Lunch with The Baltic Times: Artemy Troitsky

  • 2015-04-04
  • By Will Mawhood

Artemy Troitsky wrote the book on Soviet rock. There was a time – a long time – when that was an entirely true and grammatically accurate sentence. Issued in 1987 in English, after the development of a very fruitful relationship with the Moscow correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, and called inevitably, Back in the USSR, it could easily have been a rushed novelty, skimping on quality and background, going for a quick sell based on its incongruity and novelty at the start of perestroika. Actually, it’s a magnificent piece of work, fired by enthusiasm and sometimes anger, but always sensitive to the changing political climate; it traces Russian rock from the original, brave stilyagi (jazz-philic, colourfully dressed hipsters), of the ‘50s, tracing the growth of the incubus from the west through intermittent periods of control and release – never totally banned, but hardly encouraged either.

He catches the weird, memorable details that resulted from a passion being in effect outlawed, without making too much of it. Just a few of the ones that stuck with me: he writes offhandedly about how, in the late ‘70s, the Latvian singer Peteris Andersons would go up to Tallinn every weekend (a four-hour-plus bus journey) so that he would be able to catch a programme about pop music broadcast on Finnish TV; elsewhere, we read about Aleksandr Gradsky, one of the tsars of early Russian rock music, getting stuck in a long queue outside his own concert and being shouted down by his fans when he attempted to explain  since the bands could not be publicised, few actually knew what their idols looked like. As someone who understood Western culture and conditions better than most, he usually includes a little eye-rolling nod to his Western audience; about one of the first things to approach a rock festival in the Soviet Union, near Moscow in 1978, he adds wryly “of course, there was a judging committee”. It’s a personal narrative, as much as anything else: a guy in a ridiculous situation moved and motivated by something strictly rationed; his judgements have little in the way of objectivity, but whether he damns or evangelises there is always the sense that this matters.

Troitsky spent the ‘80s acting as an PR guy for Russian rock music and the bands like Aquarium, Centre and Kino who were coming to prominence; the first true rock festival in the Soviet Union, Tbilisi-80, was also largely thanks to him, as was the benefit concert for Chernobyl victims in Moscow in 1986, probably Russia’s first taste of Live Aid-style donation eliciting. Upon the collapse of the bizarre system which he had so incisively critiqued, like many former semi-outlaws, Troitsky found himself suddenly in a highly favourable mirror-world, where seemingly everything that had been bad was good and everything that had been good was bad. Suddenly, being Russia’s foremost authority on rock music was really quite a good gig. Troitsky did well in the ‘90s, becoming the first editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Playboy (on its launch in 1995, he insisted, appealingly, “this is not an erotic magazine… I hope it will reverse the decline in the tradition of thick literary journals in Russia”) and something of a media star, hosting a number of cultural programmes on several TV channels – although to his credit, and unlike many others suddenly put in a position of moderate power at that time, he did not become obscenely wealthy. Well, if he is obscenely wealthy, he is hiding it well.

The last decade saw him becoming more and more involved in politics, seemingly as a result of the steady contraction of the arena of free speech in Russia. He took a visceral dislike to Putin, seemingly from the beginning, and was certainly ahead of the curve – there are sharp, scathing pieces on his foreign and economic policies and growing authoritarianism from the early 2000s. He was exploiting perhaps his reputation and expertise in other fields in his political commentary, but he certainly went for it, avoiding the polite digs and bet-hedging of full-time political commentators and going for simple contempt and sarcasm – belittling him to the extent that I occasionally got the feel that Putin was another sub-par disco act he was putting in their place. I found an article for the British political magazine The New Statesman article from 2007, where he not only tears apart Putin for his authoritarian tendencies and shameless enabling of corruption, but – marvellously – refers to him as a “grey, rat-like creature”. This seems eventually to have had its effect, and hence, in the summer of last year his announcement of a move to Tallinn.

I feel a little apprehensive about the prospective interview as I wait in the rather lovely River Restoran in the Tallinn suburb of Pirita, looking out over their magnificent view of the Pirita River, sparkling slowly below: Troitsky certainly seems like someone who has a taste for confrontation. But when he does arrive, from an unexpected direction, catching me by surprise, the immediate impression I get is one of a slightly disreputable benevolence, someone who would take you on a wild night out but would make sure you got home safely at the end. He’s one of these slightly disconcerting people who become better-looking as they get older. The photos in Back in the USSR show an intense-looking, angular figure, more hair than face, with a stare that could hold you from across a room; in the meantime, he has broadened a little and has discovered facial hair; wearing a turtleneck of an indeterminate shade of pale, hair brushed upwards but not quite reaching a quiff, he looks something like a bohemian sea-captain on shore leave; there’s a white swathe through his stubble; and he seems mildly dishevelled in a just about controlled way.

