Янка Дягилева (Yanka Dyagileva) | Стыд и срам (Shame and disgrace) | | 1991
A review by Degtyarov
An artistic trend by definition implies a degree of conformity to countless norms, customs and characteristics that aesthetically tie together artists across the globe. Without devolving into tiresome tirades about intertextuality, it is not too bold an observation that every piece of art is in some way (or rather, in many ways) derivative of works that preceded it. This should however not be used as an excuse to declare originality non-existent. Consider how all of the words on this website have already been used countless times before (save for some fancy neologisms), yet the way in which they are structured from sentence to sentence, page to page, allows this conglomerate of tired terms to convey a new and hopefully unique message. In the same way, an original artist will employ the aspects of the genre he operates in to create a piece that reveals his personal genius, and which by extension represents his culture. By doing this, the artist is able to impart his vision in a language that is understood by his audience; familiar tropes serve as pointers which allow for the message to be understood by its receiver. Meanwhile, the peculiarities of the artist unveil his personal vision, as well as the respective qualities of the culture from which he emerged.
To give an example of how a widely used template can be employed to transmit a more idiosyncratic vision, Sergio Leone’s splendid spaghetti westerns may on the surface seem like simplistic action flicks, but upon closer inspection they testify of the superior taste of the director and, in addition, the aesthetic sophistication of his home country; it is this Italian eye for beauty which puts classics such as For a few dollars more and Once upon a time in the West leagues ahead of any Hollywood production drawing inspiration from that same old Wild West.
In the realm of music, the categorisation of artists into countless genres, subgenres and sub-subgenres is a good indication of the degree to which musicians from different cultures, continents and eras can be grouped together because they share stylistic traits that make them suchlike. But, like in other artistic media, music too allows for the flourishing of ideas that instead reveal the traits of the person behind the music and the soil that nurtured him. The wider framework imposed by the respective genre allows us to glance at emotions and even philosophical concepts from a different angle. However, the best artists are those who, despite striving to provide a unique perspective on the topic material at hand, never estrange their audience by quenching this juvenile thirst to break conventions for its own sake.
One need only look at the Siberian punk scene to notice how radically different a music style can develop when placed in a different cultural setting. Whereas British punk professed its nihilistic and far-left sentiments with hackneyed, often downright decerebrated simplicity, punk in Siberia developed in the heyday of a communist state and thus rebelled against much more real, tangible forms of government oppression. This is immediately noticeable when listening to eighties punk from Russia, where bands with strong opinions had to resort to home recordings, seeing as professional studios were only to be used by artists approved by the state. Logically, the punk pioneers from the country’s freezing, murky and impoverished Siberian outskirts, while still left-wing in an anarchic/syndicalist sense, did not harbour enthusiasm for utopian socialist thinking as did their British contemporaries operating under the same musical banner.
However, there is more to the character of Siberian punk than a mere distinction of the political context during which it rose to prominence. In what was possibly an effort to circumvent government censorship, the lyrics of Siberian punkers were generally much more poetic in nature than those of their British counterparts. Sporting an approach that the average English punko would undoubtedly have classified as bourgeois, the Russian interpreters of punk would frequent such topics as existentialism, depression and even spirituality.
Central to the Siberian punk underground and its leitmotifs is the band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (EN: Civil Defence), led by the late poet Yegor Letov. Not only did this group help establish the template which would be followed by other Siberian punk acts: they also illustrate perfectly the changes, paradoxes and crises that defined the region’s punk movement until it died along with most of its pioneers across the nineties and noughties. Starting out with simplistic, lo-fi punk that saw the band’s volatile nihilism reflected by carefree musical amateurism, Grazhdanskaya Oborona gradually gravitated towards the more fertile territories of post-punk and psychedelic rock, a move which was in turn reflected by increasingly poetic and meaningful lyrics. Letov personally encapsulated the Romantic contrarianism that had always been a huge factor in the appeal of punk across the globe. After drenching most of his eighties work in anti-Soviet diatribes, the nineties saw Letov direct his quixotic aggression toward the cowboy capitalism of Bandit Yeltsin and his banker puppet-masters, even going as far as to help establish the National-Bolshevist party–an unlikely merger of fascism, communism and Russian imperialism. Later, Letov would renounce political extremism of any kind, with his topic material also becoming more introspective and subtle in comparison to the vigorous lyrics which had characterised the beginning of his career. Yet he always maintained the technical quality and passion that had stood at the core of his modus operandi. It is not without reason that Letov, who passed away in 2008, is still referred to as ‘Russia’s last great poet’.
While Grazhdanskaya Oborona are not the central subject of this review, awareness of their legacy is vital to understanding the work of the artist who instead takes the lead role in the current piece: Yanka Dyagileva. Dyagileva’s musical career only lasted a couple of years, for she met an unfortunate fate in 1991, leaving this world behind at only 24 years of age. During most of her short career as a musician, she was a member of Grazhdanskaya Oborona, with whom she played occasional live shows. It is thus no surprise that her solo work, particularly her final album, Styd i sram (EN: Shame and disgrace) from 1991, displays an audible Letov influence. This artistic impact does not just encompass the lyrical inclination towards existential pondering, but also extends to the music, which is rooted in punk but forays much more frequently into the realms of folk and psychedelic rock than would the British originators of said style.
