The MTV era may be over, but the 2010s proved that, even in the digital age, the music video is far from dead. In Russia, the past decade has seen music clips act as an unsparing social commentary, a healing elixir, a refuge, a dream, an incantation, a joke, a form of protest. Now, The Calvert Journal is rounding up the very best music videos from 2010 - 2020, to celebrate the music that provided direction and hope in turbulent times.
The dawn of the 2010s saw hipsterism take Russia by storm. Luckily, Moscow-based band Pompeya were already creating the breezy, dream-like pop that would become the perfect backdrop for the capital’s new wave of alternative coffee shops and barber parlours that spawned overnight. At the time, Russia’s independent music industry was still fractured, and bands like Pompeya often opted to sing in English: not in the hopes of making the global charts, but rather to win over a domestic audience who grew up believing all things cool had to be foreign.
And even though they may have been identical to any other all-male, plaid-shirt-wearing indie band elsewhere, in Russia they still stood out as cool and independent. Their rise perhaps marked the last years of Russia’s long obsession with Western pop culture. Later, Pompeya moved to Los Angeles, but their later releases didn’t resonate as well with the Russian scene, as the country’s youth began to embrace the post-Soviet.
You might have seen Nina Kraviz on billboards across the world this year as part of Spotify’s EQUAL campaign for women in music. But Siberia-born Kraviz first tasted international success in 2012, after years of writing for music zines, working for various event agencies, and DJing in small clubs and bars across Russia. The video for Ghetto Kraviz was filmed inside Berlin’s Arena club, and channels the DJ’s exuberant energy on the verge of her global ascent.
At the time, Russia was reeling from a wave of anti-Putin protests, following the president’s reelection in March 2012. In contrast, Kraviz’s music has always been resolutely non-political — focusing instead on her own revolution in techno. As well as being named MixMag DJ of the year in 2017, Kraviz now headlines heavyweight electronic music festivals across the world, retaining fervent and devoted fans while still staying novel enough as to evade the mainstream. The rigorous wonder of her sounds, beats, and melodies transform Kraviz’s tracks into pure intoxication.
Roma Litvinov, better known under the moniker of Mujuice, marked the rise of a new, thoughtful breed of electronica with Russian-language lyrics and an eye on Soviet sound heritage. Mujuice honed a new wave of Russian music for export, experimental-yet-relatable for local listeners, and contemporary and exotic for foreigners. Mujuice’s sound appeared at festivals across Europe in 2012-2013, veering from minimal techno and IDM to pop and dub. With a degree in design, Mujuice sees himself more as an artist or filmmaker than a songwriter or composer, but by drawing on local musical heritage rather than international trends, the DJ’s contribution to the Russian scene will always be game-changing.
Band SBPCh drew its name from the Russian acronym for “largest known prime number”. And just as the largest known prime number in mathematics keeps changing, SBPCh is also constantly evolving and reinventing itself. Led by cultural polymath Kirill Ivanov, St Petersburg-based SBPCh have been pushing the boundaries of IDM, avant-garde poetry, hip hop, and spoken word in Russia since 2006, working with emerging artists, established cultural mainstays, and even the audience itself at live performances.
Then, in 2014, SBPCh dropped an album (Ya Dumayu, Dlya Etovo Ne Pridumali Slovo, or “‘I Think the Word for This Has Not Yet Been Invented”) that quickly became one of the band’s best-loved releases — making their music synonymous with experiment, sincerity, playfulness, and joyful cacophony. Many of the album’s tracks complete with 3D graphic videos by the artist Pavel Samokhvalov, including the video for You Can’t Say It Shorter. Here, SBPCh weave a playful ode to love into the fabric of an electric-hued dream, an iridescently-charged rush of colour and style.
The pioneer of Russian weedwave, Boulevard Depo, brought meme-fuelled wordplay together with trippy, lo-fi beats for the first time. More importantly, he posted his clip on YouTube, breaking Russian hip-hop away from local social media site VKontakte and onto a global stage.
Born in the town of Ufa, Boulevard Depo spent his early teenage years graffiting the city’s neighborhoods, before dropping out of university to pursue music-making. He worked as a cook to sustain himself while his community, YungRussia, was taking shape.
