I must've started searching for Russian feminist punk bands in fall of 2012. I was crashing on my dad's couch in South Brooklyn after a transient period of couchsurfing, marooned there by Hurricane Sandy. I missed Boston. Following Occupy & Boston's first Ladyfest, the buzz of a nascent activist consciousness crept into town, and it seemed like things were starting to fall into place.
Just before leaving Boston, I helped organize a "Pussy Riot Benefit" with some friends—a basement show featuring rad feminist punk and hardcore bands. Monetarily, we probably raised a very tiny drop in a very large bucket, but it was fun to organize a feminist punk show with friends. Most of all, I was excited that people were suddenly talking about Russia. Having been born in St. Petersburg and maintaining an interest in Russian culture I wasn't surprised that the country could produce rad music or rad activism, but I was genuinely surprised first about the feminist angle (in my experience, Russian culture allows little flexibility in gender roles and regards "feminism" as a dirty word), and second, that Americans noticed and cared.
That fall, as Nadia and Masha got shipped off to prison camps in Siberia, South Brooklyn tried to recover from the storm. My dad and I spent a lot of time in the same apartment engrossed in separate laptops, separate internet missives. He followed Russian news bloggers closely and would update me on troubling developments. A rise in protofascist nationalism, censorship, religious zealotry, increased intolerance towards LGBTQ populations and ethnic minorities. Putin's motorcycle gang militia. The Magnitsky Act. Talking about Russia so much implicitly directed my Soundcloud dives Russia-bound. I wanted to relate, I think, but I also must have desperately wanted to find proof that there was inspiring art being made in every political dystopia, that Russian punk feminism didn't live and die with Pussy Riot.
Over the following year I fell down the rabbit hole of related and unrelated media: A YouTube documentary about Moscow street punk; a screamo band called Nasty Taste with a memorable Hard Candy-like violent hitchhiker revenge music video, wide-eyed romantic bedroom pop by songwriter Dasha Shults; gorgeous brooding shoegaze by Moscow couple Glaswen, a punk webzine called Sadwave. I first heard about Fanny Kaplan from a flyer for an event at a Moscow cafe in August 2013, put together by the label Temniwye Lowadki (Dark Horses). The event description asked the question, "Is there a riot-grrrl movement in Moscow?" and hoped to answer in the affirmative.
Fanny Kaplan, named after a woman who tried to assassinate Lenin back in 1918 because she thought he was hurting the revolution, is a trio of inspiring women who live in Moscow and play new wave/coldwave synth-and-drum driven postpunk. Their songs are dark, anxious, urgent; their lyrics figurative and poignant. They released the 4-song siyaniye nits EP in 2012, then the plastilin full length in September 2013. Their web presence was frequently tagged "riot grrrl" and they've been vocally supportive of other female bands and musicians. This was the band I needed to find.
Of course, Fanny Kaplan would exist whether I was looking for them or not. For example, they recently played Moscow shows with touring American bands such as Japanther and White Lung.
Further, my attempts to build any narratives around them are equally suspect, since any attempts to form an understanding of another country based on any sort of media is generally problematic. I don't know what Russia is like right now because I haven't lived there in twenty years, haven't visited in ten. When I try to piece something together it is all smoke signals and tricks of the light and unreliable narrators - amorphous and supplanted memories, a spurious homesickness, positivity from relatives versus total distress from bloggers and writers. Things are probably not great there, but honestly, things are probably not great here either.
Rather than speculate further, I spoke to Lusia (via Facebook chat and email) about the band, the lyrics, the political situation in Russia, Moscow's DIY scene, Pussy Riot, punk, feminism, and the global information wars. (Note: the interview was conducted in summer 2014 and translated from Russian to English this winter, so some of the chronology might feel off.) Read the interview below:
How did your band form?
Lusia and Karina Kazaryan came to Moscow from Omsk – a gloomy and gray town in Siberia. In the narrative of the musical history of the country, the shining light of this city was the band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defense), which couldn't help but affect the sisters' development as people – both their musical taste and their worldview.
They moved to Moscow in 2010. They continued working on music while navigating the logistical difficulties of getting to know a new city. They had prior experience playing instruments and playing in bands, and completed some musical education.
Before meeting the sisters, Diana Burkat lived in the same place where she was born – in the city of Lyubertsy. She was already an experienced musical and had graduated from the Moscow College of Improvised Music and had a lot of musical experience. She played in a band called Alesha but it disbanded when the lead singer became pregnant.
