Music has been an important tool for vocalising anti-war sentiment throughout history. In the 60s, some of the first organised activities against the Vietnam War centred on the production and singing of songs. John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, in which he envisions a world in which division and conflict have ended, has practically become an anthem for the anti-war movement, while Reggae artist Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Vietnam’ has been hailed as one the greatest and most effective of protest songs by the likes of Bob Dylan.
It is no surprise then, that Russian musicians are among the Kremlin’s first targets. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian Media Group – one of Russia’s largest media companies – terminated its contracts with various anti-war musicians. The blacklisted performers included rock band Aquarium and Ukrainian singer Ivan Dorn. Rapper Noize MC. Zemfira, one of Russia’s leading rock artists, has left Russia after uploading an anti-war music video to Youtube entitled ‘Don’t Shoot’, which features footage of the war in Ukraine.
The restrictions imposed on Russia’s music scene are disconcertingly reminiscent of those felt by musicians under the Stalinist regime. Much of the composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich’s music was banned for not toeing the expected Soviet line, including his Fourth Symphony and his avant-garde opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. That the pianist was denounced in 1936 as an ‘enemy of the people’ is testament to the deep unease about the power that music, and more generally culture, can yield in challenging social structures and institutions.
In response to the war, music has once again returned as a form of vocal protest. TV Rain, one of Russia’s few remaining independent TV stations, recently broadcasted a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in an overt criticism of the war. The suite, famously played on Soviet State TV in 1991 shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a gesture towards the subversive role music has played in recent Russian history in providing artists with a form of activism to challenge and resist in ways that would otherwise out of the question.
Yet if music can be anti-war, it can also be pro-establishment. Last week, Putin appeared amongst a sea of Russian flags at a patriotic rally marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The stadium blasted pro-Kremlin pop music, including the hit ‘Made in USSR’ by Oleg Gazmanov. The jingoistic lyrics praised the Soviet Union’s control over “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova” while Russia continued to pursue its brutal foreign policy against Ukraine. Evidently, the Kremlin, like other authoritarian leaders and governments throughout history, has recognised the power of music and acted accordingly, harnessing the same power to communicate a desired national narrative to its citizens.
The musical world has retaliated with force. Russian rapper Oxxxymiron has recently held performances in Istanbul and London to raise money for the humanitarian crisis triggered by the war. His charity concert Russians Against War in London raised $75,000 for Ukrainian refugees. Ukrainian punk band Beton have reimagined the Clash’s famous ‘London Calling’ as ‘Kyiv Calling’, a rallying cry to the world to “Quit holding Putin up” and support Ukraine. In a video addressed to Ed Sheeran, the Ukrainian band Antyila declared “Through music we want to show the world that Ukraine is strong and unconquered”. The group, all of whom are currently fighting on the front line, has illustrated the power of music to unify, boost morale, and – most importantly – to resist.
The backlash received by anti-war musicians in Russia has emphasised that if anything, music is a double-edged sword; it is a weapon of resistance, promoting solidarity and uniting nations, yet it is also divisive and can be exploited to construct heavily controlled national narratives.
Illustration: Verity Laycock