Getting By on the Blues:
Music, Culture, and Community
in a Transitional Russia
The Russian Review 61 (July 2002): 409-35
I wish to thank the following individuals for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article: Donald
Brenneis, G. William Domhoff, Eugene Huskey, Richard Jennings, Alexei Kuzmin, Vladimir Padunov, Mark Slobin,
Vadim Volkov, Alexei Yurchak, and this journal's two anonymous referees. I am also grateful to the National
Endowment for the Humanities and the International Research and Exchanges Board, whose funding has supported
the field research on which this study is based.
This study concerns a particular subculture in contemporary Russian society that is based
on blues music and its attendant cultural associations. An estimated twenty thousand individuals - performers,
promoters, and fans - comprise what is here called the country's blues
community.1 Because it is informed by an imported idiom,
the blues community shares certain general characteristics with most of its counterparts
appearing in the late and post-Communist periods. First, and most obvious, would be the fact that these
subcultures have been more or less consciously constructed from information reaching the country in the
form of printed materials, films, television and radio, recordings, and the reports of those
who have traveled abroad. Unlike ethnic or religious groupings into which members are for
the most part born, membership in, say, Russia's punk, pagan, Rastafarian, rockabilly, or
blues subcultures would admit to a large measure of personal choice. The elements of conscious
construction and chosen membership would thus indicate the presence of a sizeable
cognitive component in these subcultures and suggest their active, self-conscious inclination
toward valorized, but unconventional, social practices that provide the basis for alternative
communities.2 The widespread disillusionment and dislocation occasioned by the
collapse of communism would seem to place a premium on such activities. As we know, the
bulk of the population has effectively withdrawn from civic life, preferring the solace and
security offered by those informal personal networks that had constituted communism's
vibrant underside.3 The growth of subcultures
would be congruent with this pattern, offering alternative worlds in which adherents
experience new forms of social interaction anchoring individual identities in the circle of familiar others.
Subcultures constitute sites on which claims to status and recognition can be redeemed.
For our purposes, it is unimportant whether such claims have been directly frustrated by the
prevailing order - say, instances in which individuals have been denied placement in higher
educational institutions or career prospects in one or another field of endeavor - or whether
the individuals themselves have simply eschewed involvement in it. The important thing
would be that subcultural life contains its own status distinctions wherein individuals can
locate themselves and experience social recognition.4
Finally, and in direct correspondence to their conscious construction, the subcultures
in question tend to be internally disputatious.
Inasmuch as they are based on particular sets of autonomously conceived practices
and norms, the maintenance of their boundaries is inherently problematic. Deviations from
prescribed patterns can always elicit censure, just as extant practices and norms always
invite reinterpretation on the basis of new information drawn from the very sources on which
they are purportedly based.5
Russia's blues community exhibits these three features commonly encountered in the
country's new subcultures. Cognitively, blues music and its cultural associations have been
adapted by adherents as a template informing their individual and collective lives.
Questions of status and recognition are also manifest within the community, along with
considerable controversy over questions surrounding the authenticity of performance and
the adaptation of the music and its cultural significance to the contemporary Russian setting.
What distinguishes the blues community itself from other subcultures would lie at the
intersection of the music's cultural content and the manner in which it has been appropriated
and adapted by those in the community. Along these lines, there are three aspects of the
blues community which, taken together, specify its distinctive niche among Russian subcultures.
The first would involve the matter of interpretation, the significance that Russians
attach to the music and the way that this is reinforced in the community by its core mode of
organization, small groups of performers whose social relations tend to exhibit certain characteristics
associated with the Soviet kollektiv (collective). Second, would be the fact that
Russia's blues community consists primarily of individuals drawn from the ranks of the
urban intelligentsia: professionals, creative artists, and students. Members of these social
groups have adapted the blues idiom in ways that increase their cultural capital. Accordingly,
community members often lay claim to an extensive knowledge of this musical tradition,
engage in didactic and proselytizing practices, and have transformed the blues idiom
itself into an object of "high" culture. This study concludes with an examination of those
sociocultural aspects from the perspective of politics, distinguishing in turn: a politics of
access to the means of performance that reveals shifting patterns of conflict and cooperation
among performers; a politics of status, in which the norm of authenticity contends with the
exigencies of commercial success; and a politics of stance, in which blues music serves as a
rudder for individuals negotiating their way in a turbulent society shrouded in uncertainties.
The research presented here has been based on field work - conducted in the spring and
autumn of 1998, and the summers of 1999, 2000, and 2001 - that involved attending scores
of performances, conversing casually with musicians and fans, and conducting some fortythree
interviews with performers, blues aficionados, and others, such as promoters and critics,
who are concerned with the blues.6
SETTING AND SIGNIFICANCE
Although certain varieties of blues music have been performed in Russia since the 1970s, it
was not until the end of the Communist epoch that blues became a distinct and broadly
recognizable musical genre in the country. Repression and censorship partially accounted
for Russia's rather late reception of the music. However, of perhaps greater moment was the
dominant presence of rock'n'roll on the Soviet soundscape.7
As a music of youth rebellion and protest drawing on subversive associations with an idealized
and much valorized "West", the rock movement channeled the energies of many millions of adherents
into a cultural struggle against the officially proclaimed "Soviet way of life" and, of course, against the
restrictions, pretensions, and hypocrisy connected to it in the social consciousness. The
rock-based, British variety of blues music performed by a few groups in those years was
seamlessly connected to the youth subculture of rock'n'roll. Despite the efforts of the authorities
to suppress and, later, to coopt and contain it,8
by the mid-1980s some 160,000
groups were performing rock in the Soviet Union.9
The demise of the USSR was coextensive
with the disintegration of this rock movement. Concomitantly, it opened a cultural
space for blues.
One aspect of that space was physical: venues in which to perform. Moscow, where a
thriving nightclub economy took root in communism's aftermath, led the way in this respect.
By the mid-1990s, some forty bands were performing one or another variety of blues music
in dozens of clubs, from fashionable nightspots that seemed directly plucked from, say, New
York or Paris, to low-end joints with a rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Although the financial
crash of August 1998 severely pruned Moscow's burgeoning blues scene, it by no means
eradicated it. Moreover, outside the capital, blues has marked steady progress. By the end
of the 1990s, some ten blues bands were playing in St. Petersburg's clubs, while many large
cities have become home to at least one regularly performing blues group.
One of the appeals of blues has historically been associated with the music's stoic
posture amidst inhospitable social surroundings. In this respect, as a number of respondents
have remarked, there appears to be a particular affinity between the mood and messages
encoded in the music and the conditions confronting individuals in contemporary Russia.
The social dislocation and chaos attending the post-Communist transformation would be
readily visible in the mass search for simple solutions and quick fixes, out of which armies
of bunco artists and crackpot cults have been making fortunes large and small.10
alone, the number of "healers" and assorted purveyors of the black arts numbered around
fifty thousand by the end of the 1990s.11
The "disintegration of certainties" that Ulrich Beck
has identified as the individual counterpoint to the socioeconomic process of globalization,
along with the concomitant tendency among individuals to find and to invent new sources of
meaning in, and explanations for, their lives, would be represented in Russia in particularly
In order to catch a glimpse of this interplay in Russia between a jumbled social reality
and the desire to make meaning, consider the text of a handbill advertising a blues performance
in St. Petersburg. In the original, the entire text is in Russian with the exception of
two key signifiers - the name of the club ("Blues on the Corner") and the name of the band
("Belinov Blues Band") - which appear in English. One reading of this use of English
would be that it signals the presence of valorized cultural products associated with the West:
the club, the band, the blues. Another would understand the use of English as a code signaling
to the reader just what types of people - "cultured ones" - would be welcome at this
However, a third reading of this text - in no way opposed to the other two - might
see in it a defocusing of the Russian context which teems with that uncertainty referenced by
Beck. The physical location is a large new building, the International Center for Business
Collaboration (a name that provides an official representation of the marketizing economy,
but one that most Russians would likely interpret as the place where large-scale swindles
occur), that is located on the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, itself standing opposite
to a grand religious edifice, Smolnyi Cathedral, whose adjoining buildings for some seven
decades had housed the city's Communist party headquarters and, later, the office of the
city's mayor (more swindles there). Moreover, we can note the rather stilted prose - "Esteemed
ladies and gentlemen! ... is happy to congratulate you and to share your company..". -
employed to invite would-be patrons. These are rather stock expressions in Russia today,
but they are rooted in the past. Above all, that past signifies "Soviet" as the particular
holiday being marked, International Women's Day, would readily indicate.
5 March 1999
INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR BUSINESS COLLABORATION
Club "BLUES ON THE CORNER"
Esteemed ladies and gentlemen!
St. Petersburg's best blues group
"BELINOV BLUES BAND"
is happy to congratulate you and to share
your company on the eve of International Women's Day
Concert begins at 19.00
Admission is free
Address: Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, number 6
Second floor (opposite Smolnyi Cathedral)
In the context of this collection of discordant signifiers, "blues" appears as a sign
distancing - as the English language in the handbill would suggest - the subject from his
surroundings. The idea of blues thus represents an accessible enclave ("on the corner")
situated at one remove from layers of the past and present that are referenced as matters of
fact in the handbill. Accordingly, the signifiers at play, here, do not deny or negate the
surroundings; they instead place the individual squarely within them while simultaneously
providing a certain distance from them. It would be in the space thus created that community
can form and identity can be constructed.