The sisters were looking for a drummer and Diana was looking for a band.
Did you all know each other before you started the band? Were you playing in other projects before this?
The girls met each other thanks to musician friends, who knew both the Kazaryan sisters and Diana. Friends knew that Lusia and Karina were looking for a drummer, and Diana needed a band. After they met, they had a couple of practices, then took a break for the summer. In the fall, the girls began practicing every week, focusing on writing songs that they could play live.
At this point, Diana had been a vocalist in the indie rock band Banana Princess, played keys in the psych-folk band Little god, drummed in the post-punk new wave band Alesha, and had a solo audio-visual project called 'rosemary loves a blackberry,' which she still works on.
Karina had never played in bands before, but occasionally jammed in her friends apartments and recorded various projects to dictaphone.
As a teenager, Lusia played in an experimental rock band called Penthaus. Later, she collaborated with a friend on a digital hardcore project called meatbeet.
In Moscow, Lusia and Karina, along with their Omsk friend Andrew Mitroshin, formed the twee pop band Kenneth Anger. The band existed for a year, played three shows, and recorded one single.
When did you start making music together?
Lusia, Karina and Diana got together in May of 2011. They spent a long time figuring out their style because they didn't want to replicate music which had already been played a million times. The desire to create something new and interesting kept them practicing for over half a year before playing their first show.
What made you want to name your band after Fanny Kaplan [a Russian revolutionary who tried to assassinate Lenin because she considered him a traitor to the revolution] ?
We spent a long time thinking about what to call ourselves. We had a huge amount of options but nothing felt right - all names sounded boring and one-dimensional. By choosing to name ourselves after a historical person, Fanny Kaplan, we achieved the desired effect – conflict, drama, ambiguity. We wanted to choose a complicated person whose life could not be easily summarized.
You characterize your sound as 'experimental wave' and 'no coldwave.' What do those terms mean to you? What is "no coldwave"?
It's a combination of cold wave and no wave, which are the styles that inspired us a lot when we were formulating our sound. We used the word “experimental” as a general term to describe our approach to songwriting and giving form to our ideas. On the album Plastilin, we are nostalgic for times that we weren't actually around for, but we are so interested in those times that we are consciously reflecting on them both in the music itself and in the designation of the style.
There's an anxious, darkwave quality to your EP that seems to have gotten even more abstract on this release. Are you trying to hone this (or, any) quality on purpose or is it a natural progression? How do you see the band evolving?
The dark, nervous nature of the album came about organically.
Of course, we know that polytones or tritones for example sound nervous, and that listening is the result of harmony. The most basic thing is to write in minor. Even kids in music schools learn this – if it sounds sad, it's in minor.
For the most part, we know these things but we don't use this knowledge in our practice. We try to do the opposite – when we write songs we try to alienate ourselves from all pre-acquired knowledge about the laws of composition in order to write intuitively – from the heart instead of from the mind. In this way, we can create honest music – its nature is so organic that we rarely (though it still happens sometimes) consciously direct its direction. At the same time, our musical knowledge allows us to understand what we're doing and explain it to other people.
It's possible that the mood of the album is a self-portrait of ourselves: The political situation in Russia resonates in us. We exist in a strange, undetermined state between hysteria, resignation, and hope for positive change. We would like to be active participants in this – we are trying to bring something full of soul into the world.
We are hoping that the development of our music will reflect the transformation of life on the planet for the better. Either way, it's vital to go deeper and deeper into the themes which we touch on. We are drawn to wisdom and soft power, the clean reporting of images.
Your lyrical style is very specific and unique - short, evocative phrases, repeated throughout each song. It's very poetic. Could you say anything more about that?
To create lyrics is to draw images, symbols, feelings, and moods. The debut album was concerned with the capacity of concise phrases. We can't say whether we are going to continue with this or do something else.
I'm really drawn to the song "Edemov Sad” (“Garden of Eden.”) I love the line "da i nas zapretyat" (“they will ban us as well”). Could you talk about that song?
The lyrics to “Garden of Eden” are:
In the Garden of Eden
It is hot and dark
There are no trees here
They will ban us as well!
In the process of trying to answer this question, we argued a lot and even got into a fight. We have very different opinions on such a literary monument as the Bible, and on the motives behind writing this song. While we argued it became obvious that we would not be able to come to the same answer. At first this made us sad, but later we understood that it's good to have your own perspective. Everything fell into place. We aren't a religious sect that can speak in one voice. Our opinions are different.
