December 09, 2019

Perestroika Without Pleasure

Perestroika Without Pleasure
Album cover for Anhedonia. Yandex Music

When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated perestroika in 1985, there were two responses, broadly speaking. Westerners are most familiar with the hope that perestroika sparked. People were excited to launch into a future where they no longer had to pretend to care about socialism. Kino’s song “Хочу перемен” (“I Want Change”), the best-known song of the era, exemplifies this fervor for change.

But not everyone responded to perestroika with optimism. Perestroika was a time when people could openly challenge the Soviet system, and challenge the system they did. But the more they pushed on the system, the more it crumbled, since, as Alexei Yurchak argued in his seminal Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the Soviet system had lost its substance long before. “Хочу перемен” was an optimistic exception to the norm. In fact, most cultural productions during perestroika reflected on the uprooting of Soviet identity that perestroika engendered. Many played on the sense of the uncanny that came with realizing that your world is not and has never been real.

During perestroika, punk rock musicians surged to popularity. Preeminent among them was underground punk rocker Yanka Dyagileva. Born in 1966, she became involved with the band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (“Civil Defense”) a few years into perestroika and developed a close relationship with its frontman. But Yanka was also a formidable songwriter and performer in her own right. By 1990, rumors were floating that Melodiya, the state record label, planned to sign her on. She responded: “It’s a lie. I have not and will not record with them, even if they offer.” (She never did record with Melodiya.)

What made Yanka’s songs famous was that they went beyond cynicism. It was easy to critique the state, and many bands did just that. But Yanka’s songs captured the existential crisis that came with the evaporation of meaning and the breakdown of Soviet ideology. In her songs, life is colorless, damp, worn down to holes — much like the Soviet slogans and rituals that used to define life but seemed increasingly absurd in the wake of perestroika. To get a better sense of her music, let’s take a look at three songs from her album Anhedonia, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year.

Anhedonia was Yanka’s first “rock” album. She had previously recorded albums at her friends’ private studios, but they were all acoustic. So she worked with Grazhdanskaya Oborona to create punk-rock arrangements for some of her songs and put them on this album, along with a new song, the titular “Anhedonia.” The punk-rock arrangements bring a magnified sense of chaos to the songs — appropriate, as the songs describe chaotic states of mind.

Yanka performs an acoustic version of “Гори-гори ясно” circa 1990.

“Гори-гори ясно” (“Burn, Burn Brightly”), the album’s seventh song, centers around a literal and figurative conflagration. A house is on fire, but everyone is too busy brawling to notice. Meanwhile, the narrator has been gagged:

На дороге я валялась, грязь слезами разбавляла:
Разорвали нову юбку, да заткнули ею рот.
Славься великий рабочий народ,
Непобедимый, могучий народ!

I was loafing around on the street, diluting the dust with my tears:
They tore up my new skirt and stuffed it in my mouth.
Glory to the great working people,
The invincible, mighty people!

Is it the Soviet system that has gagged her with its empty slogans? Or is the Soviet system itself on fire? Regardless, the narrator goads on the fire: “Гори-гори ясно, чтобы не погасло!” (“Go on, burn bright, may you never go out!”). The chords strike out as angrily as her words.


The album version of “Берегись.”

Unlike “Гори-гори ясно,” “Берегись” (“Beware”) is quiet and eerie, with shifting chords that don’t quite sit right in the song’s tonality. The narrator gives up her tokens of normal life one by one. To explain herself, she says “мне придется” (“I have to / it falls to me”), but she sings it as if entranced, and she never really says why. The lyrics testify to Yanka’s poetic talents:

Мне придется променять
Осточертевший обряд на смертоносный снаряд,
Скрипучий стул за столом на детский крик за углом,
Венок из спутанных роз на депрессивный психоз,
Психоделический рай на три засова в сарай.
Мне все кричат — берегись!

I have to exchange
My mind-numbing rites for a mortal missile,
My squeaky chair behind the table for a child’s cry around the corner,
My wreath of tangled roses for a depressive psychosis,
A psychedelic heaven for a triple-bolted shed.
Everyone cries to me: Beware!


Yanka performs an acoustic version of “Anhedonia” at a 1990 concert.

The last and titular song of the album is about what happens once you give up all your feelings: anhedonia, a psychological condition where you can’t feel pleasure. More than the album’s other songs, “Anhedonia” creates a sense of the uncanny. Images flash by in the narrator’s mind; some are happy, but some are downright unsettling. Yet Yanka sings them all in the same slow, distorted monotone. Images that don’t belong with each other are strung together: “A bandaged high [кайф], / A swamped microdistrict.” Describing the diagnosis she receives after a blood test (her drawn blood resembles “settled mud,” she notes dispassionately), the narrator says:

Ангедония — диагноз отсутствия радости.
Антивоенная армия, антипожарный огонь.

Anhedonia: a diagnosis of the absence of joy.
An anti-war army, an anti-fire flame.

Meaning itself has become unanchored. It makes no sense to talk about an anti-war army or an anti-fire flame unless the words “war” or “fire” have lost their meaning. From a personal perspective, the narrator has lost all sense of feeling or internal motivation. From a social perspective, all the words that once underpinned reality mean nothing anymore.

Given the themes that pervade her work, it should come as no surprise that Yanka struggled with depression. Indeed, she died at the age of 24 in May 1991; police were not able to determine an exact cause, but most think she committed suicide. Much like Viktor Tsoi’s death a year earlier, Yanka’s death marked the end of an era. By the end of 1991, there was no more Soviet reality to reflect upon.

As a perestroika musician, Yanka Dyagileva is virtually unknown in the West, especially in comparison to Tsoi. Yet she was clearly just as foundational to perestroika culture. They expressed two sides to the coin of perestroika: if Tsoi looked forward to a brighter future, Yanka felt there was no future. If “Хочу перемен” testifies to the excitement for change that many felt, then Anhedonia testifies to the shock, and eventual numbness, many others felt as they watched the underpinnings of their worldviews melt away.

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