An independent grassroot independent community of musical outsiders, YungRussia provided a new direction for Russian hip-hop, distinct from the luxury-coated, gangster-esque genre of the previous decade. Boulevard Depo’s glitchy, web cam-style videos grasped the liberating power of web-punk that a generation of young Russians raised on the internet could relate to. It would also shape the Russian hip-hop scene for years to come, helping raise the likes of Pharaoh and Face.
It didn’t take long for the lava-lamp beats of cloud rap to reach Russia in the mid-2010s. Black Siemens marked the arrival of the genre and the rise and rise of Pharaoh, who honed it for a local audience. Capturing house parties and tipsy car rides across the city, Black Siemens portrays the idle non-belonging of teenagehood: escaping your parents, grabbing your first legal cans at a local newsagents, and sharing a ride home. Pharaoh’s low-key rapping, cloaked in vape smoke and romantic bravado, won him over 19M views cemented his status as a Youtube-born icon. Together with his rap community Dead Dynasty, Pharaoh has since seeped into every corner of Russian life, from the fast food corners in shopping malls where students hang out after school, to upscale corporate parties. Some even claim to see the influence of Black Siemens on a fashion campaign video for Yves Saint Laurent.
A professional trumpet player roaming obscure train tracks in the Russian countryside to his own jazz-inflected beat, Antoha MC’s “Provoda” tells the story of an outsider. Yet, he’s also a projection of each and every one of us. With his blue tracksuit and DIY sound, Antoha MC might remind you of an old classmate, a friend of a friend, a neighbour you pass in the hallway of your building. In this video, more than any other, he’s a post-Soviet reincarnation Victor Tsoy, in the timeless way he channels the bittersweet truths of his time.
Hailing not far from Mongolia in Russia’s Buryatia region, Husky is one of Russia’s greatest rappers, shapeshifting from gopnik to werewolf to shaman. His brash, densely-packed rap is an arresting, lyrical mixture of poetry and unblinking documentation, voicing the hardships of the excluded, the exasperated and the despairing in Russia’s hyper-fractured society. Intellectuals relish Husky’s wordplay and poetry, critics hail his aesthetic, and rap fans yield to his charismatic swagger.
In an age of slick, well-produced music videos, not every artist would be able to keep an audience’s attention just by rapping against a blank white wall for three and a half minutes. Husky, however, does so with ease. His deep and intricate metaphors, although hard to translate into English, document alienation in a way that is irresistibly candid and intimate. In the video for Chernym Cherno (Blackest Black) Husky lets himself be totally exposed — both with his people, and totally alone.
Face describes himself as “the most influential rapper in the last thousand years” — which may be somewhat of an exaggeration. But the artist does live up to his other moniker — “face of youth” — spawning scores of teenage lookalikes in his hometown of Ufa. Despite a religious upbringing, Face spent his teenage years racketeering and street fighting, a pastime that jars with his slender appearance and his pacifist rhetoric today. But with Face, nothing is quite what it seems: lyrics that feel like hedonistic swagger by many are lauded by Face himself as acerbic social commentary no one can quite decipher. Face would later hit the apex of Russian rap in 2018, when he began joining opposition protests aged just 20. His hit track “Gosha Rubchinskiy” is more of a brag rap than cutting political thought — but its music video, following Face and his crew as they drink cheap booze at night in dingy corridors captures a specific brand of young alienation.
Teenager Liza Girdimova, aka Monetochka, went viral in 2016 with self-shot videos of her singing in her bedroom. Despite the soothing, sweet-voiced playfulness of her tracks, many provided unsparing social commentary on economic stagnation and social inequality.
Her sweeping rise brought the spotlight on “Generation P” — young people who had spent almost all of their lives with a single president, but had forged their own kind of freedom on the Internet. In this video, Monetochka pokes fun at discount mascarpone cheese as a touch of mass-produced luxury that shoppers can flock to to forget their poverty.
Moments flow like fast-moving water in Kedr Livanskiy’s music video for “Your Name”, a coming-of-age story tracking two best friends caught in the rush of youth. “Your Name” is one of the few videos by the queen of Russian underground electronica that doesn’t centre around the musician herself, but instead captures the mood of the early 00s — about the time Livanskiy was a teenager herself. Livanskiy, otherwise known as Yana Kedrina, first emerged as part of Moscow-based underground label and community John’s Kingdom. Now signed to New York-based label 2MR records, she is an avant-pop sensation of her own, but stays true to aesthetics that emanate from the Russian landscape. Your Name has the same atmospheric quality of all her previous videos, that along with her signature dreamy sound, evoke anticipation and nostalgia in equal measure.
