A Belarusian summer playlist These are the songs that have defined Belarus’s historic protest movement
The anthem of Belarus’s protests so far — and the anthem of most every major protest movement that’s taken place in the post-Soviet space for the last three decades — has been “I Want Change!” by Viktor Tsoi and the band Kino. That said, the local music scene, while simmering for years under a single authoritarian regime, has produced plenty of its own heroes and musical rallying cries. Belarusian musicians have actively and consistently responded to the country’s grassroots movements in recent years, playing in tune with the national mood. This summer has been no exception. Meduza had a listen and found that with or without Kino, calls for change have never been louder in the music that’s playing on Belarus’s streets.
Max Korzh, “The Times” and “Warmth”
At the height of the widespread and arbitrarily harsh arrests that swept Minsk this summer, Belarus’s most prominent rapper wrote a rather poorly executed Instagram post calling on protestors to stop what they were doing. He later clarified that he meant they should step back for just one day to prevent further bloodshed. Still, many fans interpreted Korzh’s post literally and responded critically, prompting him to edit the post multiple times. During that social media saga, the rapper dropped two new songs. Neither of them
can really be edited at this point makes any direct political statements, but their hints are obvious enough. In “The Times,” Korzh sings about how “freedom is worth more than gold now,” and “Warmth” is about an old sage (*ahem* Lukashenko) who takes the sun away from humanity so that “nobody would have any problems, so that there would be order.” On August 15, the rapper visited the detention facility on Okrestina Street where protesters have been held (and violently beaten). He also attended the funeral of Alexander Taraikovsky, who was killed when police attempted to disperse demonstrators around Minsk’s Pushkinskaya metro station.
Petlya pristrastiya (Addiction Loop), “The Norm”
Belarus’s top rock band has long been better than most at depicting the quiet horrors of post-Soviet life; the group has never been known for its optimism (“I believe in Sodom, I believe in Gomorra, I have a hard time believing in a better tomorrow”). This spring, they painted a dystopian picture of a looming totalitarian society in a new number called “The Norm.” Back then, the song came off as a commentary on the coronavirus pandemic. Now, it’s been making the rounds as a show of support for the Belarusian protest movement.
Naka feat. Dzieciuki, Petlya pristrastiya, Razbitae sertsa patsana (Broken-Hearted Boy), and Rostany, “You”
Petlya’s frontman, Ilya Cherepko-Samokhvalov, was also involved in a project organized by the Minsk-based group Naka. It’s a song with lyrics drawn from the dissident poet Vladimir Neklyayev that denounces any and all who serve the Belarusian regime. The poem itself was written back in 2010, when Neklyayev took the risk of running for president, but it wasn’t made public until now, ten years later. To state the obvious, Neklyayev lost his race to Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka), who was running for his fourth term at the time. Immediately after the 2010 election, Neklyayev was beaten, jailed, and charged with organizing riots. The European Union and United States managed to apply enough political pressure to have Neklyayev released, after which his sentence was deferred and reduced to two years.
Dai darogu! (Make way!), “Baiu-bai”
This song by the Brest-based punk band was written shortly after Belarus’s leading opposition candidates for president were initially arrested. It’s sung from the perspective of a cop whose only task in life is to stuff his van full of arrestees and whose only nightmare is regime change. The music video for the piece was created inside the game Unreal Engine 4, and it looks like a zombie apocalypse scene. The policeman chases peaceful civilians through a wheat field atop a massive combine; OMON officers beat up an elderly woman and dance hellishly among the surrounding flames. By the end of the video, the mutilated field takes the form of an infernal, larger-than-life portrait — you can guess whose.
On the night of August 15, Dai darogu! bandleader Yury Stylsky was arrested in Brest. Earlier in the day, he had led a crowd of thousands of people as they marched from one end of the city to the other. Stylsky even streamed the march on Instagram Live.
Gryaz (Dirt), “Change”
This group from Mogilev was originally co-founded by recently deceased LSP bandmember Roma Anglichanin (born Roman Sashcheko). Current Gryaz leader Denis Astapov wrote this new song not as a cover of the Kino classic but rather as a direct address to Belarus’s eternal president. The lyrics are a bitter, melancholy letter from a son to his father: “[They told me] your dad’s watching over the country, your dad doesn’t sleep either day or night. Don’t bother your dad, you’ve got to love him, accept him, be friendly. And that’s what I always did, Daddy, until you said Mommy and I should be shot.”
Sirop (Syrup), “Motherland” and “Thanks, Sasha”
Rapper Alexey Zagorin, a former habitual offender who was also in the original lineup of the rock band Lyapis Trubetskoy, doesn’t hide his attitude toward the Belarusian regime. The night before this year’s election, he put out a new track based on the DDT hit “Rodina” (“Motherland”) whose music video showed Sirop walking through Minsk in a Grim Reaper costume with the protests ranging in the background. At the end of the video, the rapper stops outside the fence surrounding Lukashenko’s presidential palace. Following “Motherland,” Sirop released “Thanks, Sasha,” which narrates his own difficult life in modern Belarus. (Sasha, in this case, is the familiar form of Alexander, Lukashenko’s first name).
Warning: these songs contain explicit language.
Tor Band, “We’re not a ‘little nation’”
This young rock band from Rogachev boasts a straightforward, artless style of writing that nonetheless hits the nail of the current moment on the head. Their recent songs “Get Out” and “Long Live,” for example, are both extended riffs on classic protest slogans. Now, Tor Band has released a response to one of the Belarusian president’s most biting insults: when Belarusians started buying up currency en masse as rumors of devaluation swirled, Lukashenka called them a “narodets,” a diminutive of the word nation — or, in poet Valzhyna Mort’s interpretation, “a people not worthy to be called a nation.” Tor Band declares that Belarus is anything but.
