Russian authorities tolerated the music videos of zombie babushkas and gothic maidens, even as the ghoulish songs racked up millions of hits on YouTube. But when the Moscow-based electronic music duo IC3PEAK ventured into politics with their latest track, "Death No More," trouble began.
"In my gold chains, I'm drowning in this swamp," lead singer Anastasiya Kreslina sings. "My blood is purer than the purest drugs."
In the comically macabre video, Kreslina describes setting herself on fire on the steps of a Russian government building, indulges in a piece of raw meat at Vladimir Lenin's tomb and plays patty-cake with her partner, Nikolai Kostylev, while they sit on the shoulders of two riot policemen in front of the Lubyanka secret police headquarters.
The members of IC3PEAK (pronounced "ice peak"), who describe their work as "audiovisual terror," had crossed a line.
In December of 2018, when Kreslina and Kostylev, both in their mid-twenties, arrived in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to give a concert, police detained them right at the train station. No charges were pressed, but the pair was held long enough to miss their gig.
Half of IC3PEAK's concerts on the duo's last tour through the Russian provinces ended up being cancelled after pressure from local authorities.
The crackdown on a new generation of Russian musicians began in late November of 2018, when Dmitry Kuznetsov, a 25-year-old rapper known as Husky, was prevented from performing in the southern city of Krasnodar and arrested. His arrest set off a wave of protest by fellow rappers that eventually came to the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kreslina of IC3PEAK says the government lacks a sense of humor. She says their scandalous new video is essentially political satire.
"It's a descriptive video, we're not revealing anything new in it," she says. "We're just saying out loud what people would like to say but are afraid to. We're describing the state of mind of a person of our generation, who really has nothing to look forward to and can't expect any changes."
Kostylev says that young people who may not have cared about politics before are now paying attention because their music is being targeted.
At the heart of the generational clash is the digital connectivity of Russian youth versus the largely offline existence of their elders, who spent their formative years in the Soviet Union, where the government controlled everything from the way young people dressed to the kind of music they listened to.
"We all watch YouTube, listen to the same American rappers and follow the same TV shows," Kostylev says. "We have a lot in common with people our age around the world. I'm more like some guy my age in Mexico than my neighbor who's two generations older."
Kostylev might as well have been speaking about Putin, who is 66 and famously analog.
The president made his first comment on the banned concerts during a meeting with cultural leaders last month. "Rap and other modern [forms of art] are rested upon three pillars: sex, drugs and protest," Putin said, going on to explain that simply banning concerts would be counterproductive, but that the government's job is to lead youth culture.
"If it's not possible to stop something, then you have to lead and guide it," Putin said. "The worst you can do is suppress it, because you'll get exactly the opposite effect."
How to deal with the first generation of Russians born after the collapse of communism is a growing headache for the Kremlin. While older generations still watch state-run TV channels, young people are increasingly forming their views and expectations via the Internet.
Two years ago, Russians were surprised when young protesters turned out in masses for anti-government demonstrations, called for by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who communicates directly with his supporters via YouTube and Twitter.
"Many young Russians are alienated because they feel their government doesn't respect their rights and is limiting their opportunities," says Yelena Omelchenko, a sociologist at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.
Omelchenko believes there's been a breakdown in communication.
"[It's] as if there were two parallel worlds," she explains. "The government still follows a post-Soviet policy of regulation and tries to control processes which are pointless to try to control."
Omelchenko's research shows that young people in Russia's largest cities are already culturally oriented toward Western Europe and follow global trends. "Attempts to regulate Russia's youth culture are bound to fail," she says. "Because it is too diverse and beyond any control."
Kostylev can confirm that observation after the outpouring of support when their concerts were cancelled. "We returned home from our last tour with new inspiration," he said. "Our fans really want to do something and change something for the better."
The duo doesn't want to reveal whether their next video will touch on politics again. "No, it could be something really nice and bright," Kreslina says.
"With kittens and little kids and Putin as the sun," Kostylev adds.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Back in the days of the Soviet Union, the government tried to control everything from the way young people dressed to the kind of music they listened to. Well, now a generation is coming of age that was born after the collapse of the communist system. And young Russians are rebelling against the rules and regulations of the Putin regime through rap music. Here's NPR's Lucian Kim from Moscow.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: At the end of November, Dmitry Kuznetsov, a 25-year-old rapper known as Husky, made headlines when authorities stopped him from performing in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Rapping in Russian).
KIM: Husky jumped onto a parked car outside the club and started rapping with fans before being hauled off by policemen. In his latest track, "Poem About The Motherland" (ph), he raps about the hardships in his gritty hometown in eastern Siberia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A POEM ABOUT THE MOTHERLAND")
HUSKY: (Rapping in Russian).
KIM: Husky's arrest set off a wave of protests by Russian musicians. But it also sparked even more concert bans across the country. The electronic music duo IC3PEAK, who jokingly call their work audiovisual terror, were detained by police at the Novosibirsk train station, causing them to miss a scheduled gig. Their troubles began after they posted a macabre video on YouTube called "Death No More."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH NO MORE")
IC3PEAK: (Singing in Russian).
KIM: In the video, lead singer Anastasiya Kreslina describes setting herself on fire in front of the Russian government building and sings that her blood is purer than the purest drugs.
ANASTASIYA KRESLINA: (Through interpreter) It's a descriptive video. We're not revealing anything new in it. We're just saying out loud the things that people would like to say but are afraid to. We're describing the state of mind of a person of our generation, who really has nothing to look forward to and can't expect any changes.
KIM: Kreslina and her partner Nikolai Kostylev are both in their mid 20s. Kostylev says that young people who may not have cared about politics before are now paying attention because their music is being targeted. And what connects young people everywhere, he says, is the Internet.
NIKOLAI KOSTYLEV: (Through interpreter) Everyone watches Youtube, listens to the same American rappers and follows the same TV shows. We have a lot in common with people our age around the world. I'm more like some guy my age in Mexico than my neighbor who's two generations older.
KIM: Kostylev might as well be speaking about President Putin, who's 66 years old. The uproar over the banned concerts was so loud, it even reached Putin's attention during a meeting with cultural figures.
KOSTYLEV: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: "Putin said rap rests on three pillars - sex, drugs and protest." He said simply banning concerts would be counterproductive but added that the government's job is to lead and guide youth culture. It wasn't long before a video appeared on YouTube sampling Putin's words into a rap of its own.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Rapping in Russian).
KIM: Sociologist Yelena Omelchenko says young people in Russia's large cities are already culturally oriented toward Western Europe and follow global trends.
YELENA OMELCHENKO: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Omelchenko says communication between the government and young people has broken down because they live in two parallel worlds. She says the authorities are still molded by the Soviet impulse to regulate but that their attempts are bound to fail since Russia's youth culture is diverse and very hard to control. Nikolai Kostylev of the group IC3PEAK can confirm that.
KOSTYLEV: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: He says even though half the concerts were cancelled on their last tour, they returned home with new inspiration. Their fans, he says, really want to make a change for the better in Russia. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A POEM ABOUT THE MOTHERLAND")
HUSKY: (Rapping in Russian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.