Yegor Letov, the late father of Soviet and Russian punk, would have turned 50 this month. Along with his group, Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defence), or GrOb, Letov produced a music that was unlike anything the Soviet Union had ever heard, from the hardcore rush of guitars and barked obscenities that defined his uncompromising sound to acoustic, folk-like songs of alienation and despair. This was genuine rebel music, non-conformist to its core, combining western rock and punk influences with the urban grittiness of provincial Siberia, where Letov was born and lived. In an article dedicated to the 50th anniversary of his birth, the Russian news portal, Lenta.ru, described Letov’s music as possessed of a “powerful, dark energy that brought together the worlds of Borges, Kafka and all the anti-utopians… These were songs of destruction, a protest against the whole world.”
A complicated, often controversial figure, Letov was incarcerated in a psychiatric ward by the Soviet authorities during the band’s early years, and later became involved with radical political movements in 1990s Russia. Despite a Soviet-era ban and a stubborn refusal to “sell out” in the newly independent Russia, Letov’s recordings transformed him into one of the country’s most famous rock musicians. He died of heart failure in February 2008, at the age of 43. A new documentary film about GrOb’s early years, I Don’t Believe in Anarchy, was co-produced by Letov's widow and former bandmate Natalia Chumakova and is due for release later this year.
This was genuine rebel music, non-conformist to its core
Yegor Letov (real name Igor Letov) was born on 10 September 1964 in Omsk, a bleak industrial city in south Siberia, to a Soviet army officer and a nurse. Not long after his birth, his family moved to an apartment in a notoriously rough neighbourhood on the outskirts of Omsk. It was here that Letov would live for almost the rest of his life, mixing his albums in a basic home studio whose limitations he utilised to create the violent, distorted nature of his recordings.
Letov’s parents had moved to Omsk from Semey, a city in Kazakhstan that was the location for Semipalatinsk-21, the Soviet Union’s primary testing site for nuclear weapons. As well as underground blasts, the Soviets conducted atomic explosions in the skies above the region until the mid-1950s. Unsurprisingly, the Letov family experienced serious health problems. Yegor suffered fits and even clinical death at the age of 12, as he battled throughout his childhood with an undiagnosed medical condition.
“Our parents didn’t think he would live long,” recalled Sergei, his older brother, a renowned free jazz musician who also played with GrOb for a number of years. “They thought every year would be his last. And so they decided to let him do whatever he wanted. They never scolded him, nor prepared him for a future of any kind. This style of upbringing, I’m sure, had a great influence on his mentality as an adult.” Sergei moved to Moscow in the 1970s and his younger brother, by now recovered from his ill health, followed him after graduating from school, spending around a year in the Soviet capital and buying his first guitar and amplifier during a trip to Leningrad (now St Petersburg). Unimpressed with life in Moscow, Letov returned to Omsk in 1982, taking his musical equipment with him.
Once back in Siberia, Letov soon found himself in trouble with the authorities, who were implementing a campaign against “social parasites”. Letov, jobless and having no particular desire to help assist the Soviet Union on its rocky path to communism, was threatened with exile to a remote village in the Siberian taiga. Only the intervention of his father, who used his Red Army contacts to keep Letov in Omsk, saved the day. Having little choice but to seek employment, Letov began work as an artist at Omsk’s gigantic tire factory, painting Soviet political agitation posters and even, reportedly, a portrait of Lenin.
“Creativity begins when you cannot find around you the thing that you want to see or hear. I wanted to listen to a certain music and lyrics. But as they didn’t exist in reality, I was obliged to create them myself”
But this was not his only creative output — Letov had already begun writing songs, co-opting like-minded friends to form his first group, called Posev, which quickly became Grazhdanskaya Oborona, or, for short, GrOb, the Russian word for “coffin”. “Up until then, I’d been collecting information,” Letov later recalled. “I’d read a lot, watched films, listened to music, studied philosophy and various spiritual practices. But creativity begins when you cannot find around you the thing that you want to see or hear. I wanted to listen to a certain music and lyrics. But as they didn’t exist in reality, I was obliged to create them myself.”
This early incarnation of GrOb recorded three raw-sounding albums, with tracks including the Soviet-baiting Nenavizhu Krasny Svet (I Hate the Colour Red) and Poganaya Molodyozh (Rotten Youth). Heavily influenced by western rock and punk, as well as 1960s garage music, GrOb managed, nevertheless, to create a uniquely abrasive sound, one that had little in common with the far more melodic dissident rock being produced in Leningrad by groups such as Kino. “Given that they were from a really rough area of Omsk, in faraway Siberia, in a place where roads hadn’t been repaired for around 25 years, it would have been very strange indeed if they had made this sweet, melodic music,” said Sergei Letov.