Particularly the folkloric tendencies of Dyagileva’s music are relevant, as they allowed for her oeuvre to be soaked in the kind of Russian sentimentalism that verges on blatant fatalism. Indeed, a large chunk of her repertoire is formed by acoustic songs that combine punkish ferocity and angst with the sober contemplation and existential scrutiny present in traditional Russian music. This is especially true for the re-edition of Styd i sram, which features three punk/rock and acoustic songs respectively, in addition to well over a dozen of bonus tracks that further explore both styles. Many of the punk songs have been provided with music courtesy of fellow Grazhdanskaya Oborona musicians, and Letov himself was reportedly in charge of the arrangement and compilation of this 25-song re-release of his bandmate’s swan song. This Letov-imposed interspersion of electronic and acoustic tracks magnifies Dyagileva’s exploration of themes that, while sometimes submerged in alien punk aesthetics, are distinctively Russian. Dyagileva generally avoids directly attacking the administration culpable of creating the deplorable circumstances in which Siberia and the Soviet Union at large found themselves, instead describing the resultant barren surroundings that condemned her daily life and that of many of her compatriots to perpetual misery. This approach testifies of a culture forged by hardship, struggle and never-ending dreariness, which has over the centuries been brought forth by the exhorbitant sacrifices Russia has had to make to just safeguard its own existence. Dyagileva’s gloom confirms that it is no coindence that some Russians view smiling without reason as the hallmark of a simple mind.
Let there be no mistake about the fact that Yanka Dyagileva’s music is at odds with the system. After all, there is a reason why most of her songs were recorded in her own appartment as opposed to state-sanctioned concert halls. However, in taking the suffering born from bad leadership and turning the desperation derived there from into poignant questions about our very existence, Dyagileva transcends the redundant political squabbling that made British punk so graceless and immature, features which brought forth its immediate demise as soon as the Thatcherite era had drawn to a close. By contrast, Dyagileva managed to weave her own suffering, while tied to her contemporary and political circumstances, into a more universal narrative about what is like to live in a world carved by hurtful memories, without the hope of a better tomorrow.
Yanka Dyagileva’s mysterious death potentially epitomises the universality of her misery. In the spring of 1991, her lifeless body was recovered from a river far from her native Novosibirsk. While the official cause of death was ruled to be an accidental drowning, there are strong rumours of suicidal motives on Dyagileva’s behalf, a theory which coincides both with her unfortunate personal circumstances at the time and the bleak nature of her music. Whatever the cause of her untimely demise, it remains certain that Yanka was born in a cruel world that spat her out all too soon. Sadly, this fate has struck individuals across the ages, across all cultures. But before she moved on to the next life, Dyagileva managed to represent this cosmic injustice through her own musical and poetic creativity, all the while echoing the everlasting sorrow that befell her forebears. And from that confinement, she shed light on a fragment of darkness that is present in us all.
As a comprehensive glossary of Yanka Dyagileva’s talent and range as a musician, the extended version of Styd i sram is a fascinating document of the dark side of human nature. Though personal her music may have been, her brilliant way of converting emotions into songs helps her art transcend time and space. It is unlikely she would have imagined that, a quarter of a century later, a Dutch webzine would dedicate so much attention to her work, and yet here we are. It is important to realise that the political is temporal, meaning that music which hinges too much on such references will inevitably fade into nothingness. Hence why the notes of Grazhdanskaya Oborona and Yanka Dyagileva will resound for decades to come, whereas the already sparse discography of activist group and alleged punk band Pussy Riot–who claim to be influenced by the aforementioned artists–will be buried by dust in a matter of years. And while Dyagileva’s music may have shared aesthetic aspects with the more famous punks of England, she was a competent enough artist to take these stylistic traits and create a much more profound and meaningful opus. Those who are normally put off by punk’s slow wit should therefore not use their distaste for Rotten & co. as an excuse to dismiss Styd i sram out of hand.
My thoughts are with those for whom this world was not created, and who were forced–or forced themselves–to leave these earthly surroundings prematurely. My thoughts are also with an artist who gave more meaning to this merciless world in her short life than do most in a normal lifespan. Rest assured that, from that cold river in Siberia, your music still emerges triumphant.
“A hundred-year rain
Dreams have gathered above the abyss of spring
And early gulps of the big grief
April scratches the wall with its nails
As if there were flowers blossoming behind the wall
As if you could see them from above
A hundred-year rain
Words slowly make their way through the quiet zone
And the crumpled leafage falls in
The penultimate sentence has been executed
All fees for April have been paid
And dreams float above the icehole of spring”
(originally published in Black Ivory Tower magazine #2, August 2015)
 This means that genre tropes are not objectives in themselves. Hence why artists who pursue originality exactly by trying to break all conventions so often miss the point: in reducing their art to incomprehensible mumbo jumbo, they also obliterate the means required to communicate with the audience, save for the occasional blowhard who pretends to understand that which was never meant to be understood.
To see what I am referring to, treat yourself with a visit to the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam. But rather than looking at the worthless pseudo-art on display, focus on the visitors, as their behaviour is by far the most fascinating part of the exposition. While you are there, you may also want to venture into Rotterdam and realise that there are people on this earth who have managed to convince themselves that this is what a beautiful city looks like.
 Of course, one could make the case that a lot of punk was desingenuous about its political intentions in the first place and merely intended to cash in on the widespread desillusion with the British system among working class youngsters. But that is a story for another time.