We’re a little pressed for time, as Troitsky has told me by email he has a Skype date with Russian TV in an hour and a half, so we get started on the questions more or less straight away. So, leaving Russia is understandable, given his situation, but why Tallinn in particular? “I am a fan of all three Baltic countries – all three countries are utterly different from each other. Lithuania is Catholic, central European, Polish influence, Baroque architecture; Latvia is kind of German-influenced, very Gothic, a bit gloomy; Estonia is very Nordic, Finnish or Swedish influence and also Gothic and very rural. I’ve been visiting those countries all my life.” A real tenderness enters his voice when he talks about the Baltic countries, something personal and protective, as though they are beloved nieces and nephews.

What made the real difference, it seems, is the job he was offered teaching at Helsinki University – commuting from Moscow, would, he says, be “eccentric”. So, prompted by his wife, he got in touch with friends in Tallinn and was offered additional teaching work at the university here – so now, it seems, he spends a lot of time on ferries and planes. But it’s not entirely for career/financial reasons: “Another reason is that I really have a soft spot for Estonia. I’ve been visiting since 1969; my grandparents had a little summer country house in Vosu in Lahemaa National Park. I have plenty of really good friends here in Estonia among musicians and artists.”

His accent has been filed down by years of speaking English, being the world’s go-to guy on Russian popular music and other cultural matters, but a residue remains. It’s more like a slight additional richness, a kind of spiky drawl – his “h’s” still catch in the throat in the barbed Russian manner and the occasional article is skipped. His command of the language is unsurprisingly strong, apart from the odd and pleasant quirk of tending to ignore the past tense in favour of the present perfect (“has been”, rather than “was”), which has the pleasing effect of making all the weird and dramatic events he’s talking about seem deceptively close.

He seems to pre-empt an expected question, one I had not in fact been planning to ask, when he immediately goes on: There’s absolutely no cultural clash, no national tensions between me and the Estonians. I’m a quiet guy myself, so I do appreciate those slow and ironic Estonian ways”

I mention that I noticed in his book the really disproportionate importance that the Baltic countries – and especially Estonia – play in the story of Soviet rock, considering their size and population. Again and again, in Back in the USSR, overwhelmed by the sheer struggle of being hip in Russia, Troitsky takes off to Tallinn, Tartu or Viljandi, towns where a very controlled version of hippiedom seemed permitted to exist – the weird, slightly disreputable neighbour who is mostly left to mind their own business because they are harmless and no one can understand them anyway. Why is this? Primarily the Baltic countries’ heritage of democracy and integration into wider continental trends? Or something more intangible?

Troitsky places the emphasis partly on an ingrained passive resistance founded on deep cultural, temperamental and religious differences with Russia: “we are small and weak and we can do nothing about it, but we will never be like you”. But he also points out that Estonia was a progressive, open republic within the admittedly limited scope available to it within the Soviet Union, even when compared to Latvia and Lithuania – what he calls the “softened cultural policy” meant that bands were not often harassed, and even encouraged, provided they stayed within strict thematic confines. By contrast, in Russia, mere existence was more of a challenge, and accordingly attempts at professionalism were close to impossible: “it’s been half-legal, half-illegal. There’s been hundreds of underground bands. The music is secondary. The message is the message. It was exceptionally important to say something, but the quality of playing, the quality of recording arrangements, sound – you know, it didn’t really matter.” Whereas in Estonia, bands could rehearse regularly and hone their skills playing in clubs and bars, in Russia the principal way to see music was at so-called klatirnyiki parties, semi-legal affairs held in private flats where guitars were, by necessity, acoustic and knees often subbed in for percussion.