In Russia, post-modernity and traditionalism often collide in surreal and unexpected ways. Case in point: Vsigme’s video for “Reka”. It blends fantasy, documentary, and digital art to reconstruct a folk dystopia, where gopniks and pagans can both enjoy the peaceful charm of golden hour by the river. The track — which recites praise to the rivers of the world — is now part of a widera genre, known as vedic, or spiritual rap. Vsigme specifically call their style rechka, or little river, creating a blend of lyrics and sound as soothing and profound as flowing water.
The trio behind Vsigme had been experimenting with rap for years before they released their phantasmagoric hip-hop opera Kopy V Ogne in 2009. The group transforms Russian folktales and universal wisdom into contemporary hip-hop mantras with wit, ingenuity, and a piercing take on complex local issues. The result is a unique breed of hip-hop that combines intellectual spirituality with novel blissful beats — a rarity in an overcrowded genre.
Working with guitar, piano, and percussion — as well as a Buchla synthesiser and objects found at her live shows — Kate Shilonosova, aka KateNV, is a master of sound distortion and experimentation. But while the artist draws on a cacophony of influences, her final compositions do not sound alienating or discomforting, but warm, familiar, and real. Kate NV shifts effortlessly between genres, her vocals veering from rock-and-roll inflected сantillation, to intimate sinti-pop ballads. In her video for “KATA”, Shilonosova teases out the pleasures of Russian summertime and the suburban train ride to the countryside that it often entails, with a coterie of fun, talent, and warm, nuanced portraiture.
Shilonosova also performs as part of the art-rock band Glintshake, whose performances evoke the avant-garde performances of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Meanwhile Kate NV’s synths and dreamy vocals make allusions to Zhanna Aguzarova and Kate Bush almost inevitable.
Today, Tatarin may sound like just another electronic hip-hop hit, but back in 2017, the track broke down boundaries across Russia’s music scene. The song’s lyricist is Aigel Gaisina, a poet, translator and professional voice actor from Tatarstan. After her partner was arrested on charges of attempted murder, Gaisina channelled her emotions into poetry, and later, music, working with St Petersburg-based musician (and former SBPCh member) Ilya Baramiya to find the right sound.
In Tatarin, she opted for a high-tempo beat and accordion samples to provide her own masterful take on the chastushka: a traditional, tongue-in-cheek type of Russian or Ukrainian folk song. Not only was a female-fronted rap track a rarity, but Gaisina’s personal story, mix of Russian and Tatar, and lyrics on patriarchy, prejudice, and social inequality also grabbed headlines. Meanwhile, the track’s video — featuring Moscow-based photographer Gosha Bergal as Gaisina’s partner on his first day out of jail — racked up more than 72 million views on YouTube.
Think underground Russian electronica, think Buttechno. The man behind the alias, multimedia artist Pavel Milyakov, previously worked with noise punk. Then, in 2014, he co-founded creative collective and cassette label John’s Kingdom. The group began to nurture, shelter and shape Moscow’s most prolific and close-knit community of musicians, artists, and producers — and Milyakov’s music began to morph too.
Today, Milyakov works with light, space, and video, and is just as comfortable digging through archives of obscure Soviet electronica as he is designing the sound for catwalk shows and films. The video for “808 Mod Cuts”, meanwhile, gives us just a small glimpse into Buttechno’s artistic universe. Here, the full moon rises over Moscow’s ubiquitous high-rises, birds stir against grey skies, and loners roam industrial hinterlands in the dusk, all bathed in a mystical Matrix-esque green light.
2018 marked a renaissance for political music-making in Russia. In particular, creative duo IC3PEAK found themselves amid an online media frenzy for their songs on gender, domestic violence, censorship, justice, and freedom. In response, the band found that most of their live shows across the country were mysteriously cancelled, or even stormed by police on different, supposedly legal grounds.
Some critics claim that IC3PEAK would never have become so popular if not for paranoid Russian officials and their apparent unawareness of the Streisand Effect. But for thousands of young Russians, the IC3PEAK debacle was perhaps the first time that many saw the state directly interfere with their lives. That bred kinship, solidarity, and, for the band, an almost cult following.