Litesound, “We Are the Heroes”
Current events in Belarus have even stirred up pop artists who typically stay out of politics. The band Litesound, which represented Belarus in Eurovision 2012, translated its competition song “We Are the Heroes” into Belarusian and posted it on the country’s independence day, July 3. In the song’s YouTube description, the group wrote, “This summer, when there’s nobody left who doesn’t care about what’s going on, the song “We Are the Heroes,” which is dedicated to those who do not surrender, resonates more piercingly than ever.” After that post, Litesound was immediately taken off the program for every state-sponsored cultural event it was signed up for, including the Slavic Bazar festival in Vitebsk, which is a favorite of Lukashenko’s. Blacklisting artists whose messages aren’t convenient to the regime is an unwritten but heavily palpable practice in Belarus.
Naviband is another Eurovision alum. In 2017, the group became the contest’s first ever participants to sing in the Belarusian language. Members Ksenia Zhuk and Artyom Lukyanenko have always emphasized that they tend to stay away from politics. Now, though, they say they’ve “woken up different” and decided to add their voices to those already protesting. “We can’t wrap our heads around this cruelty and violence toward ordinary people. We’re getting scared. We can’t stay silent anymore!” the musicians wrote on Instagram as they released their new single.
“The Walls Will Fall”
The song that concludes all of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s) protests has a long history in protest culture. Originally, it was called “L’Estaca” (“The Stake”) — Catalan singer Lluís Llach composed the song in 1968 in response to the Franco dictatorship. Ten years later, the Polish bard Jacek Kaczmarski translated it under the title “Mury” (“Walls”), allowing the song to become an anthem for the Solidarity trade union movement. The song’s new, Belarusian iteration, created by the musician Dmitry Voytyushkevich (Zmitser Vaitsyushkevich) and the poet Andrey Khadanovich, was first performed on Independence Square during the December protests that followed the presidential election of 2010. There’s also a Russian version created in 2012 by the Moscow-based band Arkady Kots. Both the Russian and the Belarusian versions of the song have made appearances at Tikhanovskaya’s rallies, but only the second exists in a recording of her husband Sergey Tikhanovsky’s (Syarhey Tsikhanousky’s) voice — Tikhanovsky, of course, attempted to run for president but was soon taken into custody, sparking Tikhanovskaya’s unexpected campaign. The post-punk band Akute from Mogilev has also taken a crack at “The Walls Will Fall,” releasing a cover of “Mury” with a revamped musical accompaniment.
Sergey Mikhalok, “Warriors of Light” and “Play”
To paraphrase an old Soviet joke about politician Leonid Brezhnev and singer Alla Pugacheva, Lukashenko is really just a minor political figure in the era of Sergey Mikhalok (Siarhei Mikhalok). While the Belarusian president has been in power, Mikhalok has been in three different bands (Lyapis Trubetskoy, Brutto, and Drezden). He’s also drastically changed his artistic persona several times, but he’s always remained an ideological opponent of Lukashenko’s. Ten years ago, after Lukashenko’s reelection, Mikhalok openly called the president a liar, a crook, and an ignoramus, which landed him in front of a prosecutor and ultimately forced him to leave the country.
“Belarus Freedom,” “Warriors of Light” (alternatively, “Daybreakers”), “Play,” “Stars,” “Don’t Be Cattle!”, and other Mikhalok songs have integrated themselves into the Belarusian nation’s cultural code for decades. Many Belarusians have reproached Mikhalok for his silence this summer during a moment when his “lyrics are coming to life.” At an August 12 concert in Odessa, he finally broke that silence to announce that “our Belarusian brothers are warriors of light who will overcome every Darth Vader.” “Warriors of Light” also featured prominently in Ukraine’s Maidan movement.
N.R.M., “Three Turtles”
N.R.M. is another Minsk-based rock group that has made a tremendous imprint on Belarusian culture and repeatedly ended up on government blacklists. Its name stands for Nezalezhnaya Respublika Mroya, or the Independent Republic of the Dream.
The band’s best-known hit has been played regularly at Belarus’s protests. Its role in the current movement prompted the band’s original members, who hadn’t been in touch for a decade, to get back together in the studio and play their classic song live. “We saw the solidarity that the Belarusian people have shown, inspiring the people to unite in response to injustice. We saw people singing ‘Three Turtles’ in the streets and decided to put forward our own example of unity,” said former N.R.M. frontman Lyavon Volsky.
“I Want Change!”
And finally, we’re back to Viktor Tsoi and Kino. “Change” has been banned from playing on Belarusian radio stations for many years, but that has only made people play it more often from their car stereos or perform it in the streets. Perhaps the most impressive performance of the song this summer took place on August 6, during a pro-government event in Minsk’s Kyiv Square. The event was set to take place at the height of a Tikhanovskaya rally. In protest, sound engineers Kirill Galanov and Vladislav Sokolovsky interrupted the pro-government program by playing Kino’s classic song over loudspeakers, raising their fists, and holding up white ribbons. The crowd applauded the pair and whistled in approval. After about a minute, the Minsk Central District’s administrative head managed to turn off the song. The next day, each of the two young men was sentenced to ten days in jail for disorderly conduct and refusing to follow orders from law enforcement.
Translation by Hilah Kohen