GrOb performing I'll always be against live in 1988
GrOb’s distinctly un-Soviet lyrics meant they had no hope of an official release, and so — like other underground groups at the time — they circulated their albums as rough magnitizdat recordings, the musical equivalent of the samizdat texts utilised by Soviet-era dissidents. The group also had no chance of being allowed to play official concerts, performing instead at occasional secret gigs in basements or apartments. But even this distinctly low-key activity was enough to bring GrOb to the attention of the local KGB.
In November 1985, the KGB began an investigation into an alleged plot by members of GrOb to blow up a local oil refinery. The accusations were ridiculous, but the consequences were more than serious: Konstantin Ryabinov, another member of the group, was shipped off to Kazakhstan to serve in the Red Army. Letov, who threatened to kill himself in protest, was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where it was common practice to inject patients with massive, debilitating doses of powerful tranquilisers, sedatives and other drugs. “At one point, I realised that if I was to stay sane, I had to create. I spent whole days writing stories and poems,” Letov wrote later.
“Almost all of his songs were powered by the energy of hatred. He had to be really angry about something before he would write a song”
Fortunately for Letov, his mother managed to come to an agreement with hospital staff that Letov would no longer be “treated”, as well as secure him home visits. But a full release was beyond her control. That was where Sergei Letov came in. “This was the period of early perestroika,” said Sergei. “So I let it be known among my musician friends in Moscow, many of who were KGB moles, that if my brother wasn’t released, I would invite western correspondents to a news conference and announce that Gorbachev’s reforms were a lie, because they were locking up dissident musicians in Siberia. Not so long after that, they let him go.”
Full of rage at his treatment by the KGB, and disgust at the corrupt Soviet system, Letov recorded five fast and furious albums full of hate and loathing between May and June 1987. He played all the instruments himself and spent around three days on each LP. Highlights from this period include Nasrat Na Moe Litso (I Don’t Give a Shit About My Face), and Totalitarizm (Totalitarianism). This intense burst of anger-inspired creativity would provide a successful formula for Letov’s future song-writing sessions, as well as see him hone the brutal sound that came to characterise GrOb’s releases.
“Almost all of his songs were powered by the energy of hatred. He had to be really angry about something before he would write a song,” said Natalia Chumakova, who was married to Letov from 1997 until his death in 2008 and also played bass with GrOb for around a decade. “Around this time, he also realised that there was no point trying to get a technically clean sound out of the limited studio equipment available to him. He decided that if he could only get a shitty sound, then he would make it even shittier and distorted, to jolt people.”
His decision to fill his early songs with obscenities drawn from the Russian language’s vast arsenal of swearwords was likewise an attempt to shock and provoke listeners. But there was more to Letov’s complex lyrics than mere profanity and they stand alone as accomplished poems even when stripped of GrOb’s ferocious guitar sound. Almost impossible to do justice to in English, Letov’s lyrics are a mix of avant-garde poetry, street slang, and the lexicon of non-conformity. “Letov, apart from being a very talented composer, was also a poet — not just a lyricist, but a real poet,” said Vladimir Kozlov, director of the upcoming documentary film Traces in the Snow, about the 1980s Siberian punk scene.
“But we never thought of ourselves as hippies and we wouldn’t let anyone make that mistake. Everyone knew that we were punks. Siberian punks”
In 1987, Letov headed to Novosibirsk to take part in Siberia’s first rock festival. The concert had been approved by local Communist Party officials who were hoping to prove that perestroika and glasnost had reached Siberia. But Letov decided to test the authorities’ new-found tolerance to the limit, appearing on stage under the name Adolf Hitler. Predictably, such a stunt was too much for even a Soviet system in the midst of rapid reform. The group was kicked off stage after just a few short numbers.
The rock festival in Novosibirsk heralded the arrival of the Siberian punk movement. Along with GrOb, the other leading light of this unlikely musical counter-culture was Yanka, a punk-folk poetess who recorded some of the most haunting music to emerge from the Soviet underground music scene. Fearing arrest or another spell in the psychiatric ward after the Adolf Hitler escapade, Letov fled to the west of Russia with Yanka and the two lived together as husband and wife for around three years until just before her apparent suicide at the age of 24.
