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‘After Russia’ In a new album, exiled popular musicians revisit the Russian émigré poetry of 100 years ago
A hundred years ago, in the fall of 1922 and winter of 1923, the Bolsheviks expelled hundreds of artists and intellectuals from Russia, forcing them to leave the country on what became known as the “philosophers’ ships.” Many of the exiled writers and poets continued to write in Russian, destined never to meet their readers back in their home country. A century later, Russia’s artists are once again leaving, this time because of the war in Ukraine and political persecution at home. To capture the echoes of Russia’s tragic history in the present, director and music producer Roma Liberov invited newly-exiled popular musicians to revisit the poetry of the “obscure generation” of Russian poets who wrote in exile, after leaving Russia 100 years ago. By setting their words to music, artists — including Noize MC, Monetochka, Nogu Svelo!, Pornofilmy, Naive, and others — probed their own experience of exile and how it “rhymes” with the lives of émigré poets the revolution scattered across the world. The resulting album, “After Russia,” got its name from a collection of poems published by Marina Tsvetaeva in 1928. The album premiered on Meduza on January 13. We are publishing a selection of tracks, together with some reflections on the project by the artists themselves.
You can listen to “After Russia” on Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music.
Idea and sound direction
A century ago, if you found yourself in Europe, Turkey, the Balkans, China, or even Northern Africa, you would have been struck by the number of people speaking Russian. Some of them had left their home country because of the revolutions and the Civil War, others in protest against the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks.
Their departure was often a bona fide flight. Taxi drivers, movers, window-washers, beekeepers, floor waxers, secretaries, couriers, miners, auto assemblers, waiters, newspaper carriers, prostitutes, drug dealers, beggars, and former Civil War fighters — historic circumstances had forced them all to go abroad. There were also professors, publishers, editors, and even politicians in their midst. While there are no exact figures for this exodus, it’s safe to estimate that several million people found themselves in exile.
Those who had made their names before leaving had a slightly easier time: since their audiences had also left Russia, they could perform, lecture, and publish for an established circle of appreciative and sympathetic people. This was the case for Ivan Bunin, Alexey Remizov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Zinaida Gippius, Mark Aldanov, Boris Zaytsev, Alexey Tolstoy, Alexander Kuprin, Teffi, and Ivan Shmelyov.
Those in the younger generation had to start their artistic and intellectual careers abroad, in obscurity, writing in Russian in Constantinople (Istanbul), Belgrade, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Harbin, Shanghai, Riga, and Revel (today’s Tallinn). Their fates were difficult and often tragic, plagued by poverty, the sense of loss, the nagging temptation to return (sometimes they did), war hardships, and, finally, the lifelong misfortune of being separated from their readers.
The only writer in this pleiad to gain international renown was Vladimir Sirin, later known as Nabokov. Some recognition had been won by Gaito Gazdanov and Boris Poplavsky. Others are still waiting for it. Have you heard of Yury Ivask? Or Vadim Andreyev? Other names come to mind: Nikolay Turoverov, Mikhail Gorlin, Raisa Bloch, Yury Mandelstam, Alexey Eysner, Dovid Knut, Georgy Rayevsky, Yury Odarchenko, Vladimir Smolensky, Lydia Chervinkaya, Sergey Bongart…
When writing about his own émigré social circle, writer and journalist Vladimir Varshavsky had good reason to call its members an “obscure generation.” Who were they? They were, above all, writers whose literary beacons were Vladislav Khodasevich and Georgy Ivanov, the foremost poets of Russian emigration. Their arbiter of taste was Georgy Adamovich.
The dozen or so poets I just listed are just a small segment of that world — they are the poets whose poems we set to music in “After Russia.” I hope that the rhyme of centuries will make their words resonate in the present — helping bring their names out of undeserved obscurity, and letting us find hope in their struggles of 100 years ago.
Thank you for listening!
Selected tracks From ‘After Russia’
Miriam Sekhon and Vasily Zorky, ‘Silence’
I’m very attentive when it comes to texts. I have some ideas about what works and what doesn’t in writing, and this often makes my friends say that I’m picking on them. This is why it’s such a relief for me to work with a good text written by another person. When I opened this poetry collection, I felt like I was in a fine Paris vintage shop, when you just want to buy everything and take it home. I did some sketches, for around ten different poems. The lines and voices lent themselves to music so naturally that you could only wonder why no one had thought of this project before.
Now I’m thinking of recording a whole album of settings. When you set verse to music, you get this feeling that I really love — that this song has always existed, and you just happened to find it, you remembered it.
