Metal in Russia

On my first night with my host, Igor, he took me to a Russian heavy metal concert in a repurposed warehouse. The first song: “My Homeland—USSR”  («Моя Родина-СССР»). As soon as the band—«Иргия Праведников»–punched the first note, their fans went wild. They formed a mosh pit in the middle of the dance floor–a whirlwind of tattoos, leather and long, braided hair. I immediately felt nervous. Should I—a conspicuous American in slacks and a preppy sweater—really be at a heavy metal concert in Moscow with a crowd moshpitting to a song that sounds like the Soviet Anthem as played by Mastadon?

I had always associated heavy metal with nationalism and the title of the first song didn’t allay my concerns. I stood beside Igor, trying not to appear uncomfortable, trying to look somehow less American. Is there a Russian way of standing? I wondered. They’re all crossing their arms, I should cross my arms too. So I stood there, crossing my arms, my face screwed up in the best Putin impression I could manage, feeling uncomfortable. Then I had two realizations: First, I realized I had to stop being such a wuss. Nobody in the audience was gonna care about some dude standing in the back of the room, American or not. Besides, this may have been an old warehouse, but it was a classy joint—the kind of venue with just enough underground grunge to feel cool but enough professionalism not to be dangerous. My second realization: the music was seriously good.

I’m not a huge fan of heavy metal, but I worked in a kitchen for a year with a bunch of metalheads, so I listened to my fair share. I think some rare metal is good, especially live and especially the artsier stuff, and Оргия Праведников was on the artsier side. They won me over when they brought out the cellist and the opera singer for the song «Вдаль по синеи воде». I came to realize that their songs were not simplistic and certainly not nationalistic. In fact, their lyrics are insightful and their frontman–a charismatic guy named Sergei Kalugin–is also a poet who is prone to reciting his poetry unaccompanied onstage. “My Homeland—USSR,” as it turns out, is a self-reflective song about the personal impact of being born in the USSR before its downfall.

That’s not to say that everyone in the audience was there for the poetry. The audience was a pretty standard mix for an artsier metal band: there were the scary people with muscles and tattoos, the nerdy and artsy people who were in it for the music (Igor falls squarely in that camp), the posers, and that one preppy American standing self-cautiously in the back. After the concert, Igor went backstage to say hello to the band, and I went with him so he could introduce us. They were pumped, having just finished a three hour set, but were as nice and humble as could be. The drummer spoke English astonishingly well, and they all seemed embarrassed when I told them how much I liked their music.

The week following the concert I got to see Kalugin live again, this time at an upscale bar–just him on a guitar, accompanied by a cellist. He was at his best there, musically and as a showman, entertaining the crowds with jokes, stories, poems and folk tunes. So I’ve seen one Russian musical artist twice now live, more times than I’ve ever seen an American musician live other than my cousin Nick (shameless plug: look up Nick Perry’s Brass Tax, they’re great!). I can now say I’m a true fan, or at least less of a poser.

By: Christian Wick

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2016

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