Bards and a Vanishing Breed of Russian

Years ago, on a bus in Israel, on the way from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights, a shy Russian Jewish boy named Igor (or maybe Ilya?) saw that I was bored with the music in my Discman (back in the days of CDs) and quietly slipped me one.  “Who is this,” I asked Igor/Ilya?”  “This guy named Timur Shaov.  He’s really good.”  And he was.

This weekend, I, along with my parents and Mr. B’s aunt and uncle,  got to see Shaov,  one of my favorite modern singers perform live. He sings in a type of style called, in Russian, bard song, which mainly means that he writes his own music, often on political or satirical themes, and accompanies his singing with simple guitar chords. I guess, in a way, he can be compared to Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, but it’s not a perfect comparison.

The most famous bard is Vladimir Vystosky who sung about the injustices of life in the Soviet Union with an enormous amount of cleverness, tenderness, rage, and humor.  He is my favorite musical artist of all time, and his lyrics are very hard to understand unless you understand the Soviet Union and Russian culture.  But even just listening to his voice is very powerful, and this song is one of his most-known. If you click-through, there’s a translation of lyrics into English:

Anyway, so Timur Shaov is awesome, amazing, funny, ridiculously smart, and phrases songs in a way that makes the writer in me very jealous. He is extremely good at making fun of Putin’s Russia in all its gory form but doesn’t come across as bitter and cynical like some people that have pretty blogs, but as wise and cheeky.   He has songs making fun of the money shortage in Russia in the early 1990s, when he was a doctor, by saying that patients paid their doctors in urine samples.

He’s made fun of how Russian husbands often dump the load of housework on their wives in a song where the kids are screaming, the soup is boiling, but the wife is locked in the bathroom reading porn, hoping to get three minutes to herself.  He’s made fun of Tajik drug smugglers, gaishniki (Russian traffic cops who fine you for bribes), how the desire to drink decreases with age, hangovers in general, men who yell at their husbands, and Medvedev.  It’s hard to explain how smart he is and how much I am jealous of the talent that God gave him without listening to some of his songs and understanding how he makes fun of Pushkin and Putin in the same breath.

Anyway, so this concert.  The hall, at the Philadelphia Russian-oriented JCC, was 100% sold out. But, I swear to God, I lowered the average age in the room by 30 years. I only saw three other people my age there and only one that looked like their parents didn’t make them go.  Most people were in their 40s-60s.

One of the reasons is that Shaov uses a highly satirical, fluid Russian that is hard to understand if you came when you were little like most of us now-20-somethings did.  I don’t have to bring a dictionary, but I do have to concentrate in a way I wouldn’t have to with American music, and man,  that concentration shit is hard.  Pair that with him singing about Chubais, Nekrasov, and Luzhkov, and, forget it. You’ve lost 90% of the people in our age group.  After I listen to one of his songs, I usually have to either Google around a couple of names or ask my mom.

And that’s really sad.  Because it seems like the immigrant generation will go quietly into that good night, and us, the ones that are supposed to keep the magic going, will go quietly into Americanization. Granted, that’s the way things are supposed to work.  Are there any Italian Americans that still speak Italian as it has been passed down from 1900 or any German-Americans that know anything about German culture other than bratwurst?  But it makes me really, really sad. And more than that, anxious for my future children.

Because one of the things I want to give them is a feeling of otherness. I don’t want them to feel 100% American. I don’t want them to be comfortable and settled in their own skin.  I’ve written before, but only for myself, about how I find it hard to tell people that I’m American, as if I don’t deserve it, even though I have lots of American characteristics and speak American English and write primarily in English.

All of this is a long way of saying: WHITE WHINE.




17 thoughts on “Bards and a Vanishing Breed of Russian

  1. Great post, Vicki! I really like Shaov and many other bards, who have been quietly strumming their discontent with the path Russia’s taking.

    1. I’m surprised that the establishment doesn’t do anything to wipe them under the carpet, but they’re probably not big enough to worry about. No one in Russia even knows about Shaov, from what I understand.

  2. As the first U.S. born in my family I don’t feel 100% American, but it’s awfully close. More of a balance would be nice. It’s currently a work in progress. I think you’ll do a great job sharing your knowledge with your future children, Vicki and I hope that they will appreciate their roots.