At this point, we’re interrupted by an older lady who is just leaving the restaurant; she addresses Troitsky in Russian, adopting a defiant expression, but one which – I think – is turned to our favour; after a minute or so of intense invective, she thanks us and leaves. After she has left, I ask Artemy what she had been saying. “I constantly hear you on the TV and the radio and I read you in Estonian newspapers, and I’m very happy that intelligent people in Russia do have opinions like this.” And she’s an Estonian? “Judging by the lack of accent, she’s Russian – or maybe half-Russian.” He expresses slight surprise that this approval comes from an Estonian Russian, referring to the hostility that many local Russians feel for the country and the vague prevalent nostalgia for the Soviet Union. “It must be really painful to live in a country which you don’t like, you don’t understand, you don’t feel yourself a part of” – this is said in a tone which I can’t quite work out is sarcastic or genuinely sympathetic; I decide probably the second.

But could Estonia – and the other Baltic countries – have done more for their resident Russians? Yes, Artemy says, a lot more. He cites as an example of what should have been done earlier. This is a primarily satirical political channel based in Tallinn set up by a Belarusian exile that has been operating online since last year, directed at Russian speakers in the Baltic countries, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and taking a strongly anti-Putin (and anti-Lukashenko) line. Troitsky’s involvement has been mentioned in most reports, but he describes himself as having a mainly advisory role in the project – I’m not entirely sure if this is true; I’ve seen footage of Troitsky, wearing a “Navalny’s Brother” T-shirt, poker-faced and ridiculing particularly preposterous moves from Putin. Whatever, the point is that, according to Troitsky, a similar government-funded channel should have been created at least twenty years earlier. He contends also that the strictly legalistic approach to citizenship in all three countries led to many potentially amenable ethnic Russians feeling “put aside” after the restoration of independence: “They should have been more welcoming – at least to those Russians who are responsive to these good vibes”.

When this summer, following a decade of steadily intensifying criticism, Troitsky did decide to put a border between himself and Vladimir Putin, he announced by way of explanation that in contemporary Russia one had to “conform or leave”. Does he stand by this? And what does “conform” mean exactly? What would be the consequences of not conforming – did he fear for his life? First of all, he identifies the squeeze on his career: “the space of my professional activities in Russia has been shrinking all the time… for the past thirty years almost everything I’ve done has been media-related.”

He says that in the last few years he has been “blacklisted” from “all main Russian federal channels”, and, he adds with a chuckle and with a kind of wry bitterness, “for at least two of which [Channel Russia and MTV], I was the founding father”. But why did this blacklisting happen?

“I’ve been blacklisted simply because of my big mouth. I’ve never been a big political activist, never belonged to any political party, any political movement. But I’ve always been an outspoken person, so when I was asked about things, I wouldn’t give very diplomatic answers – and this has led me straight to becoming a dissident.” He stresses again that his activities usually only tangentially touch upon politics – he has presented programmes about music, sometimes about culture in a wider sense, overlapping with politics only incidentally – but perhaps the problem appears not to be one of direct involvement but of the increasing impossibility of honesty in today’s Russia. He does mention a little later, with pride, that he wrote and recorded a song called “Put Putin’s Gang Behind Bars”, so perhaps it’s not quite accurate that his activities are totally divorced from politics, but it certainly does seem that he’s not primarily a political actor, in the way that, say, Navalny is, and he seems, until relatively recently, to have been regarded by the authorities as little more than an inconvenience.

He’s fond of gestures that would seem somehow demagogic, delusional if they were completed: arms flung outwards, fingers moving towards pointing. But they’re always somehow crumpled, flapping at their extent, turned in, which does quite a bit to limit their aggression. A lot of them start to come out as soon as Putin is mentioned.

He mentions also the general atmosphere in Russia as another factor in his departure. The shift has clearly been recently – he tells me that he loves his country and never considered leaving previously, even during the tumultuous protests that led up to and followed Putin’s controversial and contested victory in 2012. There’s an incredulous upturn to all of his sentences suddenly – Troitsky is not someone who’s having his cynical expectations confirmed, but one who feels genuine disbelief and even bewilderment at what is happening. There’s a sense, to me at least, of a rational, reasonable person genuinely baffled by dishonesty and cruelty and venality. I worry slightly for him. The lurch into an unbearable state seems to have come last year, when Russia moved from being “a softcore dictatorship, an authoritarian country like many others” to something much more unusual and concerning.

“When they invade other countries, when they behave like Germany in the ‘30s, this is something completely different. We have passed this phase of being just another authoritarian regime and now we are where we are now; I would say it’s a fascist country. It’s a fascist, militarist, revanchist country”.

