Russian singer Shaman changes tone to support Putin

MOSCOW — He cuts the figure of a typical leather-clad pop star idol. He has a fanbase of young and middle-aged women who bring him flowers and stuffed animals when he performs. But Yaroslav Y. Dronov, better known by his stage name, Shaman, is also beloved by an exclusive and powerful Russian fanbase: the Kremlin.

The young singer’s star rises the war in Ukraine continues in a second year and Mr. Dronov aligns his music with the Moscow party line. When Vladimir V. Putin held a patriotic rally last month coinciding with the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Mr. Dronov performed “Vstanem” or “Let’s Rise,” a ballad of gratitude to the elders fighters, just before the Russian president entered the scene. .

And when Mr Putin celebrated the annexation of four Ukrainian regions in late September, Mr Dronov, 31, shared the stage with him, singing the Russian national anthem as his signature blonde dreadlocks fell into his eyes.

Increasingly, as the Kremlin seeks to rebuild the country’s institutions to conform to Mr. Putin’s militaristic worldview, cultural figures in Russia are picking a side. Many have chosen to leave the country due to political pressure or to signal their disagreement. Others spoke out against the war, only to have their concerts or exhibitions cancelled. They include musicians, theater directors, actors and artists.

But many have stayed and are aligning their art with Mr. Putin’s message – out of pragmatism, pursuit of wealth or genuine conviction. As the Kremlin seeks to convince Russians to support the war, artists like Mr. Dronov have become willing – and sometimes well-paid – messengers.

“Shaman is a very interesting phenomenon from a cultural and sociological point of view, but I think he is not a unique phenomenon. It is part of the continuity of a lasting evolution of the Russian, nationalist and parafascist subculture. said Ilya Kukulin, a longtime cultural historian at the Graduate School of Economics at Moscow National Research University and now at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

The shift to more nationalistic themes has been lucrative for Mr. Dronov. In addition to regular reports on national television, he was placed on a list of artists recommended to perform at official New Year’s celebrations. He is often invited to state-sponsored performances. For example, the cultural center of the city of Cherepovets paid 7.5 million rublesabout 100 thousand dollars, for a concert, of which 5.5 million rubles went to Mr. Dronov.

Prices for private concerts are usually not disclosed, but in October the Russian media listed Mr. Dronov among the five most requested artists since the war, with an estimated cost of 55,000 euros for a private concert, or nearly $60,000.

Kremlin-backed patriotic pop music is nothing new to modern Russia, where Mr Putin ruled for nearly 23 years and government-favored artists have always been at least moderately nationalistic or militaristic.

But Shaman is different. It belongs to the freer culture of independent pop music, which thrived despite increasing censorship until February 2022, when the invasion of Ukraine began. It exists today in a toned down form, and while it hasn’t started a wave of overtly patriotic young followers, it brings independent music in Russia closer to the Kremlin.

His success prompted some of his old-guard rivals, already close to the Kremlin, to reshape their work to stay in favor. Oleg Gazmanov, 71, re-recorded one of his hits, “Russian soldiers” on the glory of Russian fighters, with a modern video that features the same 1980s glam rock camp that Shaman uses in his own video. Another longtime star, Dima Bilan, released his own nationalist song, “Gladiator”, with an introduction that sounds far-right themes.

Mr. Dronov’s song “Vstanem” was released on February 23, 2022, on the eve of the invasion. He wrote it for Defender of the Fatherland Day, a Russian version of Veterans Day, and in an interview with a Russian website late last year said he believed it “was dictated to me from above”.

The events of the following months ensured that it became a hit with patriotic diehards and ordinary Russians alike. In June, it became the first song ever played in its entirety on “News of the Week”, a show run by leading Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov.

The song, which celebrates fallen soldiers, has become a soundtrack to the current war, and its wide reach on social media speaks to its importance to the Kremlin’s wartime communications strategy.

What the Kremlin wants Russians to feel, said Mr. Kukulin, the historian, are “the emotions of overcoming, of resisting all obstacles and the self-confidence that all obstacles will be overcome”.

