When musicians in the west complain about being censored by “The Man”, this is rarely the case. After all, songs criticising everyone from the police to the president fill the airwaves daily. Bands are allowed to play anti-war protests or demonstrations outside party conventions without fear of arrest. The Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam and others might have alienated some fans when they criticised the Bush administration, but they faced no intimidation from the government itself. Outside the US and western Europe, however, censorship of musicians is rife in countries like Russia.
Mikhail Borzykin, lead singer of a Russian rock group Televizor, is no stranger to censorship because his band have been performing political songs for 25 years. “When a jerk in a jeep hits your father / And he is the son of a defence minister / Nobody will touch him / The OMON police truncheons will be the pay-off for the right to say all this,” run Borzykin’s lyrics to A Silly One, about an incident involving Sergei Ivanov, the then defence minister’s son, who killed a pedestrian crossing the street in Moscow in 2005. All charges were dropped.
Songs such as this have ensured a police presence at Televizor concerts. “At last year’s Rock for Freedom festival, there were 3,000 police watching our performance with only 1,500 spectators on hand,” says Borzykin. The performance went without issue, but Borzykin had to leave the venue immediately after the gig finished.
It’s not just live performances that are being monitored – any song played on the radio or television is dissected by company officials. Most of the media in Russia is state owned and the bosses of what little independent radio is left try to avoid making risky decisions, fearing the government will take away their licence without warning.
“Today’s censorship does not happen directly. Instead of making a list to include certain songs or artists from being played on the radio or at local clubs, the government scares the owners with sudden closures, higher rent fees or other ‘violations’,” says Mikhail. “No owner wants to risk their livelihood being taken away.”
Perhaps the difference between western and Russian acts when it comes to criticising the government is subtlety. PTVP, another punk rock band from St Petersburg, hide nothing with their 2002 song, FSB Whore, about Vladimir Putin. “Don’t listen to anything / He always lies to you / Putin, Putin, Putin! / A pig will find filth everywhere,” are just some of the lyrics.
The band has a strong following among Russia’s hardcore punk groups, but fans aren’t the only ones present at PTVP’s concerts. Their lyrics soon attracted attention from FSB watchmen, who attend the band’s concerts, sometimes openly, sometimes in disguise. “We accept the fact that they come to ‘watch’ us. Just like I’ve come to accept that my internet activity may be watched. They used to follow me in cars. It doesn’t both me. I know I’m not doing anything that’s not allowed by the constitution,” says Alexei Nikonov, PTVP lead singer. On several occasions, police have rushed the stage during the band’s anti-government songs, even arresting Nikonov.
This puts club owners in a difficult position of choosing between artistic freedom and survival. No owner, television or radio-programming director will openly admit to censorship pressure from Kremlin. Radio stations admit that they don’t play PTVP, even though the band’s music is popular, claiming “limited appeal”. “Most music managers are connected, through rent or other financial obligations, to government officials,” says Mikhail Borzykin. “They are able to censor an artist without ever mentioning the word.”
by the guardian