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«Even if the whole world is against you, raise your hand and say: I am against murder» Boris Grebenshchikov on war, the state, and music

Oleg Pshenichny

In conversation with The Insider before his concert at the SlovoNovo forum of Russian language and culture in Tel Aviv, rock musician Boris Grebenshchikov explained why he does not consider himself to be an emigrant, why one must oppose war even without hoping to make a difference, and what makes Aquarium's new album special.

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– Do you think it is a war waged by Putin or one waged by Russia?

– I’ve known very well since I was a child that the country where I was born and grew up has a language that shaped me and a culture that forms the basis of my existence; separately from those, there is the state-slash-government, whose primary purpose is to prohibit, to ban, to suffocate, and so on. Over the last sixty-eight years, my perspective hasn't changed.

– When the USSR collapsed, to everyone's relief, was there any hope?

– No, there was never any hope. As a mathematician, I know it is the state's purpose to restrain. It has always been this way, not only in Russia. Some states and governments – Scandinavian ones, for instance – are more reasonable than others, but you can't rely on their goodwill. Although, if I’m completely honest, I had a feeling at some point in the early 1990s that we might be on the right course to something better. I harbored this hope for three days or so, then looked around and realized it was futile, so I could let it go, relax, and go about my own business.

– In 1995, you wrote a song titled Drevnerusskaya Toska [An Old Russian Spleen]. Russia also was waging a war at the time – a domestic one, in Chechnya. Were you under the impression that society perceived it as something happening elsewhere, to someone else entirely?

– Humanity has always waged wars. It's an inherent trait of human nature, I’m afraid. It's just that there are two types of wars: those we barely notice because they take place somewhere far, be it Africa or Chechnya, – no one on your block is affected, and no one talks about it at the bakery – and those talked about everywhere, even at the bakery.

– Could it be a part of the problem: people living carelessly, oblivious of wars fought in faraway lands for years, until those wars knock on their doors?

– There's a novel by Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It starts with an epigraph: “No man is an island... never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

– Some of those who have left Russia are saying that the war revealed such disastrous moral degradation of the Russian nation that they can hardly imagine returning home even if Putin's regime collapses and the war ends. Have you considered going back to Russia? What has to happen?

– In fact, I’ve never ever left Russia. I’ve never been an emigrant and have no intention of becoming one. I belong to the Russian culture, so it does not matter in the slightest what soil is under my feet at a given moment. As a child, I was extremely lucky to read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as my first book. I can't say it was an easy read, but it came with a powerful message: the world is mine. This was how this novel shaped me: my world is the entire world. Wherever I go, I’m at home. I speak the Russian language; I write in Russian and work mostly for those who choose Russian as their main language of communication and self-expression. In Saint Petersburg, there is always a place where I can work: Aquarium's studio. However, there is no need to return yet, as I have plenty of work here.

– As you say, you belong to the Russian culture. Does this make you identify yourself with the aggressor?

– No, it doesn’t. Returning to the beginning of our conversation, I said I was critical of the concept of authority, not only in Russia but in general. I don't identify myself with the authority. Nikolay Gumilyov was not responsible for Lenin's acts; [Osip] Mandelstam, [Vsevolod] Meyerhold, and [Daniil] Kharms were not liable for Stalin's crimes.

– That said, everyone in the government speaks Russian. Do they belong to the same culture?

– Authorities often have nothing to do with culture. They don't know the first thing about culture and never will. If they had the slightest clue, they would stop doing what they are doing. Have you seen their faces? What culture are we even talking about?

They don’t belong to the Russian culture or any culture at all. Have you seen their faces? What culture are we even talking about?

– Russia's former president Dmitry Medvedev professed his love for Deep Purple and took photos with Paul McCartney. Now he is saying, stone-faced, that Ukraine must be destroyed.

– I’ve only ever seen him once, and he came off as an intellectual. Unfortunately, it appears that people in the highest echelons of power are under such terrifying pressure that something within them breaks. It's hard for us to make assumptions about their motives and acts because they aren’t guided by human standards anymore.

– Your 1983 song, Nemoye Kino [Silent Film] aptly sums up what’s going on. The ten years that have elapsed since the protests in Bolotnaya Square have been a scary silent film. Or another song of yours, Stranny Vopros [A Strange Question]: “So you ask me, where would I go? It doesn’t matter, love, as long as it's away from here.” Thousands of Russians now couldn't agree more. Did you realize a year ago that such a horrendous war could break out?

