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A new reality reverberates through Russia's music scene

Singer-songwriter Manizha, photographed at Eurovision in Rotterdam on May 16, 2021. She faced a cyberbullying campaign in Russia after voicing opposition to the country's military operation in Ukraine.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos
Getty Images
Singer-songwriter Manizha, photographed at Eurovision in Rotterdam on May 16, 2021. She faced a cyberbullying campaign in Russia after voicing opposition to the country's military operation in Ukraine.

The day singer-songwriter Manizha Sangin was supposed to headline a June music festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, she went instead to a shelter housing Ukrainian refugees. A week earlier, the festival had abruptly removed her from its lineup — the second to do so. Soon, her July solo show in Moscow was also canceled, with the venue citing pressure from the government as its reason.

"Because of my words, because of my position," Manizha says, in the way of someone explaining things that need no explanation.

In February, when Russian troops attacked Ukraine, Manizha posted her opposition on Instagram, calling it a "fratricidal conflict" against the will of the people. In March, a new song, "Soldier," followed, calling with eerie timing for an end to wars. In June, a big Russian newspaper reported that Manizha was in Paris, where she'd traveled to visit her sister after a car accident.

A vast cyberbullying campaign pounced, painting Manizha — who represented Russia at the Eurovision song contest last year — as an anti-Russian traitor who'd run off to France only to return to cash in on concerts. In fact she has not relocated, in big part because of her Moscow-based refugee-support foundation.

"When you see these tragedies from the inside, your position is crystal clear: You never want this to happen to anyone ever again," Manizha says. She has been a refugee for half her life, fleeing Tajikistan as a child after a shell destroyed her family home during the country's civil war.

"It is heinous, I am 31 and I still remember," she says, "and at our table we always say this: Let there be peace, let there be peace."

Except new Russian laws have criminalized anti-war statements — sometimes even the word "war" — especially when coming from influential figures. Some Russian artists have lined up in support of what the Kremlin calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine. Many others publicly act as if nothing's changed, afraid or claiming their art to be outside of geopolitics. Some have dissented and keep performing, while others get blacklisted and taken off air.

'I generally don't understand anything'

One of the highest-profile scandals featured Russian rock music legend Yuri Shevchuk, who faced prosecution after a video from his concert went viral.

"The youth of Russia and Ukraine are dying, the elders, the women and children are dying, for what, some napoleonic plans of our latest Ceasar?" Shevchuk says in the video. "Homeland, friends, is not the president's [behind] that has to be constantly slobbered, kissed. Homeland is a grandma, impoverished, selling potatoes at the train station — that's homeland."

Shevchuk's legal case was later dismissed, but his band DDT soon suspended its concert plans.

In late June, Russian pop group Little Big shared an anti-war track titled "Generation Cancellation," its video showing politicians playing chess with soldiers as the pieces, stubbing out cigars into cities and stuffing ears and brains with lies. One Russian producer responded by suggestingthe band be stripped of Russian citizenship.

Now based in Los Angeles, Little Big was among an exodus of dissenters that swept many Russian musicians out of the country – at least those who could afford and were prepared to leave.

At home and abroad, Russian performers — publicly or quietly — have been donating to Ukrainian aid groups. In Ukraine, lawmakers in June voted to ban post-Soviet Russian music from broadcast and public spaces, escalating a decadeslong push to trim Russian influence from Ukraine's cultural fabric.

"People who cannot listen to a Russian-language musician — it's absolutely understandable," says Kate Shilonosova, a Russian indie artist who performs as Kate NV.

"I really don't know what to say right now," she says, with a long pause, then a sigh, then another pause. "I'm a bit lost right now — I feel like anything I might do is insufficient and bad. ... To characterize my current state, I generally don't understand anything — really, just nothing. And I have understood nothing for several months."

"Spiritual strength to create'

Kate has found herself unable to listen to music, putting on headphones to absorb the silence. Before the war, she had planned some trips to the U.S. for a music partnership. Now, she's temporarily in Brooklyn, feeling existentially adrift.

"Every day, you're kind of thinking what's the point of my life, what's the point of it all, what's the point of me making music," she says. "So I literally question my occupation every day."

On the advice of a friend, Kate decided to make life plans just two months at a time. In the fall, she plans to return to Moscow — with nowhere to live, no clear idea what she'll do or who'll even be there. Beyond that, she says, is "a gaping emptiness."

"It is a time of dread, confusion and despair," one Russian music criticrecently wrote, in a self-styled obituary for Russia's authentically vibrant pop culture of the 2010s. "Those who could create something have left the country. And whoever didn't leave simply cannot find the spiritual strength to create."

The dichotomy is not that clean, of course: The day when Manizha's second concert got canceled, she says she wrote two new songs. "You have fragile shoulders but a strong back," she sings in one, "because you're not alone."

Kate NV, too, still gets energy from writing music — she describes hers as pop that's tender with a sprinkling of weird. In May, she released a charity album for a group that helps Ukrainians evacuate. Her new music has surprised her — it remains gentle, warm. But most days, she says, she feels like a depleted car battery: summoning mental strength to make music requires a jump start, and once you stop running, it's all over.

Manizha says she and other artists have been meeting up, to sit in silence, or ask each other what to do – a bit like children, she says, approaching their instruments for the first time.

"I wish that music was — not outside of politics, but more for it to be as much as possible about humanity and about respect for each other," Manizha says. "My task is not to change people or their conscience, but to create space for these changes."

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Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.