Lusia, the author of these lyrics, and all the rest of the Fanny Kaplan lyrics, says that when she wrote it, she was thinking about the political situation in Russia. The lyrics of this song reflect her worries about the current political situation in the country, which becomes worse and worse as new laws are adopted to limit freedom of speech, action, and human rights. The phrase “they will ban us as well!” refers to the notion that soon the legislative system will reach such a level of absurdity that they will start banning people themselves, as creators of evil and dissent.
Diana says that the Bible is the central source for the thoughts of religious people in Russia. The book presents itself as a unification of rules – a dogma - within which Christians must live. In her opinion, this is the position of a slave. This depressing helplessness, the enslavement of the mind and human willpower, become the propaganda weapons of the ruling elite – instruments to control people who are frightened and looking to faith as a way to calm their troubled souls.
Karina says only that faith and the Bible are sources of inspiration for many artists and poets.
In a piece on afisha.ru you've spoken about the importance of maintaining a DIY ethos in your work, and about putting your music out on cassette. Could you talk more about the importance of creating work in a DIY way?
We try as authentically as possible to uphold DIY culture. For us that means creating work uncommercially and taking an artful approach to distributing music, videos, and merch.
The narrative of American DIY is often about creating art that is not beholden to capitalism, about being in opposition of uniformity and in support of process and creative control. Are those the same issues that Russian DIY is in dialogue with? Are there different ones?
Ideas such as anticapitalism, antiglobalism, noncommercial movements in music, art, and lifestyles, critiques of a failing political system, are just equally essential in Russia's DIY culture. It's an international movement.
You also mentioned that you prefer to present your work outside of clubs. Is there much of a community for music and art outside of established venues in Moscow right now? What kind of spaces do you play in? Do people do house shows?
When we talked about clubs we meant nightclubs, where people go to get drunk and dance. We prefer playing shows where people come to actually listen to music.
Of course, in Moscow there are interesting things happening. For example, last spring we played at the festival Crust Homestead in an abandoned aristocratic estate. There was one generator, an ironing board instead of a keyboard stand, and the drum stand was on the ground, which is why it kept sliding. Everyone was wasted. It was an unauthorized concert. It wasn't very musical but it was fun.
Also in Moscow we played the noncommercial festival “Structure.” It takes place in various places over the course of a week – on trains, in the botanical gardens, in squats and unknown clubs on the edge of town. The creator of the festival, Leonid Kotelnikov, plays harsh noise and creates musical collages. He thought of this festival as a big musical collage in itself.
At the end of last year we played the festival Troika. It was also independently organized. We got lucky because we played before the police came.
There are of course house shows but in Moscow it's not like in America. Here, house shows are more for singer songwriters – acoustic guitars and vocals. This is because everyone lives in apartments - you can't play drums or turn your guitar up loud because your neighbors will call the police. Right now we are planning this sort of house show, in the middle of November.
What does the community you exist in look like?
We have a practice space in an electrical plant. Our musician friends renovated the place and outfitted it with everything we needed for a practice space and recording studio. The boys themselves also play in bands - we are all friends, go to each others shows, support, play together. We have other friends from the same scene who have a different practice space, but we are all of the same clay. The style of music is mostly metal, hardcore, punk. Our music is different but we are still part of this scene, we play the same shows. Right now, thanks to Troika, something is evolving that is similar to the vibe that existed 8 years ago, when there was a constant solid hardcore scene of ideologically solid people.
Are you affiliated with the Temniye Loshadki label? Or, are there any other labels you have been working with?
We are not on that label, but we they did put “Garden of Eden” on their compilation. We are friends with Denis Boyarinov, the guy who runs the label. We also collaborated with the kids from Nazlo Records. They helped us record and release a limited 40 tape run of Plastilin. When we were just getting started, we recorded two songs in the studio of “Destroy the Humanity.” Those guys record almost all of the local metal and hardcore. As a result we recorded the EP and album with our audio engineer [from those sessions] - Pavel Nikols. We recorded in a homemade studio in his house upstate. The rights to our music belong only to us and we are independent of any organization. In the future our audio engineer wants to start his own label and recording studio under the name Siniy Les (Blue Forest). When that happens we will be able to say with pride that we are on the label Siniy Les.
Some of your music is tagged as "riot grrrl" and you're made riot grrrl themed mixes before. Is feminism and riot grrrl a big influence for the band? Is it important to represent that in your work and as a band?
We like the music and ideology of riot grrrl. We are in solidarity with this movement, although it doesn't correspond with the style of our music. You could say that we belong to a post-riot grrrl wave.
