Songs of the unloved.
Songs of the thrown away.
Of those buried without a name.
Of immured into the night.
Songs of the crossed out from the lists.
Songs of those made to kneel on ice.
The song of the wanted no more,
It goes on, it does not stop.
We are trained quite well –
To light fires from burning snakes;
To rip our hearts out,
So we can become angrier still.
To keep heads under the water,
So nobody can take a breath;
And to break off the blade after the blow,
Because “the God is with us”.
Step on the glass
If it is empty now;
Put your head into the loop,
Take your stuff and get out.
Lord, please tell me
The Secrets of Being;
Look me in the eye
And say that it’s Your will.
We could keep waiting for the sun,
Looking at the zenith with blind eyes;
We used to have a crystal bell
Somebody stepped on it, and it does not chime any more.
This music is older than the world itself;
It is awkward and laugh-worthy;
But I will dance to it,
Even if we cannot hear it.
For a gentle soul –
An iron dress.
The words in blood on the sand –
“All people are brothers”.
I don’t need your Secrets of Being
Just look me in the eye
And say that it’s your Will.
Boris Grebenshchikov, Песни нелюбимых [Songs of the unloved], 2016.
I like this song because I think it shows what Russia is in reality, and yet, manages to give us a hope for what Russia can be. It is written by a Russian singer Boris Grebenshikov and is performed by his band Akvarium. Akvarium started its career way back in the Soviet Russia, when the USSR begun the long run to its inevitable end. Among other members of the Leningrad Rock Club, they were rebels, never complacent and always asking uncomfortable questions. Several decades on, and they still do it through their music.
‘Songs of the unloved’ caught my ear last summer on one pleasant afternoon, when I was sitting in a cosy living room in Moscow with my friend, and having a chat with her. We were discussing, indeed, the ever so gloomy situation in the country – worsening economy, non-existent competition in politics, despotism of those in power and lack of active resistance from the people. ‘The protest is dead and we’re doomed’, said my friend. ‘Let’s listen to good old Boris and forget about this madness for a bit’. She switched on her Mac and the song began.
For me personally, who studied the 2011-2012 protests in Russia extensively, the firsts words of this song immediately brought back memories of the protesters I talked to; beautiful people, strong people, stubborn and understanding at the same time, resilient and believing in a better future for their country. The song resonated completely with what the people who took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 told me in my interviews. They were the ‘unloved’, the ones ‘thrown away’ and too often humiliated for their beliefs and actions. And yet, they were also the ones who marched on, who carried on even if at times it looked like their song was dying. I bet many of them would be overwhelmed with a strong emotion when they listen to this song.
That is partly because ‘Songs of the unloved’ diagnoses Russian society so well – the society with constant PTSD, as one interviewee called it. It addresses the recklessness and anger of its people – ‘we are trained quite well – to light fires from burning snakes/to rip our hearts out, so we can become angrier still’ – and characteristic all-or-nothing attitude that forces us to ‘step on the glass if it is empty now’. The song captures the brutal reality of today’s Russia, where it does not pay off to be kind (‘for a gentle soul – an iron dress’), where people keep waiting helplessly for a better future that never comes (‘waiting for the sun, looking at the zenith with blind eyes’) and where non-conformity is crushed easily, like a heavy army boot stepping on a tiny bell and cutting its chime. The protagonist of the song keeps asking the Lord for answers, imitating the mode of behaviour of many Russians who still look up to the ones in power to give them the answers.
In this way, it reminds me of the society that I only remember through stories and books – the Soviet state. It was the country that also hid behind glorious slogans of equality, unity and righteousness (be it ‘the God is with us’ or ‘all people are brothers’), and yet did unspeakable things to its people. In it, the unloved were indeed crossed out from the lists and buried without a name. In it, everyone in a way was kept under water, in their own nice little aquarium and with little possibility of breathing with full chests. It is ironic, but also strangely fitting, that exactly 100 years since the October Revolution, Russia is becoming dangerously close to that type of dictatorship once again.
But the lyrics also hint at the great potential for kindness and goodness of Russian people, that ‘crystal bell’ inside them still goes on and does not stop despite being crushed. This bell gives hope and fosters the will to keep dancing to the seemingly ‘awkward and laugh-worthy’ melody of ethics, compassion and truth. It is telling that in the end of the song, the protagonist refuses to listen to the Lord and (in my opinion) understands that we do not need someone else to tell us what to do, and that we do not need to comply with their will.
The Soviet state was the reality of my country just a few decades ago, but my fear is that it might very soon become the reality of today’s Russia too. But amongst this fear there is also a great hope, the hope that we will keep dancing to the melody of truths, goodness and compassion, even if at times it looks like it has disappeared. For this is the only way to free ourselves from the gloomy reality that entraps us on a pleasant summer afternoon.
Yulia Lukyanova is a social psychologist who is fascinated by all things protest. She is Russian, but has lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for some time now. She completed her PhD dissertation ‘Manufacturing dissent in Russia: A discursive psychological analysis of protesters’ talk’ at the University of Edinburgh in 2016. At this point in her life, she teaches sociology and does research into Russian diaspora in the UK and social movements in Russia.