A number of respondents directly addressed this interplay between the blues idiom and
Russia's unsettled social situation. Aleksei Agranovskii, both a biologist at Moscow State
University and leader of the blues band, Chernyi khleb (Black Bread), raised the question:
Why has blues music come to Russia? Well, what we've got in Russia now is just
the same thing that existed in the United States when blues first appeared. A big
element here is frustration. There are a lot of Russians who feel that they've
actually become different people now that the Soviet Union no longer exists. They
feel they've become Negroes. Yesterday they were slaves and our forebearers were
slaves, too, for many years. People actually feel this. Now what have we got?
Well, our freedom, you might say, along with a host of other problems in which
money always seems to figure. Blues is a way to surmount the hang-ups and
complexes associated with all that. It is a music that expresses instability and
expresses ways in which one can deal with it.14
Kolia Gruzev, a young guitarist with St. Petersburg's Soul Power Band, indexed the general
turbulence surrounding performers - and the creative impulses that it occasions - in his remarks
that in the old times, Pushkin created in a bad political situation. The Decembrists and
the Silver Age poets were always in a real bad situation. Now is really a strong
period for us. Nobody knows what is going to happen and it's a real good time to
create things. And you've got a certain freedom because you don't know what is
going to happen. And we have to adapt. And when you do that all the time, you
stop thinking about difficulties. Your "immune system" helps you to react to
these difficulties, helps you not to pay attention to them. Musicians are very
special people in this respect. [We can't earn a decent living and] so we are not
satisfied with our roles [but] there's no way to stop. Like in [rushing] water,
you're being dragged along by it.15
Similarly, Iaroslav Sukhov, an artist and blues-lover, would be speaking for many Russians
by noting that blues music began to be socially more appreciated after our revolution, after
liberation from communism, because we learnt that the machine is different but the
oppression remains. Simply different levers are used, now more economic levers
as opposed to the physical ones in the past. And it happens that you find much
more resonance in the blues to this kind of life. ... It makes things much more
transparent. I find it very attractive because you are chopped down by the crowd in
the kind of protest associated with rock'n'roll [during communism's final years].
But in blues you remain yourself.16
Sukhov's notion of "remaining yourself" under altered circumstances speaks immediately to
the appropriation of the blues idiom as a focus for both personal and communal identities.
In this respect, it is useful to apply Michel Foucault's concept of genealogies - which links
social adaptation to a process in which elements of the past have been recombined in new
ways, thus enabling a reconstruction of selves and the creation of new communities - and to
consider the ways in which aspects of the Soviet past have been appropriated and modified
by Russian bluesmen.17
Of particular importance in this respect would be the continuing
influence of the USSR's modal institution: the kollektiv. As Oleg Kharkhordin has shown,
the kollektiv with its attendant set of practices had been confected from elements of earlier
religious traditions and installed throughout Soviet society by the Communist party. The
purpose was to nurture individuals in a new morality that joined individual achievement to
the welfare of the immediate group and thence to the larger society in which the individual
acted, promoting direct face-to-face accountability of the individual to those in his kollektiv.
Although these attempts in the official sphere proved largely futile and often disastrous,
many of the features of the workplace kollektiv were reproduced within circles of friendship
where, in uncoerced fashion, they were instrumental in shaping both interpersonal relations
and the structures of individual personalities.18
Today, it is often the case that a Russian bluesman will speak of his group as nash
kollektiv (our collective). There appears to be more involved here than an unreflective naming
using hold-overs from the Soviet era. Rather - and with varying degrees of success -
blues bands are often organized as more than functionally specific units that perform blues
music. They are regarded as creative communities that involve whole individuals in pursuit
of a common purpose. Although outwardly disavowing association with the Communist
past, veteran Moscow bluesman Sergei Voronov describes his band, Crossroadz, in precisely
I don't like the word kollektiv. It reminds me of the Komsomol [Communist Union
of Youth] in Soviet times. So we call our band a group. We are a kind of family.
... In these ten years [since we've been together] I've realized that it is better that I
lead the band because I'm more involved in this music. ... But when I don't know
what to do, I just say it. In this way, everyone - different musicians with different
experience and skills - brings something to the group. That's why I'm not playing
with other groups anymore. The main thing in my family is Crossroadz.19
In even greater detail, some of the members of St. Petersburg's Big Blues Revival (BBR)
commented on their experience of forming a musical kollektiv.
SASHA ROZHDESTVENSKII: You do have in this group the idea of an organic unity. I
play pure blues and another member prefers bluegrass and another likes funk, and
so forth. As a result, the internal makeup of this kollektiv is complex, and therefore
it has life, especially as long as our individual directions are interesting for
others. ... We are already in our second year and no one has left, no one else has
joined. We came to the realization that it has to be just this way. We can't be seven
or five, we must be six. In part, this is due to the fact that there are certain niches
already occupied in this town with respect to blues. ... So, when we came along we
realized that we had to do something different. Sergei [Starodubtsev's] mandolin
is part of that effort to establish our own sound. More than once, comrades have
come up to me and asked, "What kind of blues is this? With a mandolin?" Well,
that's just it. This is our blues band. It has a mandolin.
SERGEI STARODUBTSEV: Our group is a kollektiv in the full sense. I am not a blues
musician, I play country. But I play in a blues band because of the people in it and
the blend of sounds that we get. ... We have just come back from the road. Our
purpose was to make money. But there is a distinction here between the kollektiv
that we have and some popsa band [a highly commercialized Russian pop group].
For the popsa band, the money is the only thing. For our kollektiv, there are other,
more human aspects.
SASHA SUVOROV: But it's more than that. We argue. We argue over the music. One
person tells another, "You shouldn't play it that way, I'll show you how to do it".
And musicians don't always like to hear that. We sometimes verbally abuse one
another. But our relationships are such that it never matters, at least for very
This notion of unity-in-diversity has been underscored by Boris Bulkin - a Moscow
guitarist who began playing blues in the 1980s and now leads Stainless Blues Band - who
likened it to the ditty, "eSwan, crab, and pike,' which stands for having various vectors: the
pike stays in the river while the swan flies into the sky and the crab moves onto the land.
Stainless Blues Band will remind you of that very thing. We've had a lot of deep discussions
about each other's strong and weak points and we are prepared to put up with our
shortcomings. It's almost like a family".21
Vadim Ivashchenko, a young guitar player from
Rostov-on-Don who moved to Moscow in 2001 to join the country's hottest new blues
band - Mishuris and His Swinging Orchestra - has used a different metaphor to make a
general point about blues bands that he has known. "Making blues into a living thing in
Russia, a country with an absolutely different culture, is no easy matter. These people are
united by something that is, to a certain degree, strange or foreign. So, they construct for
themselves a small world in which to live. You don't know what changes life will bring, so
you continue to exist in this small world, letting in only the things that you need".22
On the other hand, conscious attempts to institute the kollektiv form have not always
resulted in smooth sailing. As St. Petersburg bluesman Valerii Belinov recalls:
As the leader of our kollektiv, BBB (Belinov Blues Band), I knew very well that
there had to be a balance of opinions in it and that I must represent that balance. ...
A kollektiv is a mutually free and harmonious joining of creative forces. ... Under
Soviet conditions music was still very regimented and the leader counted for everything.
... So, given this context, despite my own plans for our musical kollektiv,
the members really didn't respond. They would give no accounting of themselves.
They practiced total irresponsibility. ... We decided that I would have to enforce
discipline - you know, fine them for being drunk, or for an absence from rehearsal.
We all agreed on this, but you can see what this meant for our plans to have a real
musical kollektiv. ... It was one thing to agree in principle, and another to accept a
fine for your lack of discipline. And with the inevitable change of personnel, that
is where the Belinov Blues Band has been for the last three years: struggling along,
with me holding it together, along with the inevitable number of conflicts and
resentments that go with that arrangement.23
These remarks recorded during interviews would warrant the inference that Russia's
blues community consists, first and foremost, of tightly knit groups of performers organized
along the lines of the kollektiv. Looser networks of friends, fans, promoters, and blueslovers
in general radiate outward from them. As we see, below, the blues medium cements
this community together but does not entirely seal its fissures. That is, the kollektiv form of
social organization - characterized in Communist times as "group egoism"24
- tends to furnish
the social landscape with small, outwardly identical groups, each based on strong social
ties. This arrangement scarcely conduces to cooperation among groups and can convert
competition among them into conflicts that are often interpreted in quite personal ways.
These tendencies, however, are counterbalanced by the centripetal effect exercised by the
music itself as it enters the construction of individual identities and engenders a sense of
community among blues-lovers.