We’re living in a time when memories and past figures come alive. Authors we used to read and listen to, whose experiences used to feel abstract and distant, are coming alive. They’re all with us now, from Tsvetaeva to Dovlatov. We can enter their pain, their sense of separation, their experience of being snitched on and arrested — we’re plunged into the same reality, and their poetics is once again immensely powerful. I have this constant feeling of being in the presence of looming giants.
We took the love story of Mikhail Gorlin and Raisa Bloch as the basis of a duet, a conversation across a distance. We recorded our composition in different cities and countries — but we’re ourselves very old, close friends, so this correspondence was ours, too. The stanzas came from Mikhail Gorlin’s “Over the Blue Moonlit Night,” and the refrain from Raisa Bloch’s “Silence.” Both of them died in concentration camps — first Mikhail, and then, a year later, Raisa. Their daughter died when she was six, when her mother had to flee with her to Switzerland. All that’s left of those people and their love is just a handful of surviving poems. This song is about the ties that bind us in spite of wars, in spite of time, distance, and even death. It’s about love that doesn’t diminish, but instead grows. All these terrible months, this alone kept me going.
Shym, ‘Man Starts With Sorrow’
After Alexey Eysner
Monetochka, ‘The Shooting’
After Vladimir Nabokov
After Georgy Raevsky
I always wanted to set somebody else’s poem to music, but instead all I ever did professionally was write everything myself. So, I found happiness at last, as part of a remarkable duo with this little-known, unhappy, and now deceased gentleman. His poem gave me the feeling of simultaneous cold and heat, like the softest nail in the coffin. I’ll be completely content if I never write or record another song. After this, I wouldn’t feel sad if I’d vanished.
Sansara, ‘A Song’
After Mikhail Gorlin
If I ever sang verses written by someone else, I’d usually hit on some melody that merged with the words. The same kind of miracle happened with “A Song.” No matter when you whisper these words to yourself, or sing them as I did, they will always resonate with your “here and now.” What more could you want? I think that “A Song” is a wonderful example of how a work of art can be reinterpreted, even based on the time of day. Personally, I sing about the Void, about the non-being of phenomena, but that’s very approximate.
Noize MC, ‘Parnassus’
After Sergey Bongart
After Boris Poplavsky
To be honest, I could never write a song based on someone else’s pre-existing lyrics. Usually, a poem has its own inner music that resists any kind of intrusion. Personally, at least, I could never find a text that would fit my melody, phrasing, harmony, and all kinds of other things that make up a person’s recognizable musical signature. I’ve always been intrigued by others who did this well — which is fairly rare, in my view.
And here was I, leafing through poetry collections, enjoying the texts, but saying to each one, “No, this isn’t me.” Until the moment when I came upon Boris Poplavsky’s “Flags.” That poem began to sing in my head. That whole system of images, with its fundamental emotion, even the whole range of feeling — it was all continuous with what we’d been doing before, with all three of my bands. It used the same language. And within five minutes, the song was born.
I made a point of not reading any scholarship or commentaries on this poem — I wanted to be ignorant and free to express my personal, maybe mistaken, idea. To me, this song is a requiem for Russia, a country possessed by a suicidal urge in its celebration of some abstract, metaphysical eternity — as if trying to “die wrapped into a flag,” in searing cinematic light, like in a Deyneka painting.
R.A.SVET, ‘Return to Russia — but in verse’
After Georgy Ivanov
This line that’s almost a motto — “to return in verse” — is where my own faith intersects with the context that surrounds us. I want to believe that I’ll have a chance to sing in a flourishing country that strives towards light, instead of sacrificing the lives of its citizens on the altar of cruel and senseless ambitions.
In Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Appeal by the Presidents of Planet Earth,” there are lines that say: “For now, O mothers / Carry off your children / If you sight the state. / Youths, ride off and retreat into the caves, / Or hide deep the sea / If you catch sight of the state. / Maidens and those who can’t stand the stench of death, / Faint when you hear the word ‘borders,’ / For borders reek of death.” To me, my country has never been synonymous with the state, and never will be. What is a country? It is the people, and the nightingale behind the window, and the scent of cake that fills the whole block, and the first kiss behind a garage, in secret from your parents and from the whole world. This song is about love and care for one’s country. It’s about that place you’re tied to by some molecular bond.
The theater director Dmitry Krymov said something marvelous in an interview to Katya Gordeyeva: that anything ever created by Russia’s emigrants (like Brodsky and Dovlatov, for example) has always returned, like an invisible arrow, back to Russia, becoming part of its culture. Even posthumously, these people’s creations come home, and become integral to the culture.
In the present-day context, I understand this feeling very well. I want to continue creating for people from Russia because I know its people, and I see their eyes at my concerts. My Russia will always be about love, not death. And I’ll keep struggling for its image with all I have.
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