– I realized it sixty years ago. My perspective hasn't changed. I was conceived in Stalin’s times; it's impossible for me to think differently. Trusting the authorities is bad for you because they normally care about their interests more than their people's. On February 23, I played my last gig in Russia. It was in Saint Petersburg, with Aquarium in full, at a large, well-equipped venue, and throughout the concert, I had the feeling we were performing in Munich in 1939. I can't say what made me feel that way. But it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Six hours later, they deployed the troops. Make what you want of it. A tragic situation is unfolding; an obscenely horrid one. You can't even call it war; it is a monstrous violation of everything there is in the world; a violation of dharma, as Hindus would put it, of the universal order. In the midst of Europe, one country is attacking another while the world is standing by and watching.

You can't even call it war; it is a monstrous violation of the universal order, of dharma, as Hindus would put it

– What does Ukraine mean to you? What image of Ukraine do you have? What kind of a country is it?

– In Soviet times, Ukraine was a place like any: the Baltics, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia... Later, after Ukraine detached itself from Russia, it became obvious they were doing great and that Russia could also be different, had it been governed in a different fashion. Coming to Ukraine always made me happy; it was always a place of comfort, light, and joy. Ukrainians loved us more than Russians did. People would approach us in the streets, give us hugs and kisses, and say: “Thank you so much for coming here!”

Indeed, Ukraine has nationalism in its most ridiculous and aggressive forms, corrupt politicians, and vulgarity. I’ve been to debates on Ukrainian television – a hilarious experience. None of this stopped most Ukrainians from being fantastic human beings. What’s happening now is more than a tragedy to me; it’s an unspeakable, impossible tragedy: Russia has disgracefully attacked Ukraine. We must do all we can to stop the invasion and to put an end to deaths.

– You must have heard about the Za Rossiyu tour. <The Insider's note: Za Rossiyu [For Russia] is a series of patriotic music concerts in support of Russia’s so-called “special operation” in Ukraine.> What happened to those who identified themselves with Russian rock music, a movement of intellectuals, non-conformists, and even protesters?

– The genre of the music you play does not guarantee there is a brain in your head. Playing music without a brain is possible and even easy. Everyone has the right to be as stupid as they want to and act as stupidly as they like. People touring under the Z-banner must be thinking: “We rock! Our songs may be nothing to speak of, but we’ll teach them all a lesson.” But they never were any different. I remember rock club meetings in 1981 in Leningrad. On my watch, Aquarium got expelled from the club three times.

– On a less grim note...

– It’s not grim. When I paint, I like bright colors: green, red, orange, yellow, blue, but a painting that’s worth something needs dark colors too: burnt umber, black, brown,– you need them all. Nature always requires an equilibrium, so it is absurd to indulge ourselves in starry-eyed fantasies of turning to the light and beginning a wonderful new life. Say, a wonderful life indeed begins. Where would be our place in it?

– One could end up admitting wars are necessary.

– Judging by our history, humanity can’t do without wars; even when there are none, people find a way to wage wars of the third or fourth type. They keep waging wars because they need to assert themselves. If I’m useless and insignificant, I must beat someone weaker than me.

– I don't think we will see a war between Switzerland and Luxembourg in the next five centuries.

– Some governments, authorities, and countries are more reasonable than others. I’ll tell you a secret: when life is fine, you begin to be plagued by questions (or boredom if you’re incapable of thinking at all). Finding answers to those questions brings your consciousness to a different level, and to prevent this from happening, wars occur, in one way or another, because otherwise we would mutate too soon and proceed to a new type of consciousness. This will never happen.

– You take part in anti-war concerts. Musicians, including Russian ones, gather in different capital cities and demand that the war be stopped. Do these concerts serve a purpose?

– To my mind, a concert can’t be “anti”, and neither can culture. It’s impossible. There is culture, and then there is an absence of culture. Culture is an environment in which we grow up and learn to interact with one another. Culture educates us. How can an “anti” culture achieve it? I don't think they thought it through. Musicians are demanding that the war be stopped. Who are they demanding it from? Has the government ever listened to musicians? Has any government in the history of humanity ever listened to musicians? No, it hasn’t. It has never even noticed them.

– They are shaping the public opinion.

– No authority gives a fig about public opinion.

– Are you saying the U.S. withdrew troops from Vietnam in 1973 without any input from the American nation?

– The war must have stopped being profitable. Whenever we speak of war, there are always immense military-industrial complexes at play. The opinion of a single college student is irrelevant. Taxpayers will keep paying taxes either way. Did anyone take time to consider ordinary Germans’ opinions in Nazi Germany?

– But that’s fascism for you.

– Were the Americans not fascist when they razed Vietnam to the ground? Is what's happening in Ukraine not fascism? What about when African peoples exterminate one another by the hundreds of thousands? What gives us the right to think some wars matter more than others?

– It feels as though putting it like that somehow takes some of the responsibility off of those who unleashed the ongoing war. They could say: “Look, there’s a war here and a war there. Ours is just another small war, nothing special.”

– They could, and everyone who thinks so is already in hell. Those who unleash wars never left hell in the first place.

– But if you’re invited to participate in another concert like that, will you accept?