AUTHENTICITY AND COMMUNITY
The role of music generally in engendering community and identity remains only partially
understood at present. What seems to be certain, however, is that - irrespective of the actual
mechanisms and processes by which it accomplishes this feat - music binds people together
in important ways.25
By accenting the individual, his troubles and desires, blues music
readily enables identification with an imagined community experiencing comparable conditions
Yet, because it is a relatively unfamiliar import in today's Russia
that defines a particular community, blues is often subject to close inspection and strict
policing. Is this song, or a given rendition of it, actually blues, real blues? The answer to
this question on the part of performers defines not only their music but, in certain respects,
themselves. The music's authenticity thus occupies a central place in the blues community's
The question appended to it can be divided into two related but separable
issues. The first concerns the question of authenticity in the music, the way it touches
something in players and fans, something that they identify as integral to their being. The
second refers to the authenticity of the music, whether a given sound can be regarded as real
blues. The general consensus that we find in the blues community on the first question is
only partially reproduced on the second one.
Turning to that first question, we can cite a number of comments made by Russia's
bluesmen and fans during interviews or in casual conversations. One comes from an
acquaintance struck up in a blues club with a man named Oleg, who works as scenery
director for St. Petersburg's Children's Puppet Theater. His remarks on the soulfulness of
the music tap categories seminal to Russians' self-understanding: soul, and music's role in
Some music is played with the head, some with the heart and soul. Blues is like
that, it comes from the soul. It's like our bards, such as [Vladimir] Vysotskii. It's
not the same, of course, but a parallel tradition. Russians like that kind of music.
When I first heard blues, I thought that this is my life that is being expressed.29
Aleksei Kalachev, who has narrated a weekly blues program on national radio for a number
of years, reports on the phone calls and letters that he receives regarding his broadcasts.
Unexpectedly, I will hear from people who have never listened to the blues before,
maybe someone sitting in prison in Siberia or someone out in Kamchatka (I just
got a letter from there yesterday). A person who might be fifty years old tells me,
"Good lord, all my life I thought that there was something that I lack and then I
heard your show. I was immediately paralyzed by the first note". I don't want to
exaggerate, but I think that this happens because blues is a great music. The emotions
that have been laid into it express what people have survived. They tell a
dramatic story that is similar to the history of Russians. Blues is about something
For many, a personal investment in blues accents the value of authenticity. A young
Moscow fan states that she likes "to watch the faces of the players [which often are contorted
while playing]. It's part of the music, it shows that they do it from their hearts. Some
musicians try to perform, while these guys don't care how they look and what other people
think. They just play and that's the most important thing for them".31
A Petersburg devotee
engages that same point, explaining that he appreciates "blues mainly because of the way
that they over-perform. It's more than improvisation. In blues, the player goes beyond
himself. He achieves something that lies in the moment, not in his ordinary being or consciousness.32
Similarly, a Petersburg journalist had this to say on the matter:
Blues is not fashionable but durable. You should learn about it if you are serious
about music rather than about following ephemeral fads. Blues is not commercial.
Bluesmen are not rich and do not strive for a comfortable life, for "the European
standard". For them, it is all about music. They don't even care where they play,
over a warm street grate or in Carnegie Hall. Only the blues matters.33
Along these lines, seasoned bluesman and leader of Moscow's Blues Hammer Band, Mikhail
Sokolov, rendered his relationship to the music in reverential terms, referring to his "interest
in sluzhenie" - service in the religious sense of obligations to the deity - "serving a particular
genre" regardless of whether there was any money in it.34
The second side of authenticity - because it concerns the maintenance of boundaries
defining the blues community itself - represents a far more fractious issue. Nikolai Arutiunov,
who has been performing blues for over twenty years, mainly as vocalist and leader of
Moscow's Liga bliuza (Blues League), echoed comments frequently made in interviews by
drawing the line against what many Russian bluesmen often refer to as "fake" or "false"
blues. "There is such a concept as Russian blues'", he remarked:
There are even groups that consider themselves to be Russian bluesmen. But we,
bluesmen, do not consider those Russian bluesmen to be real bluesmen. Because
these groups like Chizh & Co. are simply Russian rock with a few elements of
blues thrown in. They don't have the blues mood (nastroieniia), the "feeling" [in
English]. So, Chizh is a good group, but not blues. They just play more blues in
their sound than do other groups. We don't consider them as one of our own.35
Other performers pointed less to the actual content of the music than to the setting in which
it is performed and, more important, the purpose for which it is played. Vovka Kozhekin, a
young Moscow harmonica player, complained that "what we have been experiencing is a
great profanation of this style of music on the commercial market just to make money".36
Similarly, Vitalii Andreev, BBR's vocalist, objected to the fact that "there's a group in this
town. A blues band? Now they are playing in casinos as a kind of background music, like
the woman in the Hotel Astoria who plays the harp in the lobby. I think that this is a
discreditation, not only of musicians, but of the music that they play".37
As a performer oriented toward the more traditional sound of Delta and early Chicago
blues, Mikhail Sokolov confessed his chagrin at the lack of understanding that greeted his
first performances of this music. "We thought right away", he explained,
that the public would not understand this music. Well, we were right. When we
started to play some songs, no one was at all involved. ... Even blues musicians
who were there said, "Hey, I thought that you were supposed to be playing blues.
What is this stuff you're playing?" When I played a Bukka White album for my
old friend, Aleksei Belov - who is a fine blues guitar player and leader of the
group Udachnoe priobretenie (A Fortunate Acquisition) - he said, "What's that?
That's not blues. B. B. King is blues. Johnny Winter is blues. But that's not
blues. I can't even listen to that stuff. I don't even think that the guitar has been
tuned. In general, it's not even music". Such were his opinions, the opinions of a
bluesman who had been playing blues on stage for thirty years.38
In the view of Giia Dzagnidze, an outstanding blues guitarist and leader of Moscow's
Modern Blues Band, the issues of authenticity of and in the blues are directly joined. "Speaking
from direct experience", he maintains,
if a person is not expressing his soul in his music, if he is just playing music
technically well, we can say that this is not bad. But at the same time, it is not
good. This is really the core of blues music, too. Blues is not just playing "Hootchie
Cootchie Man". Rather, blues expresses what you have survived. Blues is recalling
what you have survived.39
Along similar lines, Mikhail Sokolov has recounted an episode in which he was unexpectedly
telephoned by a guitarist with whom he had played many years ago.
This guy had moved out of Moscow and then one day in the early nineties I got a
call from him saying, "Petrovich, they say that blues is now in vogue. So the boys
and I have decided to play some blues. Tell me what kinds of places are available
to play there. We'll practice up and we're on our way". Well, I just went limp from
this conversation. These guys think that blues is real simple. Three chords. By
tomorrow we'll have a whole show ready. I was just aghast at this and I asked him
not to call again. He didn't understand that he had offended me so much.40
Sokolov's reference to his interlocutor's assumption "that blues is real simple" indexes
a pivotal concept in the self-understanding of the blues community, distancing it from outsiders.
Whereas the uninitiated might regard simplicity as an indication that blues can be
easily mastered, Russian bluesmen insist that the opposite is actually the case. Among the
many comments made during interviews, two might be cited as representative of a general
consensus on this issue. The first comes from Aleksei Baryshev, leader of Vladimir's Blackmailers
Rock is largely based on a pentatonic scale and includes a lot of blues phrases, and
so more and more I became oriented to playing blues. Quickly, I began to discover
that blues is outwardly a very simple music, but that appearance conceals a great
complexity within it. It is very difficult to reproduce the full sense of blues, in
particular the emotional element that it contains.41
The second is voiced by Sergei Mironov, bass player with BBR:
I can say that my first reaction [to blues] was that this is very simple, primitive
music, especially after the kind of jazz-rock that I had come to listen to a lot. At
first, it was kind of boring [to play]. Then, after I had begun to play with Hands
[Kolia Gruzev], I began to understand that this was absolutely not simple music at
all. Very unsimple. And, secondly, I began to understand that this is a very deep
music and that managing to play this music would be a real trip.42
Within the blues community, then, the valence of simplicity is reversed. What outsiders
regard as undemanding music that need not be taken seriously is reframed on the basis of
an esoteric knowledge that valorizes the very elements that others dismiss. Initiates take an
obvious pride in themselves for having unlocked this secret. The music seems simple to
those who do not understand it. But we do. And it is this shared knowledge that supplies
one of the bonds of community, distinguishing its members from others who might have
access to the same information but who are unable to understand and appreciate it.
Authenticity, socially displayed, raises the question of style. As a social concept, style, has
elicited conflicting assessments. Some theorists, such as Dick Hebdige, regard subcultural
style, mediated through music, dress, and argot, as "a gesture of defiance or contempt" toward
the hegemony of capitalist social relations and their attendant ideology. Style functions
to disrupt the taken-for-granted world with its ready-made structures in which those
relations and ideology dictate the choices confronting the individual. Style draws a circle
around subjects in a community "liberated" by virtue of its lived opposition to the surrounding
hegemony of the prevailing order. It thus buttresses individual identity and dignity.43
However, other theorists, sensitive to the repressive side of commodity consumption, might
challenge that thesis. Jean Baudrillard, for instance, would argue that these same elements
of style - music, dress, and argot - can be understood as signs that determine the "obligatory
registration of individuals on the scale of status, through the mediation of their group
and as a function of their relations with other groups". Moreover, he continues, "this scale
is properly the social order, since the acceptance of this hierarchy of differential signs and
their interiorization by the individual of signs in general (i.e., of the norms, values and social
imperatives that signs are) constitute the fundamental, decisive form of social control -
more so even than acquiescence to ideological norms".44
Because style represents a symbolic
opposition to capitalist social relations, it would be determined by those relations
themselves. Rather than abolishing the commodity form, style would faithfully reproduce it
as its putative other. Consequently, it can enter and replenish capitalism's market place of
signs, whether in the form of mass-marketed gangsta rap, the down-at-the-heel look in the
fashion industry, or corporate executives slapping high fives on the occasion of concluding
a business deal.
