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: 2023 18     : 4-   (       )
: "Financial Times "

Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov: Millions are afraid to think, afraid to speak out

One of the biggest names in Russian rock music perhaps the biggest of all is now listed as a foreign agent in his homeland, a designation that taints Boris Grebenshikov as an anti-patriot, even a traitor. The charge meets with an amused shrug. Ah, Im always on a list! he says, laughing. In the 70s I was on a list of forbidden people. In the 80s I was there. Its all right. Grebenshikov, 69, is famous throughout the Russian-speaking world as the leader of the band Aquarium. They pioneered the rock scene that emerged in the USSR in the 1970s. Initially a semi-clandestine version of western hippy music, especially prog and folk-rock, acts such as Aquarium captured popular imagination in the 1980s as harbingers of a new Russia. They were like the pied pipers of perestroika. But Grebenshikov has fallen foul of officialdom once again with the return of authoritarianism. The ministry of justice in Moscow declared him a foreign agent in June for speaking in foreign countries for the purpose of providing financial assistance to Ukraine and for criticising Russias war against its neighbour. Formerly based in St Petersburg, Grebenshikov hasnt been to Russia for more than a year and a half. Prospects for doing so are remote. It may be a bit dangerous, he concedes. Since 2019, he has lived in London with his wife, Irina. He speaks in English on a video call from his flat in Earls Court (an in-person meeting had to be cancelled after I caught Covid). Contrary to his grandee status, Grebenshikov has a warm and informal manner. His is a face of laughter lines rather than frown lines, although there are moments when his features lose their brightness and acquire a graver look.
One such occasion comes as he talks about the war in Ukraine. He has many friends there. They dont understand why theyre being bombed, he says. I think its not even a grave injustice, its an insult to humanity. A war without any reason at all. His new project Heal the Sky is raising money for Ukraines largest childrens hospital. Its a compilation of songs by western musicians, including Jackson Browne, Marianne Faithfull and Richard Thompson. Grebenshikov makes appearances too, including a track with Dave Stewart, Stevie Nicks and Ukrainian singer Serhii Babkin.

BG, as hes known to fans, has curated the compilation, due for release later this month on Bandcamp. A number of its participants are known to him personally: in 1989 he teamed up with Stewart, formerly of the Eurythmics, to make an English-language album. In their new joint number War Song, Grebenshikov sings, in Russian: The day will arrive, and the war will become a dream/And in the sky the light will return/But it is just where my home once was/Its no longer there. The lines were inspired by photos of bombed buildings, including a friends childhood home in Kherson. This is not a house any more, its a hole. Ive seen whole theatres be destroyed in Ukraine we played in them, he says emphatically. I know these places very well. Before the war Grebenshikov frequently toured Ukraine, both as a solo performer and with Aquarium. The reaction to our band in Ukraine was even more welcoming and loving than in Russia sometimes. It was just amazing, he recalls. But he cant see himself playing there now. Half of Ukrainians think, Oh, a good Russian is a dead Russian. Im getting a lot of mail like this. Other celebrated Russian musicians have also raised their voices in opposition to the war. The pop singer Alla Pugacheva, among Russias top-selling artists ever, now living in Israel, dared the authorities to add her to the foreign agents registry last year when she spoke up against the invasion. Others, however, have either kept their heads down, or are actively collaborating with the Kremlin and its Z-themed propaganda.
The last Aquarium concert in Russia took place in St Petersburg the night before the invasion in February 2022. Some people in my band, in Aquarium, they suddenly became Z patriots, Grebenshikov says. Its like playing Woodstock and saying, Yeah! Kill and rape the Vietnamese! Something that doesnt go well together. Im sorry for these people. What else can I say? Some people think, some people do not. He has since retired the group and is currently touring as BG+. London is his base, but he insists that he doesnt live there as an émigré or exile. Actually, no. I prefer to live and work in London because it suits me much more than being in St Petersburg. Ive been working here since 1988, he says. Born in the year Stalin died, he spent decades unable to leave Russia. For more than half of my life I was behind a wall, and then suddenly I could leave. So its my choice. When I interviewed Grebenshikov in 2015, he had recently been denounced as a fascist sympathiser by a pro-Kremlin television channel for playing a benefit gig on behalf of Ukrainian refugee children. Yet he didnt want to be seen as a political figure. Im not taking a stand, Im trying to behave normally, he told me back then. On being reminded of this, he replies: Well, it seems that I was quite wise in 2015. Being in my position, its very easy to write topical songs. Hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, will react to it immediately and go, Im with you or Im against you. But the songs tend to fade away very quickly. I dont like that! I want my songs to remain!
He is celebrated for his allusive, metaphysical writing style. The idea of home turns up repeatedly in his work, not only as a place of shelter and identity but also oppressiveness, somewhere to escape from. At the moment, the country that I was born in and the country that I love is he pauses in a very sad, tragic position. Millions and millions of people are afraid to think, afraid to speak out. We all know that silence is like cancer. It eats you from within and kills you. And thats whats happening. So Im thinking not only of ways to help Ukrainians but Russians as well, because they are in a terrible position. He cites Socrates concept of eudaemonia, which he translates as being in good spirit. That means when you live your life knowing that you did everything you could and everything that you feel is right. Thats what Aquarium and I have been doing for the last 50-plus years. In a country where you cannot trust words, you cannot trust anything, we were looking to establish the way of life which is true. This is what home is.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney



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Created 2024-03-06 17:58:16 by Andrew Advaytov; Updated 2024-03-09 14:25:42 by Andrew Advaytov
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