Today, IC3PEAK is an almost self-sustained unit, with the pair working themselves on set design, production, lyrics, and music. Inspired by the dark symbolism of Russian folklore and the surreal and haunting imagery of Sergei Parajanov, IC3PEAK сreate a lurid fairy-tale world that is intoxicating and painfully relatable to the young Russians hoping for change.
Run by a former history teacher, art-punk collective Shortparis uses carefully-thought out aesthetics, costumes, and performances to create hard-hitting and often controversial art, designed both to speak the truth to troubled youth and remain elegant and thought-through. Nowhere is that more evident than in their 2018 video, Strashno. Set in an ordinary local school, the clip seeks to evoke the TV chronicles of terrorist attacks in Russia in the 90s and 00s — particularly the 2004 Beslan school massacre — and the looming threat of neo-Nazism. While some criticise Shortparis’ aestheticising of protest and fear as staged, insensitive, or meaningless, their work speaks to a world where music simply no longer limits itself to sound alone.
Musician, activist, feminist: for Tajik-Russian artist Manizha, the professional and personal come as one. Manizha went viral in 2016 after releasing what she claimed to be the world’s first Instagram music album. Now the artist can boast a repertoire spanning blue-eyed ballads to feminist gospel rap, alongside a collection of videos tackling conservative notions of beauty, ethnicity, and femininity.
Born in Tajikistan a few months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Manizha and her family ultimately left the Tajik capital of Dushanbe for Moscow. When faced with racist bullying at school, Manizha found shelter in music — and today, the singer actively tackles the intolerance and prejudice that particularly affects immigrants from Central Asia living in Russia today. As an advocate for equality and diversity, Manizha has gained a considerable following online, particularly among the young people. But her work still provokes backlash, as the hatred she endured following her Eurovision 2021 performance (where she appeared as Russia’s first non-Slavic representative) proved.
When Dutch techno musician Martin Schacke chose to sample Russian acid pop hit “Kislotny People”, few could have foreseen its unparalleled global success. The track was compiled during Schacke’s two-week residency at Kisloty Club in St Petersburg, being played on repeat at queer parties and techno gigs everywhere from Moscow to Mexico. The original song, released by Russian pop singer Akula, is just as wild and intoxicating as Schacke’s track and is inseparable from Russia’s wild 90s, where freedom and excess followed the disintegration of the USSR. That same vibe has since been reconstructed at Kisloty club, where queer parties and acid raves thrive in spite of Russia’s of anti-gay propaganda laws and police raids. Looking back from 2021, “Kisloty People” sounds like the last real dance hymn of the pre-Covid era.
Yes, we’re back in the Moscow suburbs — and this time, the neighborhood has been taken over by buoyant dance pop band Cream Soda. The group turned a newly-built residential complex into a socially-distanced dancefloor for the video for their contagiously upbeat banger, “Plachu Na Techno”. The song went viral early in April 2020, catapulting the act of singing from your balcony to a whole new level. “Plachu Na Techno” was featured more than 800,000 times by fans on TikTok, and even made an appearance on Ciao 2020!, Russia’s Italy-themed parody show to mark the New Year.
Experimenting with electronic, house and dance, Cream Soda are already well known for their theatrical albums and witty, well-produced videos — often starring local Russian celebrities. While the clip for “Plachu Na Techno” made it one of the first Russian tracks to really take off on TikTok, its lyrics for are a knowing who’s-who of the Moscow scene, including in-the-know references to Ricardo Villalobos’ first raves at ARMA16, local hypebeast mecca KM20, and of course, Nina Kraviz herself.
Some 118 million people watched Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Biggest Bribe when it dropped in 2021. Released by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the documentary laid bare alleged corruption relating back to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The film provoked street protests in Russia — but also a new wave of political memes online. They culminated in comedy pop-anthem “Aquadiskoteka”, a reference to the supposed “aqua disco fountain” found on blueprints for a lavish Black sea mansion that Navalny had linked back to the Kremlin. Released on the same day as a wave of demonstrations, “Aquadiskoteka” was soon being played on the phones of protesters as they marched on the streets. The video itself is compiled of stock imagery and 3D renderings from Navalny’s documentary, and features well-known Russian comedian Andrei Gudkov backed by Cream Soda and Sliv Treka.
Text: Masha Borodacheva
Selection: Pavel Ugamochie and Anastasiia Fedorova