Arguments advanced by either side in this debate can claim some purchase with respect
to blues music and culture in post-Communist Russia. The idea of blues, and images related
thereto, have been pressed into service by the advertising industry. Incongruously, the word
has appeared prominently in such things as magazine advertisements hawking a new line of
office furniture. Images - such as the stud-like figure in leather jacket, blowing blues on his
harp as he thumbs a ride - have been featured in TV ad campaigns imploring Russians to use
contraceptives. Indeed, American movies such as The Blues Brothers or From Dusk Till
Dawn have provided images of blues style and have served as access points to blues music
for many Russians. In particular, the impact of the film Crossroads - which combines a
sense of freewheeling adventure with a young aesthete's encounter with blues culture and a
music that he eventually masters through fierce determination - often surfaced in interviews.45
On the other hand, a cursory perusal of a blues performance in Russia would likely
indicate the absence of any outward markers of style, such as clothing or speech. In the
overwhelming majority of cases, blues bands are completely indistinguishable from other
collections of (male) persons by virtue of, say, their dress or hair length. Likewise, there
seems to be no particular dialect setting members of the blues community apart from others
in society. These proclivities stand in marked contrast to Russia's rockabilly subculture in
which more or less uniform manifestations of style - clothing, hair-dos, motorcycles, and so
forth - are prominently displayed.
Some of the more commercially successful bluesmen count this as a debit. Nikolai
Arutiunov, for instance, contrasts rockabilly, heavy metal, and reggae with blues "for which
no such style is visible. And that", he continues,
is for us a minus because young people are first interested by what is visible, they
are attracted by what can be seen. ... Through these external aspects they are able
to pursue and find something deeper, and I've always campaigned for that kind of
thing among bluesmen. ... But we don't develop any particular style and I think
that this is a big shortcoming. ... We must be interesting people, we must look
good. Take, for instance, Stevie Ray Vaughn. He would be a good example for
everyone to follow.46
His colleague, Mikhail Sokolov, would agree, arguing that
I could work without my hat. I'm not embarrassed by my balding head. But
inasmuch as I've already created this kind of image with my hat, I work with it on
even when it is very hot and I have to carry a towel to mop up the sweat. That is
because people can't really sort out the blues for themselves. Usually, they are
more involved with the show. That is, a person will say, "Look how this guy plays!
He wears this black hat and he's got a big beard and he plays harmonica". So, it's
all the elements together that provide this show that seems to be the most attractive
thing for most people. ... If I were able to juggle while I played harmonica, then I
would do that.47
But these appear to be minority views. Most bluesmen regard style as an aspect of that
very sense of individuality that is celebrated in blues music. Aleksei Agranovskii, for instance,
regards outward manifestations of style as indicative of an absence of content.
When you see these guys come out on stage with the dark glasses and big hats, I
am already thinking that this is going to be boring. I don't have in mind here, say,
John Lee Hooker - to me, he is very interesting. But these people I'm talking
about, are they expressing themselves or something else? And if it's not themselves,
then it's going to be boring. They are just beating something with a sausage.
It's actually funny.48
Likewise, Kolia Gruzev sees in these accouterments a subversion of the idiom itself.
Some people need to be bluesmen. They need to wear hats. It comes from a couple
of movies: The Blues Brothers, which is fake, sure, and Crossroads, which is
closer [to the matter] but too romantic. ... But sometimes people try to be like that.
I tried to be like that for awhile, but it's not the goal itself. ... I love the way they
[American bluesmen] look and what they do, but we are just different people, and
it doesn't have any influence on the music. ... Your style and your music are all the
same. [Blues] style means to be yourself.49
In part, this controversy over style reflects different emphases present in the blues community:
one, to promote the music by putting on an eye-catching show; the other, to express
in one's outward appearance that same individuality that is encoded in blues music. Inasmuch
as the value placed on authenticity can impede efforts to popularize the music, the
issue of style reflects a normative divide within the community itself. Using categories
developed by Pierre Bourdieu, we can conceptualize this divide by positing that some performers
follow a strategy of distinguishing themselves by accumulating commercial capital - both
money and a public following - while others tack toward the accumulation of
cultural capital by performing blues in a way that coincides with that same individuality that
constitutes part of its appeal.50
Further, this distinction owes something to place. The
outward features of style seem to be best represented among certain Moscow bluesmen
whose levels of commercial success - albeit modest - put them in a league far removed from
that of their impecunious counterparts elsewhere in the country. Access to commercial capital
distinguishes the Moscow blues scene and thus, as we see below, represents a palpable
division in Russia's blues community. However, while noting the discord attending the
question of style, we are again reminded of the centripetal pull of the music associated with
it. In the words of Nikolai Arutiunov, himself an advocate for the use of visible markers:
We have different subgroups in our society, different musical societies. We have,
let's say, Metalica, or Grunge. You will meet someone like that and ask what kind
of music he likes and that person will tell you, "I like Grunge", or "I like Metal".
And the reply is something along the lines of, "Well, you're a fine person but
you're not my brother. I like to listen to the blues". And you meet another person
and you say, "What music do you listen to?" And he might say, "The Rolling
Stones, John Mayall, Leadbelly, Otis Spann". You think right away, "You're my
Adherence to musical canon has meant that blues in Russia, with very few exceptions, is
sung in English. This preference for a foreign language over the native one probably has
something to do with the notion of a valorized Western import enhancing the status of local
performers and consumers of the music. It may also have resulted from the prehistory of
blues in Russia, when the music was a little-differentiated appendage of rock'n'roll. A
rock-alloyed blues with original lyrics had been performed in Russian during the late Communist
period, but the use of English for blues music thereafter helped to distinguish it as
something separate from rock. This tendency was reinforced by communism's collapse and,
with it, the devaluation of protest songs, making the words themselves less central to the
music's appeal. But, perhaps most important, the issue of language is inherently bound up
with questions of performance: whether the music sounds authentic in a given language.52
As such, two other aspects of vocalizing seem to carry greater explanatory weight. The first
concerns the commitment evinced by Russian bluesmen to a faithful reproduction of the
music. This would be especially true for the first generation of performers who discovered
blues before it had become at all popular. For instance, in the role of host for a weekly
program - "Simply Blues" - that ran on the NTV-plus cable network for about three months
in winter 1997, Mikhail Sokolov answered a telephone caller's question by remarking that
the reason for singing in English is "to preserve tradition. That is the main reason, to copy
the foreign tradition and to master it. When we have mastered the English, then we shall
create the Russian".
The second factor concerns the relative unsuitability of Russian - due largely to its
grammatical complexity and the plethora of polysyllabic words - to the standard blues verse.53
As Petersburg bass player and vocalist Sergei Semenov has put it, "We have to perform in
English because the melodic structures correspond to the English language. ... If you were
singing in Russian, then the language would correspond more to Russian folk sounds and
the timbre of the music would be changed".54
Alternatively, in the view of Sasha Suvorov, "if
you sing blues in Russian, it comes across very strange. ... The words and the dynamics of
the phrasing are totally different in Russian and English. The rhythms of the languages are
Does it matter for the listener that the music is performed in English? To a certain
extent it does. The compactness of blues lyrics - especially the element of double-voicing
in which signification is registered and negated in a single act - would be largely lost on an
audience with little or no command of the language.56
But Russians, as they are like to do in
many endeavors, find ways of compensating. As a young St. Petersburg guitarist, Volodia
Rusinov, has remarked, "Russians are used to listening to music in unintelligible foreign
languages. With blues, it's just the same".57
Oleg, our scenery director from St. Petersburg,
speaks little English, but enough, he says, to catch the gist of most songs.58
feels that "in blues the music itself does the talking and that is completely sufficient", while
Sergei Starodubtsev dismisses the import of the language issue, arguing that "people are
making music before they can talk".59
From the other end of the microphone, Petersburg
blues singer Inessa Kataeva has sought to turn the language barrier into an advantage.
Just to survive this life and its problems, well, it comes out in the music that I sing.
I really enjoy improvising, and it has always been difficult to do that in a foreign
language. However, in blues I can vocalize around the melody and, even though
it's in English, I don't feel uncomfortable about that. ... So, I try to work those
problems into my singing and to discuss them musically. ... [Sometimes] I'm worried
that I'm not singing the words correctly, because I don't understand many of
the texts that I sing. And there are times when I forget the words entirely. So what
do I do then? Well, I just keep going and hope that I get lucky. And sometimes it
turns out better. They tell me afterwards: "That was great the way you sang that
song". But it was only because I was improvising completely.60
There have been some attempts at rendering blues in Russian. Recorded versions have
shown mixed results: some successful, others, less so.61
The trick seems to involve recasting
English language texts into sonorously comparable Russian ones. In this respect Nikolai
Arutiunov describes a painstaking, laborious process that for a long while had produced
only kasha (porridge).62
"I try to write blues in Russian", he explains,
that actually has a kind of English language feel to it. It is very difficult to work
Russian words into a blues text. They are quite a bit longer than English ones. I
use the help of various poets. They don't understand blues rhythm or the blues
sense, but they help me because I am not really equipped to be a composer myself.
