Remembering Yanka Dyagileva, the queen of Siberian punk who died as the Soviet Union fell

Remembering Yanka Dyagileva, the queen of Siberian punk who died as the Soviet Union fell

4 September 2021

On May 9 1991, poet and singer Yanka Dyagileva left her family’s summer cottage deep in the Siberian countryside to walk and smoke a cigarette. She never returned.

Eight days later, her body was pulled from the Inya River. Even today, it remains unclear if her death was an accident, suicide, or even murder. She was just 24 years old.

But Dyagileva had already left behind a deep cultural legacy. For many, her tragic death spelled the end of the explosive Siberian punk scene, in which Dyagileva had joined forces with a generation of young musicians expressing the angst and anguish that the authorities strictly forbade. Six months later the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it the unique conditions under which the movement had flourished.

Yanka Dyagileva was one of the few women at the heart of the underground Siberian punk movement of the late 1980s and early 90s. She had performed her unique brand of raw folk-punk at clandestine concerts in apartment blocks, Houses of Culture, and university dormitories across the Soviet Union. Her songs were recorded on cassette tape and passed hand-to-hand in order to evade censorship. Her lyrics wove communist slogans, snippets of Russian fairy tales, and poignant images of everyday Soviet life — train tracks, cigarettes, underpasses, and crumpled roubles — over melancholy acoustic guitar riffs. Her voice entranced a generation.

Beginnings

Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva was born on 4 September 1966, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. She lived with her parents in a wooden house with no indoor plumbing, a shy only child who loved to read and sing. In her teens, she filled notebooks with poetry.

While at university, Dyagileva started attending underground shows, known as kvartirniki, held in private homes without the approval of Soviet authorities. Famous bands from out-of-town would perform alongside unknown locals in a heady mix of cigarette smoke, alcohol, and political dissidence. The concerts would change the direction of Dyagileva’s life.

Inspired by the punk scene exploding around her in Siberia, Dyagileva dropped out of college in 1986 and immersed herself in the movement, befriending bands like Cultural Revolution and Survival Instruction, and writers like Miroslav Nemirov.

Friends from the time remember Dyagileva as tall and striking, with long red hair. She wore men’s trousers and combat boots, and often spoke and wrote about herself in the masculine form. She never wore make-up.

“It was immediately clear that Yanka would be something big,” Roman Neumoyev, lead singer of Survival Instruction, says in the documentary Traces In The Snow (2014), directed by Vladimir Kozlov.

Despite the bleakness of her lyrics, Dyagileva had an ironic and self-deprecating sense of humour. But beneath her playful exterior, there was another side to the singer. “There was one Yanka, a redhead crazy friend, real fucking crazy girl in men’s trousers,” punk musician Nikolay Kuntsevic, better known Nick Rock’n’Roll, told documentary makers. But Dyagileva would also suffer from depressive episodes, struggling even to joke. Her fellow musicians simply described it as “anhedonia,” or “a lack of joy in life.”

Style and work

Dyagileva’s music combined elements of western rock with traditional Russian folk and perestroika poetry. She has been compared by reviewers to musicians like Patti Smith and Janis Joplin. While the bands around her embraced their shoddy recording equipment and emphasised electric guitars, distortion and growling vocals, Yanka mostly performed alone with nothing but her acoustic guitar and clear, haunting voice.

“The level of her poetic craftsmanship set her apart from her male colleagues,” Ivan Gololobov and Yngvar B. Steinholt wrote in Punk In Russia. “Her songs were characterised by an almost brutal intimacy, all served with urgency and a defiant pride.”

One of Dyagileva’s most famous songs, “Along Tram Rails”, conjures up the industrial landscape of urban Siberia in the late Soviet period. The lyrics imagine a couple taking an aimless stroll along the tram rails, a small act of rebellion for which they might be labelled criminally insane. The song’s protagonists are eventually caught by “blue caps,” or the Soviet police, and sentenced to death as a portrait of Cheka director Felix Dzerzhinsky — “Iron Felix” — looks on.

Along the Tram Rails

Let’s go for a walk together along the tram rails

And sit on the pipes at the edge of the ring road

The black smoke from the factory will be our warm breeze

A yellow traffic light will be our guiding star

If we’re lucky, we won’t go back to our cage until nightfall

We must be able to bury ourselves under the ground

And lie there while black cars ride over us

Taking away those who wouldn’t wallow in filth

If there’s time, we’ll keep crawling along the tram rails

You’ll see the sky, and I will see the dirt on your shoes

We’ll need to burn our clothes in the oven if we ever go back

If the blue caps don’t greet us at the door

If they find us, don’t tell them we were walking along the rails

It’s the first sign of criminality or madness

Iron Felix will smile at us from the wall

It will be long, but it will be fair

Our punishment for walking on the rails

A fair punishment for walking along the rails

They will kill us just for walking along the tram rails

Seminal moments

One relationship in particular would shape Dyagileva’s short life and career. In 1987, she met Yegor Letov, the lead singer of Grazhdanskaya Oborona, or “Civil Defense” in English. Lauded as the father of Russian punk, Letov had already spent three months incarcerated in a psychiatric ward by the KGB for his defiant lyrics.

The two fell in love. When Letov was once again threatened by forced institutionalisation at the hands of the authorities, the couple travelled the country, eating in municipal cafeterias and sleeping in abandoned buildings and train carriages.

Their tempestuous relationship lasted two years. Letov recorded Dyagileva’s music at his makeshift recording studio in Omsk, leaving us with the 29 original songs that remain her legacy. She also toured the country, performing first with Letov’s band, and then on her own.

But this prolific period was short lived. By 1991, her relationship with Letov had fallen apart, her mother died, and her close friend, the singer Sasha Bashlachev, killed himself. Yanka returned home to live with her father, but fell into depression and stopped performing. Later that year, she too passed away.

Legacy

After her death, Russian newspapers lamented that they did not have any photographs of Dyagileva to print. She had also refused to give interviews: once, when pressed for a comment by a journalist in 1990, she responded simply: “Those who need to know will figure out who I am and why I do this.”

Yet while Dyagileva left behind only a few Lo-Fi recordings and grainy videos, she made an indelible mark on Russian counterculture. Russian indie label Vyrgorod is currently in the process of re-releasing her music. Intermedia called their remastered version of To The Declassified Elements (2018) a “revelation,” praising Yanka’s “wonderful voice and beautiful timbre”.

Even in the West, she is not completely forgotten. Fans include the BAFTA-award-winning filmmaker Adam Curtis, who used Yanka’s music in both his documentary Hypernormalisation and in his live-show collaboration with Massive Attack, “Everything is Going According to Plan”. During the show, the former Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser sings Diaghileva’s song “My Sorrow Is Luminous:” “There’s a television hanging from the ceiling/ And no one knows how fucking shit I’m feeling”

Even today, Dyagileva’s music continues to travel in unexpected ways. Alina Simone, a Ukrainian-born, American-raised singer and writer was walking along Brighton Beach, New York, in the winter of 2001, when she encountered some Russian punks busking on the sidewalk. They gave her a bootleg tape labelled “Yanka.” Blown away by the music, Simone embarked on a journey that led her to record “Everyone Is Crying Out To Me Beware” (2007), a cover album of Yanka’s songs that was released in the United States.

Decades after her death, thousands of miles from Siberia, Dyagileva’s legacy is still moving as it always did: passed hand-to-hand, to new generations.

This article is part of our series Women, Recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th century culture.

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