Russia is constantly in the news, yet Russian music flies under the radar. People only notice it when it conveniently symbolizes some hot political controversy. Few people know Zvuki Mu or Korol i Shut, but everyone knows Pussy Riot (more on them later). I myself plead guilty to gravitating towards politically charged songs when covering Russian rock.
Of course, music is never entirely apolitical. But it is possible to value Russian music beyond its ability to gibe at Putin, Crimea, or the war in Ukraine. In What About Tomorrow? Alexander Herbert sets out to prove that point, starting with the most counterintuitive case of all: punk music. Punk music is as political as it gets. Yet, as Herbert shows, even punk is about much more than Putin. Punk is all about rebelling against the establishment. And the establishment is not just Putin: it is an entire system, a way of thinking and being. Actually, it’s probably good for punk music that it doesn’t just care about Putin, because that gives musicians the freedom to deal with more universal concerns, like intolerance and the resurgence of fascism.
What About Tomorrow? is composed of interviews with a dizzying array of Soviet and Russian punk musicians, most conducted by Herbert, but some compiled from contemporary sources. The book also includes four essays by punkers reflecting on the scene from their insider’s perspective. Though lay readers may not appreciate this, Alexander Herbert brings some real big names to the table. Herbert is to Russian punk what Joanna Stingray was to Soviet rock – an outsider embedded in the community with the audacity to bring this niche of a niche to the wider world. But he is wise enough not to flex his chumminess with folks like Seva Gakkel, Max Kochetkov, Nick Rock-n-Roll, or Dmitri Spirin – after all, no lay Westerner knows who they are. Instead, Herbert lets the bigwigs share the mic with up-and-comers. The opinions of bass guitarists in Russia’s biggest punk bands share equal footing with the thoughts of provincial frontmen. And crucially, women share the page with men. Too often, Western academics look at a foreign music scene that is male-dominated (Russian punk is unfortunately no exception), and they neglect to dig deeper to find the women. By actively engaging Russian women punkers and fans in his conversations, not to mention showcasing women-led punk bands that even Russians might not know, Herbert sets an admirable example both for Western scholars of Russian culture and (dare we say) many Russian punk watchers too.
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