It is very complicated work to get this sound so that the music itself is a bit like
Similarly, Valerii Belinov has collaborated with a poet in order to translate English-language
texts into Russian by radically changing the surface content of narratives, inserting
Russian expressions that retain the proper rhythm and meter, thereby evoking the same mood
as the original but often on the basis of quite different tropes and images. The resulting
sound is unmistakably blues, yet its unusual timbre startles the ear expecting to hear an
English lyric but encountering a fully fluid Russian one.
PREACHIN' THE BLUES
The stress placed on authenticity in the blues community intersects with longstanding Russian
cultural proclivities to regard the surrounding society as in some way degenerate, fallen,
morally threatened and, thus, in need of enlightenment and salvation.64
This proclivity is
reinforced by the tendency to perceive the larger society through the prism of family relations,
a tendency by no means unique to Russia but one that appears to be especially pronounced
Indeed, as Aleksandr Arinin has pointed out, the "nation as family" metaphor
in Russian social consciousness derives much of its influence on thought and perception
from the very fact that it is so deeply embedded in everyday thinking that it has become
naturalized and escapes critical attention.66
Like others of their number in the intelligentsia - past
and present - many Russian bluesmen evince a responsibility toward the family/
nation, seeing it as their charge to perfect this music that so inspires them and to bring it to
their unenlightened brothers and sisters.67
There seems to be a common opinion, in this respect, that were blues music featured
more on radio and television, then its popularity would expand geometrically. As Mikhail
Sokolov remarked, "Unfortunately, 90 percent of the people in Russia use that which they
have been given on television and radio and no more. They don't even think about the
possibility that there are more interesting musical directions to be explored".68
Berezin, a guitarist with Petersburg's The Way, likewise believes that the issue is one of
Unfortunately, no one propagandizes the blues in this country. You won't see
anything about the blues on television. And the common masses are left out of
this music because it is not being popularized or propagandized. If you put Stevie
Ray Vaughn's clips [music videos] on TV, then the people (narod) would react to
this very positively.69
Accordingly, a number of bluesmen regard it as their obligation "to open people's eyes",
in the words of music magazine editor, Aleksandr Dolgov.70
"There is no question here",
remarks Vitalii Andreev, "that the audience must be brought up, nurtured".71
obligation is expressed in very personal terms. Vovka Kozhekin reports that:
I see myself with this task, namely, to do my best to acquaint the country with this
part of world culture, the blues, and perhaps also to try to create something of the
blues on Russian soil. Above all, for me this is an attempt to raise the general
cultural level of the country. And personally, because of the way that culture has
lagged so much in this country, it makes it simply hard to live [here]. I want people
to know and to love what I know and love.72
The dramaturgy of a typical blues concert in Russia is apt to contain a didactic moment
in this respect. Sometimes it is confined to the introduction of the song about to be played,
identifying (not always correctly) in somber and serious tones the individual who wrote it.
Because the audience is unlikely to place the name of, say, Willie Dixon or Lowell Fulson,
the transfer of information that occurs in these episodes actually seems to involve a subtextual
statement to the effect that: "This is serious music; we know about it; you should listen to it
and learn about it too". At other times, the audience is treated to brief lectures "to instruct
them about the blues that they're hearing".73
That format was consistently employed throughout
the three-month run of the television program, "Simply Blues". Learned discussions
about the music, explaining one or another of its sources or facets, would alternate with live
performances in the studio. The agenda here was clear: to educate as well as to entertain.
This format also appears on radio programs devoted to blues music such as those narrated by
Andrei Evdokimov ("All That Blues", Radio Ekho Moskvy), Aleksei Kalachev ("Doctor
Blues", Radio Rossiia) and Alik Kasparov ("Blues Bag", broadcast in the mid-nineties on
Radio SNC). Some of the content of these radio programs - especially the remarks of, and
replies to, telephone callers - gets recycled as articles in music magazines,74
along with a
steady stream of pieces profiling American and British blues artists.75
The impulse to proselytize which informs the identity of most bluesmen is also associated
with the music's capacity to invert social hierarchies by including in performance the
representation of socially marginalized elements.76
Thus, on one hand, a musical form stemming
from "low" culture has been imported into the country and received by members of the
intelligentsia who reverse the valence of its status markers, transforming it into an object to
be appreciated by discerning and sophisticated people. On the other, those who do not
participate in the consumption of this music are themselves included in it as an absence, as
that great potential audience who would appreciate the blues if only they had been informed
("enlightened") about it. This approach is made all the more seductive because of traces of
"low" culture that remain in the music, despite its status inversion. As an especially earthy
music, blues evokes a sense of the unruly world surrounding those educated, young middleclass
males who constitute its principal constituency.77
To many members of the blues community,
then, the question seems elementary: Would not ordinary people also enjoy this
music that so much speaks about their lives? In the following section, we return to the
implications of this question.
A related element in this proselytizing posture would involve opposition to the reigning
mass-music genre: popsa. During interviews, members of the blues community offered
explanations for the popular success of this music, but most explanations seem to be variations
on the theme of improper nurturing. For instance, Alla Gladkikh, a Petersburg musician
and former promoter, claimed that the management of the rock club with which she had
been associated was "guilty" of fostering popsa. "We did nothing to advance the musical
upbringing" of the club's young patrons, she argued, "we just put in the music that they
wanted to hear, and we did it just for the money".78
Mikhail Sokolov directed the blame at
television and radio, insisting that bribery and payola in the mass media have degraded their
musical fare and produced a steady stream of "crap information that has cost us a lot of our
Similarly, Vovka Kozhekin spoke of popsa as a music foisted on the public by
former functionaries in the Communist party. They saw lucrative opportunities in this music,
because it doesn't require any mastery whatsoever. The words practically don't
matter; everything about the rhythm and melody are completely standardized. It is
precisely for this reason that if we are going to move our country musically to the
standards of Europe and America, then we have to take a strong social position
against our own system of show business. ... I guess you might say that any musical
attempt is simultaneously a struggle against popsa.80
If the norm of authenticity constructs the boundary of the blues community, then proselytizing
and opposition to popsa both reinforce it while simultaneously mediating the
community's relations with the surrounding world. These practices appear to depend on a
background understanding that society has been victimized by a degraded mass culture that
leaves most people ignorant of "real music". As such, uninformed others are integral to the
community's self-concept: we struggle against the forces of crass commercialism to bring
"real music", blues, to them. This aspect of subcultural identity, then, tends to blur the line
of community/other distinctions by overlaying the category of difference with an ample
measure of similarity, captured in the notion that others would appreciate our music too, if
they were only exposed to it properly. In short, the Russian blues identity is linked to a
conception of community whose putative potential for growth tomorrow informs the significance
of its practices today.
We conclude this study with a few words on the political implications of the foregoing
analysis. Here our attention turns first to the mundane issue of access to the means of
performance - the struggle to get club bookings and the chance to play - and the divisive
influence of the kollektiv in this regard. Second, we examine the conflict obtaining in the
blues community's normative structure that is expressed in the authorized practices of insuring
authenticity and making the music available to an uninitiated public who count as potential
community members. Finally, we examine a politics of culture that informs relations
between the community and the larger society.
Turning to the first of these matters, a major distinction can be drawn here - as is true
of so many things in Russia - between Moscow and the remainder of the country. At the
present time, about a dozen clubs in Moscow continue to feature blues music. Each of them
relies on an "artistic director" to assist in, if not entirely manage, bookings. Often these
artistic directors are themselves bluesmen, usually the leaders of their respective bands.
Consequently, the organization of blues performances around the city has generally transpired
through a network of informal relations in which reciprocity obtains: You book us in
your club and I'll book you in mine. Naturally, this pattern has made for a certain bonding
among Moscow groups represented in the network as well as for a certain resentment among
outsiders who sometimes speak of this arrangement as consisting of "clans", "a little mafia",
or a "holding company".81
The tendency among many Moscow bluesmen - especially inasmuch as they are ensconced
at the geographical center of Russia's blues community - is to ignore developments
on the periphery. This was apparent during a number of interviews in which Muscovites
claimed no knowledge of one or another blues band performing in other cities. A Petersburger
complained that when "I go to Moscow to play a concert, I call around all over town telling
other musicians about it. Do you think that they would come to listen to me? None of them,
or maybe one. They think that they are the great musicians of Moscow who do not have time
for someone from Petersburg".82
To some extent, the social distance between Moscow bluesmen and their counterparts
elsewhere in Russia reflects an economic division. Financial rewards are many times greater
for those fortunate enough to play the blues in Moscow. According to the view from St.
In Moscow, there is so much money. And here it is just the opposite, we play
concerts for laughable sums. Yesterday we played a concert for ten dollars apiece.