I left Russia when I was five years old so I don't know much about how culture has evolved there, but when I listen to my parents music, all the female voices are in the pop sphere. Most belong to identical pop stars with very pristine, very feminine images, with a few notable exceptions (Zemfira, Diana Arbenina). All the Russian punk/rock I heard was fronted by men. Is that changing?
In Soviet and Post-Soviet times you could sometimes come up on rarities such as Female Sickness, K.N.I.F.E, (the side project of Fox's Bread), Devil's Dolls, March 8th, Pepsi. Recently, the festival Female Trouble in St. Petersburg showcased a lot of good and multifaceted womens collectives. I don't know what it's like in other cities, but in Moscow there is a crisis of cohesive women bands. They exist but I wish there were more of them.
Female Trouble looked so cool. What was it like to play that?
It was cool that this festival happened at all. It was a cross-section of women playing very different styles of music. The girls from the band Mokroshelki got very drunk and threw a tantrum and totally refused to play, which was really fun and way cooler than if they just played normally. Galya Chikiss – the snow queen of St. Petersburg's independent scene – was there. She makes very interestesting melancholy electronic music. There was the band Lemonday, in which two girls (who dress like they work in an office) and one guy play Russian disco. It was really fun. It would be even better if this festival was annual.
The only negative thing was that the very theme of the festival, 'female trouble' was never unpacked. We didn't think there were enough discussions, meetings, or other occasions for female musicians to discuss how to popularize good independent music made by women. So, it was a good start for a certain movement, but so far there has been no continuation.
Are feminist music festivals a common thing in Russia? Are they met with any resistance?
No unfortunately these festivals are rare in Russia – there are practically no women-centric music festivals. There are different feminist movements, events, discussions, and fairs in the art world. For example, we played [an arts festival] called 'Feminist Pencil,” which showcased feminist art, and hosted lectures and discussions. Starting in October there will be a bimonthly feminist lab called “The Kitchen.” Recently there was an event called “SHE,” which generated feminist discourse and gender questions. We have master classes, performances, fairs, curatorial projects, all concerned with feminist art. But, unfortunately, there is nothing like this in music. There are female bands but they don't talk about feminism and even deny their relationship with it. In music, and in show business in general, it's much easier to fall into existing templates of female behavior, such as exploiting your sexuality. There are no real obstacles for crating a female music festival, it's a problem of initiative – no one wants to organize it.
Nadya from Pussy Riot recently tweeted "we created music so that musicians would look at us and say 'ew, what garbage!' and would create their own awesome Russian feminist bands.” Are you one of those bands?
The actions of Pussy Riot did not influence our music or art. It couldn't, because Pussy Riot wasn't about music. It was an art project – media activism. Music was a tool, and the punk band was a form of political discourse. We frequently get asked questions about feminism in the context of Pussy Riot. These questions stimulated us to formulate our own relationship with feminism. Basically, Pussy Riot made a very important step – it created a platform for feminist discourse, which didn't previously exist in Moscow. That is incredible, since twenty-something year old women in Russia in the 20th century had more independence, freedom of thought, equal social status as men, etc. And it just so happened that feminism in Russia, instead of evolving into a fourth wave, rolled back to the second wave.
So, the actions of Pussy Riot acted as a kick in the butt for many girls who wanted to speak out about feminist discourse, but didn't have the resolve to actually do it, that's true. Pussy Riot is very important. But unfortunately there are other sides to it as well, which right now outweigh the positives.
First, right after the action in the church, the media did everything possible to spin the story in a way to tarnish the name of the group and feminism in general. In this country there is an extremely unique situation – fascism in relation to feminism – people are so ignorant about it that it's safer not to talk about it to people in order to avoid conflict. This is the result of the propaganda of a sexist society – it has done everything possible to present the members of Pussy Riot in the worst light possible, presenting them as stupid, amoral, mean women, who did what they did under orders from America, paid off by American money.