What’s striking throughout Back in the USSR and his other writings about rock music and culture generally in the Soviet Union is how much faith he has in creativity and music – he’s forever chasing around that vast extinct country looking for little spurts of defiant genius, haring suddenly off to Vilnius or Tbilisi in search of something. I read him the last sentence from that book, which states: “the future is bright and unpredictable. Nothing scares us now.”

Does that still stand? Does he still feel hopeful about music or the arts in Russia? Could this be a source of inspiration, resistance to an increasingly oppressive regime? Again, the response comes almost before I’ve finished the question, and is a firm negative. Why so? He immediately broadens the answer geographically, contending that music is no longer the centre of youth culture in the way it was anywhere in the world – it is no longer a movement or a way of seeing things differently, but another branch of the culture industry. He reels off the giants: Lennon, Dylan, Marley, Morrison…  and says that there has been no one since Kurt Cobain to match them in the sense of being “much more than mere musicians… leaders of their generation.” The same could be said, in Russia, about figures like Andrey Makerevich, Boris Grebenshikov, Viktor Tsoy – of Time Machine, Aquarium and Kino respectively – all the names of the rebellious ‘70s and ‘80s. But “rock music is no more a philosophy, no more a way of life, no more a new religion. Now it is just ways to entertain young people, to dance, to have a good time and so on. It’s not taken even 10% as seriously as it was.”

This is revealing, perhaps – expecting the song to simply be a pretty, compelling structure to house a message, rather than the message itself, is not especially amenable to the Russian temperament, or to Troitsky’s own preferences. It’s striking throughout Back in the USSR just how much of the book is taken up by lyrics, a number of which stretch to many lines long; when Troitsky is taken with someone, he gives them a platform. “Amazing poet” is the highest accolade he has. It’s striking at one point that a Russian-speaking and English-speaking singer (Kino and Joanna Stingray) collaborate, each singing lines in their own language: the American band sing simple-sentence semi-sexual declarations of love, which Kino back with mystical, gnomic, self-contained koans (“stand up as there’s no one else to save you.”)
What is behind this obsession with words, does he think? First off, Russia is a country “obsessed with literature and poetry”, and this seems to have fed into the music itself. Surprisingly, he rather writes off Russian music in terms of quality and originality: “Russian bands never came up with anything truly original, so musically speaking all Russian rock bands were very secondary to Western rock bands… but when it came to lyrics, to words, many of them have excelled.” He challenges me to name six Western singers who could be considered poets and we share a few moments of looking off-centre into the distance, rifling through our mental library. I prove his point by my slowness; we (the West) are still at the level of I love you, baby, it seems. The situation is different in Russia, he says: there “you take a rock star and most probably he will be a really capable poet”.

So can this not be a source of hope for those trapped unhappily inside this fascist, militarist, revanchist state? The contradictions and hypocrisy of Putin would seem as ripe for unpicking via music as the Soviet state. Why has there been such a dearth of artistic opposition to Putin – pure vehicles of opposition such as Pussy Riot aside? Troitsky puts it down primarily to careerism: “the huge majority they just keep silent, they make no comments at all. You can torture them and they will never tell you what they think. And this is happening not because they don’t have their opinions but simply because they care about their careers. And they don’t want to lose their audience by condemning the annexation of the Crimea, but they also don’t want to close their gate to the West by supporting Putin.”

Is there anyone who he does have faith to challenge Putin? The same old rockstars from before are listed: “the old guard” – Yury Shevchuk (DDT), Makarevich, Grebenshikov, Vasil Shumov (Centre) et al. This seems a little disheartening, that the only artists with the strength and guts to fight Putin are, for the most part, the same ones who were manning the front lines all the way back then. So this all seems a little despairing? He mentions hip-hop as providing a more reliable voice for opposition, citing Noise MC, but I sense that his heart isn’t especially in it. He mentions “considerable influence on young people”, but it has the tone of a dry sociological analysis rather than the excitement and passion that he would have brought to it previously. He notes that even the relatively small and cornered anti-Putin movement is at odds over issues like Crimea – and that young people are notably confused “a lot of them stand for freedom and peace and love, but others stand for a revisionist Russia.” I start on another question, but not before he hoists his glass with a merry, but determined “to peace and love”.

