slavic folk metal, and it seems to me that this is connected with a wider phenomenon which is present in opposition circles – a revival of Belarusian culture and identity through reference to folk traditions. It’s manifested in fashion and design too: T-shirts and tattoos with motifs from folk embroidery, Slavic runes…
KU: This is a vast topic because very different groups of people make use of these symbols: the pro-democracy opposition groups use them, but so do the extreme right-wing groups, so it all depends on how these symbols are interpreted and by whom.
However, without going more deeply into the political contexts, in the last decade a certain fashion for Belarusian culture has appeared in the public sphere. The government stopped hindering these trends as part of a safety-valve institution during the events in Ukraine in 2015. Minsk became quite a trendy city then; new bars, cafes and clubs opened up. The ethnic revival happening among the hipsters hanging out in these places drew on Slavic runes and folk embroidery, pop culture from the 1960s, rediscovered albums by the band Pesniary, and even the characteristic look (with facial hair) of Pesniary’s members.
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In its time, Pesniary’s ‘folk big-beat’ sound had a huge influence on music throughout the Soviet Union, especially in the ethnic republics, from Georgia to Tatarstan and Central Asia, where big-beat bands started to pop up everywhere like mushrooms. Locally, they launched Belarusian culture, style and folk music into outer space. After all, no matter how you look at it, part of the Polish big-beat movement also has roots in the Grodno region – one just needs to remember Czesław Niemen’s unique identity.
The Belarusian music scene is a unique phenomenon, although linguistically it’s often linked to the Russian music scene because many Belarusian bands sing in Russian. It’s clear to insiders that it’s a different, regional kind of Russian. Nowadays, an increasing number of people speak Belarusian, and this tendency is growing. Fortunately, language issues don’t lead to borders arising between people in Belarus, as has often happened in Ukraine. In Belarus, the most important thing is a unified opposition to dictatorship, torture and violence.
PZ: You’ve performed many times in Belarus with your bands. What were these experiences like?
KU: In 2004, I played with 19 Wiosen at a festival in Minsk called ‘There’s No Culture Without Subculture’ – a huge festival with many foreign guests, co-organised by Dutch NGOs. In those days, something like that was still possible. I also performed in Belarus several times with Super Girl Romantic Boys – in a cult club in Grodno called Klatka, at an anarchist-feminist festival in Minsk, at a charity concert for an organization fighting against domestic violence, and at an illegal, underground concert in a garage on the outskirts of the capital.
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Concerts in Belarus always meant total adrenaline, frenzied enthusiasm, wild pogo dancing and stage diving. It’s an atmosphere you can’t find anywhere else and a completely different emotional level. We often reminisce about those tours.
Super Girl and Romantic Boys - Geniusze
PZ: And on the Russian independent music scene, which you’ve written two books about and are actively following, are there currently any initiatives that express solidarity with the protesters in Belarus?
KU: Of course. A few days ago, a letter was published in support of the protesters in Belarus, signed by such rock veterans as Boris Grebenshchikov of Aquarium, Andrey Makarevich of Time Machine and Yuri Shevchuk from DDT, as well as popular rappers Noize MC and Oxxxymiron, and the rapper and poet Aigel. Musicians from different genres and generations. Initiatives are arising, and the money they are generating is being used to help oppressed activists and people who have been imprisoned and tortured, as well as doctors, lawyers and psychologists.
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An international music compilation was created by the Berlin-based artist Galya Chikiss from Vitebsk, Belarus, one of the most important figures on the new electronic scene. Her compilation includes music by Gudrun Gut, a veteran of the German avant-garde, as well as the Polish band Hańba!, the Ukrainian rapper alyona alyona, and the above-mentioned rapper and poet Aigel. A great selection of music but, most importantly, it has raised a significant amount of money for the oppressed.
I have a lot of friends from Belarus, and I think constantly about everything that’s happening there every day. Everybody says that the most important thing right now is support – in the form of information, but also, above all, solid financial support. Not everyone has access to information from independent Russian and Belarusian-language Telegram channels, so the translation of up-to-date information is also very important.
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As far as financial donations are concerned, I’d like to provide a few links and encourage people to support these people in need:
Interview conducted in Polish by Patryk Zakrzewski, Aug 2020, translated by Scotia Gilroy, Oct 2020