For Letov, punk was largely a state of mind and a willingness to take musical risks, rather than a fashion statement or musical genre. “For me, punk is John Cage, or John Coltrane,” he once said. Siberian punks also eschewed the mohawks and safety pins favoured by many of their UK and US counterparts. “We all liked long hair, and at some point everyone felt that we don’t need the mohawks and stuff, and we would be punks with hippie hair and a ton of beads,” said Vadim Kuzmin, the drummer in an early incarnation of GrOb. “But we never thought of ourselves as hippies and we wouldn’t let anyone make that mistake. Everyone knew that we were punks. Siberian punks.”
By late 1987, Gorbachev’s reforms were in full swing and restrictions were lifted on rock music. Formerly outlawed Soviet rock bands were handed record deals on state music label Melodiya and allowed to tour. It was during this period that Letov wrote some of his best-known songs, including the acerbic Vse Idyot Po-Planu (Everything’s Going According to Plan), a third-person account of an “ordinary guy” observing the disintegration of the Soviet system.
“Our leaders are not here, or even under house arrest. Our leaders are Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Yegor Letov…”
Featuring an ever-shifting line-up, with Letov the only constant member of the band, GrOb achieved fame all across the Soviet Union. However, the band’s obscenity-filled songs and violent anti-authoritarian stance meant they were largely ignored by state-controlled media in favour of the safer Leningrad rock scene. In 1990, at perhaps the height of GrOb’s popularity, the group disbanded. For the next three years, Letov would not perform live, recording three albums under the distinctly uncommercial name Yegor I Opizdenevshie which translates as, roughly, “Yegor and the Fuck-ups.”
In 1993, Letov reformed GrOb. But following the collapse of the USSR, Letov turned his anger on the country’s new rulers and the bandit capitalism that had impoverished millions. His politics, once exclusively anti-Soviet, hardened into a radical nationalism. In May that year, he teamed up with Eduard Limonov, the firebrand writer, and Alexander Dugin, the Eurasian philosopher and future Kremlin ideologue, to form the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), a direct-action movement that sought to fuse the hard left and the far right in opposition to President Boris Yeltsin’s rule. GrOb performed live under the NBP’s instantly recognisable red and black flag, an explosive mix of Nazi and communist imagery; gigs frequently descended into pitched battles between the OMON, Russia’s notorious riot police, and the group’s increasingly violent fans.
“I’m a nationalist, yes. A Soviet nationalist,” Letov told an interviewer in 1994, as he outlined his political vision. For a man who had once raged against the “disgusting” Soviet system, it was a remarkable turnaround. But, there was a suspicion that Letov’s newfound politics were based less on any real convictions, and more on a punker’s instinct to stand in opposition to any form of authority. “He couldn’t calm down after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Chumakova, his widow. “He couldn’t join all the other Soviet rock groups who supported the new authorities and just got on with playing the commercial game.”
Letov’s involvement in politics lasted around eight years, after which he cut his ties with the NBP. Although no longer interested in politics, political figures and movements remained interested in him, even after his early death in February 2008. When Russia’s beleaguered anti-Putin movement gathered for a rally last year within sight of the Kremlin walls, Oleg Kashin, a well-known opposition journalist, belted out an off-key version of Vse Idyot Po-Planu. “Our leaders are not here, or even under house arrest,” said Kashin. “Our leaders are Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Yegor Letov…”
“The music that Letov created was far more interesting than the western punk that had inspired it. His songs mixed modern noise with Russian folk in a full on attack on the emptiness of the world he saw around him”
At the other extreme, Letov’s “nationalist period” has been seized upon by supporters of the pro-Russia rebels in east Ukraine as proof that he would have supported the separatist movement there. But Chumakova feels irritated by attempts to use her late husband’s name to further political causes. “It’s incorrect in the extreme to speak for a person who is no longer with us,” she said. “And, besides, he had his own vison that was hard for anyone else to predict sometimes. I lived with him for ten years, spending 24 hours a day with him, and even I couldn’t say what his political views would be right now.”
In the west, Letov has been championed by Adam Curtis, the celebrated BBC documentary maker. “The music that Letov created was far more interesting than the western punk that had inspired it,” Curtis wrote on a BBC blog. “His songs mixed modern noise with Russian folk in a full on attack on the emptiness of the world he saw around him.” In Russia, Letov’s music lives on and has proven almost as popular with post-Soviet generations. Indeed, in Putin’s newly puritan Russia, where obscenities have been purged from art and film, Letov’s words have regained much of the shock value they possessed during the Soviet period. Letov’s music had developed into a more melodic strain of psychedelic-tinged rock by his last album, Zachem Snyatsya Sny (Why Do We Dream Dreams?), and it's uncertain what direction it would have taken had he lived. But it's safe to say that this uncompromising Siberian punk rocker would have stayed true to his apparently unshakeable principles of non-conformity. As Letov once sang: “I'll always be against.”