March 01, 2020

Punk Rock and Klotsvog

Punk Rock and Klotsvog

What About Tomorrow?: An Oral History of Russian Punk from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot

Alexander Herbert (Microcosm, 2019)

Russia is constantly in the news, yet Russian music flies under the radar. People only notice it when it conveniently symbolizes some hot political controversy. Few people know Zvuki Mu or Korol i Shut, but everyone knows Pussy Riot (more on them later). I myself plead guilty to gravitating towards politically charged songs when covering Russian rock.

Of course, music is never entirely apolitical. But it is possible to value Russian music beyond its ability to gibe at Putin, Crimea, or the war in Ukraine. In What About Tomorrow? Alexander Herbert sets out to prove that point, starting with the most counterintuitive case of all: punk music. Punk music is as political as it gets. Yet, as Herbert shows, even punk is about much more than Putin. Punk is all about rebelling against the establishment. And the establishment is not just Putin: it is an entire system, a way of thinking and being. Actually, it’s probably good for punk music that it doesn’t just care about Putin, because that gives musicians the freedom to deal with more universal concerns, like intolerance and the resurgence of fascism.

What About Tomorrow? is composed of interviews with a dizzying array of Soviet and Russian punk musicians, most conducted by Herbert, but some compiled from contemporary sources. The book also includes four essays by punkers reflecting on the scene from their insider’s perspective. Though lay readers may not appreciate this, Alexander Herbert brings some real big names to the table. Herbert is to Russian punk what Joanna Stingray was to Soviet rock – an outsider embedded in the community with the audacity to bring this niche of a niche to the wider world. But he is wise enough not to flex his chumminess with folks like Seva Gakkel, Max Kochetkov, Nick Rock-n-Roll, or Dmitri Spirin – after all, no lay Westerner knows who they are. Instead, Herbert lets the bigwigs share the mic with up-and-comers. The opinions of bass guitarists in Russia’s biggest punk bands share equal footing with the thoughts of provincial frontmen. And crucially, women share the page with men. Too often, Western academics look at a foreign music scene that is male-dominated (Russian punk is unfortunately no exception), and they neglect to dig deeper to find the women. By actively engaging Russian women punkers and fans in his conversations, not to mention showcasing women-led punk bands that even Russians might not know, Herbert sets an admirable example both for Western scholars of Russian culture and (dare we say) many Russian punk watchers too.

Speaking of women, Herbert’s best contribution to the book is an essay about Pussy Riot and their place in Russian punk. Most Westerners take it for granted that Pussy Riot is a punk group. But, as a matter of fact, their relationship to punk is more complicated. Unlike most other punk bands, they care more about the spectacle than the music. And they are very unrepresentative of the punk community – in fact, Herbert talks to many punkers who don’t even consider them punk. But even so, many punkers acknowledge that Pussy Riot captures the spirit of punk. In fact, by going to jail, its members have turned mere statements about rebellion into action. As one frontman says, “Despite the fact that they are only a notional punk band, they’ve never released any album, and their songs are just some declamations, still they performed a civil feat. And it makes me respect them greatly. Who’s gonna go to jail for our songs? Lesh?” he asks his band member. “Will you go?”

Physically, What About Tomorrow? has an indie feel. You couldn’t imagine its pencil-thin margins, color illustrations on both inside covers, or circled page numbers from any publisher except a tiny, tenacious indie publisher. And although it is a niche book about a niche topic, Herbert writes and footnotes it so that everyone interested in contemporary Russian music feels welcome at the table. Reading What About Tomorrow? is like going to a panel discussion where everything is completely new, but you have a personal translator just unobtrusive enough to help you make sense of things without overwhelming you. Not only that, your personal translator acts as a role model for appreciating the music for what it is — politics and all.

– Tiffany Zhu



Margarita Khemlin
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Columbia University Press, 2019) $15.95

Margarita Khemlin (1960-2015) was a prize-contending novelist born in Ukraine; she lived in Moscow, where the ever compelling Klotsvog was published in 2009. Her narrator is a Jewish woman, also with the initials M.K., who, like Khemlin, was born in Ukraine and also eventually settles in Moscow, Maya Abramovna (nee Klotsvog). In miniature notes and narrative passages, the spiteful, difficult and beautiful Maya repeatedly pulls up short and concludes: “But that’s not my point.” What is her point?

Born in 1930, looking back seemingly from the 2000s, Klotsvog concentrates on her experiences as a young and middle-aged adult. She doesn’t dwell on childhood or her teens during the “Great Patriotic War” or Stalin’s postwar suppression of the USSR’s Jews. She remembers doing all she could to carve out time and space for herself to manage her son and daughter and mother and relatives and several husbands, but she usually concludes that her knotty problems were the result of other people’s pettiness, vanity and stupidity. They in return dealt with her as we all deal with impossible relatives: they forbear her. “I love you recklessly,” her mother once told her, “however you are.”

Only her children put up much of a fight with Maya. Though she seems to have always got what she wanted, there was no one she ever needed for long; everyone so disappointed or crossed her. Her search for meaning does not bring her to an understanding of her Jewish heritage, though she has loving exemplars. Her husbands were all, it’s clear to us (and until near the end I thought it wasn’t clear to her, but it is), decent people.

As Lara Vapnyar says, in her excellent foreword to Lisa C. Hayden’s typically fine translation of modern Russian literature, Maya “seems unable to see herself for what she is, to judge her actions correctly, or to understand their effect on other people: on her mistreated and abandoned lovers and husbands, on her neglected children, on the mother that Maya banishes from her life.”

We finally understand Maya better than she understands herself. She is neither confessional nor rigorous about searching her past, so why should she have written this testament on the typewriter she inherits from her last husband? “Yes, people give themselves away,” she muses. “If, of course, they still have a conscience left.” Her conscience made her believe everyone hated her, but she still wonders why they did. She knows she hasn’t found the answer: “I’m afraid of my son, my daughter’s a stranger to me. I no longer love my husband. I didn’t do anything in particular for things to work out that way.”

The evidence suggests that Klotsvog hates herself more than any of her relatives and husbands do. Is that Khemlin’s point? Or does Vapnyar nail it here?: “A lot of Jewish writers have engaged with the theme of survivor’s guilt, but none of them has handled the question of survivor’s fear quite as Margarita Khemlin does. The blind inexplicable animal fear that makes you do unspeakable things.”  

– Bob Blaisdell

The End. Or just the beginning?

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