That's enough [the total receipts] maybe to buy a harmonica. As a matter of fact,
we blew out a harmonica yesterday, so we will have to use that money to buy a new
And from that of the provinces:
There is this expression: "Moscow is the state of the state". They are only concerned
with themselves [there] and they don't pay much attention to the provinces.
For instance, there is a lot going on in Vladimir that people in Moscow just don't
know about. Because Moscow groups are established and have set rates of pay,
when I write a Moscow band to come to Vladimir for a concert they say: "What
kind of money?" And when I tell them, they say that they can only play for five
times that much. When it comes to blues bands in other regions ... their problems
are just like ours. We all speak the same language. They don't share the Moscow
mentality which seems to revolve around money.84
These views outwardly concern the matter of privilege. They express the notion that
Moscow bluesmen enjoy a special access to the means of performance and are relunctant to
share it with others. But as factual as such claims appear to be, they also might mask another
factor, the influence of the kollektiv form of social organization. The countermovement to
the centripetal pull of the kollektiv would be the varying shades of otherness falling on those
outside it. When the Moscow/provinces distinction is under discussion, Moscow assumes
the part of the other and non-Moscow groups become "like us". However, an examination of
the relations among blues bands in a given city would show that equivalent distinctions
often obtain among them. These are reflected as relative indifference. Some established
performers in St. Petersburg, for example, mentioned in interviews that they had no knowledge
of certain young bluesmen who had been playing around town for years. Just as I found
myself during interviews in Moscow informing bluesmen of the names and talents of certain
Petersburg performers unknown to them, so on another occasion in St. Petersburg I found
myself describing various top players and bands in Moscow about whom my interlocutors
were equally unaware. The matter of indifference toward others involved with the same
pursuit reached comic proportions in Petersburg in the spring of 2000 when, on the same
day (27 May), two blues festivals - each named for Robert Johnson - were mounted at separate
locations by organizers who were completely ignorant of what their counterparts were
perpetrating in another part of the city.
The second aspect of politics in the blues community - the normative conflict between
authenticity and the practical implications of popularizing the music - can be represented in
one respect as a difference in the strategies of performers: one aimed at shoring up cultural
capital, the other at acquiring the commercial capital associated with public recognition.
However, these differing strategic orientations take on added significance when we place
them in the specific context of the blues idiom as an identity construct. As Clyde Woods has
suggested, blues from its inception has represented a "counternarrative of the American
dream" and has thus become an international idiom, travelling on the underside of the process
of globalization that has brought features of American commercial culture to societies
around the world.85
Blues interrogates that culture;
it voices the laments and complaints of those who have been crushed by it; it disdains submission
to it. In the Russian context, then, adoption of the blues idiom would place one in a community distinguished
from others in two important ways. On one hand, as we have noted, blues is valorized as a Western
import setting those in the community invidiously apart from uncomprehending others. On
the other, this particular import has nothing in common with the vulgar materialism practiced
by the country's noveaux riches as their way of being Western. Blues is thus marked as
both a Western cultural form and, simultaneously, as the bad conscience of actually existing
Westernization. Consequently, any diminution of the music's authenticity for the sake of its
popularity would pose a threat to identity, undermining, as it were, the force of the
counternarrative and risking association with the hegemonic form of Western commercialism:
An episode that occurred during a performance of Russia's most popular blues band -
Blues Cousins - in a Moscow nightclub in the summer of 2001 would bring this issue into
sharp relief. I sat at a stage-side table with two prominent members of the country's blues
community who recounted the efforts of the group's leader, Levan Lomidze, to bring the
music to a wider audience. They praised him extensively for this and argued that he was
showing the way forward for all Russian bluesmen. Blues Cousins were playing a room
packed with some two hundred individuals, the great majority of whom appeared to be "middle
class". When the music commenced, an unspoken question seemed to hang over our conversation:
In which middle class are these individuals participating tonight? Is it the one informed
by genuine (blues) culture or the other one based on the consumption of commerical
products (pop)? As the performance progressed, the audience exhibited its greatest enthusiasm
when Lomidze played the two Beatles songs thrown in as crowd-pleasers. My companions,
sitting impassively throughout the show, became somewhat irritated whenever the more
popish sounds reached their ears, occasionally grousing that "this is turning into a rock
concert" and "we are back ten years" as far as the authenticity of the music was concerned.
Their remarks seemed to indicate dissappointment with the entire tenor of the evening, and
chagrin at the fact that the middle class in that particular room did not respond in preferred
ways to the performance, just as the performers were apparently remiss in catering to what
was, indeed, popular.86
Accordingly, this episode offered a practical reply to the question
posed, above, in the abstract: Would not ordinary people also enjoy this music that so much
speaks about their lives? Yes, they well might, but in their own way.
The final aspect of politics in the blues community concerns a related issue: the struggle
for culture. In this respect, we can regard culture in a broad sense as "the signifying system
through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated,
reproduced, experienced and explored".87
As Murray Edelman has argued, cultural products
provide society with a finite number of vantages from which the political world is
apprehended, assessed and, indeed, contructed.88
Cultural is therefore political in the deepest
sense. Its "meanings are constitutive of processes that, implicitly or explicitly, seek to
redefine social power".89
Members of Russia's blues community experience their activities
as a struggle for culture, as many of their remarks, already presented here, would indicate.
The coherence of the community itself emerges from a common endeavor to perform the
blues in Russia.
The notion of cultural struggle has been imprinted in particular on the consciousness
of blues musicians who had been involved with this unsanctioned music during the Communist
period. Veteran Moscow bluesman, Aleksei Belov, has recalled that in those years
"playing this type of music meant that you could go to jail or to the crazy house. In those
days, you didn't have friends (druzhki), you had comrades-in-arms".90
Moreover, the simple
acquisition of blues or rock LPs or cassettes entailed risk. Nikolai Arutiunov remembered
how he was detained by the police on the occasion of his first visit to Moscow's black
market record exchange, and how their subsequent letter to the Institute where he studied
led to unpleasantness. "At the Institute", he recalled, "they began to consider me an American
spy, a subversive agent. This meant a lot of trouble for me".91
Instruments were almost
impossible to obtain in those years. Accordingly, Valerii Belinov and Boris Bulkin recounted
fascinating tales about building their own guitars, while Mikhail Sokolov showed
me the work bench in his bedroom where he learned to rebuild harmonicas and harmonica
microphones. Access to venues for public performance was, of course, severely restricted,
and those respondents who found places to play reported that prior censorship, unscheduled
power outages, and roustings by the police were not uncommon.
There is little in blues that addresses itself directly to these kinds of repressive practices
and their cultural residue. Overtly, blues does not concern itself with politics in the
conventional sense. There are exceptions to this rule - songs like Leadbelly's "Bourgeois
Blues" or John Brim's "Tough Times" come readily to mind - but they are very few and far
between. As a music sung almost invariably in the first person singular, blues seems to lack
that component essential to the production of political discourse: "we". Moreover, references
to general conditions, all the more a critique of them, are quite sparse. But it would be
a mistake to conclude on the basis of these observations that blues music lacks a politics. As
Brian Ward has shown in his study of the role played by rhythm and blues in shaping African
American consciousness during America's civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s,
popular music without an explicit political content can nonetheless express powerful messages
that tap into broad-based expectations and aspirations, thus engendering a community
aware of its common dispositions.92
These considerations are not lost on Russian bluesmen,
one of whom has remarked that "blues is the most apolitical music one can think of".
The political moment is excluded, at least on the surface of things. Blues is individual.
A bluesmen never says "we"; he sings about himself. But, on the other
hand, it is the most political music imaginable inasmuch as blues always sings
about freedom. Even if the song doesn't use the word "freedom", the implications,
the context is always about achieving some liberation from conditions that surround
the person. Therefore, in any society the bluesman is a kind of dissident. I
think that in America in the sixties, people like The Band, Canned Heat, Paul
Butterfield, or the Blues Project were not overtly politically oriented but at the
same time were participants in a broad social movement that concerned itself with
freedom. I think that much the same thing is true here today.93
Both content and context combine to confine this aspect of blues in today's Russia to
the level of micropolitics. That is, the representation of the world from the perspective of the
individual, in conjunction with a general understanding in the country that there is little
point in pinning any hopes on extant political processes, mean that a politics of blues can be
summed up in the stances that it provides for constructing a self oriented toward both autonomy
and the struggle to achieve it. We can unpack this idea by applying with slight
modification the categories developed by William Barlow that concern the political aspects
of blues music in general to the particular case of Russia.94
The first of these is subversion. It refers exclusively to the nonverbal side of blues
music. Here, the tonality of the music itself - especially in the dissonance effected by its
texture and drive - disrupts the familiar, undercutting the sense of order associated with
standard European melodic structures. Tony Russell has argued that blues music's subversion
of conventional musical constraints has made it especially attractive to many white
musicians for whom "to step out in the guise of the blues is to step out of line".95
this effect, the music's overlay of rhythmic patterns on top of the basic beat engenders "the
feeling ... of ... trying to break out of the constraining, divisive meter" that structures the
Vocal techniques can further enhance that effect. Whether stretching meaning
beyond the words employed or communicating through nonverbal shrieks and moans, blues
can index extramusical memories and aspirations. With variations in emphasis, Russian
performers frequently commented during interviews on how one or another of these features
of the music drew them to the blues.