Bearing in mind he’s just demoted all Russian bands to essentially second-rate, I wonder if the enthusiasm detectable for them on so many occasions is not just a bit put on. Was he boosting the rockers of his homeland out of a certain duty? The answer is considered: it seems at first that he was, “I only cared about Western rock music to start with”; he lists the bands he was into in the ‘70s, starting off with various strains of progressive rock, including the band he cites as his favourite ever – the German experimental band Can – which were then suddenly substituted for the harsher, tauter sounds of post-punk and new wave towards the end of the decade. When he discovered Russian rock – or at least Russian rock became worthy of discovery – he describes it as an obsession. He became a “mother hen, surrounded by all these young geniuses from St Petersburg and Moscow and the Baltic countries.” His voice takes on again a fondness, which is fortunate: Talking Heads (another favourite of the time) probably did not need him; Aquarium probably did. And the role of advocate suits Troitsky well, as he himself recognises: “my favourite occupation in this world is I love to help people, and especially I love to help talented people. I don’t know a bigger pleasure for me than to find unknown talent and put it forward and help this guy or girl.”

But, of course, this careful nurturing eventually drew attention from the West, and from musicians opeating in very different environs. This interests me greatly. Was the default leftism of most Western bands a problem for those already living in a Socialist paradise? I mention in particular Billy Bragg, a sensitive and intelligent Socialist in the British tradition; a sworn foe of Margaret Thatcher and a wonderful, raw singer-songwriter; his visit to Leningrad in the mid-‘80s is one of the most striking and complex set pieces in Troitsky’s book. “I was always a lefty – so for me there was never an urge to convince my Western friends that Socialism is bad, that Communism is awful and so on. I’ve always shared their ideas, I’ve simply thought that the Soviet Union was a very ugly mutation of Socialism. It wasn’t really a Socialist country, it was simply a very bureaucratic and violent mutation of the Socialist idea.”

He tells me that his father was a true-believer Communist and a friend of Che Guevara – the last detail he repeats a couple of times; fair enough, it’s one of the more convincing cases for left-wing credentials I’ve heard recently. He stresses his historic support for anarchist movements, Greenpeace, then a little unnecessarily that he has “zero case record of being a capitalist pig”. Then, he takes the conversation himself – his lines tauten and he starts telling me about certain “Western lefties” and how disappointed and irritated he has been by their naivety, if that is truly what it is, regarding the current Russian administration – people who would take an indulgent view of Putin simply because he is anti-American. “These guys – they’re really stupid, I think” – he says disgustedly, locating, as only Russians can, the inherent contempt in the sound of the word “stupid” and he stretching it out like chewing gum.

He tells me about an American musician, a friend of his, who he asked to join a concert to gain support for Pussy Riot – which one would certainly expect to be a popular cause. But, the way Troitsky tells it, he ran up against “my enemy enemy’s is my friend“ thinking of the crudest kind. This person initially refused to help, explaining “our American government is also against Putin and we hate them,” before later changing their mind. He tells me the name, then asks me to promise not to reveal it, which I do – but I am surprised by who it is. “They simply don’t understand who and what they are up against” he concludes.

So, for now, he’s in Estonia, but does Troitsky see himself returning to Russia? He tells me he would like to, although he loves Estonia, but it is dependent on Russia becoming an “open, happy, repentant country”; one that understands and regrets “all the terrible things we’ve done” – both to others and to themselves. But does he see this happening? He drops his head, and starts speaking much more quickly; the ‘h’s start to snag even more, sounding that they’re ripping on something somewhere: “I love to dream about (returning) but when I switch on my brain I become far more pessimistic […] I sometimes get this impression that Russia is a doomed country, a country which will never be happy, an eternally unhappy country, which get kicks out of suffering”. His voice has dropped, there is a shoulders-slumped looseness in his pronunciation, and a curdled kind of hopelessness edging again into disgust. He gazes vaguely at a point a little above the Pirita River.

But then, just like that, he’s back to his default state of enthusiasm. He tells me, “I think you’ve been very smart and very lucky to find your place in the Baltic countries, they are really very special … I’ve travelled a lot – I haven’t been to Australia, but I’ve been everywhere else – I can tell you that the Baltic countries are very special. I think among the most loveable places on the planet”. Have I been to Nida (in Lithuania)? I say I haven’t (quite). I must, Troitsky tells me: “It’s the best place you will find in Europe”. I remind him that he has his contribution to make to Russian TV in twenty minutes, and he hurries off, although not before promising eagerly to introduce me to friends in Latvia – “very interesting people – maybe you can interview them too.” I resolve to finish off the wine. A little later, I get an email - he tells me that he missed his chat with the TV station after spending ten minutes waiting for the bus, but that I’m not to worry.  

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