  3. I might of semi-freaked you out with the first time I posted a comment so I’m just gonna say I’m so glad someone writes down the things my brain thinks about um like all the time. :)

  4. Sad indeed. It is hard to beat the trend – it is reality of immigration. However think how things change even in last 30 years. People who left Soviet Union in early 70s did not have an opportunity to listen to Russian radio on Internet, watch newest Russian movies, go to the concerts like this one. So – the possibilities are there and really, keeping up with our “other” side is much easier now…if there is a will …

    1. I know. As I recall, someone who watches Russian serials 5 days in a row told me they don’t feel like they’re in America anymore.

  5. Well said. Some loss (a big one) of Soviet/Russian realities comprehension is inevitable in generations that grew up or were born outside of the system but in my point of view it’s a shame to consciencely bar your kids (or unconsciencely by just not recognizing the importance of it) from the heritage you’re part of. Saying that I see bard culture as more of a dying phenomenon and not only in immigration. I’ve been on Shaov’s concerts on both sides of the ocean and have observed similar audience’s age on those. Even more interesting was to find a significant presence of current US, Canadian and German “Russians” (me included) at Moscow concert.
    Offtopic: the song you’ve mentioned has slightly different meaning than “husbands dumping the workload on wives”. It’s about everyday routine suffocation of the heroine that finds escape in reading love stories. Shaov made them sound as porn but they are not.

    1. Well-put about the song. I always have a really hard time translating his concepts into English because they’re so clever.

      Thanks for the perspective on the concerts. As I noted above, I don’t even know if Russians in Russia know of Shaov or if he is mainstream in any sense of the word. None of my parents’ friends know him and when I went to ask for his albums in Moscow a couple years ago, the clerk gave me a puzzled look.

  6. I hear you pain, Vicki! My son, Slavicpolymath Ivan, was raised between two cultures also. Over the years, it was more and more difficult to get him to go to the “Russian parties” and to listen to “Russian music”. But, I think, he grew up different enough to call himself a Russian-American and appreciate both cultures. I hope he will give his children the same gift his parents gave to him (NO PRESSURE, Ivan). I am working on a book that focuses on precisely the issue of raising immigrant children between two cultures. I will send you a copy when it is finished;)

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I had the same problem-I didn’t want to do Russian stuff for about 3-4 years when I was a teenager but the other problem was that my parents kept doing the stuff with me anyway by watching Russian movies, playing Russian songs, having Russian friends, etc. It was like freaking Leningrad in our house 24-7, which is why I suspect I cling so strongly to my culture. Also why I am a little bit insane.

  7. When I first came to North America, I pretty much refused to be Russian for the first five years. Maybe it is because my parents stayed away from living in a Russian community, but I never had any Russian friends my age, except for one time in high school, and that is a whole other story. FOB Russian girls are scary.
    Now, I identify with the post-soviet Russian culture I grew up with as well as the culture of my parents’ youth much more so than contemporary Russian culture, if that makes any sense. Like, I can’t relate to my cousins back in Belarus and Moscow, but I can relate to their parents. I’m not sure why that is.
    I know what you mean about the feeling of otherness though. I would really like for my future kids to know that the North American lifestyle is not… normal, I guess. Like, most of the world doesn’t have these kinds of luxuries. I don’t know how to explain it; I guess you kind of have to have a foot in both worlds to truly get it. At the same time, I’m worried that I won’t be able to pass down any of the Russian things I hold so dear, since I refuse to marry Russian.

      1. Oh yes, I sure did read it. In fact, I read it wayyy back when it was first published.
        I have my very own list of reasons as to why I refuse to marry Russian. Most of them deeply rooted in stereotypes. Perhaps one day I will share it with the world, though it may be a little offensive to Russian men.

  8. I was the first person in my family to be born in America, but I cling more to the Ethiopian culture than my sister does.

    Before I went to school I thought I was as all-American as it could get. And then I was told (repeatedly) that I was in fact a “FOB” because my name was weird and I’m bilingual and my parents were ultra strict* . So I think I embrace my otherness now because I was made fun of for it so much when I was younger.

    *Is this just a habesha thing or is it ALL immigrant parents who don’t trust American kids to behave properly? :)

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