For his fans, it works.

“When I discovered Yaroslav, I was filled with feelings of purity, light, joy inside, like I feel in a church,” said Alina, 38, who recently attended a concert in the Russian resort of Rosa Khutor, near Sochi, on the Black Sea. “It seems to me that he is the one who has such a mission to ignite the people inside.” She declined to give her last name for confidentiality reasons.

The success of “Vstanem” and its broadcast on national television last June was followed a few weeks later by another patriotic anthem by Mr. Dronov, “Ya Russki” (“I am Russian”), with a campy clip which since then has recorded 28 million views on YouTube. ‘Ya Russki’ doesn’t mention war, but its aim is clearly to unite Russians against ‘the collective West’, as Mr Putin calls it, with lines like ‘I am Russian, despite the whole world’ .

Mr. Dronov’s spokesman declined interview requests. In comments he made on the Russian website, he said: “At every moment, each of us has to make a choice. People have made their choice – it’s their way, and I’ve made my choice – and it’s my way.

Mr. Dronov’s music resonates with audiences not only because of his messages, but also because he is very talented, said Anna Vilenskaya, an exiled Russian musicologist.

In his shows, he interacts with his fans by bringing the microphone for audience members to sing with him, and he accepts gifts between songs as his admirers rush onto the stage.

“I don’t know of any other song with such an effect,” Ms. Vilenskaya said, calling both “Vstanem” and “Ya Russki” “absolutely brilliant.” She remembers playing the song in front of a class full of anti-war students who felt a strong reaction to the music despite their distaste for the lyrics.

“For a lot of people it’s something ungodly, because they love this song with their body but they hate it in their mind because they know it’s about war and lies,” she said.

Soon “Ya Russki” was everywhere. To celebrate National Unity Day, more than 10,000 people from Russia’s 11 time zones organized to perform the song, some of which were included in an official music video promoted on state television. The teachers have encouraged students to study the songs as an example of patriotism.

In October, Mr. Dronov received an award at the Russian Creative Awards ceremony, which Mr. Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergei V. Kiriyenko, presented to him personally.

It was the culmination of a long journey for Mr. Dronov. He pursued music from the age of 4, studied at musical high schools and universities, and appeared on Russian versions of “X Factor” and “The Voice”, finishing second in both competitions.

In 2020, Mr. Dronov changed his name to Shaman and started promoting his own songs. They still had almost no trace of patriotism and just followed world trends, and they didn’t attract much attention.

Then he released “Vstanem”.

Less than a week later, just days after the invasion, Vyacheslav V. Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, called on cultural figures to determine their positions on the war.

“Today is the moment of truth,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “Everyone has to understand: either we will rally across the country, overcome the challenges, or we will lose each other.”

Two days after Mr. Volodin’s imperative, Mr. Dronov gave his first major solo concert in Moscow, and then began a tour across the country.

The money to be made is substantial, but having the Kremlin as a patron can be tricky business.

Mr Dronov has already made an enemy of Vladimir Kiselyov, the head of the Russian Media Group, who was revised in 2014 to incubate patriotic art. In November, Mr. Kiselyov questioned Mr. Dronov’s patriotism because he had not played in occupied Ukraine. His songs were no longer played on company radio stations.

In January, Mr. Dronov traveled in the occupied Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Lugansk, playing for the soldiers.

Despite Shaman’s global influence, his hold on Russian youth, the demographic most likely to oppose the war, is not pervasive, analysts say. A year later, Shaman is the only young artist to write the soundtrack for wartime Russia, and the prospect of a wave of youth-driven musical nationalism is uncertain.

This is something the Kremlin seems to have recognized. The Ministry of Culture recently announced ‌‌plans for what it called “agitation brigades” ‌‌to‌ promote pro-war artists, perhaps in hopes of repeating Shaman’s success story.

Valerie Hopkins reported from Moscow and Rosa Khutor, Russia; And Georgy Birger from Istanbul. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from London.

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