– I will because any positive motivation makes a difference in the world – if the slightest one. Each person's attitude to the war matters. Even if the whole world is against you, raise your hand and say: “I don't want this. I never asked for this. I need light, and I am against murder.” Protests never changed anything, but we must still speak about this in the open. We must let them know we don’t endorse it.

Any positive motivation makes a difference in the world – if the slightest one. We must let them know we don’t endorse the war

– As a citizen, have you ever participated in a protest or a rally?

– As a citizen, I spent my childhood being dragged from one rally to another, so I developed a healthy understanding of their general uselessness. But everyone decides for himself.

– If this is the case, why are hundreds of people in jail for protesting? They’ve made their voices heard, haven't they?

– They are in jail because they decided to protest, which is now a punishable offense. But their protests still went unnoticed and had no impact on the government’s actions. And even so, they did the right thing, while those who put them behind bars did the wrong thing.

– In the 1970s and 1980s, Russia had underground art. Now that the strict censorship is back, how will it reflect upon independent music? Will it flourish? Will Russian independent musicians end up scattered around the world? How closely are you monitoring Russia’s music landscape?

– I’m not monitoring the music landscape of any individual country because I know for certain that all good things that emerge in the world find their way to me sooner or later, so I keep my ears open for everything, wherever it may come from. Our time is marked by a fusion of musics and cultures; all of them feed into one another.

– It's all the more true considering you have a radio show, Aerostat.

– Indeed, I have this wonderful sinecure. I can say with a clear conscience that I listen to music for my radio broadcasts. I know I have an audience; I often get letters saying “I’ve never listened to Aquarium's music, but I listen to Aerostat broadcasts”.

When I was visiting my friend in a remote village many decades ago, he had this tiny plastic box on the wall, with the radio presenter speaking from it, and I realized that radio was a means to reach all of Russia. There is a box like this in every cottage. How great it would be to get this box to play good music! So when Radio Rossii suggested hosting a show with them, I jumped at the offer despite lacking the skills. I thought: “How wonderful it could be to live my dream and bring good music to every home in Russia.”

– Speaking of good music, have you seen Get Back, the six-hour-long Beatles documentary?

– I did all I could to watch as much of this movie as possible without fast-forwarding it. Every time it seemed to me there was something worth seeing, I switched off the fast forward mode. I fast-forwarded through almost all of it, but I think it’s similar to interviews – they do more harm than good. Paul McCartney should be doing whatever it is he does instead of talking about how he does it. I also don't think one should film and show what the Beatles did because it’s important to...

– Keep the mystery alive.

– No, not the mystery. There was once the profession of an apothecary – back when they made drugs right at the pharmacy. A sick man needs medicine; it doesn't matter who produced it. If an apothecary has a solid reputation, it's a good sign, but interviewing them or printing a magazine about apothecaries’ lifestyle and their opinion about the length of skirts or hair color... I’m not interested in their opinion; all I want is for them to make good medicine. The same goes for musicians, who shouldn’t be allowed to talk, or artists.

– What if the public wants them to?

– The public may want them to for a very simple reason: understanding a song, painting, or poem and letting it touch your heart requires an effort of the heart while reading about the creator's many wives does not require such an effort. You learn how often the author blows his nose, what color his jacket is, and what his wife looks like, and you feel like you’re a part of his life. No need to think or feel – you're already on top of things. This is why I think it's harmful. As for Get Back... I really hoped Peter Jackson would perform a miracle because the material had the potential of a magnificent work. Please forgive me for saying this, but Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of Let It Be, was a self-conceited man. God forbid people like him are allowed anywhere near music. As a result, his film was a flop.

– I was under the impression he skewed all the facts.

– Because he wanted everyone to see who he was: “Behold the other person who split the Beatles, Yoko Ono and me.”

– Are you working on a new album?

– Yes, it’s been on the slipway for a while now. We’ve almost finalized the tracklist. It’s a big one, and it’s an Aquarium album, with contributions from everyone who has played in Aquarium, and every song also features amazing guest musicians. We recorded a song with the godfathers of reggae, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. It wasn’t our first collaboration, but it happened to be one of Robbie's last recordings. He died, but he had the time to play that song. There's also a track featuring the man who was called the King of the Ukulele – Joe Brown, England’s first electric guitar player. In their early days, the Beatles would sneak into his dressing room to take a photo with his guitars. There’s a collaboration with our friends, the Georgian band Mgzavrebi.

That’s what the entire album is like.

I’m not going to reveal its title – otherwise, we would have to change it at once. I hope our work on the album will be finished in May or June. However, I can't rule out the possibility that I’ll say in August: “How funny it is to think I was ready to release it!” I once thought I would release it last August. Then I put it off until the New Year, and look how that worked out for me. Albums are willful creatures.

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