The capacity of blues to engender community represents the second aspect of the music's
politics. In this respect, we recall the proselytizing bent of many Russian bluesmen and
their self-conscious struggle against popsa. The notion of community in a state of becoming
is thus immanent to the experience of performing this music. Moreover, like his counterpart
anywhere, the Russian bluesman in singing about himself is simultaneously serving as a
vicarious voice for unseen others who lack the means of self-expression. Whether these
others actually appreciate this benefaction is an issue that is beside the point, here. Rather,
our interest in blues as a medium for the creation of community concerns a particular artifice
of blues aesthetics that creates the effect of experiencing performance as a kind of
reality. This effect - that the performer is not merely performing, but directly conveying his
feelings - stems from the music's simplicity and its direct emotive content which function to
suppress the perception of artifice, itself, and to conjure the impression that one is listening
to the unadorned truth. On that basis the bluesman is able to speak to and for others.97
Muddy Waters once referred to this communitarian aspect of blues performance by noting
that when a person "gets to realize that others have the same kind of trouble - or even worse -
he understands that life isn't just pickin' on him alone".98
The third aspect of a politics of the blues involves something neither foregrounded in
nor absent from our discussion thus far: freedom. It too is a micropolitics: not a social
proclamation but an individual statement. In interviews, this personal sense of the term
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that in Russia it is possible to speak about a blues
movement and a blues style?
VITALII ANDREEV: Well, if rock'n'roll is a music of protest, then blues is about
INTERVIEWER: Do you mean that it's the demand for freedom or the use of freedom?
ANDREEV: No, it's the feeling of freedom. It's the feeling that you are free.99
Similarly, in the words of Kolia Gruzev, blues
is some type of inner freedom. I think that when black people play blues, they feel
the same way. Like Lightnin' Hopkins, who spent his life in small pubs and bars
in Texas and didn't want to play to huge audiences. He was free to do this. He was
a bluesman. Whether he was sitting on the street one day and playing and then
playing in some club, it was all the same. He was the same. There was no conflict
inside of him. He was congruent.100
The final aspect of a politics of the blues refers to resistance. It represents an integral
feature of the blues community which defines itself against the hegemonic culture of the
larger society. As is the case with freedom, resistance appears in subtle forms - palpable,
but difficult to pinpoint or to circumscribe. An active politician, Sergei Mitrokhin, has
remarked in this vein on the earthy manner that he associates with blues.
I like the idea of waking up with a terrible hangover, finding all my money and my
woman gone, and thinking: "This isn't so bad". Blues is like that; experiencing
terrible things but at the same time surviving them, and knowing that you are able
to survive them. It makes you feel good about yourself.101
As Giia Dzagnidze intimated in the remarks quoted earlier, "blues is recalling what you have
survived". Far from a form of fatalism, that recollection represents a validation of one's
capacity to resist.
We conclude with the suggestion that blues music and culture can provide those elements
that appear at a premium to persons undergoing the dislocations, disappointments,
and challenges of a social order undergoing deep transformation. As was true for many
African Americans in slavery's aftermath, a number of Russians have discovered in blues a
mirror reflecting their lives, a window onto a new and unfamiliar world and a stance to
assume within it. Separated by so many factors - time, space, language, race, culture, history,
and circumstances - this in itself is remarkable. Yet the continuation of this music's
history among those Russians who have adopted it - its adventures on Russian soil, so to
speak - is equally remarkable for the insights that it provides into how the blues idiom has
been adapted to Russian conditions, transformed into a object of "high" culture, and appropriated
as a stance distinguishing its adherents from both the remnants of the unexpunged
past and the dominant social practices associated with the still unfolding present.
1 As used here, the term "community" connotes a collection of persons bound together by common practices,
norms, and interests. It does not imply - any more than would, say, "the U.S. business community" - either a
uniform outlook among members on relevant matters, or personal contacts connecting all who fall within the category.
Like any community not based entirely on face-to-face relations, Russia's blues community is to a large
2 This consideration touches on the character of new social movements, theorized in particular by Albert Melucci
in his Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age (Cambridge, England, 1996). See also Ron
Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, Social Movements: A Cognitive Approach (University Park, PA, 1991); idem, Music
and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, England, 1998); and Manuel
Castells, The Power of Identity (Oxford, 1997).
3 Marc Howard, Demobilized Societies: Understanding the Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe
(Cambridge, England, forthcoming); Victoria Bonnell and George Breslauer, eds., Russia in the New Century: Stability
or Disorder (Boulder, CO, 2001); James Alexander, Political Culture in Post-Communist Russia: Formlessness
and Recreation in a Traumatic Transition (New York, 2000); Victor Sergeyev, The Wild East: Crime and
Lawlessness in Post-Communist Russia (Armonk, NY, 1998).
4 For the post-Communist period this aspect has been treated in empirical detail in the essays in V. V. Kostyushev,
ed., Molodezhnye dvizheniia i subkul'tury Sankt-Peterburga (St. Petersburg, 1999). Comparable analyses for the
late Soviet period can be found in D. V. Ol'shanskii, Neformaly: Gruppovoi portret v inter'ere (Moscow, 1990); and
in M. V. Maliutin, "Neformaly v perestroike: Opyt i perspektivy", in Inogo ne dano, ed. Iu. N. Afanas'ev (Moscow,
5 In particular see A. Gaidukov, "Molodezhnaia subkul'tura slavianskogo neoiazychestva v Peterburge", and A.
Godina, "Vzaimodeistvie subkul'tury i kul'tury (Na primere dvizheniia indeanistov)" both in Molodezhnye dvizheniia,
24-50 and 51-66, respectively.
6 All interviews cited in this article were conducted by the author. They were recorded and subsequently transcribed.
7 As S. Frederick Starr has observed, by the early 1970s rock had replaced jazz as the country's leading alternative
music. Starr's history of jazz in the USSR also provides some intriguing parallels to the development of blues in the
post-Communist period, especially with respect to audience composition, enthusiasts' tendency to regard the music
as an expression of personal freedom, and the reversal of status markers assigned to the music (from "low" to "high"
culture). See Starr's Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union (New York, 1983). On the topic of jazz in
the USSR see also William Minor, Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey through the Soviet Union (Philadelphia, 1995);
and Leo Fei, ed., Russian Jazz: A New Identity (London, 1985).
8 On the history of rock'n'roll in the USSR see Artemy Troitsky, Back in the USSR: A True Story of Rock in Russia
(London, 1987); Timothy Ryback, Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet
Union (Oxford, 1990); Sabrina Petra Ramet, ed., Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and
Russia (Boulder, CO, 1994); and Thomas Cushman, Notes From Underground: Rock Music Counterculture in
Russia (Albany, NY, 1995).
9 Sabrina Petra Ramet, Sergei Zamascikov, and Robert Bird, "The Soviet Rock Scene", in Rocking the State, 181.
10 See Eliot Borenstein, "Public Offerings: MMM and the Marketing of Melodrama", and idem, "Suspending
Disbelief: Cults and Postmodernism in Post-Soviet Russia", both in Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex and
Society since Gorbachev, ed. Adele Barker (Durham, NC, 1999), 49-75 and 437-62, respectively.
11 Oleg Pachenkov, "Nekotorye aspekty deiatel'nosti sovremennykh rossiiskikh etselitelei,'" (St. Petersburg's Center
for Independent Social Research, 1998), 1.
12 Ulrich Beck, "The Reinvention of Politics", in Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in
the Modern Social Order, Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash (Cambridge, England, 1994), 14.
13 Aleksandr Tsar'kov, the former director of Moscow's Arbat Blues Club, noted in an interview with the author
that his establishment regularly employed English in its advertisements in order to discourage the "wrong" clientele
from attending (16 August 2001).
14 Interview with Aleksei Agranovskii (23 August 2001).
15 Interview with Kolia Gruzev (15 July 1999).
16 Interview with Iaroslav Sukhov (17 July 1999).
17 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (New York, 1978); idem, Power/Knowledge, ed. C. Gordon
(New York, 1980).
18 Oleg Kharkhordin, The Collective and the Individual in Russia (Berkeley, 1999).
19 Interview with Sergei Voronov (18 July 2000).
20 The conversation with Sasha Rozhdestvenskii, Sergei Starodubtsev, and Sasha Suvorov was recorded on 12
21 Interview with Boris Bulkin (28 August 2001).
22 Interview with Vadim Ivashchenko (19 August 2001).
23 Interview with Valerii Belinov (7 August 1999).
24 Aleksandr Zinov'ev, Kommunizm kak real'nost' (Lausanne, 1981). Both Sarah Ashwin and Oleg Kharkhordin
have called attention to the association between this pejorative characterization and what the authorities have labeled
the "false collective": that is, an affective group actually animated by the members' common interests but lacking
official sanction. See Sarah Ashwin, "Redefining the Collective: Russian Mineworkers in Transition", in Uncertain
Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World, ed. M. Burawoy and K. Verdery (Lanham, MD,
1999), 245-71; and Kharkhordin, The Collective and the Individual in Russia, esp. 315-28.