The second part of it is much more important since it comes from Pussy Riot themselves, or, more accurately, from part of it – specifically, Nadia and Maria. The thing is, right now they are actively engaged in marketing themselves under the banner of Pussy Riot. In doing so, they are creating a cult of personality, which is against Pussy Riot's fundamental ideals. It's hard not to be disappointed by their behavior, and that's something you can't blame on the government. Masha and Nadia, while still calling themselves Pussy Riot, are collecting various awards (which were addressed to everyone in the group), giving concerts with Madonna (who exists as a symbol of capitalism in music) and collect massive sums of money for personal gain, and their statements negate the feminist actions of their past. Of course, their new initiative “zone of truth / media zone” are very important for human rights work, but it's not right to sell the ideas of Pussy Riot in the name of these new projects. This has led many people in the punk scene and in the feminist movement to turn away from them. Additionally, there exist people like Kate Samutsevich [the third Pussy Riot member who was arrested] and other anonymous participants, who remained true to their ideals, but no one knows if they will defend the idea of the group or if they've already thrown in the towel since their words don't have resonance and provoke negative reactions and accusations of jealousy and hypocrisy from from fanatics and from interested parties in Nadya and Masha's camp.
The whole Pussy Riot thing has been very sensationalized in the USA, so it was hard to perceive clearly.
In Russia, people who believe the television and the mass media in general do not understand Pussy Riot, and some people openly hate them, and this is the majority. This situation came together because of the media's distortion of information or because of media silence. In Russia, the action in the church was a sensation just like in America, but it lasted for three or four months. This is the time that it took for the propaganda machine to understand that in order to destroy this story they needed to distort the ideological background of both the action and the group in the eyes of the citizens. Of course, right now everyone is talking about the war in the Ukraine, and the attention of the average Russian is now directed to the horrors which every day are translated onto the television, internet, and other media. It is very important to understand the role that the media plays in these situations – it is the key to understanding why, for example, people in America talk about Pussy Riot with such admiration. This is a cold war – the USA presented this situation in a way that was advantageous to them: Putin is a monster, Russia is bleak. Of course, for the most part, this is true, but everything is much more complicated than that. Specifically, this is just as true as it would be true for us to believe that the Occupy activists are terrorists. The political leaders of America and Russia are enemies – each side presents information in the way that it needs to. In the USA there is not any less bloodshed and injustice. There are, of course, differences – for example, feminism in our country is currently in crisis. But we encourage thinking bigger. Putin and Obama are puppets - others will fill their place, history will be rewritten, and the propaganda machine will find even more sophisticated methods of brainwashing the people of the world.
I have heard that there is a growing amount of censorship in Russia right now, especially when it comes to oppositional / independent voices. Is that accurate? Have you run into that as a band?
Yes, this is true, the opposition in Moscow, for example, right now is operating within a very difficult environment. The expression of leftist views is suppressed, leaders of movements are put in prison or they disappear without a trace. It is horrible but the judicial system is so corrupt that its impossible to protect your interests. People are afraid to come to meetings.
We do not directly express political or social views about current events in our music, although Lusia is occupied with human rights activism and Diana tries to actively participate in feminist movements. But as citizens of our country we appear to be responsible conscious units.
I have never seen Fanny Kaplan post anything directly political, but it seems like there are a lot of political undercurrents in the band. Do you self-identify as a political band?
We do not want to speculate about acute political or social themes, which change every half year, depending on the goals of political leaders. Otherwise we would fall into the trap of manipulation. Let's look at that what is happening in Ukraine today. You understand that people have died and are always dying in some war or other, wars which we are told about so that we could formulate public opinion, or wars which no one will ever know about, save for the organizers of the wars themselves. We can only speak confidently about general positions – for example, about how there is no such thing as democracy. You are right to notice that our music does have these themes, but they are hidden. You have to read between the lines.
If you are comfortable saying this on the record, what do you think of the current political situation in Russia?
The authorities want to control everything: harsh censorship in the media, oppositional resources close under strange circumstances, federal channels are suffocating in their lies...this is an information war. But the most important thing is that this situation is not only in Russia. Similar things are happening all over the world. They're frightening people more and more: with wars, ecological problems, raw material shortages...Under stresses such as these, people are easier to manipulate. America is currently the largest debtor in the world – no one knows what this will lead to. Or, the unstable uncertain situation of political leaders in Russia, as signified by the harsh the reason for which appears to be the harsh suppression of “leftist” initiatives. People from different countries are being turned against each other. Wars are being organized along lines of religious and territorial disputes. The ecological catastrophe people of the world are being turned against each other. Us, citizens of different countries, turning friend against friend, conflicting races, organizing wars on the religious and territorial fronts. Ecological catastrophes on a global scale, capitalism, consumerism, ignorance, the cult of youth, sexism, subversion of real values...There is only one thing that we can say for sure and that is that the world has lost its mind.
What inspires you to make art these days?
Humanism, talent or genius, honesty in the craft of great people, their work.