25 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis, 1985), 4-19; Theodore Levin, "Dmitri
Pokrovsky and the Russian Folk Music Revival Movement", in Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and
Eastern Europe, ed. Mark Slobin (Durham, 1996), 14-36; David Coplan, In Township Tonight! South Africa's Black
City Music and Theatre (London, 1985), 233-39.
26 Charles Keil, Urban Blues (Chicago, 1966), 75; Lee Hildebrand, "Oakland Blues, Part I: Essay", in California
Soul: Music of African Americans in the West, ed. J. DjeDje and E. Meadows (Berkeley, 1998), 108.
27 Cushman describes a comparable situation in Leningrad's rock subculture where the standing of performers
hinged directly on issues of musical and personal authenticity (Notes From Underground, 34-194).
28 Dale Pesmen, Russia and Soul: An Exploraation (Ithaca, 2000), esp. 80-94.
29 Conversation with Oleg, the scenery director (30 July 1999).
30 Interview with Aleksei Kalachev (24 August 2001).
31 Interview with Nadia Chilcote (26 July 1999).
32 Conversation with Kirill Bykov (10 August 1999).
33 Vladimir Kuznetsov, "Vospominaniia o bliuze, kotorogo ne bylo", Sankt-Petersburgskie novosti (6 July 1997).
34 Interview with Mikhail Sokolov (23 July 1999).
35 Interview with Nikolai Arutiunov (25 July 1999).
36 Interview with Vovka Kozhekin (16 June 2000).
37 Interview with Vitalii Andreev (5 July 2000).
38 Interview with Mikhail Sokolov (23 July 1999).
39 Interview with Giia Dzagnidze (18 June 2000).
40 Interview with Mikhail Sokolov (23 July 1999).
41 Interview with Aleksei Baryshev (8 July 2000).
42 Interview with Sergei Mironov (13 July 1999).
43 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London, 1979), 3-19, 90-114, and esp. 3; Charles Keil and
Steven Feld, Music Grooves (Chicago, 1994), 202-17.
44 Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, 1981), 68.
45 Vania Zhuk, a young Petersburg guitarist who performs regularly with Vovka Kozhekin, referred to Crossroads
as "a milestone for every bluesman in Russia, especially of this [the younger] generation" (29 June 2000).
46 Interview with Nikolai Arutiunov (25 July 1999).
47 Interview with Mikhail Sokolov (23 July 1999).
48 Interview with Aleksei Agranovskii (23 August 2001).
49 Interview with Kolia Gruzev (15 July 1999).
50 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, England, 1984); idem,
The Field of Cultural Production, ed. R. Johnson (New York, 1993); idem, In Other Words (Cambridge, MA, 1990).
51 Interview with Nikolai Arutiunov (25 July 1999).
52 A comparable issue of language in the instance of Mexican rock'n'roll is discussed at length by Eric Zolov in
Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture (Berkeley, 1999), 9-14, 17-34, 65-72, 93-99, 118-31,
53 Tony Mitchell, Popular Music and Local Identity: Rock, Pop and Rap in Europe and Oceania (London,
54 Interview with Sergei Semenov (31 July 1999).
55 Interview with Sasha Suvorov (5 July 1999).
56 Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, 2d ed. (San Francisco, 1996), esp. 194-97. Double-voicing in both the
Afro-American and Russian traditions is discussed in Dale Peterson, Up From Bondage: The Literatures of Russian
and African American Soul (Durham, NC, 2000), esp. 108-24 and 186-99.
57 Interview with Volodia Rusinov (28 June 2000).
58 Conversation with Oleg, scenery director (30 July 1999).
59 Interview with Iaroslav Sukhov (17 July 1999); interview with Sergei Starodubtsev (12 July 2000).
60 Interview with Inessa Kataeva (4 August 1999).
61 For examples of successful and less successful recordings see, respectively, Dikii med, Vesel'aia vdova (Munich
and Moscow: Interus International Feelee Records, 1993); and Aura, Russkii bliuz (Moscow: self-produced, 1994).
62 Nikolai Arutiunov, interviewed by Andrei Bol'shakov, Music Box, 1997, no. 1:6-10.
63 Interview with Nikolai Arutiunov (25 July 1999).
64 Richard Stites, Russian Popular Culture (Cambridge, England, 1992) 6-12; Oleg Kharkhordin, The Collective
and The Individual in Russia; Svetlana Boym, Common Places (Cambridge, MA, 1994), esp. 41-88.
65 Katherine Verdery has described the "nation as family" phenomenon in contemporary Romania in What Was
Socialism and What Comes Next? (Princeton, 1996), 62-81, esp. 64. George Lakoff has produced a comparable and
much ramified study of the family metaphor in U.S. politics in Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know and
Liberals Don't (Chicago, 1996). And, finally, for this phenomenon in the Russian context see Nancy Ries, Russian
Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika (Ithaca, 1997).
66 Aleksandr Arinin, "Partnerskie otnosheniia vlasti i obshchestva", Nezavisimaia gazeta (28 October 1999).
67 With respect to music in particular, this inclination to spread enlightenment in the postrevolutionary period was
the raison d''tre of journals such as Muzyka i revoliutsiia and Proletarskoi muzykant. In the 1920s and early 1930s,
a mass movement for proletarian music was organized to struggle against the "bourgeois" music associated with the
period of the New Economic Policy (the popsa of the day) and to bring authentically "proletarian" music to the
masses. An outline of the goals, program, and cadres organization of this movement appeared in L. Lebedinskii,
"Dvizhenie proletarskoi muzyki dolzhno stat' dvizhenie massovym", Proletarskoi muzykant, 1930, no. 7:5-10. See
also Amy Nelson, "The Struggle for Proletarian Music: RAPM and the Cultural Revolution", Slavic Review 59
(Spring 2000): 101-32.
68 Interview with Mikhail Sokolov (23 July 1999)
69 Interview with Vladimir Berezin (31 July 1999).
70 Interview with Aleksandr Dolgov (26 July 2000).
71 Interview with Vitalii Andreev (13 July 1999).
72 Interview with Vovka Kozhekin (16 June 2000).
73 Kuznetzov, "Vospominaniia o bliuze, kotorogo ne bylo".
74 Aleksei Kalachev, "Blue Note", Music Box, 1997, no. 2:80.
75 A sample of these would include Andrei Evdokimov, "Buddy Guy", Music Box, 1998, no. 1:10, 19; idem, "O,
shchastlivchik", ibid., 1999, no. 3:86-87; Nikolai Meinert, "Dzhon Meiell, kotoryi vsiu zhizn' znal, chto delaet",
ibid, 1998, no. 1:6-8; and Vladimir Elbaev and Andrei Evdokimov, "Bliuz rodom iz Del'ty", Audio magazin, 1999,
76 Barry Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock'n'Roll Scene in Austin Texas (Hanover, NH, 1994), 34-37.
77 Aleksei Kalachev, "Prikliucheniia bliuza", Nezavisimaia gazeta (2 June 1997).
78 Interview with Alla Gladkikh (16 July 2000).
79 Interview with Mikhail Sokolov (23 July 1999).
80 Interview with Vovka Kozhekin (16 June 2000).
81 See, respectively, interview with Aleksei Baryshev (8 July 2000); interview with Vovka Kozhekin (16 June
2000); and interview with Kolia Gruzev (15 July 1999).
82 Interview with Valerii Belinov (13 April 1998).
83 Interview with Vitalii Andreev (13 July 1999).
84 Interview with Aleksei Makarov, manager of Vladimir's Blackmailers' Blues Band (8 July 2000).
85 Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Culture in the Mississippi Delta (New York,
86 The reactions of my companions were not lost on Lomidze. As if smarting from the silent censure of their gaze,
he remarked to me after the performance: "Do you know how difficult it is to be playing and to see in the audience
people who are glaring at you like that? You should know how hard it is to play the blues here in Moscow with that
kind of audience".
87 Raymond Williams, Culture (Glasgow, 1981), 13.
88 Murray Edelman, From Art to Politics (Chicago, 1995). See also Eyerman and Jamison, Music and Social
89 Sonia Alvarez, Evelino Dagnino and Arturo Escaban, "Introduction: The Cultural and the Political in Latin
American Social Movements", in their Culture of Politics, Politics of Culture (Boulder, CO, 1998), 7.
90 Interview with Aleksei Belov (22 August 2001).
91 Interview with Nikolai Arutiunov (25 July 1999).
92 Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (Berkeley,
93 Interview with Nikolai Arutiunov (25 July 1999).
94 William Barlow, "Looking Up at Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture (Philadelphia, 1989), 325-28.
95 Tony Russell, "Blacks, Whites and Blues" in Yonder Come the Blues: The Evolution of a Genre, Paul Oliver et
al. (Cambridge, England, 2001), 232.
96 John Shephard, Music as Social Text (Cambridge, England, 1991), 131.
97 Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, 1995), 83-87.
98 Quoted in Sandra Tooze, Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man (Toronto, 1997), 116.
99 Interview with Vitalii Andreev (13 July 1999).
100 Interview with Kolia Gruzev (15 July 1999).
101 Conversation with Sergei Mitrokhin (6 January 1999).